Port Elizabeth of Yore: Embarking and Disembarking from Ships in Algoa Bay before 1933

While I have always been aware that baskets were used on occasions to transfer passengers to and from tugs, that always left the majority of the passengers with no ostensible method of transfer. After sleuthing by my brother Blaine and by means of an article in Looking Back uncovered by myself, the mystery has finally been resolved. Archaic and dangerous would be adequate descriptors of the practice employed.

Main picture: A tug ferrying passengers from North Jetty to an awaiting ship in the roadstead. Note the wicker baskets on the jetty as well as a steel rod hanging over the water.

Imagine being a passenger aboard a ship prior to 1933 and one’s destination was Port Elizabeth. At that time the town did not yet have a harbour but instead had a number of jetties protruding into the sea: North Jetty as an extension of the eponymous Jetty Street, South Jetty being south of North Jetty and then the latest being Dom Pedro jetty named after a captured slaving ship which sunk at that spot.

From the ship bobbing in the rough sea, the passengers had to scramble down a rope ladder to a waiting tug also bobbing up and down while simultaneously bouncing against the hull of the ship. Even for the most fearless passenger, climbing down a rope ladder was a hair-raising experience. I can imagine the anguish of the frail and elderly. As the ladder swayed in the wind, many passengers would become frozen in fear en route down. Any unlucky passenger who fell into the sea during the descent would face the prospect of being crushed between the tug and the ship bumping against each other. Not a pleasant prospect.  

Lighters being towed to the Jetty from the ships brim full with cargo and passengers in the roadstead

After finally reaching the bottom, the luckless passenger would then have to “jump” onto the bobbing tug and hope that they their timing was accurate. That more people were not killed or injured in the transfer process is a miracle.

This still left the procedure by which passengers embarked onto the tug at North Jetty. In an article in Looking Back dated September 1977, Margery Lochhead provides us with a clue. In an article entitled Reminiscences of Mrs. Margery Lochhead, Born 1888 in Port Elizabeth, she states as follows: “On the Jetty was a waiting room. One had to go down steps, grab a rope and jump into the tug, which took one out to the ship where one had to ascend a hair-raisingly unsteady ladder to board the ship.”

Yet once again a vital step in this procedure has been omitted and remained an enigma. With the sea level fluctuating with the tides, at what level would the platform from which the passenger jumped into the tug be placed. But then the inexplicable steel bar overhanging the jetty came into prominent view for the first time. The role that this steel bar played in jetty operations had been dismissed as being of little significance as no role could be envisaged. Blaine’s overactive imagination made the connection and realised the significance of this bar. In all probability there was a rope attached to it and when the passenger descended the ladder attached to the outside of the jetty, they would grab this rope and swing across to the tug where awaiting sailors would catch them. The designers of this mechanism had overcome of problem of providing a platform whose height had to vary according to the ship’s mass and the tides. What it did mean was that the passenger would have to turn 90 degrees on the appropriate step and then swing.

An elegant solution to an inelegant problem.

Finally after 113 years, Algoa Bay would eventually possess a proper harbour in which ships did not have to disgorge freight and passengers out at sea into unstable boats such as tugs and lighters. The ordeal of passengers negotiating dangling rope ladders and springing across to bobbing vessels was finally at an end.

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  1. Hi Dean,
    You may recall my name. I am one of your readers based in Australia to where my family migrated in 2001.
    After seeing you post a number of pieces in June I’m surprised to see nothing appear in July so far.
    Just letting you know your blog is great to read.
    Jonty Eales

    • Hi Jonty,
      I definitely have not retired from writing blogs on PE but I have updated the book on my great great grandfather, I am in the process of writing a book on the class of 1971 at Alex as well as volume 2 of the book PE of Yore. So I am inundated with work.

      Dean McCleland

    • Hi Jonty
      What I forgot to tell you is that I updated & improved a number of blogs. They were on Fort Frederick,
      Scorey’s Hotel, Phoenix Hotel

      Dean McCleland


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