Port Elizabeth of Yore: Drought and Recession in the Early 1880s

Prior to the construction of dams and the extensive use of irrigation systems to water their crops, the farmers and, indeed, the whole population, was subject to the whims of an erratic vengeful weather. The first white inhabitants to experience this affliction were the 1820 Settlers themselves compelling many of them to abandon their farms and migrate to the adjacent towns.

In order to mitigate the effect of a drought and the consequent recession, the authorities in the 1880s implemented the very first measures to mitigate the effects on the residents in Port Elizabeth.   

Main picture: When the Baakens was a lagoon with the first unsuccessful breakwater in the background.

Drought commencing in 1859
The severest drought on record thus far in Port Elizabeth, beginning in 1859, caused a collapse of agriculture and a spate of commercial failures followed. For months each issue of the “Herald” reported more insolvencies. After enduring several years of recession, by 1966 the economy was displaying incipient signs of recovery.

Drought reappears
It was only those men whose veins sluiced with doggedness and determination who had survived the drought of 1859. Yet by the time the next drought appeared in the early 1880s, they were woefully unprepared to endure yet another drought. A wave of Afrikaners relinquished their farms and trod the sandy roads to the beacon of hope on the coast.  It must have been on this surge of migrants that the first batch of Afrikaners settled in Port Elizabeth. Among this batch was my maternal grandmother from Middelburg whose family knew not a word of English.    

Distress relief work
For once, the Town Council would step into the breach to assist impecunious residents. Disruptive and debilitating would be adequate descriptors of the consequences of the drought during the early 1880s. Ultimately it caused a deep economic recession and severe hardships from retrenchments, insolvencies and general unemployment. During such times of distress, a conflict between “our worst instincts and our better angels” arises. In this case, the Town Council’s better angels won the tug-of-war.  A Distress Relief Committee was formed, and the Council employed labour on public works.

During 1884, the one site of Public Works in operation was employing men at two shillings and sixpence per day in the quarry at Cooper’s Kloof. This relief work was given by the Town Council to the ratepayers and in those days and tenants were also ratepayers. Apparently, the men were only allowed to work for one day at a time in order to enable others to have a chance to work.

House rentals often waived

It was not by Council Diktat nor by Christian generosity that landlords waived the payment of their rental. If it had been a Council Bylaw, howls of protest would have arisen. Rather it was a dose of reality that with so many dwellings standing empty that the owners were often glad to get people to live in them as caretakers instead of as paying tenants. The bald reality was that unoccupied houses were stripped bare of all the doors, windows and fittings. The exodus of residents on the Cob Coaches heading for the Diamond Fields exacerbated the property rental market,and compounded the problem

The Bay of Living Memory – Part 1 by Voullaire (Looking Back, Number 55, 2016)

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