The original building on the site of the present Public Library bears no resemblance to its imposing replacement. Instead, the Commercial Exchange was a dull Georgian type of structure with little architectural merit. Notwithstanding that, the Victorian settlers viewed it as an “architectural achievement.”
Foremost among its many duties over the years, this building was to serve as the Court House.
Most of the cases involved petty theft with the occasional dispute culminating in death. In 1882, this was to change. The ship “Melrose” anchored in the Bay reported that a murder on board ship involving two Irishmen.
Main picture: Commercial Hall with St Augustine’s in the background behind it
History of Commercial Hall
Land for a “library and commercial hall” having been granted by Sir George Napier in 1839, during July 1843, the foundation stone of a new Commercial Hall was duly laid. At that time, Sir George was the Governor and Commander-In-Chief of the army in the Cape Colony. Even though his time as Governor from 1839 to 1845 is unremarkable, his term is still recalled in a modest little town located the Western Cape called Napier, which is named after him.
The low two-gabled building with a sloping roof and a front entrance supported by two stone pillars commenced life as the first Commercial Exchange or Hall in Port Elizabeth. It owed its origins to a group of enterprising merchants who financed its erection by means of shares. The initial purpose of this Hall was to meet the demands of the residents for a central place where they could assemble to hold meetings, receptions, balls, and other social functions.
During the late 1840s, the popularity of the Commercial Hall began to wane owing to the rise of hotels with reception and catering rooms, it was no longer a paying proposition for the shareholders. In 1848, the infant Public Library moved into its premises. Within a few years, through the efforts of the generous John Owen Smith, the shareholders were convinced to donate their shares to the noble cause of converting this building into a Public Library.
The arrangement for the use of the Commercial Hall as Port Elizabeth’s Public Library was an instant success. This mutually beneficial situation was not to last long. During the early 1850s, the pressing needs of Justice obliged the government to open a proper Law Court. Due to the centrality of the Commercial Building being in the Market Square and due to the proximity of the local Jail being a stone’s throw away at the foot of Castle Hill, the Library was forced to vacate these premises for approximately thirty years.
The actual date when the Law Courts first occupied the Commercial Buildings is under dispute. In his book Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days, Redgrave states that the date was in 1956 whereas Margaret Harradine states that it occurred during August 1954. For what it’s worth, my money is on Harradine’s date being the more accurate.
What necessitated the sudden expropriation of the Commercial Building for use as the Law Courts was the fact that the original Magistrates Court was burnt down. At this point the old Court building had been the oldest extant building in Port Elizabeth, originally being the quarters of the Commandant of the Fort. The Commercial Building was used as the Court House until 1885 when it was relocated to a new building in Baakens Street.
Murders with a local flavour
Most of the cases tried in Port Elizabeth during the nineteenth century were of a petty nature. The first one of a sensational nature occurred in 1852 when the Court had not yet relocated to Commercial Hall in Market Square. This matter related to a murder at the farm Maitland Mines in which a coloured woman had stabbed her husband to death with a clasp knife.
The murder had piqued the interest of the citizens of Port Elizabeth. At her trial, crowds thronged on the verandah of the building until she was found guilty and sentenced to death.
The gallows comprised scaffolding which had been hastily erected between the sand hills off Queen Street. Presumably this area is today occupied either by the Settler’s Freeway or the railway lines. To prevent a public execution with crowds of morbid spectators being present, the hanging was performed at dawn before the crowds had descended upon the gallows.
The last public execution of a condemned person held in public relates to a coloured man, Gert Arentes in 1859. His offence was to kill an African man at Hankey. After a lengthy trial, he was found guilty and the death sentence was pronounced.
The gruesome gallows was erected on the open space adjoining the North End Jail. On the given date, he was hung before a motley crowd who looked on with morbid curiosity.
The jewel thieves
Not all of the sensational cases involved murder. This case possessed an international flavour which piqued the interests of the local inhabitants.
The newsworthy trial in October 1875 relates to the theft of very valuable diamonds, rubies and pearls valued at twenty-five thousand pounds in Rio de Janeiro. The three perpetrators slipped aboard the ship Ellen with their ill-gotten hoard of precious jewels, working their way as ordinary seamen.
Unluckily for them, whilst nearing Algoa Bay, the ship struck foul weather and had to wait the passing of the storm in the Bay. Meanwhile the three rogues came ashore and took up residence in comfortable apartments at the Phoenix Hotel in Market Square.
As the thieves were attempting to dispose of their stolen gems, they were arrested by Inspector Bromwich. After a preliminary examination, the trio were transhipped to Cape Town and then transferred back to the location of the theft: Rio de Janeiro, where they were tried.
Trial with an Irish flavour
Of all the trials held in Port Elizabeth during the nineteenth century, this one must surely rank as the one with the most international interest.
The origins of this murder extend all the way back to Ireland and the Fenians. The Fenians were an Irish Republican Brotherhood, a 19th-century revolutionary nationalist organization among the Irish in the US and Ireland and a predecessor of the IRA. The Fenians staged an unsuccessful revolt in Ireland in 1867 and were responsible for isolated revolutionary acts against the British until the early 20th century, when they were gradually eclipsed by the IRA.
This series of events commenced with the gruesome murder of Lord Frederick Cavendish, the chief secretary for Ireland, and Mr Thomas Henry Burke, the permanent under-secretary, as they were walking home to their official residences in the Phoenix Park in Dublin on a fine May evening in 1882.
The Phoenix Park murders – as they were known – created the same sort of sensation as the death of Princess Diana on the 31st August 1997 in a Paris underpass such was the intense interest.
Among the Fenian activists detained for this murder was James Carey. From suspect he became an informer. Although the Phoenix Park murders were widely condemned, even in orthodox Fenian circles, there was nothing but anger and revulsion in nationalist Ireland against Carey for what he had done. The authorities had no use for him either but it was incumbent upon them to make some provision for his safety by getting him out of Ireland. The problem was to find a safe haven in the English-speaking parts of the world; the USA and Canada, the Australian colonies and New Zealand; even the Cape Colony had too many Fenian sympathisers in them for safety. Therefore, Natal was chosen, where the Irish were thin on the ground.
Then Mrs Carey and five of the children boarded the Kinfauns Castle in London as steerage passengers and Carey and the two eldest children joined the ship at Dartmouth, all of them travelling as a family under the name of Power, Mrs Carey’s maiden name, bound for Cape Town on the first stage of their journey.
Travelling on the same ship, in a second-class berth, was another Irishman by the name of Patrick O’Donnell with whom the so–called James Power became very friendly on the voyage, playing dice and draughts and drinking together. O’Donnell was booked for Cape Town but so well did he get on with Power that he decided to go on with him to Natal and changed his booking before they reached Cape Town. At Cape Town, they all transferred to a coastal steamer, the Melrose.
The Melrose Castle sailed on Saturday 28 July from Cape Town. About a quarter to four on Sunday afternoon while the ship was rounding Cape Recife to enter Algoa Bay, O’Donnell and Power were having a drink together in the saloon. Unexpectedly, O’Donnell drew a revolver and shot his friend three times. It was a harrowing scene. According to Redgrave, he had shadowed Carey – alias Power – all the way from Ireland.
News of the murder was signalled by the Captain to the Port Authorities who despatched the Police Tug to arrest the murderer. Handcuffed to the rails of the tug, he was brought ashore along with the dead body amidst the jeers of the assembled crowd and placed in the jail.
When the body of James Power was brought ashore at Port Elizabeth in the Cape Colony on 30 July 1883 the town became the focus of world attention as never before or since; for James Power turned out to be James Carey, the notorious assassin—turned informer—who had dominated the news since the beginning of the year.
Just as O’Donnell was about to stand trial at the Court, a message arrived from Britain stating that, as the crime had been committed on board an English vessel on the high seas, the suspect was to be returned to Britain for trial. The orders were carried out. O’Donnell was returned to Britain, found guilty and executed.
During the proceedings at Port Elizabeth there occurred the one instance of humane conduct that has come to light in this whole affair. Dr Frederick Ensor, the district surgeon at Port Elizabeth, conducted the post mortem on Carey and gave his evidence in the magistrate’s court on the first day of the inquiry. At five o’clock that evening he went to see the prisoner. He asked O’Donnell if he had any relative with him and on being told about the niece he undertook to ask the local Catholic clergy to see to her welfare. O’Donnell replied, ‘with much emotion’, ‘Then that is all I care for’. When he found that O’Donnell had been given only bread and water since his arrest he gave orders that he should be provided with proper food. Later when he learnt that O’Donnell had paced about his cell all night, he prescribed a sleeping draught for him. Dr Ensor also attended Carey’s funeral. Finding that neither the Catholic clergy nor any other clergyman in the town was prepared to conduct a burial service he said he thought it only right that a few words should be said over the grave of ‘this poor man’ and that he would say a prayer to alleviate the distress of Carey’s wife and family.
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by JJ Redgrave
Port Elizabeth – A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine
The Fate of an Infamous Informer: http://www.historyireland.com/18th-19th-century-history/the-fate-of-an-infamous-informer/
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Phoenix Hotel
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Echoes of a Far off War
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Main Street in the Tram Era
Lost Artefacts of Port Elizabeth: Customs House
The Great Flood in Port Elizabeth on 1st September 1968
A Sunday Drive to Schoenmakerskop in 1922
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Horse Drawn Trams
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Trinder Square
The Sad Demise of the Boet Erasmus Stadium
Interesting Old Buildings in Central Port Elizabeth:
The Shameful Destruction of Port Elizabeth’s German Club in 1915:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Cora Terrace:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Grand Hotel:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Whaling in Algoa Bay:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: White’s Road:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Slipway in Humewood:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: King’s Beach:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Russell Road:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Sand dunes, Inhabitants and Animals:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Horse Memorial:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Target Kloof:
The Parsonage House at Number 7 Castle Hill Port Elizabeth
What happened to the Shark River in Port Elizabeth?
A Pictorial History of the Campanile in Port Elizabeth
Allister Miller: A South African Air Pioneer & his Connection with Port Elizabeth
The Three Eras of the Historic Port Elizabeth Harbour
The Historical Port Elizabeth Railway Station
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Russell Road Methodist Church – 1872 to 1966
The Royal Visit to Port Elizabeth in 1947
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Main Street before the Era of Trams