Port Elizabeth of Yore: Diamond Fever grips the Town

In the mistaken belief that diamonds were scattered on the ground waiting to be picked up, the discovery of diamonds in 1870 caused an exodus to the Diamond Fields in search of their fortune. In many cases Port Elizabeth, being the nearest port, would be the starting point for many fortune hunters travelling north, by wagon or even on foot, covering the 420 miles to De Beers’ New Rush. Soon a dose of reality would set in and many would retrace their footsteps back to Port Elizabeth.

What is little known is that it was not a one way street. Enrepreneurs in Port Elizabeth grabbed the opportunity with both hands and organised the first South African diamond auctions in the town being yet another first for the town.

Main picture: Diamond mining at Kimberley

Preceding the Fever
The following several paragraphs are a redaction from Redgrave’s Port Elizabeth of Bygone Days.

The middle 1860s were not the best of times for the residents of Port Elizabeth. The town had endured a prolonged depression. A severe drought which lasted for several years completely compromised farming activities upon which Port Elizabeth was dependent. Landed property was almost unsaleable while the public revenue was inadequate to meet the ordinary expenditure and the imposition of further taxes was considered to be impossible if not imprudent.

The economic situation was so drastic that men of good standing were inured from the job of breaking stones in Albany Road for 2/6d a day, a pittance in those days. Even landlords were compromised as housing supply far exceeded demand, yet bonds still had to be serviced. Hence landlords were compelled to accept whatever rental was offered. Within a small radius of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Belmont Terrace, one could count no less than twenty unoccupied houses whilst in Paterson’s Row seven out of nine houses were tenantless.

To exacerbate the situation, in the early part of 1867, a great many people in the town were suffering from a peculiar illness and in some cases whole families were affected. The complaint, which was rapidly spreading, was diagnosed by the doctors as being a type of low fever, a sickness resulting from bad sanitation. This could be attributed to poor or non-existent sanitation, dung heaps of horse and cattle manure scattered everywhere and contaminated water. In general residents complained that the town reeked of filth.

Economic activity had declined precipitously such that large swathes of residents required immediate relief to forestall their starvation. To overcome this reality, the mayor suggested to the Council that relief money could be raised by a supplementary landlord’s rate of 1/2d and a tenant’s rate of 3d in the pound thereby relieving the distress of the working class and proving work for the unemployed as at least two hundred residents were in dire need of financial aid. The suggestion was placed before a special meeting of the ratepayers but was rejected by a large majority.

A visitors view
In the 12th March 1867 edition of the Eastern Province Herld, they reprinted an article from the Fort Beaufort Advocate in which a reader shares his view on the state of Port Elizabeth. Below is what the visitor had to say in the article entitled “Port Elizabeth as it is and was‘.

“Immense number of superb buildings sprang up in past few years. There was a time not long ago when it was thought that the prosperity of the day was far from its climax. But alas, the bright hopes were doomed to disappointment in the most cruel  manner. What is known in commercial circles as “the crisis” came and postrated the Bay. The trade of the Liverpool of the Cape [a sobriquet for Port Elizabeth]now bears no comparison with the trade carried on four years ago. The long line of shops with the ominous words “To Let” bear too, sure evidence of the decline of commerce in Port Elizabeth, and a necessry consequence  in the whole of the Province. People had gone beyond their depth and had made no provision against the adversities which suddenly came upon them. Over speculation, high interest, rigid (sic) droughts, a fall in wool [prices], all combined to sap the foundation of the comely fabric. Where 30 vessels in [the Bay], now 1/2.

The Rival Ports
Referring to depression of PE Trade and the Kowie, that dreadful Kowie, looms like a spectre in the distance, and damps the still buoyant enterprise of the Bayonians. The Kowie will, as it deserves to be , a success, but it does not follow that the Bay will prove a failure. Sensible people have faith in the Bay, and see not far distant a revival of its glory on a [sterdier] foundation than ever. The present is a day of trial. There is much poverty and distress in the Bay, and people are leaving it, but they will shortly return , or others in their place, and then we shall see both the Bay and the Kowie like sisters go through the world hand in hand.

PE advanced to Grahamstown in public buildings and shops . Also streets lit by gas lamps until midnight. All hotels and many shops and homes [too] instead of parafin and candles. Also public fountains at every corner, connected to main pipe from Shark’s River or pumps attached to wells enable all to obtain their supply of water unlike elsewhere where [the] poor have to beg for water. [Perhaps the word fountains should be supplanted by taps]

Gloom evaporates
A revolution was around the corner which would rapidly generate prosperity. This windfall arose due the discovery of diamonds during 1870. An instantaneous exodus to the Diamond Fields ensued and the start of a diamond trade in Port Elizabeth commenced. Port Elizabeth became the starting point for many fortune hunters travelling north, by wagon or even on foot, covering the 420 miles to De Beers New Rush.

In their annual report the P.E. Chamber recorded that “Trade during 1866 gradually recovered from its extreme prostration.” They had previously noted that the drought had commenced in 1859. “An event in 1867 …was noted with restrained jubilance in six lines. The paragraph is headed DISCOVERIES and reads: The reported discovery of gold beyond the Transvaal territory and of diamonds in the Hope Town district will, if verified, be productive of incalculable advantage to the trade and commerce of the whole of South Africa”

In the book entitled History of EH Walton Group 1845 to 1995: Diamonds in these days were sent through the post and were not subject to export or customs control. For years no accurate or complete figures for their export value could be recorded and they were lumped together with other sundries in the Chamber’s table of statistics. But in 1869 it records, “During the past year a large number of diamonds and of considerable value have been received from the interior. Of these some have been sold here but by far the larger number – including several gems weighing respectively 83.5 carats, 46 carats and 30.5 carats.

When it was heard that the Hope Town diamond was in town and available for viewing at a particular firm, the dull atmosphere suddenly lifted. The discovery of diamonds created quite a sensation and soon a number of adventurous residents began preparing and equipping them for the long and perilous journey to the diamondiferous regions of Hope Town.  

Redgrave notes that: “There was great excitement when news was received locally that a diamond of 120 carats was being sent to Port Elizabeth, thus outweighing the Star of Africa and slowly but surely the parcels of diamonds began arriving. One firm had already received no less than eighty-six gems from the Orange River Colony of excellent size and quality whilst on the same day another firm received a parcel of ninety-two followed by another of seventy-three. The diamond excitement intensified when a subsequent well-known Diamond Field celebrity, Charlie Sonnenberg, arrived in Port Elizabeth from the diamond districts with a parcel of forty-nine diamonds ranging in weight from half-a-carat to several carets which he sold to a local man for £1,000 cash. Another traveller had brought down a parcel of eighty-three diamonds, together with a collection of rubies, garnets and other stones found in the diamond region but these gems were for display and not for sale.  

Business opportunities arise
Two major business opportunities arose viz in transport to the Diamond Fields and in accommodation in the town for recent arrivees. Amongst the first transport services to be setup was by Tarry’s offering a mulewagon service to the Diamond Fields commencing on the 26th July 1871. It would leave Market Square with John H. Boys as conductor. The wagon arrived from the Fields on 8 July. The fare from P.E. to Du Toits Pan was £8. With fine weather the trip took 15 days.

Two months later on the 22nd September 1871 the Cobb and Company’s first two coaches left the Market Square outside the Phoenix Hotel for Kimberley on a trial trip. The coach-and-six and coach-and-four were driven by Cobb and Cole themselves. The line began operating on 4 March 1872. Having made a fortune in Australia and then returning to his hometown, Brewster, in Massachusetts, Cobb came to P.E. and formed a partnership with fellow-American Charles Carlos Cole and raised ten thousand pounds in capital from local businessmen. The Company was liquidated in 1875 and for two years Cobb continued on his own. Adam White Guthrie was associated with him and took over some of the stock after Cobb’s early death.

Sensing an economic opportunity, in November 1871 at a Council meeting it was decided to establish a diamond market in a room in the Town Hall. As nothing further is recorded about this venture, it is difficult to understand whether it was a success or not.

The Diamond Rush can claim to have unwittingly been the conceiver of the future First National Bank. In July 1872 an imperial bank, The Oriental Bank operating in India, set up a branch in Port Elizabeth in July 1972 with F.W. Crozier as manager.  Losses on business in the Diamond Fields whether caused by loans to speculators or owners of diggings is unknown but whatever the underlying cause, Oriental Bank was compelled to pass its South African interests to the Bank of Africa in 1879. It is this bank which would after various amalgamations and acquisitions become FNB.

Bank of Africa

Infected by diamond fever
Port Elizabeth was by now buzzing with excitement which has never before or subsequentially been eclipsed. The hoi-poloi and the rich merchants had been infected with this bug. Diamond finding had now become an all-absorbing topic of discussion in the streets, at work and at home.

The History of the EH Walton Groups notes that “By now the diamond fields had attracted thousands of people in search of instant wealth. Great quantities of merchandise, machinery and other necessities poured through Port Elizabeth on the long trek to Hope Town and beyond. The Chamber was quick to correct a claim made in the London Times that Cape Town was the best port for debarkation for the diggings. A letter to the editor of the august newspaper reads: Port Elizabeth almost exclusively supplies all the Mercantile establishments now at the fields and nearly the whole of the Orange Free State and part of the Transvaal………….By far the largest Export of Diamonds is from here.

It is distant about 420 miles [675kms] from and is in direct weekly postal and passenger communication with them. Both services are expeditiously performed in covered spring carts. Numbers of bullock wagons leave this [place] weekly with merchandise and by them cheap passages can be obtained (£5 per head and 300 lbs luggage allowed) for those who cannot afford the more expensive fare of the passenger carts. The rate of carriage for goods is at present 15s per 100lbs but as the summer season advances a reduction is expected. No other port in the colony has such facilities as these.

The Union Company’s steamers perform the mail services fortnightly from Southampton to this port which is the terminus. There is every accommodation here in the town that can be desired in the way of hotels and boarding houses. Supplies of all descriptions can be purchased at very reasonable rates. Horses, vehicles and every appliance can be had by parties wishing to purchase their own turnout to proceed to the fields. No person should leave England to engage in diamond digging unless he can land with at least £50 for contingencies.

In further corroboration of the assertion that this is the starting point for the fields, I will conclude by informing you that John Campbell Esq. lately appointed by the government to proceed as Civil Commissioner to the fields, came round from Cape Town by sea to tis port, a voyage of 500 miles (800kms) in preference to crossing the almost desert country betwixt Cape Town and the fields direct. No gentleman in the country is better acquainted with the topography of the country.

The original Phoenix Hotel building with its mansard roof, later to be replaced

Much like holding the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the one beneficial result of the diamond rush was that immediate attention had to be given to the main roads which were in an excretable state. One traveller loudly complained about his experiences at the Sunday’s River Drift when he was unable to cross due to a wagon, filled to the gunnels with bales of wool, having capsized, completely blocking the route. He moaned that “all along the road ‘kurweyers’ were constantly forced to unload their wagons when they fell into the innumerable mud potholes and became stuck. By all accounts the majority of the accidents arose due to the state of the roads. At the Zuurberg, for instance, a wagon loaded with wool toppled over and rolled down the hill shedding bales as it did so.

What would resolve this issue was technology, not of road building but in railway lines. As machinery replaced manual labour in the Diamond Fields and the consolidation of stands into huge mines reduced the opportunities for solitary diggers, the demand for labour declined. Slowly but inexorably the surplus manpower drifted away. Most diggers from Port Elizabeth, now deeply tanned and exposing newly developed musculature but also developed something substantially more profound – wisdom.

Diamond Centre
According to Looking Back Volume XX, one ofthe firsts which can legitimately be claimed by Port Elizabeth is that it was the first centre of organised diamond auctions. This asserton is supported by a report in the E.P. Herald of 1929. Apparently at that time York Chambers between Grace and Britannia Streets, was being demolished when a massive stringroom was discovered. Two octenagarians confirmed that that was where diamonds were stored in between the auctions held in the Town Hall from 1870. Existing correspondence confirms that the trade was well established by 1873. Several well known firms signed a petition to the government on the 2% commission which the government levied on all sales. These objections included those from the following firms: Mosenthalls, Lillienfeld, Fairbridge & Pettit, Dreyfus & Co, Blaine, Murray, Crawford, Lippert, Savage & HIll and Jones, Rudd & Co.

The Wells family and the Cullinan diamond
The Cullinan diamond was found in 1905 by Frederick George Stanley Wells, Works Manager of the Premier Diamond Mine. He was born in Kent 1854 and was brought to Port Elizabeth as a boy of 4. He was connected with the diamond industry from the age of 17. His father, Henry Hunt Wells operated a shop in Adderley Street and later in Princes’s Street up to 1875. The shop was taken over by WH Wells who was another son.


Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).
History of the E.H. Walton 1845 – 1995 by G.S. Walton (1995, EH Walton, Port Elizabeth)
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)
P.E. Diamond Centre (Looking Back, Volume X, March 1970)

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