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James Coutts

Entrepreneur & Town Councillor

Keith Tankard
Knowledge4Africa.com
Updated: 14 October 2009
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DEATH NOTICE: see Cape Archives, MOOC 6/9/260, No 1628.
OBITUARY: see the Daily Dispatch, 12.9.1888.

James Coutts was born in Montrose (Scotland) on 1 April 1832. He was educated in Aberdeen and then trained at a ship-building yard.

He emigrated to the Cape Colony to settle in East London sometime in the late 1850s or early 1860s, where he attempted to make a living as a ship-builder but failed. He then went into the commercial world as a general merchant, as well as a landing and forwarding agent.

He was also a wool presser, owning a large wool store in Cambridge Street. In addition, he served on the committee of the Kaffrarian Steam Landing and Shipping Company, and acted as chairman to that firm in 1876. He later became chairman of the Board of Directors.

He was also at one time chairman of the Board of the East London Landing and Shipping Company and of the Mutual Benefit Building Society.

In 1885 Coutts became a Justice of the Peace for East London.

Coutts's era at East London was at a time when the town was entering a period of dramatic change. The original town was on the West Bank of the Buffalo River but in 1873, with the construction of a railway line to Queenstown, the commercial heart of the port was moving across the river to Panmure where the train terminus had been built.

The early 1880s, on the other hand, was a time of a dramatic economic recession -- what contemporaries called the Great Depression -- where almost all development came to an abrupt halt. The economy would only begin to grow again after 1886, with the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand.

In April 1877 Coutts was elected to the Town Council unopposed for Ward 1 (West Bank) but participated in the walkout of June that year as a protest against the municipal offices being moved from the West Bank to the East Bank, making it more difficult for Westbankers to attend meetings as they had to cross the Buffalo River after dark by means of a pontoon. He did not stand for re-election.

He re-entered local politics in June 1878 and thereafter served spells in the Council as a representative of Wards 1, 2 and 3.

Coutts died on 9 September 1888, at the age of 56, after a sudden illness while still a member of the Council. He was buried at East London.

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