Port Elizabeth of Yore: Water, water, everywhere but……..

The Children's Pool and Shark River

In the annuals of history, one of the key criteria for the establishment of a town was a ready water supply. What this meant in reality was that towns were located on a perennial river with a persistent strong flow. Not so Port Elizabeth. This problem was to bedevil its development over the years. 

Where did Port Elizabeth obtain its water supply from, especially in the early years? 

Main picture: On this puny stream, grandiloquently called Shark River, that supplied Port Elizabeth with its first piped water

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Great Gale of 1902

Effect of the gale

Port Elizabeth is renowned for its shipwrecks. The most calamitous ones were as a consequence of south-easterly gales in Algoa Bay. They are a poignant reminder that in the face of on-shore winds, sailing vessels in the roadstead and at the mercy of the elements, frequently lost their anchors and were driven ashore. An additional problem was that some ships were in poor condition with rusted cables and other defects. 

The most disastrous gale in South African maritime history was the gale of 1902 resulting in the destruction of 18 vessels and the loss of 60 lives. 

Main picture: On the morning of 2nd September 1902, North End beach was strewn with ships

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: What Happened to the Baakens Lagoon?

Baakens River looking up from the mouth in 1860

Like many of the rivers in the Eastern Cape, the Baakens River also originally possessed an impressive lagoon. Old photographs and painting show it being used for leisure activities such as boating. 

What eventually happened to this splendid lagoon? 

Main picture: Baaken’s River looking up from the mouth in 1860 with Fort Frederick atop of the ridge

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Settler ship “The Chapman”


Whereas the Aussies refer to the Chapman as the Convict vessel, South Africans refer to her as the Settler ship, one for confinement and the other for release. 

This is fascinating history of the 70 years service of colonialism of this renowned ship and some of its crew. Apart from trading and conveyance operations, it was also fitted out with guns for two periods of its life and was engaged in naval warfare. 

Main picture: A Model of the Chapman

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Second Great Trek

Piet Retief Monument in Summerstrand

From the Afrikaner only representing 3.9% of the white population in Port Elizabeth in 1904, the great influx of Afrikaners from the rural areas in the early part of the 20th century resulted in their share of the white population increasing to 29.2% in 1936 and 44% by 1970.   

Over 70 years, Port Elizabeth was transformed from an English town into a South African town. 

Main picture: Piet Retief Monument in Summerstrand

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Town in its Fifties (Circa 1860/70)

The North Jetty

Unlike humans, turning fifty did not imply that Port Elizabeth was approaching middle age. Instead, it was still an age of exuberant growth and limitless possibilities, as it was now the largest port in South Africa, volume-wise. It would take another century for old age, tepid growth and decline to set in. 

This description of Port Elizabeth in its teenager years is fascinating and is taken from a thin unnamed booklet entitled “between 1860 and 1870.” 

Main picture: The North Jetty

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Cecil Rhodes and the Countess of Carnarvon

The Countess of Carnarvon, probably painted in Genoa after her completion

The Countess of Carnarvon possessed neither pretensions of royalty nor naval majesty. Instead, it was a small screw steamer of 100 tons, which operated in Algoa Bay. In his inimitable way of paying scant regard to treaties and morality, Cecil John Rhodes conjured up a masterstroke to acquire land illegally on the Pungwe River in Gazaland, Portuguese East Africa using this nondescript vessel as a gunrunner. 

If this scheme was illegal and immoral, Cecil John Rhodes did not understand the basis of what was unlawful. Would this outrageous scheme finally blot his copybook? 

Main picture: The Countess of Carnarvon, probably painted in Genoa after her completion

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: A Town at War during World War II

Cape Recife WWII Forward Observation Post

Maybe the battlefields were thousands of kilometres distance, yet far-off Port Elizabeth was affected in numerous ways from the mundane to the deadly. Apart from the direct effect on the town, numerous of its citizens, such as my father and many of my uncles, volunteered for active service.   

The focus of this blog is on Port Elizabeth itself, both as regards military establishments, training and enemy actions. 

Main picture: The Fortress Observation Post at Seahill, Cape Recife

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