Port Elizabeth of Yore: Customs Houses – A Visible Expression of Growth and Decline

Customs House in Jetty Street

In the era prior to the introduction of income tax, the major source of revenue for the fledgling town and colony, apart from the levying of tolls, was derived from the collection of customs duties which were levied on all incoming sea freight.

Probably in an effort to thwart corruption, but also to reflect their status, customs officials eventually earned the highest emoluments of all civil servants during the early colonial era.

Main picture: The Customs House on reclaimed land in Jetty Street

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: First proposed slipway

Whatever else could be said about the British Settlers, one could not denigrate them for lack of initiative, determination and drive. By nature John Centlivres Chase, an original 1820 Settler, was an entrepreneur who explored all opportunities of advancement. On a recent trip to Cape Town, he had paid a visit to the recently completed Simon’s Town patent slipway. Being impressed by it, he had taken the opportunity in 1860 to approach the marine engineer involved, Robert Mair, with a view to replicating this slipway in Port Elizabeth.  

Main picture: The original short-lived breakwater

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PE of Yore: Interesting aspects during the Construction of the Harbour

One aerial photograph taken in 1935 shows how the construction of the new harbour was progressing and the sequence of operations. This blog examines this photo in detail with explanations provided by Blaine McCleland.

Main picture:  Aerial view of the harbour with the breakwater almost complete, stub jetty and the construction of the Charl Malan just commencing

The breakwater

Clearly the construction of the breakwater had commenced many years previously given the fact that it was largely completed already. In fact it had been commenced in 1922 and was largely complete by 1935. Note the huge Titan crane, also known as block-setting cranes, still in operation placing gigantic cement blocks into the water. The Titan block setting crane is parked at its spot on the breakwater after finishing its back breaking task of building the breakwater.  Apart from possibly moving a few times to assist in various building projects on that side such as the ore terminal, tanker berth, etc, it remained an iconic feature until 1973.

More interestingly, Blaine notes “how the breakwater was built offset from Dom Pedro so as not to interfere with wharf operations as it would be critical having lost the cranes on the north side of the North Jetty.

Lastly, in ten years very little sand had accumulated against the breakwater. This is probably a consequence of the fact that the first portion of breakwater was in fact an extension of the Dom Pedro jetty which permitted the flow of the northerly current through this area. Only once the jetty was replaced with a concrete breakwater, did the accumulation of sand commence.

The “stub” jetty

This curiosity arose during the construction of the quays. The only plausible explanation for its erection according to Blaine, is to serve as a passenger landing jetty given the loss of the North Jetty whose prime function was the offloading of passengers.

On the left the Charl Malan quay is being constructed. In the centre is the mysterious “stub” jetty

With the completion of the first full berth on the Charl Malan quay, the stub jetty (red ellipse on the photo 2 below) was surplus to requirements and they just built the approaches to No. 2 Quay right over it.  Quite rude of them.  They must have salvaged the decking but left the pilings to rot as they were too must trouble to extract.  Knowing that it was temporary they probably used untreated wood of inferior quality, after all, they had lots of experience with that problem when the built the original jetties.

The South Jetty

While the North Jetty served as the passenger terminal and hence garnering all the attention and limelight, the workhorse jetties viz the Dom Pedro and the South, went unnoticed. In the more than 50 photos of the jetties that I possess, less than half a dozen photos relate to these two jetties. From an economic perspective, these two jetties and the landing beaches were the main income generators of the harbour until the Charl Malan Quay was completed.

In the foreground is the breakwater with the early Humewood in the background

Charl Malan Quay

There was another block setting crane (blue ellipse) used on the Charl Malan Quay.  It has been labelled as the Goliath crane to distinguish it from the Titan crane.  They were both built by Stothert and Pitt and the names have been used interchangeably for both of them.  A crane of this type was supplied for construction in the Table Bay Harbour in the mid 1920’s.  The cranes were highly specialized and once the construction was completed, they were often broken up and moved somewhere else.  It is possible that it ended up in Port Elizabeth.

The Goliath crane on the end of the Charl Malan Quay during construction


Finally, one has got to feel for the lighters huddled between the South Jetty and the Breakwater.  Just like the dinosaurs, they experienced a cataclysmic environmental change and became superfluous overnight.



Article by Blaine McCleland Some observations on the construction of the harbour

The Chances of Surviving Once Hospitalised with Covid are not Good

What struck me about the pandemic in the UK is that the infections in their 2 nd wave are running at roughly 10x the 1st wave yet their daily death rates are only slightly higher. I don’t wish to theorise about why that is so, but what I did find significant is how their death rate visually correlated exceptionally well to their hospitalization rate.

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Size of the North Jetty

North Jetty served as the principal jetty of the Port Elizabeth harbour from 1870 to the early 1930s. A quick view of this jetty reveals a minute useable working area supported by 10 cranes. How did this jetty handle all the passenger cargo especially during the first 3 decades of the 20th century and how does its size compare with that of a modern ship tied up alongside it?

Main picture: The North Jetty circa 1908

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Prince Alfred’s Guards: In the Line of Fire

Up until 1942, Prince Alfred’s Guards had always been an infantry unit. This was to change after the Battle of Alamein when it was converted into an armoured unit forming part of the 6th Armoured Division. It was at this juncture that Lt. Arnold (Coley) Colenbrander was posted into this Port Elizabeth unit as a tank commander. This blog covers the miraculous escape by Coley when his tank, an M4 Sherman, was destroyed by a German 75mm anti-tank gun outside Celleno in northern Italy, killing three of his crew.

Main picture: Coley’s Sherman after the battle at Cellano on 10th June 1944. Coley was in the turret when the shell struck the tank

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Schoenmakerskop: From Mrs. Mac’s Tearoom to the Sacramento

This tearoom has formed the focal point of this hamlet for a century, its centennial being celebrated in 2018. From a rambunctious start as The Hut Tearoom in 1918, the tearoom has also experienced its lean time with the war years probably being the most difficult. The post war years were just as lean but the decision to renovate and rebrand the restaurant as the Sacramento revived its fortunes. On a macabre note, this establishment has witnessed two murders, one being of my uncle, Francis McCleland.    

Main picture: The crowds gather for tea at The-Hut-Tearoom-in-Schoenmakerskop in December 1922

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