“WHERE’S that?” You have patiently explained your street address using Fort Frederick as a landmark. Big mistake. It comes as no surprise that few Port Elizabethans have visited or even heard of this scenic national monument situated on the bluff of the hill overlooking Algoa Bay.
And while heritage Route 67 and the refurbishing of the old PE Tramways building forges ahead, little attention is being paid to Port Elizabeth’s oldest building which could still occupy a special spot on the arts trail. The trail meanders from the Market Square, up and over the Donkin and along towards the Athenaeum Club. It abruptly stops there and future phases on the drawing board include Bird Street and up to St George’s Park.
For generations of Centralites the Fort has always been more than a national monument. It has been the playground for children. Swings, slide, merry-go-round and jungle gym provided endless entertainment. It’s overgrown edges of the Baakens Valley made magnificent hidey holes for games of cops and robbers, hide and seek and cowboys and Indians.
When I was a child, my grandmother tipped the daily gardener Daniel “Ten bob” a week to keep an eye on my brother and I while she thankfully retired to her bed for an afternoon rest. Daniel took his duties very seriously and if he felt we were exploring dangerous territory or trampling newly planted flower beds, he chased us demonically waving his garden rake. We had great respect for him.
Once our generation of children had grown out of such terrifying exploits as using the hilly areas and cliff edges as BMX tracks or attempting to fly off dangerously high swings, the Fort appeared to go into a bit of a hiatus.
But as the demographics of Central have changed, the laughter of children once more can be heard from the undulating green lawns. Over the years the play equipment has disintegrated or been removed. What a great gesture it would be if the Parks Department renewed the equipment and Mandela Development Agency made a concerted effort to market this heritage site as it has done with Route 67.
Because of its rarity of being placed in the centre of the city, Port Elizabeth’s oldest building badly needs to be placed on the tourist map. Granted, regular tour buses park there, but if you look at it from a tourist’s point of view it first appears as little more than a few old pointed stone walls that seem to hold little significance or attraction for visitors.
It is only in being given a potted history of the military installation from where a shot was never fired in anger that it takes on a meaning of its own. In August 1799 a blockhouse was built near the crossing of the Baakens River to safeguard its water supply and to keep a watching brief over the bay in case of a French landing.
Fort Frederick was named after Frederick, Duke of York. The British abandoned the fort in 1802, when it was temporarily occupied by Thomas Ferreira and a group of local burghers. They were replaced in May 1803 by a contingent of 150 men of the Batavian Republic, and it was again taken over by the British after they reoccupied the Cape in 1806.
After 1868 the Fort was abandoned and fell into disrepair. It was declared a National Monument on September 11, 1936. In 1940 it was temporarily used by the Department of Defence but was returned to the control of the Port Elizabeth City Council – now the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality.
In front of the Fort is the grave of Captain Francis Evatt, widely known as the father of Port Elizabeth. Captain Evatt commanded Fort Frederick from 1817 – 1847. He supervised the landing of the 1820 British Settlers who were brought to shore under the protection of his soldiers and provided with provisions and canvas accommodation.
He was originally buried in the St Mary’s Anglican Church in the city centre and was later moved to the present spot next to the fort’s north wall.
Tourism info expounds the beautiful views over Algoa Bay, but what this monument needs is a genuine shake-up to revert to the days of happy laughter, picnics and outdoor entertainment.
This is not an impossible task. Take the American Centre for Fort Preservation and Tourisms (CFPT) whose mission statement is as follows:
- To provide a resource where all interested persons can find information related to historic fortifications.
- To encourage the restoration and redevelopment of historic fortifications as living museums and places of public recreation.
- To encourage the study of the science of fortification with a view as to how it has influenced today’s architecture and engineering.
- To inform the public as to both the direct and indirect influence fortifications have played in our lives.
In addition, the CFPT also encourages historically oriented tourism, believing that the United States will become a morally and intellectually stronger nation if its citizens take the time to learn about their heritage and view their lives and society in an historical context rather than using their recreational time and money for fanciful escapism.
Would this mission statement be too difficult to follow on a local basis? After all the entire Fort is incredibly well preserved and it would only need a handful of like-minded people to get the ball rolling.
Fort Frederick is rather small, when compared to military installations elsewhere in the world, but its grounds and structure deserve more than deteriorating play equipment, isolated park benches, a handy place to walk dogs (avoiding the bushy areas where “worthies” doss) and better control of the locals who are well within their rights to have evening cocktails, but not a full-blown rave.
Think about it.
(Reprinted by kind permission of The Herald.)
Related: Lower Baakens Valley and Fort Frederick on the Port Elizabeth Daily Photo blog.
Editor’s Notes: As a child I recall being locked up in Fort Frederick by a caretaker who neglected to check that all visitors had left. My aged spinster Aunt and I eventually attracted the attention of a passer-by who fetched a ladder to allow us to escape. Much mirth ensued as my Aunt refused to allow our saviour to steady the ladder, lest he look up her skirt. I was sent down first with strict instructions to; “Hold his eyes, whilst I descend, Alan”.
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