Port Elizabeth of Yore : Volume 1 – Defying the Odds

As Port Elizabeth approaches its bicentenary in April 2020, this event has to be celebrated for not only was it the birth of a new town, but it was also home to many of our ancestors. This four-volume set of books records those birth pangs and well as the people and events which over the next 150 years made Port Elizabeth what it is today.

Volume 1 entitled Defying the Odds will be released later this year with the other three volumes following at six-month intervals.

Comments on the back cover

Initially Port Elizabeth was only earmarked as a landing place for the British settlers and not as their destination. Yet in the thirty-year period from 1820 to 1850, contrary to expectations it experienced a tremendous growth spurt. So prodigious in fact was its expansion that it even overtook Cape Town in terms of the volume of exports.

This is the story of the people and events that form the basis of this incredible journey.

This book forms part of a four-volume series which takes the reader on the fascinating odyssey from the original inhabitants – the Khoi – through the town’s development into an entrepôt, wool processor and exporter to its pinnacle as the Detroit of South Africa.

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Moorings instead of a Harbour

As Jon Inggs acknowledges in his enlightening thesis on the development of the harbour until 1870, “Nothing was done to improve landing facilities at Algoa Bay before 1820 apart from setting up a flagpost on the landing beach with the dual role of marker and signal as to whether it was safe to land or not”.

What would be done, if anything, over the first decade from 1820 to 1830 in order to improve matters for shipping in Algoa Bay?

Main picture: Port Elizabeth from the shipping in 1850 by HWHC Piers [NMM Art Museum]

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The 1905 Grandiose Harbour Scheme That Never Was

At the turn of the 20th century, Port Elizabeth still did not possess a harbour. For fifty years no progress had been made in spite of a barrage  of requests. In 1905 the Cape Government submitted three proposals to a commission of engineers in London to adjudicate them.

The commission recommended the submission by Coode, Son and Matthew but would this proposal be the plan to eventually be executed?

Main picture: Proposed new dock at Port Elizabeth with the outer wharf at North End

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: When the Swartkops River almost became a Port

Far be it for me to impugn the motives of the Port Elizabeth Harbour Board for requesting an eminent harbour engineer,  Mr. C.W. Methven, to report on the practicability of building a harbour at the mouth of the Swartkops River. Accordingly I will not speculate as to their rationale but rather assume that the issue regarding silting would forever bedevil the construction of a breakwater at or in close proximity to the existing jetties and landing beaches.

Main picture: 1862 map of the Swartkops River

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Construction of the Breakwater

Despite a breakwater being a critical component of  a harbour, Port Elizabeth was deprived of one until the 1920s. That consigned the unloading of the ships to be performed in the roadstead, an archaic practice, long since abandoned by other ports.

The initial attempt at building a breakwater in 1856 was disastrous as it became unusable due to silting after the flood in 1867. It would be fifty years before another attempt would be made to construct the breakwater.

Main picture: Breakwater with the Charl Malan Quay still under construction

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Effect of Spanish Flu

In the midst of the Coronavirus epidemic ravaging the world, South Africa will have to brace itself for a tsunami of dead bodies. Given crowding in the townships and on the public transport, social distancing is impractical. The last time that South Africa experienced such a pandemic was in 1918 which resulted in at least an estimated 500 000 deaths.

How did this pandemic affect Port Elizabeth? And what lessons can be learnt?

Main picture: Mouth of the Shark River in Humewood with Lazaretto Contagious Diseases Hospital

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The Rice Video – Carbon Dioxide in Perspective: Is There a Grain of Truth in What Roberts Has to Say?

When I was directed by an email link to this video (https://www.youtube.com/embed/BC1l4geSTP8) I thought I had been sneakily misdirected to a televangelist’s video – he looked just like your common or garden mercenary TV pastor/charlatan.

I must admit that I did not get past the first minute of his presentation when his earnest piercing eyes forced me to shut him down before I did the coyote trick and chewed my arm off.  So, this will not be a comprehensive refutation of his claims but I got enough of his drift and arguments early on and I did not wish to waste my life any further than I had to.  It’s all been said before.

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The economic effect of Covid-19

If one doubts the terrible economic consequences of the disease, then these Nasa photos will jolt you out of your complacency.  They show the amount of Nitrogen Oxide in the atmosphere which is primary due to the usage of motor cars but also any industrial process that burns fuels at high temperatures.

The first photo overs a period in January before lockdown – voluntary as well as involuntary – and the second covers the period after it has taken effect.

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The OK Bazaars in Main Street

Amongst the many iconic buildings in Main Street during the mid-1980s was this building. Originally built in 1937, it underwent a major upgrade in the 1950s and a minor one in the 1960s.

Main picture: OK Bazaars building in 1938

Original building

The original building, designed by Jones and McWilliams in the Art Deco style, was constructed in 1936/7. The iconic Lombard Chambers, designed by my great great grandfather on the distaff side of the family, George Dix-Peek, was built in 1879. This building was demolished to make way for the OK Bazaars.

The Lombard Chambers

The OK Bazaars building was one of very few to have used glazed ceramic tiles as a decorative finish, an element that was used for decoration a great deal in Art Deco buildings especially in Britain.

OK Bazaars in the late 1940s before the last tram ran in 1948

Major Extension

The 2 storey Aegis Assurance and Trust building was originally sandwiched between the Lombard Chambers and the Mutual Arcade (original building date unknown). It had a 3rd storey added in 1923.  This building was demolished in 1956 when OK was extended north up Main Street. The contract for this extension was awarded to one of the top building contractors of that era, JJ, Ruddy & Sons, who appointed my father, Harry Clifford McCleland, as site foreman

Further modifications

During the 1960s, some modifiations were made to this building. The first-floor restaurant over the canopy was removed and the fins, which were taller and had flagpoles attached to the top, were shortened and the capping slab added.



Port Elizabeth of Yore: Sinking of the Japanese freighter ‘Paris Maru’

On the 13th January 1934, the Japanese freighter ‘Paris Maru’ of 7,197 tons bound for Cape Town struck Roman Rock which is situated at the bell buoy off Summerstrand after leaving port. Badly holed, she made a dash for port and unfortunately she did not make it. The vessel sank just outside the Port Elizabeth harbour entrance. The wreck became a hazard for shipping and had to be blown up.

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