Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Cape Mounted Police

The establishment of towns witnessed the concomitant creation of an incipient constabulary albeit on a skeletal basis. This force was funded by and under the control of the local authority. At this juncture, the rural areas did not have any police presence. In view of the increasing incidence of stock theft and other such crimes, the Government was compelled to step into the breach. 

In terms of the Police Act of 1873, the Government offered to establish a special Mounted Police Force whose sine qua non was to operate solely in rural areas. 

Main picture: Sergeant in the Cape Mounted Police

The incipient local constabulary

At the time of the inception of the urban constabulary in the early 1820s, it compromised one solitary constable. By 1862, it had merely risen to one sergeant, seven constables and two Mfengus, besides one scavenger for the jail. What role the scavenger exactly played cannot be established. Possibly, as the name suggests, they collected discarded items for use by the jail.

The duties devolved onto these ill-clad, ill-equipped and ill-trained men was beyond them. Primarily their responsibility was keeping the peace and maintaining order during the day. There was no night time police service until 1862. Even when this service was provided, they preferred to ignore areas of depravity. One such area which they avoided like the plague was Strand Street which the delinquents and persons of ill-repute frequented.

The Field Cornetcy

Whilst the efficiency of the urban constabulary was often called into question, one must bear in mind that the country districts only had Field Cornets and their assistants. Apart from the fact that their chief duty was to serve notices on all Burghers eligible for military service whenever the local Black tribes were restless or on the warpath, the area that they served was too extensive for them to service adequately.

In terms of the regulations covering the duties of the Cornetcy, the registered burghers had elected Mr. John Holland as Field Captain of Port Elizabeth with Mr. C.T. Jones as Deputy Field Captain. The Bushy Park area had its own cornetcy with T.W. Titterton as Field Captain and George Scott Parkin as his deputy. Mr J.A. Holland held the rank of Field Commandant.

Mr J.A. Holland

Cape Mounted Police

What was painfully clear to all and sundry was that the rural areas were largely at the mercy of criminal elements. It was to address this need that the Police Act of 1873 was promulgated. In terms of this Act, the Government offered to establish a special Mounted Police Force whose sine qua non was to operate solely in rural areas.

To be fair, it was not that Port Elizabeth rejected the “generous” offer but rather that the town was too busy growing that it failed to notice the offer being made. This is not to say that the force was not required as five years later, the Chairman of the PEDC [PE Divisional Council] petitioned the Government to establish the proposed police force. In the petition they requested a mounted force consisting of one Sergeant and four constables. Moreover they expressed their consent to contribute one third of the costs of maintaining the squad. With abnormal alacrity the Government approved the scheme subject to the Council paying their share of the annual expense of £864 which amounted to £288.

Cape Mounted Policeman

Port Elizabeth’s response

For some unfathomable reason, the Council abruptly changed their mind. In response to the Government’s acceptance to their proposal they courteously replied: “What we considered advisable a few months ago, we now see no reason for carrying out the proposed scheme. The Division of Port Elizabeth is one of the quietest and likely to remain the most peaceful of any Division in the Colony. Life and property are as a rule much safer in this Division than in any country district in England, as statistics will show, and as this Council are painfully aware of the strenuous efforts [that] the Government will require to meet the more pressing needs of the Colony, respectfully decline to proceed with the matter at present.”

By 1878, the Council made yet another volte face when the Port Elizabeth Divisional Council Mounted Police [PEDCMP] was formally established, comprising one Sergeant and four Constables or Troopers. The Council supplied them with mounts, equipment, a revolver and uniforms for which £3 was deducted from their pay every month. Regulations for their conduct were drawn up and submitted to the Magistrate, Mr. Wylde, for the requisite approval.


The men continually patrolled from farm to farm obtaining signatures from the farmers as proof of their performing their duties. At regular intervals they had to report to headquarters for report back purposes. Requests and complaints to the Council was all the rage in those days. The following letter was received by the Council from one of their first recruits:


We, the undersigned members of the Divisional Council Police, respectfully ask if a light uniform for summer wear can be supplied to us.

Our present uniform being very warm and also far too heavy for duty in the warm weather, we respectfully suggest that a light uniform be allowed. As owing to the expense of housekeeping, forage for horses etc., we are quite unable on our very limited income to supply the means of purchasing the said uniforms ourselves.

Hoping you will grant our request,

    We remain, Gentlemen,

         Your obedient servants,


                  J.W. Cousins


                  Henry Wiblin

Jan. 13th, 1879.

George Fletcher of the Grahamstown or Alexanderia Mounted Police in 1912. The family moved from Alexander to Grahamstown where he was the station Commander. He left Ireland during the potato famine as a very young man and made his way to SA. His first wife died during the flu epedemic here in SA. They has 2 children. Later he married Glenda Hammond’s gran, who was the eldest of an additional 5 siblings. He was a boer sympathiser and was anti Royalist (but then he was Irish)

The request for the issuance of a summer uniform was favourably considered subject to the several provisos. (1) Provided that they had completed twelve months in the Force and (2) they had signed for a further year’s service.

Encouraged by their success, they now went for the jugular: their paltry salaries and perks. Shortly after the initial letter, the following letter was sent.


We, the undersigned, respectfully beg to apply for an increase in salary. The pay now received by us is £16 per month for the Sergeant, and £13 for the men. From this, the Government deducts £3 monthly for equipment, and the keep of the horse amounts to at least £4 a month, leaving a balance of £9 for the Sergeant and £7 for the Privates, out of which we have to pay £3 per month for house rent and to maintain our families. The uniform [that] we are now wearing is almost unfit for use and will soon require replacing.

Hoping [that] you will take this into your favourable consideration. 

We have the honour to be, Gentlemen,

         Your obedient servants,

                 Peter Troup, Sergeant

                 John W. Cousins

                Tom Dorrington

                Alfred Cousins

                Henry Wiblin

10th March 1879.

A stampede of resignations

As the saying goes, lightning does not strike in the same place twice. Similarly, this request was not received favourably by the Council. In all likelihood, it was this refusal to comply that precipitated an exodus from the service. The first person to request being released was Tom Dorrington. Even though the grounds that he provided for his release were that he was “uncomfortable” in his work, he then candidly provided the real reason by stating that he had a large family and wished to return to his trade where men were badly needed and where he could treble his paltry pay. That begs the question why he remained in service after he was compelled to complete his year’s service. In fact, he later rose to the rank of Sergeant on this supposedly paltry pay.

The next to leave were Troopers Cousins and Hillyer who, upon their discharge, requested for six guineas in exchange for their revolvers which were of no use to them. Next on the list to complain was Trooper Wiblin who had ten years’ experience in the Imperial Army but now had a large family to support. He requested that the Council replace his horse which he had be forced to shoot on account of it suffering from an incurable disease. On presentation of a detailed schedule of expenses amounting to £60 incurred over the preceding six months, he took receipt of a new horse courtesy of the Council.

The Police Unit was now at the crossroads. After two years of being in existence, the Council was seriously of the opinion that the unit should be disbanded. After a lengthy debate, the Council decided to maintain the unit for an additional year. Little did the Council realise that the remuneration of these members was in reality a pittance but they persisted in the salary policy.

Revised operational regulations

The Council imposed additional regulations with which the Mounted Police had to comply:

  • Each constable must keep a Duty Book in the Police Station and to enter his name therein, the hour going on and the hour going off duty, and if attending the Police Court, in what case and how detained
  • The Officer in charge to sign such a book every night, certifying that the Constable was on duty at the locations mentioned by them and dates
  • A Route Book to be in possession of every Constable when on duty for the purposes of obtaining signatures in ink only from farmers that they visit on their patrol.

The Council should not have been surprised if none of the men had not been aggrieved by the new regulations albeit well-intended. It was Sergeant Tom Dorrington who strenuously protested against them claiming that they were absurd and the present rules had served them well.

Revised uniform

In 1883, the Government issued a Circular stating that the Divisional Council Police would henceforth be dressed in a black uniform consisting of the following:

  • A plain brown helmet, with strap, and a white linen cover.
  • A black cap with braid, straight peak with strap, and a white linen cover
  • Black patrol jacket, braided round edge, with four bars tubular braid with a turn in the centre and a loop at the end in front
  • Black Bedford cord riding breeches with braid down the seam
  • Black trousers with braid down the seams
  • Black boots and black cow-hide leggings, long or short
  • Black overcoats (semi-military) with strap and split for all ranks. The Sergeants and Corporals wore black chevrons edged with scarlet binding 3 bars and 2 bars. The Inspector’s cap bore the oakleaf braid and button and scroll on the crown.

The staff compliment at this stage consisted of the following:

  • Sergeant – Sergeant Troup
  • Constable – John Buckley
  • Constable – George Wynne
  • Constable – John Garner
  • Constable – Heugh Killin

Yet again, a request for a pay increase was declined.

Maligned by Councillor John Mackay

It was Councillor Mackay who set the cat amongst the pigeons. In a regular Council meeting, he remarked that Policemen were supposed to have definite beats but this was not being adhered to in a certain location in town. Upon reading a report on this in the newspaper, Sergeant Troup was so incensed that he addressed a complaint to the Council. In his correspondence he set the matter to rights by stating that of the four locations serviced by the Divisional Police, the locations at North End known as “Jim Crow” as well as Gubb’s and Rudolph’s Locations were most critical whereas the top of Russell Road, if unmanned, would not compromise security. In disgust, upon expiration of the year’s contract Sergeant Troup resigned from the Force. In his stead, Constable John Buckley was promoted to Sergeant.

With the rapid expansion of the town, a much greater number of police were required to maintain the peace. In his wisdom, Mr Wylde proposed that the compliment be increased by one Inspector and fourteen Privates. On financial grounds, this was rejected.

Further unpleasantness arose when some of the Councillors aired their views concerning their perception that inefficiency and uselessness pervaded in the Force. On this occasion, 222 ratepayers took umbrage. They drafted a petition protesting against such unwarranted besmirching remarks. Furthermore, they maintained that they had been of great value at all times. In view of the negligible size of local Government Police, the petitioners were of the opinion that the Mounted Divisional Police boosted the police numbers.

In 1882, the harassed Town Council was compelled to apply to the Divisional Council for the use of their men.

Consolidation of Forces

It was six years later when Mr Cherry was transferred to the Division of Alexandria that it afforded he opportunity to place the members of both Local and Divisional police forces under one Chief Constable. In order to attract the correct calibre of individual, the Council would have to forego its parsimonious payment practice. Only once this principle was established was the post advertised.

Amongst the worthy applicants was Sergeant John Buckley of the local Divisional police. At a heated meeting held in the Town Hall on the 22nd September 1886, a memorial signed by all the prominent people in town recommended that Buckley be nominated for the position. After a heated debate, it was finally agreed that John Buckley be appointed at a salary of £300 10s per annum including allowances to be made up as follows: The Government to pay £110, the Town Council £127 and the Divisional Council £63 10s.

After the agreement was signed by the Mayor, Sergeant Buckley was notified of his appointment as the first Inspector of the Town and Divisional Police Forces.

Three years later, at the request of the Under Colonial Secretary, the Divisional Council Mounted Police were merged with the new Cape Police and ceased to exist as a separate unit after rendering excellent service for over ten years.


According to Redgrave, his Force more than met the expectations of the citizens. Yet, despite this, certain elements within the Council and outside it, were quick to denigrate it and seldom acknowledged that this underpaid, dedicated force achieved far more than what they were given credit for.


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)


  1. Hi Dean
    Very interesting article! Thank you.
    I think you should hook up with Brig Hennie Heymans on this topic – both will benefit i.r.o. photos and info.


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