Port Elizabeth of Yore: Port Elizabeth 160 Years Ago

These reminiscences form part of a lecture presented by Mr. W. E. Vardy at St. Cuthbert’s Church on the 24th February 1913 entitled “Port Elizabeth 50 years ago.” This forms part of the second section entitled, “Political and Social Position.” Vardy was a merchant who resided in Havelock Street.

Port Elizabeth of the 1860s was expanding swiftly but it did not yet bear the mark of a grand, prosperous and salubrious town. The lifestyle was frugal in the extreme with most residents making their own bread and clothes as well as collecting their own water as the water from the Shark River was brackish and hence unpalatable. Modern services such as sewerage, electricity and the telephone were still 50 years in the future for most denizens.   

Apart from minor amendments and corrections, this is a verbatim copy of that speech.

Main picture: Main Street in 1864. The first block of houses on the right are bounded by Grace, Britannia and Staines Streets. The building on the right still stands today though its facade has changed immensely but the stone wall in Grace Street remains as it was then. Deare and Dietz, who occupied the premises, brought out H.W. Pearson to Port Elizabeth as their bookkeeper. The large buildings on the left are warehouses and stores belonging to the large merchants, one of whom was Dunells & Ebden. The smaller buildings in the middle are particular to the architecture of time when families lived above their business premises.

Socially, Port Elizabeth was a very quiet place in the 1860s, and so immersed were the elders in business that there was almost as little desire for public amusement as there were opportunities, and thus for young people, as compared with today, life was necessarily without much interest, and very humdrum.

In this part of the town at least, there was but one Cricket Club, the Port Elizabeth, the same Club as that of today, making use of the same ground, but small and exclusive. Football was not played, at least I never saw it. The Zwartkops was practically beyond reach because of the costliness of cab hire, and Redhouse was unknown. The South End beach was little frequented for behind it, were moving sandhills which often reduced the beach to a floating drift-sand. There was but one Park, (St. George’s) and that being in its infancy afforded no shade or shelter, and thus the Valley was the principal resort for outings, and the place mostly chosen for picnics.

Top of White’s Road in 1864. The small stone building on the top of White’s Road and Belmont Terrace, has been through several identities over the years. Initially it was a Grammar School under the auspices of the St Mary’s vestry. On the opening of the Grey Institute, it was used as a synagogue until 1877 when it was reopened as a Diocesan Grammar School. Later it was used as a Lutheran Church and in its later life is a curry house.

The Baakens was much more of a river than that now, and one would occasionally see boats sailing up and down its lowest reach. The Merchants had their Club on its present site in Trinder Square, a much less pretentious one than that of today, but there was no other, nor was there any Institute for young men.

Entertainment was few and far between, and when the old theatre at the foot of White’s Road was occupied, although creating much excitement at the time, it was usually in the hands of Amateurs only. There was of course the Library as an evening resort. It was housed at that time in the front of the eastern portion of the town hall and was even then – as it has been ever since – an Institution to which Port Elizabeth could point to with pride, but it was more generally the resort of those inclined to be studious and was not much used by young people. Then again, the absence of any reliable water supply was greatly against the happiness and comfort of the people, whether young or old, householders depended on the rain caught from their roofs in the underground cement tank or iron tank attached to the houses, and when this failed, as it not infrequently did, resort had to be made to the purchase of brack water from the Shark River at as much (in times of severe drought) as 5/- to 7/6 per cask.

As regards baths, there was, of course, the sea but that it was not largely made use of, the distance to be traversed and the rough roads being no doubt a deterrent with many, while public fresh water baths were necessary unknown, and those of householders were too often useless in the hottest weather when most valued, for, of water, there was none to spare.

St. Mary’s Cemetery, Baakens River Bridge & the Breakwater in the 1860s

With sandy ill-kept roads and no watering of them, the dust nuisance was indescribable and bad alike for the health of the pedestrians and the interests of shopkeepers. Moreover, the winds which blew then, as now, seemed to do so with much greater force, for with less close building, there was little or no shelter from wind and dust, and thus it was that outside life was almost as much interfered with in windy weather as on the occasion of a day of rain.

As you would suppose, trees and gardens were very rarely encountered. Except therefore in business life, which was always active and interesting, Port Elizabeth was in little better case [no better] than a small up-country town, and the young people of today may well be thankful for the bright, interesting and happy surroundings, the lack of which told all too sadly in many cases, on the rising generation of 50 years ago. For those with life before them today, with their wider vision, far greater advantages, and happy environment, there should arise a fervent desire to make the best of them all, both for themselves and for their country, and such should be their abiding ideal.

The Baakens River lagoon

But now to speak of the Commercial life of Port Elizabeth half a century ago. Without steamships, railways, telegraphs, telephones et cetera, the mode of carrying on business differed vastly, of course, from that of today. All produce was received by bullock wagon and all goods conveyed up country by the same medium.

At busy times of the year, Main Street was in the early morning crowded with wagons laden with wool and other produce prior to the offloading of it at the stores in the side streets and elsewhere, and from the point of view of the Town Hall stoep, looked like a forest of bullock horns as far as the eye could reach, so that there was difficulty in crossing the street at that time and dexterity was needed to avoid being gored! [After the] produce [was] offloaded, merchandise took its place on the wagons, and the poor oxen trekked out in the evening, having passed the day without food and water. Such state of affairs, if obtaining now, with a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals” actively at work, would not, I am sure, be allowed without practical protest by the gentler sex, if not by man also!

The cost of transport was, say to Grahamstown, 1/6 to 2/-, to Graaff Reinet 4/6 to 5/-, and later on to Kimberley, when diamonds were discovered, 25/- for 100 pounds, the rates varying according to the season and the condition of the veldt. The best class of transport rider would deliver his load to Grahamstown in about 5 to 7 days, in Graaff Reinet in say 10 to 14 days, and in Kimberley in about 30 or 40 days.

My earliest recollection of Main Street – the business centre – reminds me that at that time, 1862, the Town Hall was incomplete. A red brick building stood with scaffolding on all sides and so remained for a long time, whether through the scarcity of cement, or its too great cost, I cannot say, but when completed, it was without the clock tower which was added many years later.

The City Hall being constructed: 1858 – 1862

The obelisk, which had its place at the London Exhibition of 1862, was the gift of the late Mr. John Paterson, a prominent colonist and one very active in commercial, educational and public life generally. There are one or two stories told about this obelisk, but I believe the true one to be that it was Mr. Paterson’s intention to place it over his wife’s grave in St. George’s Cemetery – that on arrival it was found to be unsuitable and most difficult to convey up the Hill – either or both, and that having been accepted by the Town Council as a gift from Mr. Paterson, it was erected in memory of the marriage of the Prince of Wales (afterwards King Edward) in 1863.

Main Street has been practically rebuilt since 1862, and where stores stand as they did then, there are, I think, only 4 or 5 without structural alterations of more or less importance, while of Messrs. Dunell, Ebden & Co, it may be added as a fact, both interesting and unique, that they as a firm, have carried in business in their present unaltered stores continuously – an instance of such complete continuity being, I think, without parallel in any business in town. In the course of nature, Partners have passed away, and others have succeeded them, and changes in the staff have been so complete, that whether Partners of staff, not one of 50 years ago is to be found there now. But the continuity is there, and of course, considerable development.

Market Square taken by J.E. Bruton

There were no shops – or not more than 1 or 2 – on the lower side of Main Street until the neighbourhood of Russell Road was reached, [as] all were wholesale stores. There were also a few – including two Banks – on the upper side [with] shops of inferior quality occupying the remaining space, but there were several residences in the street. The Cashier of the Commercial Bank, who afterwards became manager of the Standard Bank when the former was taken over by the latter, lived above the Bank Offices as, similarly, did the Cashier of the Port Elizabeth Bank. Mr. H.B. Christian too, then a senior active partner of Messrs. John Owen Smith & Co, lived in a superior dwelling adjoining the firm’s stores on ground now occupied by the African Banking Corporation. I well remember seeing several of his children, including Mr. Owen Christian, now of Kragga Kamma, starting off in their family carriage for their early morning drive.

Strand Street, with its fine stores, was practically unformed, and was indeed a most undesirable neighbourhood, such dwellings as were there being tenanted by people of an inferior class with anything but a good name. People resorted to the slopes of the Hill, and to the North End, where were built many nice houses, and to the South End where there were not a few, until through the progress of building, life on the Hill became general.

First Baptist church, Queen Street

In those days the North End, beyond the Baptist Chapel, was called “outside the Bay”, South End was designated “over the river”. “North End” and “South End”, the terms now in use being, I think [that] you will agree, more dignified appellations.

The business of our Merchants was even in that time under review on a large scale, for with no East London or Mossel Bay trade worth mentioning, the whole of the Colony, except the Western Province and the Free State, were supplied from Port Elizabeth. And in the 1860s, the Customs Duties collected here, exceeded those of all the other Colonial ports combined. Then, owing to the slow and uncertain mode of transport, Merchants’ accounts up-country were very slow in the turnover and very large in their debit balances. And in times of drought, the losses were often very heavy, losses for which even the large profits on goods supplied and commissions on produce sold, were but poor compensation. One feature of the business of the time, which is of local interest, should be mentioned viz that there a great many “boer winkles” in Port Elizabeth. There were situated in Queen Street and out as far as the Prison. Many farmers in those days came to Port Elizabeth with their produce to sell it here and procure supplies in exchange, and general retailers stock of every description were kept by these “winkles” which, in order to part with their wares, were particularly keen on buying the Farmers’ Wool; so keen that in the season, they would be on horseback often before daylight, and off to the outspan to become , if possible, and amid the keenest competition, the purchasers of the produce, and afterwards, the selling of the Merchandise. Many are the humorous stories [that] one has heard and laughed at in this connection, but as time went on, such business transferred itself up-country, where improved facilities were established, and as far as Port Elizabeth was concerned, it came to an end. The Merchants had, of course, been the supporters of it and the wild competition of their constituents of which I have spoken, and not seldom, I fear, their devious ways, too often ended in the Merchants’ loss.


Article “Port Elizabeth 100 Years Ago” in the March 1965 edition of Looking Back

Looking Back, Vol IV No 4 (December 1964) and Vol V No 1 (March 1965), pages 13 – 16


  1. So interesting. I love history of PE. Do you have an information about the house Elliot dale in Colliers Road opposite NGK 4th Avenue. My father was born in that house in 1918 please?

  2. Dear Sir. This is excellent history done on PE. How fortunate this city is to have a historian doing research of this quality. Do you perhaps have some info on Mr Russel Deare of Dear and Dietz who was the Bethulie Concentration Camp superintendent during the Boer War? He was according to someone I knew, a very keen sportsman in PE. There may even be some photos of him in the PE Sports clubs (Tennis, Cricket ECT.).

    Johan van Zyl
    War Museum of the Boer Republics

  3. Any info. on Mr Russel Deare (great PE sportsman) of Deare and Dietz who was the Bethulie Concentration Camp superintendent.

    J van Zyl
    War Museum of the Boer Republics, Bloemfontein


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