Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Berry’s – Father and Sons

Father, John James or JJ, and sons, Matthew (baptised as Matthys Jacobus) and Richard John, were both peas from the same pod, entrepreneurs to the bone ever willing to take a gamble on a new business venture. In most instances, they were vindicated but when Matthew crossed swords with the Divisional Council over the Seaview Farm, it was an ill-judged move. 

Main picture: The Zwartkops Convict station showing the overseer’s cottage and the convicts’ quarters at the rear

John James Berry

John James Berry was born in Norfolk, England circa 1775. So why did John decide to settle in South Africa which was still a Dutch Colony at that time. Was serendipity, chance or an adventurous spirit? Nobody knows but my money is on the latter but there was also a dollop of chance. Let me explain why I advocate this admixture. As a 22-year-old, John formed part of the retinue accompanying a certain Lord and Lady Hamilton who were en route to India. In 1797, the vessel called in at the Cape which had recently been taken over by the British. This was luck. John was so fascinated by the land that he decided to stay. Then despite the entreaties of his friends, John was steadfast in his resolve. This must have represented his adventurous spirit.

John Berry married Clara Hermina Botha, sister of JT Botha of Buffelsfontein, on 30th May 1802. John Berry initially resided in the Western Cape and it could even have been in George as their youngest son, Matthew [baptised Matthys Jacobus] must have been born in late 1814 or 1815 as he was baptised in 1815 in George. The occupation of JJ Berry was that of farmer. Fortune struck the Berry family when in 1818, JJ was granted Baakens River Farm. A second son, Richard John, was born in Port Elizabeth on 4th September 1825. The various members of the Berry family were well-known in the early days of Port Elizabeth. His sons, Richard John and Matthew, were both personalities in the town in their own right. In 1826, the farm passed to 1820 Settler, John Parkin and today includes the suburbs of Newton Park, Sunridge Park, Fernglen and Fairview.

John James Berry was to die on 29th October 1859 at the age of 84 without ever seeing what his enterprising sons managed to achieve in their lifetimes.

Richard John Berry bequeaths us “Berry’s Corner”

Richard Berry was a man of many parts, occupations and a serial nuptualiser to boot. He married his first wife, Maria Susanna (Etchells) on 11th December 1849 and his second, Charlotte Amelia (Smith) on 20th June 1874. Amongst his numerous occupations, was as a butcher but that is not how posterity will recall him. It was with his contracting work for the Port Elizabeth Divisional Council. As a young man, Richard became a transport rider, trading throughout the Eastern Province. He was never officially in the military, but his travels got him involved in the frontier wars of the time. On one occasion, his wagon train was attacked by marauding Xhosas, and all his oxen stolen. It must have been during these early years, that Richard Berry owned “Norwich House” in Perkins Street, North End.

In 1860, the Government allocated the responsibility for the maintenance of all outspans and trek paths to the Divisional Councils. In line with their new responsibilities, during 1861 the Divisional Council issued a set of requirements that a contractor would have to comply with. First the Council had to select the land on which it would be built and then it had to certify that the applicant was “a fit and proper person to become an innkeeper.”

The applicant, in turn, had to:

  • Submit detailed plans
  • Plan to include a fenced-off dam
  • Guarantee a constant and plentiful supply of water
  • Personally only keep 25 cattle, 5 horses and 100 sheep
  • Goats, swine and poultry prohibited
  • Responsible for protecting the outspan
  • Must warn any trespassers on the pasturage
  • Granted a 33-year lease on one morgen
  • Rental 20s per annum
  • At expiration of lease, hand buildings to Government

In return for meeting all these requirements, the innkeeper was entitled to charge 6d per span of oxen or horses using the water. It was the enterprising Mr Richard John Berry who was first off the mark to construct a public road inn. On the 6th July 1861 he submitted his application for a 33-year lease “on a piece of land forming part of the public outspan situated between the Deal Party farm, Fishwater Flats and the sea i.e. on the main road from this town to the Rawson Bridge at Zwartkops, for the erection of an inn or a hotel.” Enclosed in his letter was a plan of the proposed Inn which was to be all brick construction under a slate roof, with stone foundation. It contained six bedrooms, a dining room, lounge, kitchen and stables at the rear for six horses. The buildings were to be completed within twelve months and one of the dams would be ready within one month of execution of the contract.

Later, he set up as a merchant on Port Elizabeth, but retained his trading connections with the farmers, among whom he was known as “Oom Dick Berry.” He made and lost several fortunes but always came back full of energy and remained in business until well into his eighties.

In the 1880s, he purchased a property in Commercial Road known as the “Jim Crow,” a large old Inn and a dairy. His emporium and residence stood near the present Berry’s Corner. It was there that he died at the age of 87 on the 9th August 1911.

Amsterdamhoek of yore

Matthew Berry shows his entrepreneurial flare

Matthew Berry displayed his entrepreneurial flair on numerous occasions over the years by submitting applications on many Divisional Council tenders.

The supply of the rations to the road repair parties was put out for tender every year, the price ranging from 6d to 1s per capita. For many years, the winning tender was awarded to a William Bowerman, who later owned a hotel in Swartkops. In due course, Bowerman’s widow took over the contract until eventually the overseers complained that the food was unfit for human consumption. In her stead, the contract was given to Matthew Berry. One wonders what form these rations took as fresh meat was out of the question without refrigeration facilities.

Matthew Berry of Zwartkops was somebody known to push the envelope as regards tenders. He once submitted an unsolicited tender in which he offered to maintain the roads of Uitenhage, Zwartkops, Kragga Kamma and Buffelsfontein for a period of five years for a sum of £2,400 payable quarterly with the option of renewal. Apart from the cash, he requested that he take over the Council’s equipment consisting of four carts and harnesses, eight mules, all tools and the workmen’s huts stationed along the various roads. Suffice to state, that he never was awarded the tender.

What is clear is that Matthew Berry must have either made a fortune himself or inherited the money from his father, John James Berry as he purchased the Deal Party farm in 1879, renaming it soon afterwards as Beaconsfield Manor on which was erected the Beaconsfield Hotel. In the 1880s. the Sportsman Hotel was built in Swartkops and was also granted a liquor licence. This meant that there were three hotels along this short stretch of Grahamstown Road.

Outspan House built by Richard Berry in 1862 as an Inn for travellers. It was situated about a mile from the Rawson Bridge, halfway between Zwartkops and Deal Party Estate

The practice of the road parties repairing the main roads, was to dig gravel pits on the adjacent land without first obtaining permission from the owner of the property. More dangerously, they dug these pits at the side of the road thereby creating a dangerous hazard into which wagons, or horses could fall especially at night or during inclement weather. Matthew Berry, the owner of Deal Party Farm, complained vociferously that the road party had sunk twenty-five gravel pits within one mile’s walk along his property and threatened a law suit unless there was recompense.

In a bid to save money, the Divisional Council obtained the permission of the Resident Magistrate to use convicts as labourers on the road repair gangs. Whilst in theory this might have been a wonderful cost-saving idea, as the convicts had to be back in prison by nightfall, many hours of productive work were lost daily. The solution was to build a convict station close to the convicts’ working area.

Accordingly, in 1867, a permanent Convict Station was constructed in Zwartkops complete with barred windows and a tiny house for the overseer and his family. This building could accommodate twenty convicts including sailors of passing ships. For many years, the overseer was W.J. Girven. The ubiquitous Matthew Berry of Beaconsfield Manor which was conveniently close by, was responsible for the supply of Station’s daily rations. At 1s per head, these comprised 1lb meat free from large bones, 1lb bread, 2 oz rice with salt and vegetables for soup.

North End Jail

Then the mutual recriminations arose with Girven complaining that the rations were inedible or that Berry was not at home when the mule cart arrived at his house to collect the rations. In reply Berry accused Girven of allowing the convicts to stroll through his property when they should have been working. After a prolonged illness, Girven returned to work to be notified that his remuneration had been reduced to 2s 6d per diem. In a pique of rage, he peremptorily resigned. His successor, Fahy, did not last long. He was promptly dismissed some weeks later when he allowed two prisoners unescorted into the bush and they took the opportunity to achieve their freedom.

The Berry’s Demise

Change came to these Road Inns with the advent of the railways as public outspans became an anachronism at the turn of the century. The Council then took possession of the old Inn owned by Richard Berry, refurbished it and leased it to the Cape Mounted Police. When the police were subsequently relocated to their own quarters in Zwartkops, Mr. Hence was put in charge of the empty building. Thereafter it appears to have been sold to Nelson Pearson who used it as grazing for his slaughter cattle. Finally in the mid-1950s, the building was demolished and part of Zwartkops’ history was destroyed with it.

On taking over the Deal Party farm in 1879, he immediately changed the property’s name to Beaconsfield Manor. In 1883, Matthew advertised that he had extended the house and offered fashionable sea-bathing at “New Brighton.” Mr Matthew Berry then took over the Seaview farm, and after a torrid court case with the Divisional Council, he lost. Shortly thereafter he died. In 1885, after Matthew Berry’s death, the Deal Party property was sold to the Council as the required the land for industrial development.


Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

A Century of Progress. The Story of the Divisional Council of Port Elizabeth. 1856 – 1956 by J.J. Redgrave M.A. (1956, Nasionale Koerante Beperk, Port Elizabeth)

Berry’s Corner in the Chronicles Number 93 dated 2010

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