This hall epitomises the agricultural origins of Port Elizabeth. In 1863, a wool market had already been established on the site of the temporary Trinity Church on the corner of Baakens Street and Military Road. With the advent of the thriving sale of ostrich feathers, a market was required, preferably close to the harbour, at which the feathers could be auctioned. Over the years the industry declined, and other uses of it had to be found. To this end, the hall was converted for use as a concert hall or for other public gatherings.
Main picture: Original sketch of the Feather Market Hall by WH Miles on the Official Guide of the SA Exhibition
In 1876 and 1877, the Council acquired the land adjoining the wool market and in September 1878, Mr Grellert of King William’s Town won the first prize for the design of the new market buildings, which included a feather market, a restaurant and offices for the Chamber of Commerce. In December 1880, the Council abandoned these plans due to the costs involved, but in the meanwhile the plans for the roof of the building had been redrawn by the English civil engineer, Sir John Wolfe-Barry, and on the instructions of the Council, the roof was being constructed in England under his supervision. It left England in January 1882 bound for Port Elizabeth.
No doubt embarrassed by this blunder, the Council resorted to Plan B. In November 1881, William Henry Miles was appointed Consulting Engineer to the Council with the remit to design a building to fit the roof. The markets were built departmentally, using local stone with facings of Coega stone. At the end of May 1883, Mr Warne, a foreman engineer, arrived to supervise the placing of the huge roof in position. The first principal, on its own weighing 8 tons, was raised on 31st October. Mr Warne was on site until June 1887. In September 1884, the floor of the produce market was laid with asphalt, a specialist from England coming out to do it. The enormous wrought iron window frames were produced locally by Howard Farrar and Co.
The first sale of ostrich feathers in the new Feather Market, took place on the 2nd February 1885. The sale was conducted by the Market Master of many years, John Conry. The first feathers to be offered belonged to Henry Waltern Court, thought to have been the first person to have considered taming ostriches and breeding them. The facility was officially opened on the 10th December 1885 by the Governor, Sir Hercules Robinson as an auction premises and storage facility for the feather industry. This date was selected to coincide with the opening of the South African Exhibition inside.
Some strange sights have been seen in the Feathermarket Hall over the years but probably the most unlikely was a parachute descent. This occurred in March 1892 when a visiting lecturer, Mr. Roper, gave a lecture, illustrated with slides, on “Ballooning.” With him was the “famous London aeronaut,” Mr Stanley Spencer, who was hoisted to the topmost rafter on an already opened parachute and from there made his descent. The lecture and demonstration was given twice, on the 14th & 15th March 1892. About 800 people attended each session.
Baakens Street edifice
Even the cost of Miles’ curtailed building was insufficient for the Council’s limited funds. Due to this impecunity, Mile’s plans for a front building had to be put in abeyance until such times as the Council could afford it. It took some 24 years before the Council could afford it. Finally, in 1908 the Baakens Street edifice was completed but not according to Miles’ original design but rather to that of a municipal engineer, Arthur S. Butterworth. A verandah was added in 1917 and for a time the facilities, now known as the Market Buildings, were taken over by the city council and used as additional offices, in support of the city hall, located diagonally opposite.
The Feather Market Hall was proclaimed a national monument in 1980. After an extensive upgrade of both the original building and its extension, the Feather Market Conference Centre was created. It was opened in 1993. As part of these renovations, the main entrance to the complex was relocated to be via the Market Buildings and the historic entrance off Castle Hill was sadly closed. This venue now includes conference facilities and a splendid concert hall, created by municipal architects.
The inaugural recital on the new Town Organ was by Frank Henry Bradley on the 15th June 1893. The notion of a town organ went back to the completion of the Town Hall when an organ fund was initiated. Even though it was added to regularly, nothing definite had been done by the time of the 1892 Kimberley Exhibition. It was at this event that an organ, built by Norman Bros and Beard of Norwich, England, was in action. It was indubitably the largest and most powerful instrument ever heard in South Africa. At the end of the exhibition, the organ was not to be shipped back to England but rather to be sold locally.
With money in hand and possibly “organ envy” playing a role too, the Council took in a bid and obtained it at the excellent price of £2,000. A representative of the firm, Mr Benson visited Port Elizabeth to inspect various sites for its eventually installation but found the Town Hall too small. Having purchased the organ, a location had to be found for it. There was only one other possible location and that was the Feather Market Hall. Accordingly, it was selected as the organ’s destination.
Benson then accompanied the organ to Port Elizabeth and supervised its erection. On 13th April 1897, the orchestra – the tiered wooden seating surrounding the organ, designed by Dix-Peek and Son – was inaugurated with a performance of the “Creation” conducted by C.W. Smart with the renowned, Roger Ascham, at the organ. Roger Ascham, the municipal organist, gave more than 1 000 concerts on this organ between 1895 and his death on the 31st of March 1934.
Like most citizens of my era, I have been to the Feathermarket Hall to attend a concert. Amongst the bands that I saw live there, were the Troggs and the South African group, Freedom’s Children. Most disappointing was the Troggs due to the bassist converting the original melodic bass into an unexciting and uninspiring doem-doem variant.
Hills Covered with Cottages: Port Elizabeth’s Lost Streetscapes by Margaret Harradine (2010, Express Copy & Print, Port Elizabeth)
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging Pty Ltd, Port Elizabeth)
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)
Looking Back, Vol XII No 1 (March 1975) pages 27 – 28