Port Elizabeth of Yore: Mills – The First Automated Processes

Mills were initially used for grinding grain into flour and in the case of Port Elizabeth they were used to compress bales of wool. Prior to the invention of motors, mills were powered by wind or water. During the Industrial Revolution, the definition of mills was expanded to include factories fitted with machinery which performed a specific manufacturing process.

Main picture: Painting of Cradock Place with the mill tower in the background by Thomas Baines

When the  settlers came to the Eastern Province the only forms of power available to them, other than human and animal, were wind and water, and it was not long before windmills and waterwheels had been constructed to serve the growing community.   

The First Flour Mill
The first flour mill was constructed by Frederick Korsten shortly after 1812 on his huge estate at Cradock Place. Nothing has survived but a clutch of photographs. The mill was used for the grinding of corn in  times of peace but also acted as a valued place of refuge from the marauding Khoikhoi and Xhosa warriors during the sporadic Frontier Wars..

Frederick  Korsten had in his employ a miller to whom he was much attached. One day, whilst he was engaged in repairing the sails a sudden gust of wind caused the sails to revolve. In the process a beam struck him on the head, killing him instantly. After this tragic death of his faithful servant, Frederick Korsten would never again work the mill. The roof and machinery were removed, and a number of small turrets were built around the top, on which was erected a flagstaff. Among the family and friends the tower was then called the ‘Fort van de Leur’ and was mounted with two small brass cannons, fired off by the grandsons on great occasions.  

Frederick Korsten

A picture of Cradock Place painted by Thomas Baines in the 1870’s shows the windmill in full working order.  Later pictures show that it had been dismantled and used as a fortress and storehouse. The tower survived until well into the 1920’s but subsequently it has been completely destroyed.

First steam mills
During September 1848, William Henry Coleman’s steam mills were completed, the first of their kind in the Eastern Province, They were located on the lower corner of Military Road and Baakens Street.

Shortly after Coleman’s mills became operational, John Owen Smith’s steam mills, the second to be built here, began operating on the 26th April 1850.

The Port Elizabeth Steam Mill Company
The official opening of the Port Elizabeth Steam Mill Company was on the 6th September 1884. The building in Queen Street was designed by G.W. Smith. The PESM Company was formed on 6 July 1882 with Chairman and Directors John Tudhope, M.G. Salomon, Robert Davidson. Charles Hannam, James Brister and H.W. Dalldorf. In 1891, after a merger with Richard Attwell’s milling company  in Cape Town, it became the S.A. Milling Company.

The story of how Snowflake became South Africa’s most loved flour begins in the late 1880s when the Port Elizabeth Steam Mill Company was founded and, in 1884, the Snowflake brand was officially registered.

The P.E. Steam Mill Company was opened on 6 September 1884. It later became the South African Milling Company.

In the same year, gold was discovered in South Africa and expansion to Cape Town was rapid, where the well-regarded company, JW Stephen & Co, was appointed as agents. Despite the second Anglo Boer war, the company flourished, and the tallest mill standing at an impressive 50 metres tall was built in Cape Town. By 1891 the PE Steam Mill Company had merged with Cape Town’s Attwell Bakery and the first Snowflake adverts began to appear.

Schedule of mills

Name/LocationDate builtPowerOwnerUsage
Cradock PlaceAfter 1812WindFrederick KorstenFlour & corn mill
Gubb’s LocationUnknownUnknownThomas W. GubbUnknown
Holmes’ sawmillUnknownUnknownThomas HolmesCutting wood
Noordhoek MillUnknownUnknownUnknownUnknown
Evatt’s MillUnknownUnknownUnknownUnknown
Coleman’s Mill1848SteamW.H. ColemanFlour
John O. SmithUnknownSteamJohn Owen SmithUnknown
PE Steam Mill Co.Sep 1884Steam Flour

Note: Holme’s mill was the first sawmill in Port Elizabeth. The street in which it was located in Mill Street, just off Main Street  

Unidentified mills

Mill at Chelsea Point
In setting up his woolwashing plant, John Wyatt chose a remote and inaccessible location. During the 1860s the only direct connection with Port Elizabeth was across the soft drift sand area which almost hermetically sealed this rocky southern coastline from the town itself. As this sand was fickle and capricious, forming ridge lines of skittish sand dunes forever on the move, never settling at one location for long. Instead the wool-bearing wagons must have made their way along the coastline until they encountered the Old Fisheries Road at the Shark River. It was at this lonely and isolated place close to Chelsea Point that Wyatt located his water mill. It was beside a natural spring on the farm De Fontyne – later known as De Duine – the dunes in English. This spring still runs today.

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