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Percy Potter

East London's Location Superintendent

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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Between 1890 and 1923, the East London Town Council tended to regard its townships for the Black community -- what it called "locations" -- as somewhat of an evil necessity.

On the one hand, they provided the much needed labour for the port and town. On the other, little money was ever spent on them and wherever possible the cost of administration had to be balanced by the money collected by way of hut-tax and various other rentals.

Nevertheless, despite the racial prejudice which existed among several of the councillors, there was a marked degree of paternalism in that sphere and great pride was initially taken in the fact that the locations were kept hygienic and well organised.

The Council was seen to have a "duty" towards its "Native dependents", as the Medical Officer of Health commented in 1896, but it was also a matter of simple expediency because a major epidemic within the locations could have had a serious effect on the White community as well.

Superintendent Percy Potter was particularly scrupulous about the maintenance of sanitary measures and saw to it that five latrines, with a total of 34 seats, were constructed in the East Bank Location and a further two on the West Bank.

All were scrubbed twice a week by contractor, he reported, the streets were kept clean and all rubbish was deposited in bins placed "in convenient situations".

Yet, despite his fastidiousness in maintaining sanitary standards, Potter proved extremely unpopular among the location residents themselves because of his high-handed and vindictive approach.

Potter ruled "with a rod of iron", Reverend Walter Rubusana wrote to a churchman friend, and he dealt with the Black community "in an arbitrary manner".

Open conflict erupted between the two men during the latter half of 1896 when Potter ordered the destruction of a number of kitchens in the East Bank Location.

Although they had been built with Council permission, the Inspector believed that some infringed municipal regulations because they were used as places in which to sleep and were therefore unhygienic. Instead of enforcing the regulation on the offending parties, Potter insisted that all the kitchens be pulled down.

Rubusana, on the other hand, claimed that the Inspector had deliberately kept the Council misinformed as to the number and quality of the structures.

According to Rubusana, there were 17 kitchens in the East Bank Location, 15 of which were detached from the main huts, one was built on a separate building lot and one was constructed in such a way as to be "merely touching" the main building.

Potter, on the other hand, informed the Council that there were only 12 kitchens in existence.

In a lengthy letter to the Mayor, Rubusana pointed out that the kitchens were a "great convenience" to the residents "from a domestic, moral & sanitary point of view".

On the other hand, Potter's insistence that the people demolish what they had put up "with his consent & with some cost to themselves" was viewed, Rubusana said, with alarm and apprehension "by those who know the natives well".

The action was further aggravated by the fact that Potter had given no just cause "for his extraordinary turn of mind".

Indeed, the Superintendent had gone even further by singling out "as fit objects for his persecution" those people who had failed to pull down their kitchens and for four consecutive months he had refused to accept their monthly rent when it was tendered, thereby making the residents liable for eviction.

He had also withdrawn other privileges, such as granting them permits to chop wood on the commonage and the with-holding of lime-wash for their houses. Some of the people, Rubusana concluded, were "old respectable residents" who had not infringed any municipal bye-laws.

The Africans were a very conservative people, he wrote, "and should not be left to the whims & caprice of an officer who, whatever his other qualifications are, is utterly at sea in governing Natives on lines of justice & equity."

The Council hastily established a Location Committee to deal with the issue and it concluded that in future licences should be issued for the construction of kitchens but that, because Potter had already ordered some of the existing kitchens to be destroyed, it would be "unfair" to allow the others to remain.

As a matter of justice, therefore, all kitchens were pulled down.

Rubusana drafted a separate letter to Councillors George Blaine and John Stacey to thank them for their continual support in Council and in it he again attacked Potter.

The Location Inspector, he wrote, "is no gentleman & is harsh & drastic in all his dealings with the Natives. He is a vindictive man & is not above doing mean things. He is not truthful, & for that reason, he should be carefully watched by the Council."

Potter was soon hauled before the Council's Location Committee to explain his actions but retaliated by accusing Rubusana of being a liar.

Rubusana thereupon attempted to sue him for defamation of character but lost the case on a technicality, the Town Clerk stating that Potter's language was "not quite abusive".

It nevertheless had a deterring effect on the Superintendent's "summary dealing with the Natives", and he was eventually fired and Charles Lloyd appointed in his place.

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