The Simple Story of a Pioneer Durban Firm

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Born at Babbacombe Bay, Torquay, Devon, England, 9th August, 1814. Arrived at Port Natal, 24th September, 1851. Died at Durban, 8th May, 1894.

ROBERT ACUTT, the Founder of the Firm presently known as R. ACUTT & SONS, was born in 1814 at Babbacombe Bay, Torquary, Devon, England, and was christened at the ancient TOR PARISH CHURCH in Torquary. He married Louisa East, a very accomplished woman and no mean poetess. His business card (in the possession of Mr. Ken Acutt) describes him as a dealer in Paintings, 11 Holywell street, Strand, London, and as his eldest Son, Horace, was born at that address in 1845, he must have carried on business there for some years before sailing for Natal in 1851.

In the previous year, his younger brother, William had landed at Port Natal and joined the business of Middleton & Co. at the corner of Smith and Gardiner Streets, the site presently owned and occupied by the Alliance Building Society. The former Firm’s name was later changed to Middleton, Wirsing & Acutt. Robert must have been impressed by his brother’s reports of the future prospect of the infant Colony of Natal, for in June 1851, he packed up and set sail for Natal with his Wife and Family in the good ship “Borneo”, a barque of uncertain tonnage, but probably under 500 tons burden. His family consisted of his Wife, Louisa, his six-year-old Son, Horace, born at 11 Holywell Street in the City of London on 28th February 1845 “within the sound of Bow Bells” and thus always proud to call himself a Cockney-Florence, also born at the same address (and who afterwards married her cousin, R. Noble Acutt, Founder of the Firm of Reid & Acutt, Woolbrokers of Durban) and a second son, named Herbert, who did not long survive arrival in Durban.

On the 30th June, 1851, Robert and his family embarked on the “Borneo at Gravesend and set sail early the next morning with the ebb tide going down the Thames, for a Land of Promise, Natal 6,000 miles away. Following an eventful voyage of 87 days, the “Borneo”, after several attempts to “make” the Bay of Natal (outer anchorage) dropped anchor and lay there for three days, stormbound, with no sign of a boat coming out to them and the surf running high on the bar. The above and the following is extracted from Mrs. Louisa Acutt’s account of the voyage: -

“On the 27th September 1851, the storm abated, and the sea being fairly calm, the Captain decided to go ashore in his gig with four sailors to give in his papers and obtain some fresh provisions for those on board, and excited preparations to pack and land were made amongst those on board. Alas, an hour or so later, the Captain returned with only one sailor, the other three having been drowned when the gig capsized on the treacherous “Bar” the Captain and one lad being rescued by a boat’s crew from the “Cheshire Witch” anchored nearby.” This sad happening naturally upset everyone on board, who gave up all thought of landing for the present, but, at about p.m., a large sail boat came alongside, having been sent expressly for Robert and his family by William, with a letter begging them not to be deterred by the unfortunate accident of the morning, otherwise they might wait a long time for another favourable opportunity, so Robert made up his mind to take his chance and they were soon all ready and on board the sailing boat, herded below the deck and battened down below hatches. (Horace often describes the situation as “caught like rats in a trap”) The wind was against them and it took three hour to negotiate the treacherous “Bar” and to cover the    distance to the inner Bay landing place.

The Maximum depth of the water on the    “Bar” at that time was fifteen feet (and this  depth did not improve much for many years, but today the depth of was is about feet.) Thus there landed at Port Natal, Robert Acutt and his family to start a new life in a new land. They were carried on the backs of natives to the shore, where William welcomed them. Owing chiefly to the tragedy of the morning and the fact that there were two other ships besides the “Borneo” at the outer anchorage with immigrants aboard, a large crowd thronged the shore.

William got up a collection for the brave fellows who had risked their lives to save the Captain and sailor and was able to collect £17 plus £10 from the Captain.

William had build Robert a cottage close to his own near the Bayside in what came to be known as Acutt Street.”

Apparently there was a “Conveyance” to carry them to their future home, because Mrs. Louise Acutt goes on to relate:-

“We jolted alongside the sand and copswood and soon reached our pretty cottage, having been introduced to a few on the way. Our walls are prettily papered, the floors are boarded in the three principal rooms, the four smaller ones at the wing are sanded and in the rough. There is a lot of space for a garden with the flowers growing naturally, and a stable beyond, where the horse is kept.”

Picture Acutt Street in those days with the Bay Foreshore coming up beyond where Chelsea Court and Kings Mansions are now, and compare it with to-day’s skyline. Pictures also the tiny barque of 400 or 500 tons taking three months for the voyage from London to Durban and compare the present day luxury of Union-Castle Liners of about 30,000 tons burden, taking only 17 days for the same voyage, or Constellations taking but 26 hours from London to Johannesburg by air!! One must surely take off one’s hat, metaphorically speaking, to those early Pioneers who risked their lives and their all to lay the foundation of the prosperous City of Durban.

When Robert Acutt landed at Port Natal, the population consisted of a few hundred souls and the buildings of a few shacks. He “cruised around” for a while, not knowing what business to undertake.

G.C. Cato, who later became Durban’s first Mayor, was already “general cook and bottle washer” of the settlement as far as business was concerned. His place of trade was located at the corner of Stanger and Smith Streets on Erven 10 and 11 Block M, which Kitchener Street bisects at the present time. There he carried on business as guide, philosopher and friend to everybody, particularly newcomers. He was Lloyds Agent, Auctioneer, Wholesale and Retail Merchant, Surveyor and whatnot. His “place” was the centre of civilisation, so far as Durban was concerned. Apparently he had begun to find his various vocations too much for him as the population increased, because in 1850, he had sold his Retail Merchant’s business to Middleton & Co., later to become Middleton, Wirsing and Acutt (William) and in or about November 1851, he sold his Auctioneering business to Robert Acutt for the sum of £100, payable as to £50in cash and the balance of £50 in a Bill at six months, which was no doubt duly honoured

Thus there was born Pioneer Durban Firm.

Draft Agreement of Sale and Purchase between G. C. Cato and ROBERT ACUTT, believed to be in G.C. Cato’s handwriting.

In November 1851, therefore, we find Robert Acutt (after having purchased the business) installed at the corner of Smith and Stanger Streets as G.C. Cato’s “Clerk” to the Auctioneering side of Cato’s business. (to enable Robert to get the hang of the thing) and finally assuming complete control of the business as from the 1st January, 1852.

1852 History, as far as the Writer knows, does not relate exactly when Robert built and occupied his Auction Mart in Gardiner Street. Suffice it to say that in 1852 F. W. Reid (a brother of George Reid, who became R. Noble Acutt’s Partner in Potchefstroom and Durban carrying on business as Reid and Acutt) painted the original water colour of Gardiner Street, or Market square as it then was, depicting the only double-storeyed building at that the in Durban at the corner of Smith and Gardiner Streets, then occupied and owned by Middleton, Wirsing and Acutt. Next to that in the painting is Agar’s Wine and Spirit Shop, the comes Robert Acutts Auction Mart, then Potter the Saddler’s Premises. The picture shews Robert Acutt standing on a packing case in the street selling merchandise by Public Auction. This Original painting is also in Mr. Ken Acutt’s collection. Robert Acutt continued to carry on his business in the same premises until 1860. By then the Town has increased in size and population and Robert

Acutt’s business had progressed to such an extent as to warrant the erection of a new twin-towered Auction Mart with large turret clock in the Centre. This then served as the Town’s correct timepiece, and continued so until about 1880 when the Town Hall (now the Post Office) was built. This Acutt’s Auction Mart was a landmark for many years and remained as such until 1986. Then it was converted into a double-storeyed Arcade of Offices and the Firm discontinued the sales of Merchandise, but continued as Land Auctioneers, Real Estate Agents, etc.

To go back to the early days, however; on the 15th May, 1854, Durban was gazetted as a “Borough”, the Town having a population on 1,204 white persons. Half of these were children, but the Town duly qualified with the necessary 1,000 souls to become a Borough. Today, the population of the City is over 400,000 all told. In 1855 the Freehold value of Reteable Properties was £10,286 – today it is about £90,000,000!

On the 23rd June, 1855, Robert Acutt the first Sale by Public Auction of Sugar grown and manufactured in Natal. The Sale was held on the Market Square in front of Robert’s Auction Mart and his services were given free of charge – Thus was launched Natal’s premier Industry – SUGAR. This outstanding event was depicted in the Illustrated London News of 16th February, 1856, an original copy of which is also in Mr. Ken Acutt’s collection.

The Following is culled from Russell’s “History of Old Durban”: -

“Later Robert Acutt’s Auction Mart had been removed to a temporary site in West Street, pending the enlargement of his premises and erection of a more pretentious Mart on the Market Square. Business was resumed there at the commencement of 1860 and for some 36+ years the inhabitants of Durban regarded as a landmark the somewhat Toy-Box order of architecture that constituted the building. The frontage consisted of two double-storeyed square towered connected by a triangular cornice, in the centre of which was a large clock with a flagstaff overhead. A recess underneath formed a deep porch to the main building, which was entered by three arched doorways, and through these both town and country , their wives and families, natives and Indians mingled and crowded by day, and even by night, when there was ‘anything on’. This old Durban building became historical, being intimately associated with the acts of the burgesses, their good and bad deals, their market-day gatherings, merry jests and friendly intercourse, despite at times the stifling heat and malodorous surroundings.

Commercial expediency and the obliterating hand if progress has demolished the old Mart, and left but a name behind. I therefore feel comforted in recording from the Mercury:-

“A Quadrille Party was given by Mr. And Mrs. R. Acutt in the new premises in the Market Square on Friday evening (6th January). The Company comprised all the elite of Durban and the neighbourhood, and the arrangements were of the most complete description. The music, by Messrs. Haygarth and Taylor, was unusually excellent, and inspired terpsichorean achievements until a late hour. There has seldom been a reunion in this town which accorded so much pleasure to all who had the felicity of being present. Mr Acutt’s new hall is a splendid apartment, equally well adapted for social festivities as for business requirements.”

Not long after Robert’s New Auction Mart had been completed, it was used for the entertainment of Royalty, with a Grand Ball in honour of the visit of H.R.H. Prince Alfred, who rode from Maritzburg to Durban on the 5th September, 1860, was then received, entertained and dined, and finally attended the Ball in Robert’s New Auction Mart and danced a quadrille with the Mayoress, Mrs. McArthur (who became the most envied woman in town and country) all in one day. At least one of the walls of this very solidly built structure exists to this day, and still forms part of the present eleven-storeyed edifice of “Acutt’s Arcade”. The old building was finally demolished in 1936 and made way for the present eleven-storeyed building under different ownership, after the Acutt’s had owned and occupied the site for 84 years. They were, however, to return to the building as tenants on completion of the present edifice where they remained until 1943. Then, due to further expansion of the business and the necessity of much larger accommodation, they purchased their present commodious premises in Mercury Lane, which had been the Natal Mercury Property for many years; so that the Firm occupied the original site in Gardiner Street for a total of 93 years, except when rebuilding operations were being carried out.

Again to quote Russell: - “ In October 1860, ‘Kahts Corner’ at the corner if West and Gardiner Streets, having a frontage of 50 feet to West Street and with a depth of 75 feet to Gardiner Street, was sold for the large sum of £700 or at the extraordinary rate of £4,000per acre.” Russell goes on to state: - “That piece of ground is today (1899) rated by the Corporation as worth than £7,000, but, as a financial agent, I doubt if £10,000 would purchase it.” That Property is what is at present known as “Trust Buildings” Situated at the Corner if West and Gardiner Streets. The next time this property changed hands was in March 1937 (77 years later) when Messrs R. Acutt & Sons sold it for £75,000 to Johannesburg interests, who erected the present twelve-storeyed Building thereon. This figure works out at £871,200 per acre or £20 per square foot. The writer would also like to comment, as George Russell did, in the present-day value of the property and would venture the opinion that the value of the site at this time (excluding the value of the building) would be well over £1,000,000 per acre!

When Robert Acutt arrived in Natal, his son, Horace, was then six years old. In due course he followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Firm, and on the 1st day of August, 1867 became a partner with his Father, under the style of ROBT. ACUTT & SON.

Ernest Leslie Acutt was the youngest of Robert Acutt’s children, and was born in Durban. He also was in later years admitted into partnership with his Father and elder Brother, Horace, under the style of ROBT. ACUTT AND & SONS.

Ernest Acutt was Mayor of Durban in the Years 1901 / 1902 and during that time he initiated several public projects which today stand as a monument to his vision. The first year of his Mayoralty coincided with the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (later to become the King George V and Queen V and Queen Mary)

And it was on the last day of his Mayoralty in 1902, that King Edward the Seventh’s Coronation took place. He was awarded the C.M.G. for his various public services when serving his Mayoralty of Durban during the Boer War.

He was responsible for the building of the Present Town Hall and the sale of the old Town Hall (Present Post Office) to the Government for £1000, 000. He was also responsible for the exchange of the Bay Foreshore Land, now represented by the Maydon Wharves, and the Foreshore rights to the Beach. This Exchange took place between the Municipality and the Natal Government of the day.

He Visualised, too, the head of the Bay development and although his foresight was not appreciated by the Power-that-be, all that he advocate in those far-off days has now been amply justified by the developments at present taking place at the Bayhead.

Robert Acutt retired from the Business in the late Eighties and died in Durban on 8th May, 1894, aged 80 years.

In or about the early Nineties, The late Alfred Green was also taken Into partnership, which subsisted until 1895, when Mr. Green left to seek “pastures new” in partnership with Mr. Richard Currie, in Johannesburg.

On Mr. Green’s departure, Horace and Ernest decided to give up General Auctioneering and Real Estate business;

This resulted in the closing down of the famous “Mart” Building and it’s conversion into an “arcade”, comprising two floors of offices, of which the Firm occupied a position.

1896 Frank Acutts joined the staff in or About 1900, and Ken Acutt, the present the senior Partner, joined the Staff in March 1902.

In 1907 Frank and Ken, sons of Horace, became partners in the business, which then styled itself R. Acutt & Sons, and in 1914 Horace William Bellville who had been on the Staff since 1894, was taken into partnership.

In 1923 Frank Acutt retired from the fir, and took up

Public life, first as a City councillor then as a Provincial councillor and finally as a Member of Parliament, in fact, on winning his first Parliamentary election, he was momentarily a member of all three Assemblies!

In 1924, Mr W. W. Brady was taken into Partnership, but left again i 1928 to branch out on his own.

Frank H. Acutt 1900–1923

On 9th April, 1927, Ernest Leslie Acutt Died, his elder Brother, Horace Acutt, having    predeceased him on 15th march, 1927.

In 1938 four members of the Staff were admitted into Partnership, namely Allan Emanuel, Maurice William Burgees, Robert William Barrington Acutt (Barry) and John Kenelm Acutt (Jack), the former of the last two mentioned being frank’s eldest son and the latter being the only son of Ken.

Frank Acutt’s second Son, Denis, is also a member of the Staff at the present time.

It is here sadly necessary to mention that Maurice William Burgees paid the Supreme Sacrifice at Derna in 1942 : a valued colleague was thus lost and a promising career was cut short.

The firm continued to occupy the old Acutt’s arcade Building until 1937, but in 1935 the Family had sold the Property to Johannesburg interests, and the buildings were soon afterwards demolished, with the exception of the one Party wall aforementioned.

The firm had then been conducting business on the same spot for 84 years. The wisdom of selling “the old home” after such a long association, may be questioned, but the real reason was that the old buildings were by then completely outdated ad due for condemnation, and the fortunes of the Acutt’s such as they were, did not warrant the expense of erecting new buildings commensurate with the value of the site, sop the task had to devolve upon others : but a lease for 25 years was taken of a certain portion of the new premises for the Firm, and temporary vacation of the Property had to be made during building operations. The firm returned to its old home again in 1938 and stayed there until the end of 1943, when the necessity for “room for expansion” became acutely evident, with the result that the old “Natal Mercury” premises in Mercury Lane were purchased,

Re-modelled and re-conditioned. These premises are so substantial and commodious that even without additions there should be plenty of room for further expansion for another century.

It is interesting here to note that the Firm’s business was established in 1851 and that of the Natal Mercury in 1852, and they are thus two of the oldest Firms still carrying on business in Durban.

The Firm must have handled at some time in its history, in some form or other, almost every piece of property in Durban, and is justifiably pod of its long and honourable record of service extending over 100 years. At this point in its story, it is fitting to look back with pride upon those pioneers of Durban’s cradle days who are mentioned in this brief chronicle, to look anew upon our fair City of today, and to face its future with confidence and a resolve that we and our successors shall continue to the best of our ability to keep bright those ideals so firmly set before us and maintained over a century of progress.                                                                    

Author: Acutts Centenary Brochure (dated 1951)

Submitted 28 Oct 16 / Views 3163