Port Elizabeth of Yore:  Joys and tragedies of sea swimming of the 1880s

Having already dealt with the bathing rules, regulations and customs such as non-mixed bathing i.e. males and females swimming together – how immodest – and the areas allocated for swimming in another blog, I will now deal with the bathing events and tragic incidents in the 1880s as recalled by a Mr N. Cripps who would later be appointed as the first Speaker in the Rhodesian Parliament.

Main picture:  1894 Bathing House at the mouth of the Baakens River

This is an almost verbatim transcript from his article entitled Memories. In certain instances, I have elaborated on his story, where necessary, in order to provide context for those unfamiliar with the norms and locations of the era. In addition, I have on occasion amended his prose for readability. To assist the reader in distinguishing who is the author, I have italicised Cripps’ writing.

Most of the experiences that Cripps relates in his “Memories” occurred while he was a junior in a merchanting company.  Being the junior, his hours of work were from 6 am when he had to open the doors until 5:30 pm but to compensate for his long hours, he was given Sunday off. In reading this blog, it must be borne in mind that unlike today, most people were unable to swim and lifesavers were non-existent. As a consequence, there were periodic drownings. Within the confines of Algoa Bay, there was a stretch of over 100 kms of pristine beaches which little backwash or rip tides. After fierce south-east winds however, the swimming conditions could be treacherous.

Bathing on the Landing Beaches
The bathing place for men was on the same beach where surf boats worked and I used to manage to bathe in summer before going to the store at 6 a.m. when I had the key for the front door. Bathing arrangements were primitive, a tiny wooden jetty 5 ft high, under or over which the water was free to move according to the tides. [This area colloquially called the Landing Beaches, were located between the present day Jetty Street and the Baakens River] All undressed in the open and went stark naked, but it was worthwhile and there was no mixed bathing in those good old days. [I have been unable to establish exactly when females were permitted to swim in a public area but I presume that swimming for females was only allowed when the Bathing House was constructed in the Baakens River mouth and certainly Humewood was a mixed bathing area when it was opened up] . A very strong current used to sweep along [the coast] and stir up the sand after a south-easter, when great breakers came in. We used to meet these [breakers], swim or dive through them and return with the following one. Every third one was the rule, as also with this one the fishing boats took advantage, landing them well up on the sand. After [drinking] water had been piped into P.E. from the Van Stadens River, the town’s drains opened into the water on the landing beach and bathing there was no longer possible. [This disgusting procedure was caused by the inhabitants refusing to pay additional levies to fund the construction of proper sewerage plants. Ultimately Port Elizabeth capitulated but the neighbouring town, Walmer, soldiered on without water borne sewerage until the 1950s.]

Rodwell, the first shark attack victim
In later years when the bathing beach of the “good old days” was no longer available for the enthusiasts among the young men, they swam from the new South End Jetty, where a bathing house had been erected. One of the regular swimmers was Rodwell, who usually went out and swam around a buoy and back again. One morning he had got around the buoy and was returning when those on the jetty spotted an enormous shark making for him. A warning was given and Rodwell swam for the jetty for all he knew, with the shark in full pursuit. The race was an unequal one and the monster soon overhauled his quarry, turned on his side and made a grab at the swimmer’s leg. This was partially avoided by a dexterous turn at right angles but the cruel teeth made a huge gash in the thigh. Fortunately there was no pain felt and Rodwell held on for the jetty, which he reached. As he fetched the steps, a youngster caught his hands and proceeded to haul him out. This the shark determined to have a hand in preventing, so grabbed one of the legs below the knee. It was a case then of “pull devil, pull tailor” Luckily the latter won the pull but Rodwell’s leg below the knee was left as a sop to his opponent.

The pluck and indifference to pain then displayed by Rodwell was most remarkable. He called for his clothes and paid the bathing housekeeper 1/- which he owed to him and was then driven to the hospital, a distance of 1½ to 2 miles, in a cab. There his leg was amputated above the first gash made by the shark on the thigh. He refused to take chloroform and bore the operation unflinchingly.

This incident created a great flutter among the habitual bathers from that jetty and many were to be seen after that bathing off the sea wall where there was shallower water and where a good lookout could be kept for any sharks intent on tasting human flesh.

According to Margaret Harradine, this incident occured on the 28th January 1886 as follows: The first recorded shark attack occurred off the South Jetty. While William Rodwell was having an early morning swim, a shark appeared. Onlookers alerted him and he swam for the steps alongside the jetty. Helpers were waiting, but before he was clear of the water the shark bit off a leg below the knee. Rodwell was given help as quickly as possible and survived.

Tragedy of the Collegiate School girls
Another tragedy which more viscerally shocked those who lived in the peaceful & tranquil atmosphere of Port Elizabeth of the 80’s was the fatal accident which happened to some of the pupils of the Collegiate Girls School. [This incident occurred on the 2nd October 1886]

All bathing took place from the Bathing House, situated at the outflow of the muddy Baaken’s River. The current at this point was very strong and more so when, after a heavy south-easter, the sea bottom was pitted with large, deep holes, in which the water swirled and dragged at the swimmer. The girls were inexperienced in sea bathing, and particularly, as happened on this day, in the unexpected and treacherous nature of such a sea after a south-east gale. To the horror of the watching governess who was in charge, the girls were soon observed to be in difficulties. Two of them were swept away by the current, never to be heard of again, a third, feeling herself being dragged under, flung herself on her back and floated to safety, and one was washed towards the bathing house where she was rescued.

No lifesavers or rescue appliances were at hand and no accident had happened before to mar the pleasure of the young people who flocked, in fine weather, to avail themselves of the amenity of the first bathing house to have been erected.

Miss Hall succeeded Miss Isitt as Headmistress in 1886. Beyond being told that she was strict, but that her girls loved her, not very much is known of Miss Hall. It was during her first year as Headmistress and her headmistress-ship that the tragedy mentioned above occurred. This episode affected her life terribly such that 3 years later in 1889 she relinquished her position to Miss E. Molteno who became the third headmistress. For years after this disaster, boarders were not allowed to bathe in the sea even during holidays.  

Salt water baths near Dom Pedro Jetty
This depiction of swimming by Collegiate Girls School does not relate to the 1880s but rather to 1906. Given the fact that it fits into the sea swimming story, I have included it in this blog. Mrs M.E. Hall was the author of this story and I have merely purlioned a reproduction from the Collegiate Yearbook of 1906.

Later in the year, it was decided to set aside regular episodes for swimming. The salt water baths near the Dom Pedro Jetty had been used by the Collegiate for years, but more for the fun of a good splash than for serious swimming. Twenty yards in twenty seconds for girls over sixteen, was considered worthwhile mentioning in the Magazine. It was quite exciting getting to the baths in rough weather, dodging the waves which broke over the sea wall. The sexes were strictly segregated then and the younger girls usually wore one piece boys’ black stockinette costumes, costing about 3/11d.   

An Appreciation of Port Elizabeth of the 80s by N. Cripps (Looking Back, Vol IV, No. 1, 1966)
The Collegiate School for Girls Part One 1873-1910 by M.E. Hall ((Looking Back, Vol IV, No. 1, 1966)

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