Port Elizabeth of Yore: Forts at van Stadens during the Boer War

The provision of water to Port Elizabeth from the Van Stadens River, 35 km west of the town, was first mooted in 1862. This was an ongoing process of development, the Upper Van Stadens Dam with its intake weir, filter beds and caretaker’s cottage being completed in 1893. Construction continued early in 1899 on the provision of a pump house, with engine and pumping weir, about 3 km downstream from the Upper Dam complex.

The Van Stadens Waterworks also played a significant role as Port Elizabeth’s main water supply during the Anglo Boer War (1899 – 1902). British reverses on both fronts during the ‘Black Week’ of 9 -15 December 1899 caused alarm and as a result, Port Elizabeth had decided to form a Town Guard in February 1900 to protect them.

Main picture: Fort at Van Stadens River

Town guard

Despite its enthusiastic initiation and regular drills in the Feather Market Hall, the interest in the Town Guard flagged during the year. The invasion of the Cape Colony by General Kritzinger’s commando of 2 000 Boers in December 1900 caused many towns in the Cape Colony to look seriously at their defences in the early months of 1901.

At a special parade on 14 January 1901, Lt-Col EJK Priestly, Base Commandant in Port Elizabeth called for volunteers to form another battalion, to raise a mounted company and to guard the waterworks at Van Stadens. The volunteers for Van Stadens were made up of three officers, eight non-commissioned officers, 86 privates and two buglers. Four days later, the wagon convoy transporting ammunition and baggage left Market Square with an escort of two NCOs and ten troopers, while the main body of the Guard was transported by rail to Uitenhage and then marched 24km to the Van Stadens area.

Fort at Van Stadens River – Entrance to eastern fort

The Town Guard was divided into two forces, one to protect the Pump Station at Van Stadens Gorge and the other the Upper Van Stadens Dam. The men remained there for three months, building two small masonry forts in the hills to the west of the Dam and two more to the east of the Pump Station. They all returned to Port Elizabeth on 14 April, with the exception of two officers, a sergeant and twelve mounted men who had volunteered to stay behind. It is believed that the returnees were replaced by British troops of the 3rd Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, which had landed in South Africa on 30 March 1901 and had its headquarters in Port Elizabeth. Although it is not known how long the forts and waterworks were garrisoned, the 3rd Bn, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, returned to England in February 1902 and the Town Guard was disbanded in October of that year, five months after the end of the war.

Fort at Van Stadens River – Entrance to western fort

Description of the Forts

Similar in construction to other town guard forts in the Cape Colony, the Van Stadens forts had unmortared stone walls about two metres high, with tapered loopholes at one level. The upper fort at Van Stadens Dam is circular in plan with an external diameter of about 10 metres. In addition to an internal wall offset beneath the loopholes, it has an external batter (or slope) to the wall giving a wall thickness of 500mm at the top and 1.1m at the bottom. The entrance on the east side is covered externally by a freestanding length of loop-holed screen wall. A paved walkway or firing step, 1.2m mm wide and 150 mm high, runs around the inside of the circular wall. The name of J. Knox has been etched on one of the stones near the entrance. Apart from a collapsed section of wall about 3 metres long on the west side, the fort is still intact.

The lower fort at the Dam is in the shape of a parallelogram with rounded ends and measures about 7.5 by 17 metres. The walls are 700 mm thick and also have an external batter, but no internal offset. The entrance situated in the middle of the east side, is protected by a projecting right-angled screen wall. An interesting feature is a one metre wide by 1.2 metre deep trench, which begins outside the entrance to the fort and extends 22 metres down the hill to the east, to join another trench which extends laterally in both directions following the contour of the hill; this was undoubtedly designed to provide additional protection in front of the fort, as this slope of the hill faces directly onto the Van Stadens Dam and the caretaker’s cottage. Apart from a 10-metre section of the west wall and three metre length at the south-east corner, which have collapsed to below the level of the loopholes, the fort is today still in a fair condition.

Fort at Van Stadens River

The third fort is above the Van Stadens Gorge Pump Station and is situated on the steep western slope of the Vanstadensberg. It overlooks the narrow gauge railway bridge over the Van Stadens River (which was not yet built) and the water pipeline where it emerges from the Gorge. The fort is of similar size and layout to the lower fort at the Dam, measuring 6m x 17m overall, walls 700mms thick with an external batter and loopholed all round, with the entrance facing down the slope of the hill protected by an external screen wall; it is in good condition. Extending eastward from the fort for nearly 50m is a contour trench, below which are six circular platforms, each about 6m diameter c. into the hillside, with one extra one near the fort above the trench, undoubtedly for tented accommodation for the men; a contour path, also cut into the slope, runs below the tent platforms. Finally, some way north of the fort a V-shaped trench was cut on the lip of the gorge to command the upper section of gorge not directly visible from the fort.

Fort at Van Stadens River

On the ridge of the mountain above the third fort, some distance away and at a higher elevation is a fourth small fort or lookout, measuring 3m x 7m externally, having an entrance facing up the ridge to the south covered by a screen wall. It is of similar construction to the others, but the upper courses of the walls have fallen. This post was most probably built to protect the hilltop above the third fort and may have been used to signal to the two forts at the Dam as these are not visible to the third fort, which is also out of sight from here.

J. Knox on Port Elizabeth Town Guard medal list. Mentions that he was at Van Stadens

Closer to home, it should be remembered that the Cape Road Service Reservoir on the corner of Lenox and Malta Streets, Glendinningvale, was fortified with sandbags and given the name ‘Fort Nottingham’; it was patrolled by the Town Guard during the war. This was located within the Town Guard’s protected perimeter around the town.

Sources

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine

http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol102rt.html

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine

http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol102rt.html

Additional information regarding both the forts above the original dam as well as those defending the water pipeline where it emerges from the Van Stadens Gorge are available in the Port Elizabeth Historical Society’s magazine, Looking Back – Volumes 35 (1996) and 48 (2009) respectively.

Streams of Life: The Water Supply of Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage by David Raymer (2008, Privately Published)

Photos from Joncker Fourie and David Raymer

Descriptions of the forts is derived from Richard Tomlinson of the PE Historical Society

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