Soldier, Businessman, Town Councillor & Mayor
Updated: 14 October 2009
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John Gately was born in Roscommon (Ireland) in 1829 and came to the Cape Colony as a soldier of the 60th Rifles in 1851.
After he had been discharged from the army in 1857, he took up residence in King William's Town and then moved to East London in about 1862 where he initially chose to live on the West Bank.
He became an agent for several companies, including Cawoods of Cape Town, Whitcher and Dyer and the Union Shipping Company. He also established himself independently as a shipping agent and served at various times as an auctioneer. In 1875 he became Managing Director of the East London Landing and Shipping Company.
He served as Justice of the Peace for the East London Division and was on the Board of Directors of the East London Landing and Shipping Company from 1873 to 1875, sometimes acting as chairman of the Board. In December 1893 he became a member of the first Harbour Board.
Soon after he had settled at East London, Gately began campaigning for the creation of better community conditions. Initially that took the form of petitioning the Resident Magistrate who governed the town for a cleaning up of the local water supply but in December 1872 he took up the fight for the establishment of a municipality.
In January 1873 he was elected chairman of a committee to draft the municipal regulations and in May he was voted on to the first Municipal Board to represent the West Bank. The Chairman of the Board, Major William Lee, resigned three weeks after the election, probably because he did not own immovable property within the municipality and was therefore ineligible for the position.
Gately became Acting-Chairman until August 1873 when he was formally voted to the chair. Because of the technicality over Major Lee's qualifications, Gately was arguably the first legal Chairman of the Municipal Board.
He remained Chairman for the full duration of the first Triennial Council but, because of business commitments, did not stand for re-election to the second Council in February 1877.
It was probably due to the shambles that occurred in the Council during that year, with the East Bank attempting to foster its own interests and the West Bank striving to gain municipal independence, that Gately re-entered municipal politics.
He used the resignation of William Fuller to win the seat for Ward 2 in December 1877 and Gustav Wetzlar, the Acting-Chairman, immediately stepped down so that Gately could take the chair. He was re-elected Chairman in February 1878 and again in February 1879 but resigned his seat in May that year.
Gately's second absence from the Council was once again of short duration. In February 1880, during the elections for the third Triennial Council, he was nominated for both wards and was elected to serve Ward 2.
He was re-elected in February 1881, 1883 and 1886 but in June that year he found it expedient to resign his seat so as to change wards and in August returned to the Council as a member for Ward 3.
He remained in the Council without any further break until February 1899 when he had to retire on rotation and decided that he was too old to continue. He had served the municipality for almost 26 years.
Apart from being Chairman of the Triennial Councils from 1873 to 1877 and again in 1878 and 1879, Gately served three terms as Mayor.
His first election was brief. He took over from Richard Walker in December 1881 and was then elected in 1882 and again in 1887.
Gately also had the distinction of becoming East London's first Deputy Mayor when the office was created in April 1897 and served in that capacity until his retirement from the Council in February 1899.
Because of his unstinted involvement in public affairs, Gately came to be seen as the virtual head of the small community and by March 1881 was already referred to as "Father of East London". He was often known simply as "Father Gately".
He lived publicly as a staunch Catholic and, until a church was built in East London, mass was celebrated in his house every quarter, otherwise he travelled all the way to King William's Town each Sunday.
He refused to attend the services of other religions, even in his official capacity, nor would he attend public dinners on Fridays because of the Catholic Church's prohibition on eating meat on that day. There was no fun, he said, in looking on while others feasted. He was also a total abstainer from alcohol for some 50 years, after an incident during his military days.
He died on 5 August 1902 at the age of 73, and was buried at East London. Gately Street as well as the industrial suburb of Gately on the West Bank was named after him.
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