Initially there were 4000 Settlers camped in tents amongst the sand dunes without running water or ablution facilities. Upon their departure, those who, for whatever reason remained, would have faced the nightmarish twin plights of erecting a shelter and eking out a living. Both were daunting. Nothing was uncomplicated. Everything was a challenge. Nothing could have prepared them for what they had to face.
At best the living conditions in this undeveloped land must have been primitive and at worst squalid. JJ Redgrave in this book, Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days, provides a peak into this unknown world.
Main picture: Examples of Settlers’ Homes
Most of those remaining in Port Elizabeth after the settlers had departed for Albany would have wondered whether they had made the correct decision to leave home permanently for a land without even the barest necessities. Today, many casting their eyes on photographs of Port Elizabeth in the late 1800s with its elegant town hall and marvellous buildings enclosing the market square would be forgiven for imagining that this reflected life for the early settlers. How wrong could they be? Compounding the complication in attempting to understand Port Elizabeth’s early history, is a lack of records. Apart from a Fort with soldiers and a sprinkling of other dwellings, it was vacant. Unoccupied. Deserted.
Roof over their heads
Maslow, an American psychologist, once insightfully opined that the most basic of human needs related to security and one of the components at the base of this pyramid of needs, was shelter. It is unclear how this issue was resolved. That begs the question of how the inhabitants progressed from tents, with which they were issued, to elegant permanent dwellings. No where in the literature on Port Elizabeth has this aspect of the early residents been addressed. One can make some intelligent assumptions. It is safe to assume that most would initially have used the tents with which they were issued. But what is unclear is whether they made the transition directly from tents to properly constructed houses. My contention is that even though many possessed the skills vital to construct a house as they were stone masons or other skill, they lacked one vital resource, the local branch of the Builders Warehouse. Even if it had miraculously appeared, in many cases they would have lacked another vital ingredient: money. It was a classic catch 22 situation.
Against this background, I assume that most cottages initially produced would have been rudimentary with wattle and daub walls protected by a thatch roof.
Many would have been constructed in Main Street; High Street in those days. In the second phase, double storey buildings would have been built. In the typical manner of the time, the ground floor would have been reserved for a shop or a workshop. All the great entrepreneurs of that era such as Geard operated on that basis. It was only 30 years later that the rising elite would escape to the Hill, as it was then known.
The only reference that I am able to uncover relating to the period immediately after the settlers left for the eastern frontier, is this one in JJ Redgrave’s book, a rather sombre, pessimistic view of the village in 1822 by a certain Mr. S. Hudson who wrote as follows: .”Scarcely one house can be called decent. Miserable little huts run up without taste or convenience, for every man who has built a pigsty in England considers himself capable of erecting a house in Port Elizabeth.” Perhaps it was unfair given the lack of any form of resources in the town. Nevertheless, it reflected the reality of the situation.
This unsavoury reputation would persist for many years to come. Similar comments were made by sailors aboard the Dutch vessel, the Zeepaard, which in 1823 had been wrecked off the coast at Bushy Park.
Theunissen, one of the crew lamented that “the population is poor. A tailor, who charged me three times his [normal] rate, admitted that poverty forced him to take the opportunity to do so. These and other similar observations made me lament the fate of these unfortunates.”
Sanitation and Hygiene
During the early 1820s, Port Elizabeth was not a separate municipal area but rather part of Uitenhage, the region’s administrative centre. Inasmuch as the officials were cognisant of the lack of hygiene, they did raise the alarm. As early as 1824 the local Magistrate made a strong representation to the Governor “for the better regulation of the Police at the rising town of P.E. where an English (and not a very orderly) population is fast increasing”.
In the following year the limits of the township of Algoa Bay were defined as “An imaginary line drawn from the place of Michael Cordie and McCullock situated at the south-west point of Algoa Bay, up to the place of Jacobus Theodorus Botha, thence to the place of Gert H. Halzhuizen, thence to the place of the widow Pieter Schouw, now Newcomb’s. then down the Little Zwartkops River whose source is at the last-mentioned place, following the same down to where it empties itself into the Great Zwartkops River and thence down the same to its mouth at the coast, including all the inhabitants residing at the places and within the limits before-mentioned, shall form the Township of Algoa Bay. And be it forthwith enacted that the town at Algoa Bay shall be designated in all public acts as Port Elizabeth “.
Redgrave critically states that “The dwellings springing up at all angles, regardless of any future thought for a well-planned town, were damp, dirty and ill-ventilated.”
Situation in the 1850s
In many respects Port Elizabeth was not unlike the towns back in the mother country. At that time, no formal sewerage system had yet been developed. Backyards, alleyways and gutters became the recipients of the slops and dirty water of all forms.
Apart from the water supply, what to do with the town’s sewerage was the most serious problem that faced the municipality over the years. After abandoning the very early arrangement of depositing it on the beach below the high-water mark, the bucket system was introduced, with variations in the manner of organisation as time passed. The service lanes which still exist in the older parts of the City are a reminder of the outside toilet and its bucket. This situation would be perpetuated until after 1916 when the town’s first sewerage pipes were laid in Russell Street after being stalled for 14 years.
Redgrave lamented that “Unfortunately. even in the early ‘fifties. there had been but little improvement in the order and cleanliness of the town. The thoroughfares called streets were rough stony tracks where ox wagons, horsemen and the boisterous winds raised clouds of dust in dry weather. and were converted into pools and slush at every downpour. For light, these streets depended at night on the moon and stars. and when these were absent, pedestrians guided their steps by the light of a swinging lantern”.
Water supply had been problematic in the early days, but the creation of public wells had been dug to meet the demand. In the ongoing quest to provide water to the town, a dam was built on the Shark River in Humewood. A solitary iron pipe was laid from Gomery [Humewood] to the town, supplied brackish water to the lower end of Main Street. As it turned out the piped water was just as inconvenient in that, like with the wells, a receptacle with water had to be carted to one’s home. This restricted the number of “luxury” uses of the water such as bathing.
With no refuse removal service, household refuse was thrown into the streets or on any convenient vacant plot of which there were still many, whilst “round the corner”, the cattle were being slaughtered and the carcasses left to rot or to be devoured by stray cats and dogs which were the curse of the town, frequent rounding-up parties being organised among the townsfolk to destroy them.
From a waste generation perspective, this was an era a century prior to the throw-away society where single use products became the norm. Bottles and even egg boxes were re-used. Fruit and vegetables were home grown, and if not, purchased fresh and not in a tin or frozen. Likewise with meat, chicken and eggs. Clothes were homemade. The volume of waste generated was a fraction of today’s refuse. Nonetheless, at the very least, waste was produced but there was no discernable method of its sanitary disposal. That begs the question of what happened to it.
During the 1920s,the Council introduced refuse removal trucks. My brother, Blaine, pointed out that as these small vehicles could only carry one cubic metre of waste, it could only carry the equivalent of five wheelie bins of waste. This is indicative of the meagre volumes of waste produced during this era. Nevertheless, it does not detract from the need to provide a hygienic method of waste disposal.
Perhaps the people of this era were inured to the rancid odour of rotting carcasses or the nauseating small of waste water but the issue was more intrusive than that. Germane to this discussion, is the volume of animal droppings in the streets. This applied not only the problem of horse droppings but also that of the oxen. Imagine 50 ox wagons each drawn by 8 oxen parking in Main Street to attend the market.
For the most part, it would only be the introduction of technology which would resolve these problems, not merely locally but internationally. With few exceptions, most cities are established along the banks of a large river. Like London, its river served as its sewer as well as its water source.
Port Elizabeth did not have this luxury.
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)