Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Carpenter & Devenish Families in the 1880s & 1890s

Francis Henry Carpenter might not have been at the pinnacle of mid-nineteenth century Port Elizabeth society, but he certainly was in the upper echelons of the nascent colonial society. 

His son-in-law David Grey Devenish had a successful business in Port Elizabeth until one day in the early 1890s, he and his family abruptly “absconded” from town, eventually settling in America. Was David Devenish attempting to evade justice and, if so, why?

Most of the information and photos for this blog have been provided by David’s great great grandson, George Sauvige, of Florida America

Main picture: The house in which the Carpenter family lived circa 1880s at 95 Pearson Street

Francis Carpenter was born in Malta on 22nd August 1824 and married Eliza Ann nee Meyer on 5th Nov 1853. Apparently, they lived in Port Elizabeth during the period 1852 to 1894. For 42 years, Francis was secretary of the Guardian Assurance & Trust Co in Main Street and for many years he was a churchwarden at St Mary’s. According to Francis’ Death Notice, the couple had seven children.

The Carpenter’s Coat of Arms
F.H. Carpenter aka “Chops”
Eliza Ann Carpenter nee Meyer

Francis’ wife predeceased him by dying on 13th July 1893, a year before him. Francis died on 17th July 1894 in Port Elizabeth aged 70. In her book, Port Elizabeth, a Social Chronical,” Margaret Harradine classifies Francis as exemplifying “unswerving integrity and devotion to duty” and possessed “keen business instincts and [was] kindly and courteous”

The Carpenter daughters: Mary, Anna, Agnes, Florence circa 1880

The Devenish family in South Africa

James Goldsbury Devenish was born in 1808 on the Isle of Wight; he might have been born on board the ship bearing his father, mother, older brother, and his father’s regiment to the Cape Colony.  His father, John Devenish, eventually left his regiment when it was later sent on to India, and stayed in the Cape, joining the local frontier guards, and eventually became a sheep farmer, along with some of his siblings, in the town of Beaufort West.  He married twice (his first wife was a daughter of a farmer named De Beer…she is mentioned in a book by Stefan Kanfer as having helped a young Cecil Rhodes by leasing him a pump to remove water from the flooded Kimberly mines, which were established on a farm formerly belonging to a farmer named De Beer!) and had 13 children.  He was named a “Magistrate of Victoria” in 1858.  At some point in time he “retired” to Riversdale.  

The Saga of the Carpenter’s Son-in-Law

One of his John Devenish’s sons was David Grey Devenish [1858-1927] who went into business with an uncle, James Lamb, in Port Elizabeth.  Lamb & Devenish, aka Devenish & Lamb, appear to have been commodity factors, trading mostly in wool, no doubt much of the product coming from his family’s farms in Beaufort West. 

On the 11th January 1883, David Grey Devenish married Francis Carpenter’s  daughter, Eliza Agnes Carpenter, in a sumptuous wedding attended by the crème de la crème of Port Elizabeth’s society.

David Grey and Agnes Eliza had 3 daughters by 1888:  Alice, Mona, and Nora.  George Sauvige remembers how his great-aunts regaled him  as a young boy with stories of South Africa and Empire and such.  Family oral history says the business climate was declining due to border wars with the Xhosas, and thus 23rd April 1889 David Grey left Port Elizabeth in search of “greener pastures”,  heading first to England, than Philadelphia, and finally to  North Carolina.  His wife and 3 young daughters followed him; their names are recorded on the passenger manifest of the RMS Tartar, embarking in Algoa Bay for Southampton in April of 1891.  After establishing themselves in North Carolina, they had two more children, both sons, one of whom was my grandfather. Here David Devenish was one of the incorporators of the Modern Tobacco Barn Company

Was greener pastures or a case of absconding?

What is most intriguing arose in a Court Case circa 1892 in the Cape Colony, “Standard Bank vs Union Boating“, in which Devenish is accused of “absconding” with £20,000 pounds sterling! That would equate to around US$2.5million today!! Different entries indicate that Mr. David G. Devenish and his firm, Lamb & Devenish (sometimes noted as “Devenish & Lamb) were involved, but the lawsuit was between the Bank and the Boat Company. Could this be the reason why the Devenish family left Port Elizabeth so abruptly?

Through the assistance of Alan Montgomery, I was able to obtain a copy of the Court Case in which the plaintiff, Standard Bank, was suing the Defendant, Union Boating Co., for £ 20,956. Apparently in terms of the contract between Standard Bank and the UBC, the Bank would advance Lamb & Devenish a sum of money based upon Union Boating Co. providing Standard Bank with a certificate of the number of wool bales received by the Defendant, the Union Boating Co. Instead of the UBC generating the various certificates, the agents or staff of the UBC delegated this responsibility to the supplier of the wool, David Gray Devenish.

This arrangement worked extremely well for many years except during 1889 when Standard Bank found themselves in the invidious position whereby they held certificates for 2624 bales of wool whereas the Union Boating Co. only held 1716 bales in their warehouses. This amounted to a shortfall of 908 bales on which held no security. On demanding a refund on these missing bales from the UBC, the UBC contended that as Devenish was not their agent, they were no liable for the missing bales. In their judgement, the court held that Devenish was acting as the agent of the UBC and, as such, the UBC was liable to Standard Bank for the amount fictitionally advanced on the missing bales. The only implication was that Devenish himself forged the receipts thereby being overpaid. The only inference that one can logically make is that once the ruse was exposed, Devenish absconded.

One can imagine what the effect of this fraulent action must have done to the health and status of Francis Henry Carpenter.

Lamb Brothers was dissolved, probably to pay the funds to the Standard Bank.  To his credit, James Lamb continued to be a major player in Port Elizabeth’s business community in spite of the scandal.  Ditto with Francis H. Carpenter, who died in 1894.  His wife died in 1893.  Their daughter and her 3 children left her father’s home and Algoa Bay in April 1891 on board the RMS Tartar for Portsmouth.  They later sailed from Liverpool to Philadelphia, USA, and then travelled to North Carolina to join her husband in his exile, and helped him rebuild his life and reputation.  Very daring for an upper-class Victorian-era wife subjected to such a scandal!

Life after Port Elizabeth

David Gray Devenish became a highly respected business man in North Carolina, especially after settling in Asheville in 1899, and spending the rest of his days there.  Some of his Carpenter cousins also emigrated to Canada about the same time (perhaps they were caught up in the scheme to defraud the Standard Bank and in the collapse of Lamb & Devenish?), and one of them joined David Gray in North Carolina, eventually settling in Greensboro. 

Advert on 6 Jan 1895 for sale of Cradock Place for Estate FH Carpenter

The Modern Tobacco Barn Company established by David Devenish in the USA

Advert placed by Francis Carpenter for my great great grandfather’s house at No.7 Castle Hill
David Grey Devenish and Brother Port Elizabeth

From the Eastern Province Herald, 11th January 1883 on the marriage between Devenish and Francis Carpenter’s Daughter

St Mary’s Church was crowded on Thursday last with a very fashionable congregation attracted to the marriage between Mr. D. G. Devenish, nephew of Mr. James Lamb, and Miss Agnes E. Carpenter, eldest daughter of our esteemed fellow townsman, Mr. F. H. Carpenter, the well-known and highly efficient Secretary of the Guardian Assurance Company of Port Elizabeth, with which he has been closely associated since its formation. The ceremony was solemnized by the Rev. J. F. Sinden, Curate in charge of Adelaide and Bedford, assisted by the Rev. Dr. Wirgman, Rector of St. Mary’s. There were five bridesmaids – three sisters of the bride, and two daughters of Mr. E. J. Meyer, cousins of the bride, who were all simply but beautifully dressed and made a most effective group. Mr. Renny – Tailyour, who has recently returned from England, acted as “best man” and performed the important duty most efficiently. Mr. A. Dixon, organist of St. Mary’s, presided at the organ, and the service throughout was fully choral. After the ceremony about sixty guests sat down to a sumptuous breakfast at the residence of the bride’s father, where the usual toasts were drunk in bumpers of champagne. In the course of the afternoon Mr. and Mrs. Devenish left in a carriage and four for Tunbridge’s to spend the honeymoon. During the day the consular and other flags of the town were displayed and the place wore quite a holiday appearance. The presents made to the bride on the happy event were numerous and of a useful and recherché description. We most heartily wish the young couple every happiness, and all the blessings which this life can bestow.”

Eliza and David Grey Devenish in Fancy Dress circa 1880s
Francis Henry Carpenter and wife and 3 grand daughters and 2 nursemaids circa 1888
Francis Henry Carpenter photo later turned into Portrait
James Goldsbury Devenish circa 1880
RMS Tatar circa 1890 This ship carried Agnes Devenish and family from Port Elizabeth to England
Main Street in 1876. In the centre is the premises of the Guardian Assurance & Trust Co erected in 1857. Founded in 1853. Carpenter was secretary of this Company for 42 years

Churchwardens of  St. Mary’s Church

1870          Alfred Ebden and Francis H. Carpenter

1874          F. H. Carpenter and Joseph Simpson.

1875          F. H. Carpenter and Alfred Ebden

1876-82    F. H. Carpenter and A. L. Blackburn

1882          F. H. Carpenter and A.C. Milton


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

Photos and much of the commentary are courtesy of George A. Sauvigne of Miami Shores, Florida,USA

Eastern Province Herald, 11th January 1883


  1. Once again Dean has produces a fascinating blog on an early resident of PE.L long to see his copious research in book form.Incidently the name of Titterton and Guardian National is connected to St Johns Anglican Church.


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