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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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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Why Eskom is a Basket Case?

Imagine that one has a net income of R10,000 per month but owes the bank interest of R15,000  per month on loans of R.5m. Despite this disastrous financial position one nevertheless decides to increase the children’s pocket money by 20% whilst simultaneously taking unpaid leave amounting to 20 days. To prevent one’s family from starving, one then approaches one’s retired parents for a stipend of R5,000 per month. This will keep the wolf from the door but unless drastic cuts are made to the expenses, reductions made in the number of free-loading married children, and boosting one’s income, one will have to approach one’s aging parents on a biannual, if not annual, basis for increases in one’s allowance.

That is the quagmire in which Eskom is mired.

Main picture:  Eskom plant at full production

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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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