Port Elizabeth of Yore: Daredevils of Ballooning and Parachuting

By any objective measure, the first aeronauts – parachutists and ballooners – possessed a death wish. Simply put, the contraptions and materials that they used to perform their stunts were below par for the job at hand. Yet these bold experimenters and stuntmen persisted. Some might say that Stanley Spencer, a world-renowned aeronaut had outlived his nine lives by the time that he visited Port Elizabeth on Wednesday 2nd March 1892 and entertained a large crowd at St. George’s Park

Main picture: Professor Price at Market Square in Queenstown

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: When Developers almost Built on the Donkin Reserve

It was a grieving Sir Rufane Donkin who arrived in Port Elizabeth on the 5th June 1820. Even though he had married Elizabeth Markham in Yorkshire under a traditional organised marriage which was the custom in those times for the social upper classes, remarkably, he had truly fell in love with his beautiful young wife. En route back to Great Britain, he had been diverted to the Cape as temporary Governor.

It was during the laying of the foundation stone of a proposed hotel for Captain Moresby that Donkin proclaimed that the nascent town would be named Elizabeth, after his beloved dead wife. Port Elizabeth had been conceived.

As well as naming the town after his deceased wife, he had other plans to commemorate her: proclaiming of a reserve on which a pyramid would be built as a monument in perpetuity.

Main picture: Pyramid on the Donkin in 1920

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Motor Launch Joe Vanishes in Algoa Bay

The motor launch Joe was carrying ten fishermen when on the night of the 22nd May 1906 it failed to return to port. Anxious families spent a fearful night hoping beyond hope that their loved ones would return unharmed. As days passed into weeks, then months and finally years, would these grief-stricken families ever receive closure, or would this remain an open wound never quite healing.

What had happened to this vessel and its ten occupants?

Main picture: Messina Bros tug Talana, skippered by Spero Messina, recovered pieces of the wrecked launch, The Joe, in Algoa Bay 15 months after it went missing in May 1906

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Saving lives using the Manby Apparatus

Before the age of helicopters, shipwrecks usually resulted in severe loss of life. Without a method of rescuing passengers and crew from a stricken ship, they were either drowned in the attempt to reach shore in an era when swimming ability was the exception rather than the rule, or they clung to the rapidly disintegrating ship only to die once it no longer offered protection.

The development of the Manby Apparatus was the first attempt at offering stranded passengers and crew. In Port Elizabeth, this equipment was operated by the detachment of the Prince Alfred’s Guards known as the Rocket Brigade.

Main picture:Prince Alfred’s Guards Rocket Brigade with the Manby Apparatus

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Prince Alfred’s Guards Baptism of Fire

The Port Elizabeth Volunteer Rifle Corps was founded in September 1857 in response to Sir George Grey’s request for volunteer regiments to be established. In I860 the Corps provided a guard of honour for Prince Alfred during his visit and with his consent then took the name “Prince Alfred’s Guard”. Twenty years later in 1877, PAG was involved in its first battle at which it would earn its first battle honours.

This blog is based upon excerpts of a booklet entitled “The First Four Months of the Kafir War of 1877 and 1878” by Acting Quarter-Master Sergeant H. Stahlschmidt of the 2nd Detachment Prince Alfred’s Guard. This is his eye-witness account of the action during which he was severely wounded. No biographical details of the author have been found except that he was employed as a clerk from about 1875 to 1885 and lived at 9 Constitution Hill.

Main picture: Umzintzani – Prince Alfred Guard’s baptism of fire

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: John Owen Smith – Entrepreneur Extraordinaire

It is a testament to the young John Owen Smith’s tenacity and self-belief that he embarked on a ship en route to the Cape Colony without his parents at the age of 15. Yet by the age of 27, he was well-established in auctioneering, finance, bonded warehousing, construction, merchanting and later shipping in Port Elizabeth. Before returning to his homeland, his later ventures were in mining in Namaqualand and the northern Cape.

Of all the residents of Port Elizabeth during the mid-1800s, surely JO Smith should be renowned, yet little is known about him? Why has no biography been written about his life? For somebody who must have thrown caution to the wind, was it perhaps a retiring nature and lack of self-aggrandisement that left him in the shadows? Much is known about his businesses, but the nature of the man is like an eel, hard but slippery, visible yet lurking in the shadows

Main picture: The only known likeness of John Owen Smith is this bust of him at the Port Elizabeth Public Library

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Gambia – A Victim of Rescue Bid

Was this a case of the ship’s master being too well-meaning or does this episode cast aspersions on Owen’s ability after his narrow escape en route to Port Elizabeth? Being a cynic, I believe that Cox possibly consented to assist a fellow ship in trouble not for altruistic motives but rather so that he could pocket the £200 offered by Mr. Hume, the Mauritana’s agent.

You make up your mind

Main picture:The Gambia lies wrecked on the rocks at the bottom of Kemp Road after attempting to tow the Mauritania out to sea.

Precursor incident

The Gambia’s first problem arose before the steamship arrived in Algoa Bay. This incident happened while sailing between London and Cape Town during May 1871. One night, for some inexplicable reason, the vessel ended up some 77kms off course from where she should have been. As a result, she hit a sandbank on the Northern Cape coast. Below deck the impact had strained her plating and frames so badly that she was leaking profusely. The pumps were swiftly brought into action and fortunately the steamer reached Cape Town safely but required immediate repairs.

At the subsequent Court of Enquiry, the Master, Captain James Cox, was found guilty of negligence and his master’s Certificate was suspended for six months. As is often the case in such events, even the pointed questions at the Enquiry had not uncovered the underlying cause of this mishap. As Cox could ill-afford to run any risks which might raise any questions regarding insurance, he requested that the ship’s First Mate, Albert Studdy Owen, rather than a stranger, be appointed sailing master of the Gambia in his stead. As Owen was certified to act as master of the steamship, the ship’s agent, William Dickson, sent a letter to Owen explaining the situation under which Owen is offered the position as sailing master.

Journey to PE resumed

The Gambia sailed for Port Elizabeth with Owen navigating. As the Gambia approached Port Elizabeth in the early hours of the 27th May 1871, a significant exchange of differing opinions occurred on the bridge. Together with Cox and Owen on the bridge was the ship’s surgeon, Alfred Carter. At the enquiry, Carter recalled that when the depth readings were between seven and eight fathoms (13m to 15m), Owen asked Cox, “Don’t you think, sir, we had better let the anchor go here? Almost petulantly, Cox replied, “No. No. We are yet two miles off. The cargo boats will not come out so far”. Owen submitted to Cox’s statement as they sailed closer to the shore. Ultimately the Gambia dropped anchor in 5½ to 6 fathoms (11m) of water. After 55 minutes the barrel of the windlass broke off and the cable parted 20 minutes later. The Gambia steamed slowly beyond the other ships in the area until daylight when it anchored in eight or nine fathoms (about 16 metres) of water.

The Mauritana arrives

When the Mauritana arrived in the Bay there was a thick haze and visibility was reduced to a minimum. Her captain, Lawrence Macdonald, slowly approached the shore in his vain attempt to spot the light from the Donkin lighthouse. When he suddenly heard waves breaking, he immediately dropped anchor in seven fathoms (13 metres) of water. His vessel was only 60 metres from the breakers.

Alfred Carrington Wylde, the Resident Magistrate

The Mauritana’s local agent, Mr. Hume, boarded the Gambia the following morning. He offered Captain Cox £200 to pull the Mauritana into deeper water. I attempting to do so, Cox experienced severe difficulties in getting his ship in a position to pass a hawser – a thick rope or cable for mooring or towing a ship – across to the Mauritana. At the Enquiry, Cox claimed that he had remarked that “I am not going to lose the ship for the sake of the Mauritana”, to which Cox replied, “Oh! Let us have another trial”. Eventually the hawser was passed. Mr. Owen maneuvered the ship in a very proper manner”.

The arrangement with Macdonald was that as soon as the tow rope was attached, they would release the anchor. However, Macdonald claimed that they did not slip the anchor “as the steamer’s head inclined inshore and the warp was not taut and had we shipped, the vessel would have gone onshore”.

As the three-mastered screw steamer Gambia swung its bow towards a rocky strip of North End beach. Captain James Cox cried out, “By Jingo, we shall lose the ship if we do not mind what we are about. We must cut the hawser”. As the Gambia headed for disaster on Saturday the 27th May 1871,the carpenter chopped the tow rope and it dropped into the sea. As it did so, it wrapped itself around the propeller and caused it to jam. Left powerless, the Gambia drifted like a hobbled pony towards its final resting place at the bottom of Kemp Street.

In the ensuing court of enquiry, Cox and Owen each claimed that he was not master of the vessel, but the Resident Magistrate, Alfred Wylde, ruled that the loss of the Gambia was attributable to Cox. The court suspended his master’s certificate for 12 months, a derisory period considering that his actions had resulted in the complete loss of the steamer.

Mr. C. W. Frames made attempts to refloat her, but without success, and her wreckage was eventually blown up. The Gambia remained a feature of the foreshore for many years opposite the railway station.


Ship the Victim of bid to rescue another vessel, by Ivor Markman in The Herald dated 5th February 2009

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Reminiscences of the early Harbour and Town

These excerpts are the 1939 recollections of Mr. C.G.H. Skead about the early days in Port Elizabeth, its harbour and miscellaneous maritime activities. They were originally printed in 1964 over three editions of Looking Back, the Quarterly Bulletin of the PE Historical Society.

Main picture: View of Port Elizabeth from the harbour dated 1867

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