Port Elizabeth of Yore: Donkin Row-Tiptoeing up the Hill

The houses in Donkin Street add to the charm of the area bracketed by the Hill Presbyterian church at the top and Nedbank building in Main Street and bounded by the Donkin Reserve in the east.   

Main picture: Painting of Donkin Row, as it is called

Before the arrival of the Settlers, Donkin Street was an insignificant Kloof dwarfed by its larger siblings, White’s Road, Russell Road and Albany Road. What it did supply initially was water from a perennial spring. Apart from a well in Market Square, it provided the water for the town until Frame’s Reservoir on the Shark River was constructed.

Sale of land

The original historic documents dating from the 1800s at the main library detail all the grants of land by the Colonial Government to the town. They are hand written in flowing copperplate, and accompanied by hand drawn maps by the Surveyor, to detail the exact positions of the properties. These ones are for the Donkin Terrace and are dated 31st January 1856.

Amounts paid for land in Donkin Street
Amounts paid for land in Donkin Street
Original land grant documents for Donkin Street
Original land grant documents for Donkin Street
Survey drawing of Donkin Street
Survey drawing of Donkin Street

Buildings abutting Main Street

Initially the “New Church” occupied the site on the northern corner of Donkin & Main Streets.

Main Street between 1853 and 1858 as there is no Town Hall. The church, known as “New Church”, on the right was built in 1853
The Independent or New Church
The Independent or New Church after the Town Hall was built
The New Church was converted into Auction Rooms and the clock was donated to the Town Hall. This photo shows an auction in progress in Donkin Street
The Auction house was then converted into offices for the Netherlands Bank
The Auction house was then converted into offices for the Netherlands Bank

Port Elizabeth’s First Bard

In 1854, the Kloof was filled in. The only elegy was a poem written by a William Selwyn, a resident, entitled “The lament of the Donkin Street streamlet, on being entombed by an Unpoetical Municipality.”

O list good folks a tale of woe

A tale of dark oppression;

Let briny tears your cheeks down flow

In sorrowful procession.

Till late I trickled down the glen

In sunbeams gaily sparkling;

But now entombed by heartless men

I creep on cold and darkling.

Beneath a huge chaotic mass

Of rubbish vile I mutter;

‘Mid frogs and fungi rank alas

A melancholy gutter.

The rustic bridge that bound my banks

In brotherhood together

Is torn away and its rude planks

Are gone, the “Board” knows wither.

Away! A dire revenge I’ll brew

My rage meanwhile I’ll bung tight

That sordid Board the day shall rue

When next I see the sunlight.

When turgid torrents rushing past

Adown my peeping square holes

Right through this execrable mess

I mad-man like will tear holes

I’ll heave aloft this lumb’ring load

And crashing down I’ll toss it

Till in the middle of the road

A mountain I deposit

Sale of reclaimed land

On the 28th December 1855, the sale of the reclaimed land was sold in the newly created Donkin Street.

The other corner of Donkin and Main Street
The other corner of Donkin and Main Street

Donkin Houses

The Donkin Street houses were built between 1860 and 1880.

Donkin Row from Donkin Reserve
Donkin Row from Donkin Reserve
Donkin Row-Panoramic View from Donkin late 1890s
Donkin Row-Panoramic View from the Donkin Reserve in late 1890s

The whole site was declared a National Monument in 1967.

The first houses (Nos 29-55) appear to have been declared as National Monuments in 1967, whereas Nos 21-27 were only declared as National Monuments in 1984 per the NMC Report for that year.

The houses, and those around them, have recently been restored, making a great attraction for tourists interested in Port Elizabeth’s early housing. Not wanting to be labelled a Cassandra, but while the restoration might have vastly improved the houses, what I question is whether the original design was replicated meticulously in the process.


Across the road

Strictly speaking, the Hill Presbyterian Church is on the corner of Belmont Terrace, now renamed Athol Fugard Terrace, and Alfred Terrace. To me, however, it adds the sauce to the houses below.

View of the Hill Presbyterian Church from Donkin Reserve
View of the Hill Presbyterian Church from Donkin Reserve
Fragments of a City – Corner of Donkin Street by Fred Page


Cape Carols and Miscellaneous Verses by William Selwyn (1891, Argus Company, Cape Town)

Looking Back, Vol IX No 1 (March 1969) Page 32

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


  1. Hi Dean
    I am presently busy reading through your series of ‘Port Elizabeth of Yore’ articles and finding them fascinating. But, as I wrote to you earlier, I feel it my duty to draw your attention to any statements with which I disagree:
    Donkin Street Houses. The 1st Edition of ‘Donkin Heritage Trail’ booklet gives their building date as 1870. However we know they were built over several years and 4th Edition (1989, revised by Margaret Harradine) gives more reasonably “between 1860 and 1880”.
    Regarding the declaration as National Monuments, I researched this for the 9th Edition (2016). The first houses declared (Nos 29-55) appear to have been declared in 1967, but Nos 21-27 only in 1984 (NMC Report for that year.)
    Regards, Richard Tomlinson

    • Hi Richard
      I certainly appreciate the checks that you are performing. As I live in Joburg, all of these blogs are based upon what information that I have at my disposal. I will most certainly update my blog to reflect these corrections.
      Thanks again
      Kind regards
      Dean McCleland


Leave a Comment.