Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Discovery of the Sacramento

Of all the ships which were wrecked along the Port Elizabeth and adjacent coastline, only two were noteworthy but for different reasons. Of the two, the saga of the Sacramento’s sinking on 30 June 1647 culminated in two stirring tales. One involved the dramatic 1400km trek by the survivors to the Portuguese Port at Delagoa Bay. The second and equally dramatic tale is that of the subsequent discovery and recovery of the numerous cannons by a local diver, David Allen.

Both make for compelling stories but as this is a potted history of Port Elizabeth, the focus will be fixed on the latter escapade.

Main picture: David Allen-left-with Gerry van Niekerk making notes of the most perfectly presevered of the 40 guns lifted from the wreck site.

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Ushering in Electricity and Lighting

The lack of street lighting in the pre-electricity era must have made walking outdoors at night particularly dangerous. If nothing else, this factor must have induced the Town Council to expedite the installation of street lighting as the technology enabled this feature. Furthermore commerce and industry required electricity to operate all manner of equipment, apparatuses and appliances which the use of electrical power enabled.

To do so, Port Elizabeth would ultimately require its own generating equipment which in turn would require it to import coal.

To say that the introduction of electricity would fundamentally change society was a gross understatement. It would transform society in ways which were unthinkable previously. Apart from facilitating nocturnal social intercourse, it would also facilitate the introduction of shift work in industry.

Main picture: Installing overhead electricity cables

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The First Tarred Roads

The renowned economist John Maynard Keynes once famously exclaimed that “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones”. Whilst that might have been true in most instances, it is doubtful whether anybody except the most curmudgeonly would have objected to this innovation. But who knows? Progress always has its naysayers. Perhaps others ignored it as being fatuous!

Main picture: Steam roller on the opening of Albany Road. The prominent building on the hill is the Erica School for Girls, designed by architect William White Cooper and opened on 4 November 1903.

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Korsten – A Subtext for Freedom

Human nature seeks freedom and the best for themselves and their children. It is an innate urge. By now the dismal track record of politically motivated false choices should have been exposed as a chimera. So it was for Korsten. Instead of readily agreeing to their being relocated to the new “model township” of New Brighton, the black residents of the inner-city locations defied the authorities and moved to an unserviced area outside the municipal boundaries called Korsten.

Thus Korsten’s roots are nourished by the natural human desire for freedom.

Main picture: Elkana Street, a respectable area in Korsten where children play happily in the street

Enter left – Frederick Korsten

The earliest recorded occupation of the land, now known as Korsten and the surrounding suburbs was by Frederick Korsten, a Dutch Settler who acquired the land known as Papenkuilsfontein between Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage and renamed it Cradock Place in 1812, after his friend, Governor Sir John Cradock. The initial reason for the establishment of this enterprise was to supply salted beef to British troops stationed on Mauritius. From this Korsten diversified into whaling and he also set up a trading station. Subsequent to the arrival of the Settlers, Korsten retired to Cape Town but returned in 1836 to live there until his death in 1839.


The property was divided into 236 plots and sold off on the condition that the name of Korsten be retained. The current spatial layout of Korsten is still largely based on these plots. The current structures of Cradock Place are ruins in the open veld alongside the Uitenhage Road. The Cradock Place farm would have covered areas now known as Korsten and Young Park and Algoa Park.

Korsten initially consisted of privately-owned land to the north of Port Elizabeth, which had been laid out as a potential village from 1853, once the farm of Cradock Place had been divided into plots. Initially it was not a success given that the local black population were housed in locations close to the inner city. The first location to be established was Stranger’s Location at the top of Russell Road. At a later stage, Gubb’s Location was established in Mill Park and Cooper’s Kloof served as an overflow facility of Stranger’s Location.

Demolishing slum dwelling in Korsten in 1903

In 1883 the Town Council passed the Native Stranger’s Location Act, with the intention of removing those living in this area to the more remote ‘Reservoir Location’. This move faced resistance and was never enforced, but it did set the scene for deliberate, planned, race-based developments that would culminate in the growth of Korsten and the establishment of New Brighton, Port Elizabeth’s first formal Black township.

A significant event in the segregation of Port Elizabeth was the outbreak of Bubonic Plague at the turn of the 20th century. This resulted in the demolition of the inner city ‘locations’ and the forced removal of inhabitants to the perimeter of the city, the reason being concerns about sanitation. This disease gave impetus for the removal of the residents of these locations to New Brighton and the demolition of the informal structures upon them.

The history of Korsten and New Brighton are intertwined because both arose, New Brighton formally and Korsten informally, due to the closure of the inner-city Locations. At its root was the Native Reserve Locations Act of 1902 (largely a re-enactment of the 1883 Native Stranger’s Location Act), ‘an experiment in social control which, it was hoped, would help solve the problem of regulating African labour in urban centres’. Essentially, Korsten and New Brighton were both intended as dormitory areas on the outskirts of the town from which labour could be drawn. In their nature, however, they were quite different. There was very little growth there until 1901, when the removal of inner city ‘locations’  (including Stranger’s Location) was intensified. At this stage, those who were being removed essentially had two options: to be settled in the newly created New Brighton township or to go to Korsten. They ‘headed straight to Korsten, avoiding New Brighton at any cost’. Korsten was favoured because it was outside the town limits and the authority of Port Elizabeth and, although colonial law was applicable, it was practically unenforceable. There were also increased business opportunities and opportunities for land ownership. This resistance by Black families to being resettled in the model township of New Brighton endured until the 1930s.

Being a township established in terms of the ‘new model township’ principal, the layout of New Brighton reflects a formal grid of streets whereas Korsten Village, as it was called, displays a more varied structure. The village is divided into three distinct parts. The first, the northern section, centred on the development of the road north west to Uitenhage, now called Commercial Road and the suburb renamed Sidwell. The second part, spatially central to the village, was set out in a radial oval pattern centred on a lake. This area was a dense residential area known as ‘Village Board’, which was declared an industrial area in the 1960s. Its residents were forcibly removed, houses demolished, and the lake drained. It is today partially redeveloped as an industrial area known formally as ‘Ferguson’.

View towards Korsten in 1938, looking over the early  Provincial Hospital

The roots of each township are also reflected in the contrasting physical aspects of Korsten and New Brighton. Korsten was a haphazard settlement in which homes were created primarily from temporary materials and most had no running water or sewerage. Because they were outside the boundaries of Port Elizabeth, the authorities had little control over land use and movement. At one stage, 1 680 of the dwellings were declared unfit by the plague board. ‘Unfortunately, a native free state has grown up outside the Municipal boundaries at Korsten … [which] is practically under no supervision. The lazy, dissolute natives live at these locations in happy content,’ bemoaned the Medical Officer of Health of the Cape of Good Hope.

On the other hand, New Brighton was a highly controlled residential suburb even further to the north, separated from Korsten and the town itself by a wide wetland area. Business was highly regulated and property ownership impossible. Rentals in New Brighton were also notably higher than those in Korsten. The unregulated state of Korsten has led to a perception that the Korsten of the early 20th century was a ‘slum’ and was solely intended for those who were not White.

This photograph, from an issue of The Herald, dated 19 September 1957

After the Anglo Boer War, Port Elizabeth witnessed a steady influx of poor destitute whites from the platteland. Many of them erected their homes in Korsten, because it was cheaper to do so. But Korsten was in fact one big slum … the health conditions were shocking. It was seen as a menace to the health of Port Elizabeth.

With the northern portion being declared an industrial area and the black residents being relocated northwards, only the rump of Korsten remains as a residential area. This portion comprises a grid of three long parallel streets running approximately south-east to north-west – Stanford Road, Durban and Highfield Roads, with a number of cross streets. It is this are that is now officially identified as Korsten by authorities and citizens.

Today the residential area of Korsten occupies a relatively small geographical area, two kilometres long and 300 metres wide. Its north-west end would historically have been at the edge of the town. Over time, the whites were rehoused in Young Park and Algoa Park and the Blacks to the north.

Finally, Ordinance No. 3 of 1931, extending the boundaries of Port Elizabeth to include Korsten, Zwartkops Village, Deal Party Estate, Fairview Township, was promulgated. Removal of the anomaly in the boundaries and property ownership was forever discarded, dooming Korsten to forfeit its moniker as ‘Korsten Village’ or ‘Free Town’. Forever would it have to comply with the dictates of the Council.  

Lorimer in her book Panorama of Port Elizabeth concludes that ‘the name of Korsten survives in Port Elizabeth only as that of a slum suburb – poor recognition for a man who was the founder of its commercial development’.


Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

Nostalgia and Heritage in Korsten, Port Elizabeth, 1956 to 1990 by Bryan Wintermeyer mini-dissertation presented in partial fulfilment of the degree of Master of Philosophy in Conservation of the Built Environment in the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics – June 2015

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Zwartkops Saltpan Company in 1894

In a manner of speaking, the salt pans which span over the northern areas of Port Elizabeth, are its mineral wealth. Unlike the mines in the north, their minerals are easy to extract without expensive machinery or underground excavations. Furthermore their lifespan is measured in millennia and not decades.

It is thought that in all likelihood, these salt pans have been used for millennia but not on an organised basis by the local Khoikhoi. The saline deposits of this district have long been famous, but until the arrival of the settlers, there had been no attempt at systematic development. It was the entrepreneurial spirits of the settlers that turned this untapped resource into an asset for the area.

Main picture: Salt pans of yore

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: My Second Great Uncle’s Reminiscences of the 1870s

Balfour Turton Dix-Peek (1868-1932) was one of the sons of my maternal great-great grandfather, George Dix-Peek, thus making him my second great uncle.  In these letters by Arthur to his great-niece Anita, (and thus a cousin of mine) in 1931 and 1932, he elaborates what life was like in Port Elizabeth during the 1870s i.e. when he was very young

Main picture:  Market Square in 1874

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Disaster on Christmas Eve

The morning of the Thursday 24th December 1931 was not unlike any other Christmas Eve. Whether those passengers crammed into buses and trams had already completed their Christmas shopping, this was a day when many residents of Port Elizabeth would make that trip to Main Street to experience the thrill and excitement of this special day.

Instead many would witness a tragedy which would blunt their enthusiasm and joy over the festive season.

Main picture: St Mary’s Church in 1931 showing the business on Main Street being demolished

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Bethelsdorp – PE’s First Organised Settlement

Even though farmers had been living in the area since 1776, the tiny settlement of Bethelsdorp, nestled on a hillside 10km north -west of Port Elizabeth, near the Little Swartkops River, was Port Elizabeth’s first organised settlement. Founded in 1803 by a missionary from the London Missionary Society, Dr Johannes Theodorus  van der Kemp, and assisted by the Rev James Read, the settlement became a catalyst for racial conflict. Bethelsdorp is the site of the oldest London Missionary Society (LMS) station in South Africa and today it forms part of Port Elizabeth.

Main picture:A fanciful view of Bethelsdorp with van der Kemp Kloof in the background

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The 1954 Empire Games’ Marathon Trials

It is safe to say that South Africa was one of the foremost exponents of ultra-marathon running events in the 20th century. What is more amazing is that South Africa produced a mindset where the most non-athletic citizen could participate in events that were clearly in the domain of the specialist ultra-marathon runner. Yet they would participate. This situation occurred as a result of the conflation of two events; firstly the creation of the Comrades Marathon commencing in 1921 and then later in the century with South Africa’s exclusion from participation in international sport.

Just as important was the calibre of the athletes produced in South Africa starting with Arthur Newton, then succeeded by Wally Hayward, Jackie Mekler and finally Bruce Fordyce, the doyen of road runners.

Under normal circumstances, trials are usually only undertaken to determine who should be selected to attend a future event. In this case, however, it was much more significant in that this race witnessed the passing of the baton by Wally Hayward and the birth of a new star: Jackie Mekler.

Main picture:Jackie Mekler coming 2nd to Wally Hayward in Hyde Park in the record breaking 100 mile race from Box in Wiltshire to London in 1953

Mekler’s early life

Mekler did not have an easy upbringing. His parents had emigrated from Eastern Europe in the late 1920s with little more than the clothes on their backs. They struggled to survive financially. Initially the family stayed with friends in Bertrams, Joburg, then upgraded to rented accommodation in the same suburb and finally purchasing a house in Bertrams. Mekler’s mother was a trained nurse and his father earned a living hawking fruit from the back of a horse-drawn cart.

Jackie Mekler alongside Arthur Newton in London in 1955

Mekler’s mother developed Parkinson’s disease at a young age, growing increasingly incapacitated by this debilitating disease. She spent long periods convalescing at home and at the Otto Beit Nursing Home. Due to his father’s long working hours, he was unable to raise Jackie and his elder sister Hannah, resulting in their being placed in a home.

As can be imagined, this separation from his family made a huge impact on the young Jackie Mekler, who increasingly sought solace in his own company and running. It swiftly dawned on him, that he had a natural talent for long distance running. He might not have had the turn of speed as his peers, but he possessed the stamina to run extremely long distances without being subject to the same stress, tiredness and loss of vigour.

This ability  to train at weekly distances of greater than 150 miles would prepare his body for the greatest tests of endurance: The Comrades and the London to Brighton Marathons.

The Wally Hayward era

Wally Hayward won the Comrades Marathon for the first time on his first attempt in 1930 at the age of 21. It would take another twenty years before he competed again. Surprisingly he won that year and the subsequent three years from 1951 to 1954, except for 1952 when he chose to rather represent South Africa at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki. He finished tenth in the Olympic marathon event. In 1951 and 1953 (first athlete under 6 hours) he broke the down-run record, and in 1954 he broke the up-run record and became the oldest man to win the race at age 45 (later overtaken by the Russian, Vladimir Kotov, in 2004).

In 1988 he returned once again to participate. He beat half the finishers with a time of 9h44m. Wally’s most dramatic moment came the following year, in 1989, when he completed the down run at the age of 80. There was hardly a dry eye in the stadium as he staggered across the line in an obviously distressed state, making the cut-off time by a mere 1min 57sec, after which he finally quit the race for good. To this day, he has the distinction in the record books of being the oldest finisher in the history of the Comrades Marathon.

Rise of Jackie Mekler

Hayward and Mekler were teammates at Germiston Callies Athletic Club. In that era, this running club possessed one of the finest minds on all aspects of running; Fred Morrison. With little scientific knowledge but a curious mind at his disposal, he provided dollops of useful advice to the fellow members. What was little appreciated at that time was that the human body was not a machine and required rest as much, if not in greater measure, than hard training. On the 9th May 1954, Jackie Mekler won the 56km Pieter Korkie ultramarathon which was hosted by Germiston Callies. Three weeks later, on the 31st May 1954, would be the Empire Games Trials Marathon.

Marathon Trails in Port Elizabeth

These are Jackie Mekler’s recollections of this titanic battle of wills: the middle-aged Hayward and the aspiring Comrades winner, the 22-year-old Jackie Mekler.

Mekler describes this race as follows:

The trials in Port Elizabeth were now three weeks away. It was likely to become a battle between [Jan] Barnard, [Wally] Hayward and myself as favourites. But there were many other talented hopefuls in the race, including Gerald Walsh, Mercer Davies, Piet Kriel and Jackie Goldie. We travelled down to Port Elizabeth by train. As the train pulled into the Port Elizabeth station, I noticed that all the trees were growing at an angle thanks to the prevailing strong coastal winds. Port Elizabeth is known as the Friendly City but also the Windy City.

On the evening before the race, the wind started blowing as only it can at the coast. When we went to bed the windows were rattling, banging and thudding, noise that continued throughout the night. I knew that we could not expect a calm day on the following morning.

Jackie Mekler with his ‘dirty black look’ as he focused intently on the race

It will still dark and the wind still howling when the race started at 7am. We started at Newton Park and went out around Greenbushes Hotel, Cows Corner, Linga Longa, back to Crossroads and then back to the stadium.

The first eight miles were straight, head-on into the wind. Wally, who was short on natural speed and whose age was against him, realised that he had to win the race in order to gain selection. He therefore had no alternative but to force the pace from the start. This was in any case his normal style.

Both Jan [Barnard] and I had the speed to beat him in a fast finish, so Barnard tucked in behind Wally, effectively shielding himself from the wind. I felt sorry for Wally, so I purposely moved out alongside him so as not to gain an unfair advantage. These were perfectly legitimate tactics by Barnard, but I could not in all fairness do the same.

We ran like this for the first 11 miles [17 kms], which was mainly uphill. Shortly after that I decided to push the pace and moved into the lead. I hung onto this lead for a mile until Jan came shooting past saying, ‘OK Jackie. Let’s go now’. This remark left me puzzled. Was he inviting me to join him in pushing the pace or was this a challenge for me to try and keep up with him? Whatever it was, his pace was too fast, and he gradually opened up a lead on the downhill stretch.

We were now turning for home. The rest of the course was fast and mainly downhill with the wind behind us. The weather had improved, and I needed only one sip of tea at 19 miles and a couple of sponges. Barnard drew steadily ahead and try as I might, I was unable to hold him. This was the type of course that suited Jan and he took full advantage of it.

He finished in 2:25:31, the fastest time ever run in South Africa and the first time that 2:30 had ever been broken by a South African. I finished second in 2:28:57 as inside the existing record of 2:30:45 set up by the late Jackie Gibson in 1927. Gerald Walsh was 3rd in 2:31, Wally 4th and Jackie Goldie 6th in 2:40:40.

Mekler did not know it yet but from now onwards the South African running hero, Wally Hayward, would forever be behind him instead of being in his sights.

The Empire Games Marathon Trials in Port Elizabeth represented the swansong of the Hayward era and the dawn of the Mekler era of long distance running in South Africa.

Events after the Trials

Three Comrades greats – Jackie Mekler – 5 wins- Bruce Fordyce – 9 wins and Alan Robb with 4 wins

Later that evening the athletics team for the Empire Games in Vancouver was announced. Jan Barnard and Jackie Mekler were selected for the Marathon. Jackie had made the breakthrough at the tender age of 22, normally regarded as too young for marathon running. Jackie’s development and improvement over the previous two years had been phenomenal.

Even though the Empire Games were some 10 weeks away on the 7th August 1954, Mekler even seriously considered running the Comrades being held on the 12th June that year. Fortunately the athletics authorities got wind of this plan and swiftly nipped it in the bud. It was just as well. It was speed that Mekler needed and not distance work

It was now Wally’s swansong. Having missed out on the Empire Games, he made his mark on the Comrades that year by smashing Hardy Ballington’s up record in the 1954 Comrades in 6:12:55. In spite of this achievement, Wally nevertheless ran a superb 100 miles from Standerton to Germiston in 13:08:05 in freezing cold weather.

During his running career, Mekler would win the Comrades Marathon five times as well as various other marathons around the world. He competed for South Africa in various international games. A 25km Jackie Mekler race is held annually in Gauteng in his honour.

Jackie Mekler died in Cape Town on 1st July 2019, when he was 87 years old.



Running Alone by Jackie Mekler (2019, Quickfox Publishing, Cape Town)

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Lawn Tennis

Sporting-wise, Port Elizabeth has achieved a number of firsts as many of the sporting codes have their roots in St George’s Park. Amongst the firsts were the first international cricket test between South Africa and England, South Africa’s first rugby test and South Africa’s first cricket tournament.

Of all the firsts that Port Elizabeth failed to achieve was being the first tennis club to be formed in South Africa but it only missed this honour narrowly.

Main picture: SA Lawn Tennis Championships, 1893. Court No. 1 – Port Elizabeth Lawn Tennis Club.

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