These five structures, the Campanile, Mosenthals Building, Richardsons Building, the Reserve Bank and the City Hall represent the essence of Port Elizabeth in terms of its history. Now some have been demolished or blocked out and some replaced with ahistorical buildings with no connection to its past or in fact its future.
Main picture: The majestic quintuplets – Campanile, Mosenthals, Richardsons, Reserve Bank, City Hall
This structure represents the founding of the city and the struggles of its initial inhabitants. Torn from a world that they loved, settlers were compelled to endure with the most meagre of resources to build a new life for themselves and their families in this new land. First they endured three years of drought and then black hordes intent on their destruction. Now no longer visible due to the Settler’s Freeway and the bus station, the Campanile is now disconnected from its siblings by these impersonal structures.
Now lost in the mists of time, Mosenthal was the quintessential entrepreneur who creates a new industry and is more than just a successful merchant. This does not diminish the achievements of a merchant such as the successful ironmonger, John Geard, who can also be credited with his achievements in public-spiritedness in establishing the Mechanics Institute amongst his civic duties.
In Mosenthals case, he commenced business in Port Elizabeth as a wool exporter using his family members as agents in other countries. Restrictions on growth were imposed not by some government fiat but the vision coupled with tenacity which Mosenthal drew upon to convert an industry which was inwardly focused to one that focussed on the whole world. He understood that to be prosperous he had to focus on every element of the supply chain. With the other wool merchants being so parochial, he seized the cudgel and reformed all its elements by providing finance and training to each component
- With the wool quality being at a low level, he introduced new breeds of sheep to the Dutch farmers on the basis that all wool from these sheep were his property
- The quid per quo was that the offspring from these sheep were the farmers property as long as they sold their wool to Mosenthal.
- Becoming uncompetitive with the Australians in the English markets in Liverpool, he organised more efficient transport from the farms in the Graaff Reinett and surrounding sheep farming areas
- Mosenthal then provided financing for sheep farmers as the time from acquiring a lamb to only being paid when the first wool bail reaching Britain, could not be sustained by the farmers.
Richardson, another visionary Jew, who started business subsequent to Mosenthal, commenced business as a wool trader. One of his first ventures outside wool merchanting was to build a machine powered wool washery in Queen Street. He then set his sights on other agricultural products such as oranges. He subsequently set his sights on the entertainment industry and acquired bioscopes. With the introduction of cars, he foresaw the opportunity of creating an entertainment resort within close proximity to Port Elizabeth. His first venture was the creation of the Seaview resort with an hotel, seawater swimming pool and a golf course. In spite of an initial flourish of enthusiasm, it never gained sufficient traction partly due to the poor economic climate when the Wall Street crash swept through the world.
The Reserve Bank
For me, this building serves as a monument to the fact that Port Elizabeth and the Eastern Cape was the crucible of the banking industry in South Africa. The western Cape never possessed a bank industry per se as their mandate only extended to fixed asset financing as credit extension was frowned upon and ultimately outlawed.
Both Standard Bank and FNB have their roots in Port Elizabeth. Standard Bank was established in Port Elizabeth by John Paterson in 1862 in London and 1863 in Port Elizabeth. This was not too last. Its ambition knew no bounds. When confronted by an intransigent Cape Town municipality, they conceded to relocate their head office from Port Elizabeth. In FNB’s case, it was the allure of the gold and diamond mines in the Transvaal Republic which would shatter its bond with Port Elizabeth. The big gorilla always wins and so it was in both cases.
The City Hall
This building is without doubt the essence of Port Elizabeth. It will remain a lasting legacy to many who advanced the cause of municipal governance in Port Elizabeth as the original “seat of governance” was Uitenhage. It had long since outgrown its role yet it was long when John Paterson and his voice piece, the Eastern Province Herald, led the charge for local government to which the colonial government in Cape Town consented.