History of King William's Town

"King William's Town owes its establishment to warfare with the Xhosa during the nineteenth century and the tenacity of a Scottish missionary, John Brownlee. He had established the Buffalo Mission Station on the fertile banks of the Buffalo River in January 1826.

By 1832 the mission consisted of at least five substantial but unpretentious buildings, with a new church under construction.

But the Xhosa attacked and burnt the mission station in 1835. John Brownlee, his family and a trader, Mr Kirkman, narrowly escaped with their lives.

When Colonel Harry Smith of the Rifle Brigade arrived on the scene in charge of military operations, he pitched his tents '…near the garden of an old missionary station …' (where two Xhosa were later shot while attempting to steal his cows). Smith had Brownlee's ruined house rebuilt, making it 'a snug little box' for his Spanish wife Juana.

The Governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Benjamin D'Urban, subsequently proclaimed King William's Town the capital of the Province of Queen Adelaide on the 24th May 1835.

The new Colonial Secretary, Lord Charles Glenelg, was to prove critical of Harry Smith's swashbuckling efforts on the Eastern Frontier, particularly his part in the shooting of the Xhosa Paramount Chief, Hintsa.

Hence, in terms of Glenelg's dispatch of the 26th December 1835, the Xhosa were reinstated in the annexed territory between the Kei and Keiskamma rivers, the Province of Queen Adelaide was abandoned and King William's Town deserted.

John Brownlee regained possession of his mission station and home, use of which had been denied him during Smith's short-lived occupation.

Early in 1847, Mrs Harriet Ward described King William's Town, nestled in a hollow in the plains at the base of the Amathole Mountains, as "the ruin of what had once promised to be a flourishing town".

Left on his own again, Brownlee continued his mission labours among the amaNtinde for the next 10 years.

Then came the War of the Axe in 1846 and for the second time the mission buildings were burnt to the ground. Once again, Smith was back on the scene, this time as Sir Harry the hero of Aliwal on the Sutlej and as Governor of the Cape Colony.

On the 23rd December 1847, Sir Harry Smith proclaimed the Crown Colony of British Kaffraria with King William's Town as its capital.

Thus, within the space of 12 years, King William's Town was established twice; the only town in the Cape Province, if not in South Africa, to enjoy this unique distinction.

Sir Harry Smith ordered Colonel Mackinnon to lay out King William's Town in squares and streets on both sided of the Buffalo River.

Thomas Baines' ink and brush sketches of King William's Town in 1852, executed in his position as 'artist to the forces in the field' during the war of 1850-53, reveal a small town dominated by the military garrison - its forts, barracks, provost prison and hospital.

By 1856 the white civilian population of King William's Town was a mere 626 and 267 military personnel were listed as occupying military posts throughout British Kaffraria. The military garrison in King William's Town had barracks for 10 artillerymen, one troop of cavalry and one battalion of infantry - probably amounting to about a thousand men in wartime.

In 1857 the total number of European inhabitants in British Kaffraria (some 1792) was increased by the arrival of 2119 German military settlers. The population return for 1857, published in January 1858, lists the Xhosa population of British Kaffraria as 52186.

Although sir Harry Smith's Crown Colony of British Kaffraria was to be short-lived - by 1866 it had been incorporated in the Cape Colony - King William's Town was permanently established at last and could flourish and grow.

By 1884 the white population of King William's Town was 4102. The Xhosa population of the district (which included King William's Town, Frankfort, Berlin, Breidbach, Mount Coke, Debe Nek, Green River, Middledrift, Tyumie, Keiskamma Hoek, Izeli and Macleantown) was 57 998 at this time.

By 1889, however, the white population of King William's Town had increased to 8000 (762 short of the 1982 figure) and the Xhosa population in the district to 120 000 (in 1980 the de jure population of the Ciskei was 630 353).

Although many German settlers were later to leave the district, in 1889 The Argus Annual and South African Directory could still write of 'industrious German immigrants' at Breidbach and Yellowwoods 'who have turned every acre of rugged land into profit, and who are the principal producers of vegetables and dairy produce in the district'.

When the Naturalist Society was founded in July 1884, King William's Town was no longer the frontier garrison town it had been in 1852. The town now had an established air of bourgeois solidity, which is so admirably reflected in Sir Whately Eliot's picture of March 1884. Situated in a picturesque setting, King William's Town seemed to fulfil all the expectations of the description contained in The Argus Annual and South African Directory of 1889 as a town '…with well laid streets, many of which are lined with trees'. The town had an ample supply of good water from the Buffalo River (which Sir Benjamin D'Urban had described in 1835 as 'this clear, rapid and beautiful stream') and by 1889 the water works discharged 420 000 gallons per day.

According to The Argus Annual (1889: 770): 'The shops in the main thoroughfares are exceedingly well built, and those of the principle retail traders have elegant frontages, with displays of imported manufactures. The wholesale stores are chiefly solid and imposing structures, built of stone, the masonry being of a massive character, and the buildings with some claim to architectural merit.'

Among other building of note were the government offices, the Grey Hospital, several educational establishments (including Dale College and the Roman Catholic Convent School), the public library, the town hall and the botanical gardens. There were also seven churches (including the Church of England, Presbyterian, two Wesleyan churches, German Baptist, Lutheran and Roman Catholic), five banks (including Cape of Good Hope, Kaffrarian and Standard, British Kaffrarian and Government Savings Banks) and four newspapers (Cape Mercury, Colonist, Kaffrarian Watchman and Imvo Zabantusundu) in the town. As King William's Town was the seat of the magistracy and had a court and deeds registry, it was naturally an important centre of the legal profession.

By the 5th May 1880 King William's Town was connected by rail, via Blaney Junction, with the centres of East London, Kei Road, Kubusie, Cathcart and Queenstown. This was obviously a tremendous boost to the commercial interests of the town for, by 1889, King William's Town had become 'one of the largest trading districts in the Colony'. In fact King William's Town is rightly described at this time as the wholesale emporium of East London.

'The commercial importance of the town is very considerable, and its merchants fairly claim for it a position in the front rank. Its trade with the natives of Kaffraria and Transkei is of great value; its returns and shipments of colonial produce are very significant, and the principal merchants, who have also large stores and warehouse at East London, regard it as their headquarters. Wool, skins, and hides from all the surrounding districts are poured into its markets in vast quantities.' (The Argus Annual and South African Directory 1889: 770)

Important local industries in the 1880s were wool washing, carriage works, steam flour and sawmills, and aerated water factories. Close scrutiny of The South African Directory of 1883-84 reveals a wide variety of employment in the town including architects, smiths, farriers, tinplate workers, photographers, gunsmiths, wagon builders, brokers, hairdressers, a veterinary surgeon and even a sail maker.

There were numerous first class hotels for the local European inhabitants, visiting travellers and businessmen. Hotels offered stables for horses, accommodation for servants and sometimes even the use of a billiard table. By 1861 there were at least 13 hotels in King William's Town.

King William's Town was a centre with a vibrant and gay social life. During the nineteenth century entertainment largely depended on the community's ability to provide it and in this connection there was neither lack of talent nor energy in King William's Town.

Recreational and social activities included music, drama, sport and societies. According to Lewis and Foy (1971: 179): 'By 1850 there was an opera house and assembly room, a place of gaiety where the troops were quartered and to which local wives repaired eagerly. Lucy Grey attributed their infidelity to their husband's neglect.' (The British in Africa, Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London).

More than one wife was allured from her fidelity by a military officer while her husband was at the races. Such behaviour was considered 'a heinous offence which it is hoped', newspaper editorials declared at the time, 'the military authorities will punish in a fitting manner'.

Apart from the vicarious pleasure of romantic interludes in a garrison town, King William's Town also pandered to the more mundane tastes of a growing petit bourgeoisie. By 1866 the King William's Town Club had been established and later occupied the residence of the former Lt Governor of British Kaffraria, Colonel Maclean, situated just off Maclean Square on the site of the present Post Office.

The King William's Town Croquet Club was formed in 1867 and the historic Residency in Reserve Road was one important venue. There were also a number of active societies: the British Kaffrarian Brethren Benefit Society, the Freemasons, the General Institute (later succeeded by the Young Men's Institute), the Total Abstinence Society, the British Kaffrarian Agriculture Society, and the Kaffrarian Amateur Music and Dramatic Society which, originally founded in 1861 as the King William's Town Dramatic Society, has proved very popular in the town right up to the present.

Clearly, one of the reasons for the establishment of a Naturalist Society in King William's Town in 1884 was simply that hitherto there had not been a society catering for the scientific interests of local people.

In the 1880s modern science, as we know it today, was still relatively new and in its infancy. Science was not yet the sole preserve of the universities and the specialisation and professionalism associated with it was to develop much later in the twentieth century. Charles Darwin's epoch-making work, The Origin of Species, had only been published in 1859 for the first time. In the nineteenth century the 'new' science had a strong allure, not unlike magic in our primitive past, and this is not difficult to understand: it was controversial and challenged conventional ideas and beliefs, it had the power of explanation which could be applied to the solution of hitherto inexplicable environmental and human problems, and it also stimulated and accelerated the development of technological innovation and change."

*Taken from "A history of the Kaffrarian Museum" by Brian M Randles.

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