Port Elizabeth of Yore: Collegiate Girls in Drowning Tragedy

On Saturday 1886 a group of Collegiate girls were taken to the beach adjacent to the mouth of the Baakens River and South End. In all likelihood these pupils were boarders and not day students. As no public transport was available, the girls must have walked from their accommodation down to the beach with their teachers in tow. What exacerbated the situation was that age, very few people were able to swim so when what one presumes was a rip tide occurred, none of the girls were able to swim. Even if they could, they would not have been able to deal with it successfully

Main picture: Bathing house at the mouth of the Baakens

In Mr. Bollen’s textbook for Std. III “South African Pupil’s Own Reader“, an article appears entitled “A Bathing Fatality“, Part One, by “One who was there“, Part two was by “One who rescued her“. This refers to a tragedy in October 1886, when 9 Collegiate girls [MH states that it was 8] were swept out to sea and some drowned. One of the rescuers was a Mr. A.D. Kemp who received a silver medal inscribed “Presented to A.D. Kemp for rescuing Life in Algoa Bay, on 2nd October 1886.” The Port Elizabeth Coat-of­ Arms is engraved on the front of the medal.

Quoting directly from Mr. Bollen’s Reader, he describes the rescue as follows:

“On this particular day, I (Mr. A.D. Kemp) was busy at work. About 10 o’clock, a lady rushed into the workshop crying out “For God’s sake, help the girls, they are drowning:” I guessed at once what had happened for I had often seen parties of school girls bathing in the same place . . .

At once I rushed down to the beach and saw that a whaling-boat had already been launched, but that no attempt had yet been made to rescue the girls. Not being capable of handling a boat, I stood alongside the boat, and waited for a few seconds, thinking that among the crowd, there would be some that were able, but no one stirred.

Suddenly a friend of mine called out, ‘Those who can handle an oar, jump into the boat’. I at once jumped in with my friend and was followed by another. As the boat was being pushed off, another got into it. We were joined by a member of the port-boat crew. I was very thankful to have him with us, and at once gave up the steer-oar to him. I took off my boots, and some clothes, and got ready to jump into the water when needed. After some difficulty, we managed to get through the breakers.

I saw four girls in the water, three of whom seemed lifeless. The fourth one was struggling and doing her best to keep afloat. We were steering our boat towards one of the girls nearest to us, and who seemed lifeless, floating on top of the water. I called out ‘No! Let us pick up the one who is struggling. Let us make sure of her first, for she has life. We can get the others afterwards.’

We turned the boat, and had to row out a bit further, and then bring the boat astern, as it was not safe to have the boat ‘broadside on’. After some trouble, and after several attempts, I managed to grasp the girl by the wrist, and I held her until I could grasp the other hand. The trouble was owing to the rising and falling of the rough seas.

I then tried to draw her into the boat but could not do so alone. I called one of the men at the oars to help me. With his aid, I lifted her into the boat, and then she became unconscious. Having got her safely into the boat, we steered for the next nearest girls, and took in two others. I noticed a boat coming from the jetty, and so I left the other girls, and made in all haste for the shore, which by this time, was lined with hundreds of people.

The other boat rescued the other two girls, but one never regained consciousness; she was already drowned. Of the nine girls, three were rescued by our boat, and two by another boat. Of these five, two died. Of the other four, two were washed out to sea and their bodies were never found, although search was made for them, and a good look-out kept along the beach in case they were washed up.

One of the other two was rescued by a boy, and the ninth one by two swimmers. That sight I shall never forget and hope never to undergo a similar experience.”


Booklet entitled Victoria Park Grey Primary School 1875-1975 by Helene Scott

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