Then & Now: Durban Post Office has a proud history

By Tanya Waterworth Time of article published Feb 21, 2020

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Durban - The Durban Post Office is a grand old building with a proud history, despite its current slightly unkempt appearance.

The building, which stands adjacent to City Hall, on the corner of Dr Pixley KaSeme and Dorothy Nyembe streets, was designed as Durban’s first Town Hall by one of the great young architects of the late 1800s, Philip Dudgeon.

Dudgeon was born just outside Dublin, Ireland, in 1852. His father, a solicitor, died soon after his birth, leaving Dudgeon’s mother, Mary Anne, with five young children.

History records that Mary Anne was keeping house in Bath, UK, in 1870 and, at the age 15, Dudgeon was apprenticed to the prestigious architect firm of Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon of Dublin and Belfast.

Sir Charles Lanyon and William Henry Lynn were regarded as two of Ireland’s greatest architects and would no doubt have played a major role in moulding Dudgeon’s talent.

A picture taken in 1894 when the Durban Post Office was still the Town Hall

At the end of 1875, he left Ireland behind and travelled for a year, before arriving in Port Elizabeth and then moving up to Natal in 1877, where records indicate he worked in the office of RS Upton and was involved in the design of Addington Hospital.

Still only in his twenties, Dudgeon quickly gained a reputation for being a first-class architect, known as “the best trained in the colony on his arrival”.

Designed by Dudgeon in 1882, the Durban Post Office was completed in 1885 at a cost of £50000, with the foundation stone being laid in 1883.

It has been described as “a noble classic building of Corinthian style, of which all South Africa may be proud.

Its clock tower stands 50m tall, while the building, which is an irregular square, with porticoes on the west and south, measures 62.8m by 51.82m.

It was the first meeting place of the South African National Convention which took place in a hall to the left of the building in 1908, and which was held to frame a draft constitution for a united South Africa.

It was also on the steps of the building in 1899 that Winston Churchill, who had escaped from Pretoria, delivered a speech “to the excited citizens of Durban”.

It served as the town hall until 1910 when the new City Hall across the road came into use.

It was declared a national monument in 1976.

Dudgeon carried out a number of works for the Natal government of the time, as well as some major buildings, including the Standard Bank building (1881-1882) and Clark House for Maritzburg College (1886-1888) in Pietermaritzburg.

He also did work for some of Durban’s most prominent families including the Shepstones and Harry Escombe’s residence on Beach Grove, which design has been described as “superb”.

Dudgeon stayed in Natal for 10 years where he was popular on the social circuit and known to be fond of the racetrack.

In 1887 he returned to England and settled in Bath where he married Ada Gunning.

But his marital bliss was short-lived as he died a year-and-a-half later in January 1891 “from alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver”.

References: Marilyn Martin, Wits University.

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