1820 British Settler William Cock, after whom we are named, lived here towards the end of his highly eventful life. He died here in 1876 and was buried at Port Alfred, the place in which he made - and lost - a considerable fortune. He become known as the man who changed the course of the Kowie River and, without his pioneering efforts in the mid 19th century, the construction of the modern day Port Alfred marina development would not have been possible.
Originally a printer from Penryn in Cornwall, Cock led a party of 91 British settlers on board the HM Weymouth, landing at Algoa Bay in May 1820. A keen businessman, he was soon actively engaged in Grahamstown in various projects. At one time he was contractor to the Government for supplying Mauritius and St Helena with salt beef, establishing a shipping line to carry the cargo.
He was in partnership with the Cape Town trading firm of Heideman, Hodgson & Co and established a branch in Grahamstown. When he retired from this business, he accepted as his share several farms at the mouth of the Kowie River. During a visit there in 1836, Cock records: "Whilst there I was lost to think it was much to be regretted that such a fine estuary so near to Grahamstown, and the finest county in the colony, was not made available for a port."
In 1839 he became involved in the development of Port Frances (renamed Port Alfred in 1860 during the visit of Queen Victoria's second son, Prince Alfred) which necessitated a great outlay of capital and immense personal labour. The first ship sailed up the new channel in March 1841, after which the port was regularly used by schooners plying between coastal ports.
Having been nominated by the Governor, Sir Henry Pottinger, as an M.L.C (Member of the Legislative Council) in 1847, the Hon William Cock and fellow M.L.C Robert Godlonton, succeeded in getting a Bill passed for further development of the harbour. The Kowie Harbour Improvement Company was established and, of the £50,000 budget required (about R60 million in today’s money!), half had to be raised privately.
As the company's founder and chairman, and only resident director, Cock toiled for years, cutting, dredging and paving the channel, constructing breakwaters, building wharves and warehouses. All this was done with only manual and animal labour, steam-power not yet being available. Larger ships now put in frequently, the port having been declared open to vessels from every part of the world in 1855. For nearly 30 years Port Alfred was a thriving harbour but sadly Cock's enterprise came to naught when the government eventually abandoned his scheme in 1880.
William Cock was married for 64 years to Elizabeth Toy and had eleven children. He built his family a home, Richmond House, on the heights of the west bank, commanding a wonderful view of the river and its activities. The house was designed by his eldest son, William Frederick, not only as a residence but also to withstand siege during the Frontier wars. Its flat roof, specially strengthened to mount small cannon and fortified with battlements, led to the house becoming known as ‘Cock’s Castle’.
William Cock’s eldest grand daughter, Letitia Harriet Elizabeth Cock, at the tender age of 8, took centre stage at the renaming ceremony of Port Alfred in 1860. Here is her own account, in this extract from “Reminiscences of Richmond Villa”
"Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, landed at Port Elizabeth on 6th August, 1860. He was a Cadet and it was his birthday, and he was to come to Port Frances to change the name to Port Alfred. He came as far as Grahamstown and wanted to shoot an elephant but Capt. Talton and Sir George Grey, the Governor, said he couldn't do both things - he couldn't go to Port Frances and christen it and also shoot an elephant and reach his ship in time - the "Euripides" (or "Eurius") - so Capt. Talton, Sir George Grey and staff and all the notable people belonging to the Government came to Port Frances as the guests of my grandfather. My grandmother was lying dangerously ill at the time and so she was unable to do the christening. I was the only other female by the name of Cock and so I had to christen Port Alfred. I remember two piles being driven into the river before the work commenced. Someone broke a bottle of champagne and I had to say "Port Alfred". All the staff stayed at the Castle, they had dinner there and slept there that night and next morning at breakfast they sent for me to say good-bye".
Given Grahamstown’s prominence today as the home of the National Arts Festival, it is fitting to note that the celebrated South African conductor, Richard Cock, is a direct descendant of William Cock. He often pops in to see how his namesake ‘inheritance’ is getting along!