Port Elizabeth of Yore: From Temporary Jetty to Focal Point – The North Jetty

The erection of the North Jetty was the second attempt at constructing a jetty in Algoa Bay. The first one had been unceremoniously destroyed in a ferocious gale on the 26th August 1843 when three ships were driven through it. Until the construction of the South and the Dom Pedro jetties almost 30 years later, this small extemporised jetty would serve as the focal point of the harbour.

As it turned out, this temporary jetty would fulfil the starring role as the main jetty until the Charl Malan Quay was built, some 63 years later.

Main picture: An early view of the North Jetty probably from the 1870s

After the destruction in 1843 of the first privately sponsored and ill-fated jetty, pressure was placed on the government to erect a breakwater. Ultimately they had acceded to this request and had built a breakwater south of the Baakens River over the period 1855 to 1867. In terms of this designs, the Baakens River would flow into the harbour itself. Like the first jetty, it too was to be short-lived.

During the flood in 1867, the harbour experienced a catastrophe when it silted up. The villain was the recently constructed breakwater as the contents of the Baakens River emptied into the harbour. Not that the flooding was the only culprit; the design of the breakwater was such that silting had been evident long before the flood of 1867. The design had been defective in facilitating the built up of silt in the harbour from the sand travelling along the coast from the driftsands. This silting had merely been the harbinger of worse events to follow.

Sir John Coode

To securely close the stable door after the horse had bolted, the Cape Government sought the advice of suitable marine engineer in England. An eminent harbour engineer, Sir John Coode, was duly found and appointed as a consultant.

In the meantime, local shipping officials were concerned that the continued silting of the harbour would ultimately preclude the use of the landing beaches within the harbour as the silting was becoming “seriously obstructive”.

The Neate Report
As Coode was not available to personally perform the inspection and with the increasing angst in local shipping circles, Parliament acceded to this pressure and requested that Coode recommend a suitable candidate in England. On Coode’s recommendation, Charles Neate was appointed with a remit of surveying and reporting on all of the Cape’s harbours. As can be expected, Neate did not come cheap. His fee was £140 per month while absent from England. Compare this to the salary that my great-great grandfather, Rev Francis McCleland, was earning in Port Elizabeth at the time. It was a modest £200 per annum, just like other pastors at the time. Many probably considered it cheap at the price given the fiasco that the design of the breakwater had been.

Neate completed his assessment of the harbour works and moved onto East London in February 1869. Soon thereafter the Harbour Board was in a tailspin. The Harbour Master, Skead, reported that there had been very serious shoaling since he had conducted the survey of the harbour area for Neate.  [In fluid dynamics, wave shoaling is the effect by which surface waves entering shallower water change in wave height. It is caused by the fact that the group velocity, which is also the wave-energy transport velocity, changes with water depth.] The beachline had extended by 37 metres in eight weeks and was threatening to extend beyond the shield which was now only 41 metres away. Due to the urgency of the matter, Skead concluded that there was no time to wait for Neate to report to Coode in London. Understandably, Skead strongly urged the Harbour Board to open the breakwater so that the sand could be cleared by the scouring action of current drifting up the coast.

Neate prevaricates
As the Harbour Board did not have the authority to order what Skead requested, they turned to Neate who by now was in Durban. He too expressed his reluctance to issue any instructions to demolish even part of the breakwater. Fortune favoured the Harbour Board as the Governor was on one of his periodic visits to Port Elizabeth. In turn Neate was requested to make a recommendation to the Board on his way back to Cape Town. As Inggs states, “He [Neate] was most reluctant to express an opinion pending the eport of Mr. Coode. But felt the best of action, without prejudicing Coode’s plans, was to open the breakwater near the shield for about 27 metres. This would allow a scoring current through. Sufficient piles would have to be left in to support the decking”

19th century photo of a steam locomotives on the jetty

Unintended consequence
The North Jetty was conceived not through an official procurement process with budgets, timelines and drawings but rather like an illicit fling which satisfied a base need. The immediate and ineluctable consequence of creating a gap in the breakwater, would be the scouring out the unwanted sand but by this process this sand would be deposited on the landing beaches north of the Baakens River thereby defeating the objective of the exercise. The solution was to construct a temporary open jetty at the bottom of Jetty Street.   

Above: North Jetty by Robert Harris

According to Inggs, “To save money, the piles removed from the breakwater could be used. It was to be 91 metres long with a 23-metre head for accommodating lighters.” Furthermore the jetty was conveniently near to the spot already identified and earmarked for a railway terminus. Neate estimated that the jetty’s cost would be a paltry £1400 whereas the cost of removing the stone below the waterline on the breakwater would cost £2100 which required the purchase of a diving bell.

Port Elizabeth residents waiting eagerly on the docks for the Royal Navy’s HMS Hood and HMS Repulse to arrive

The board approved the idea and notified Parliament that it was prepared to carry out the work with its permission. In doing so, it also took the opportunity to excoriate the Board’s former resident engineer, A.G. Warren, for the breakwater being, as they termed it, ”an expensive failure”  amongst their milder and politer accusations.

What the adoption of this plan meant was the construction of a jetty which would become the main jetty of Port Elizabeth harbour from 1870 to 1933, a period of 63 years, after which the Charl Malan Quay would become operational. 

Work commences
Factors far away from Port Elizabeth would now impact construction. Like a magnet, the lure of diamonds proved irresistible for some. The Work’s Foreman reported that the best of the men had left for the Diamond Fields and those that were left, demanded higher wages. Even a 6d per day increase had not righted the scales of supply and demand.

In February 1870 work on this jetty commenced with the driving of new piles for the jetty. When the 25-metre abutment between the shore and the jetty was completed, it was found to be 3.3 metres high and 2.2 metres wide. The jetty building exercise was now being constricted by a shortage of timber as the construction of the jetty was dependent on the rate at which piles were being removed from the breakwater. Because of limited funds available, no new timber could be purchased to speed up the process.

Exacerbating the problem as Andrews reported, were the difficulties experienced in extracting piles from the breakwater. As Inggs phlegmatically notes, “One pile alone had taken three weeks to remove prompting [Andrews] to order a hydraulic lift from England. But even this was not enough. To further speed up work,  another lift had been ordered……As a result of Andrew’s report on the problems being experienced, Parliament authorised more money for the project”.

Port Elizabeth, circa 1900. Locomotive and goods trucks at north jetty in Port Elizabeth Harbour

In due course Andrews inspected the works and suggested that the jetty be extended to 45.7 metres, giving it a total length from the shore of 146.3 metres”. When told that no work was to be undertaken on the extension pending Coode’s approval, Andrews was deeply offended and highly aggrieved. Apart from implying that they lacked confidence in him, there was a physical reason why the construction should proceed. That related to the head of the jetty. As it could not be built, the body of the jetty was unprotected and was in danger of being swept away by the first heavy seas. To add salt to the wound, he noted his disapproval of the present system of management and its improper line of conduct. Ouch. Andrews cleared bore a grudge and had to vent his spleen on a number of issues.

Problems abound
As a result of Andrew’s resignation, responsibility for the works passed to the chief inspector of public works, M.R. Robinson, in March 1871. Lack of trust and ill-feeling was also palpable between the Harbour Board and the Government. The Board’s complaint related to the discourtesy in not being officially informed of Robinson’s, or for that matter, Andrews’ appointment.

It was now that Coode approved Andrews’ suggestion that the jetty be extended. His only caveat was that it should not extend beyond 152 metres as it would be prejudicial to the future improvements to the port as envisaged by Coode. Robinson in turn agreed with Andrews that the works required professional supervision. In line with this thinking, he appointed James Bisset as Resident Engineer.

Tug in foreground is bringing in passengers from the mail boat [2 funnels]

As the extraction of piles  from the breakwater was the only issue delaying the construction of the jetty, confusion arose regarding an order for sneeze wood that was placed by both Andrews and the government. As a result of this confusion, the cutters had been reluctant to proceed with the order. To resolve this impasse, Bisset had to personally travel to the Alexandria forests.

North Jetty in before 1895 because the steam cranes had been replaced with hydraulic cranes by then

Upon closer inspection of the works, Robinson made two observations. Firstly he reported that the jetty was too narrow and would probably have to be widened. He was appalled by the fact that the extraction of the piles was being performed by “high-waged free labour” as he termed it. Instead he recommended the use of convicts. Shortly thereafter permission was granted for convicts to be placed at the Harbour Board’s disposal. Nonetheless little progress could be made until a gang of 130 arrived in July 1871. On average 80 worked on the breakwater and the rest on the jetty.

Port Elizabeth from the Jetty

Robinson assesses the situation
Robinson took charge of the works on 13th March 1871. As one of his first tasks was to review the financial position, he discovered that £8103 1s 5d had already been expended, “a sum exceeding the estimate ……though the jetty is incomplete, and little, if any, permanent advantage has arisen from opening the breakwater”.  On the other hand the jetty had “already proved to be of great advantage for landing and embarking passengers, and for other light boat work”. Further investigation revealed that inferior timber had been used in places which would require replacement within six years. Since 1869, only 69 main piles had been driven and 1688 metres of 9ft by 3ft (2.74m by 0.91m) decking boards laid.

Above: Three Union-Castle passenger tenders – the Bellona, Itala and Talana are approaching the North Jetty

Addressing the future, Robinson had some very pertinent and prescient thoughts. In essence as regards the improvements proposed by Coode, he considered them not to be of pressing importance. In this assessment, he would be proved to be 100% accurate. Coode’s grandiose scheme would contribute to a delay in the construction of a proper quay by many decades. What Robinson considered to be of greater importance was the completion and widening of the present jetty, the erection of another jetty in iron and the removal of the dangerous sandbanks about the breakwater. The latter action would be achieved by the action of the scour through the opening near the shield. For all of this work, Robinson was of the opinion that a loan of £25,000 would suffice. As opposed to this was Coode’s proposal over 4 phases amounting to £442 745, a vast sum which the government could ill-afford. In its 1870 report, the Harbour Board took the government to task for its tardiness and the inefficient nature of the operations. In other words, in the modern parlance, they were not getting “bang for their buck”.

Port Elizabeth taken from the North Jetty in the early 1900s. The Cuthberts Building is towering above the rest in Main Street

During 1883 a 64 metre extension to the North Jetty was completed at a cost of £57 627.

This jetty, with later extensions and another approach, served until the harbour was built.

North Jetty showing the original abutment

In its annual report, presented to Parliament on 31st December 1892, the Harbour Board stated that its buildings to house the hydraulic power machinery to operate the cranes on the jetties was nearly completed. This structure, with its tall chimney was at the mouth of the Baakens River. Act 23 of 1890 enabled the Harbour Board to finance the lengthening of North Jetty, the widening of the working head, the widening of the viaduct end for a gangway to secure the safety of passengers, and the acquisition and installation of equipment to drive hydraulic cranes and provide electricity to light the Board’s property properly. Work could now be done after dark on fine, still nights. The extensions to the jetty were completed in July 1894.

North Jetty at night

By 1898 the famous basket [used to transfer passengers between the lighters and the jetty] had been introduced here, but it was only used when weather conditions made it necessary. A further upgrade of the harbour’s elecrical supply, was the construction of an electric power house

End of the saga
The construction of the North Jetty has been an unintended consequence of the catastrophic failure of the initial breakwater. It commenced as a temporary measure to service vessels which were unable to enter the harbour due to the silting. Instead the North Jetty operated until the Charl Malan Quay entered operation in 1933 ie 63 years for a temporary jetty to serve as the main jetty in the second largest harbour in South Africa.

An explosion on North Jetty
When the North Jetty became operational, steam cranes were used for handling cargo. One afternoon during 1886, an explosion occured when the heavy-duty boiler on one of the cranes burst. One of the men killed was John Benjamin Bowen, a young apprentice boilerman. The detonation is said to have rocked the town. Several others were killed, including Edwin Leekblade, who is buried not far from Bowen, who is interred on the right of the main path in St Mary’s cemetery

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