Port Elizabeth of Yore: Railways to the Platteland

Before the advent of railways, transport inland across country by wagon or even horse was slow and arduous. The discovery of diamonds at Dutoitspan near Kimberley provided further impetus for the adoption of a more effective means of transport in the Cape.

Main picture: Little Bess locomotive used at the opening of line to Swartkops.

Private initiative

Initially the Cape government professed no interest in setting up a railway network probably due to the costs involved. Instead the private sector took the initiative as they recognised the advantages of a speedy and efficient service. Cape Town beat Port Elizabeth in constructing a railway line with The Cape Town Railway and Dock Company starting construction of a railway line from Cape Town in 1859 reaching Eerste River by 1862 and Wellington by 1863. Meanwhile, by 1864, the Wynberg Railway Company had connected Cape Town and Wynberg. For the moment, railway development at the Cape did not continue eastwards beyond Wellington due to the barrier presented by the mountains of the Cape Fold Belt.

Forces within Port Elizabeth recognised the advantages of rail transport as well. To this end, a potential line to Uitenhage had been surveyed by D. MacDonald and P.M. Pfeil by 1866. As soon as the Cape Government gave the green light to proceed with the Port Elizabeth railway, no time was lost in getting under way.

The Uitenhage Times of 19 May 1871 informed its readers of a newly-formed company, named “The Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage Railway Company“, with an authorised capital of £75 000, divided into 3 000 shares of £25 each. The prospectus revealed that “The Company is formed for the purposes of constructing and working a line of Railway, upon the narrow-gauge system, betwixt Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage, a distance of 21 miles“.

Selection of the gauge

The first few rudimentary lines at Cape Town were built on the dimensions close to the British Empire‘s standard of 4 ft 8½ inches (1,435 mm). However this width, designed for England‘s landscape, made it impossible at the time to penetrate the mountains of the rugged Southern African escarpment, meaning that most of the sub-continent was effectively landlocked. In 1871 Molteno wrote to the British Governor of the Cape, Sir Henry Barkly, about the gauge which was used to penetrate the mountainous terrain near Trieste in northern Italy, believing it would also work in crossing the South African mountains. A narrower gauge enabled tighter turns and traversing steeper terrain. When the first elected Cape government took power the following year, the select committee set the gauge for all new railways at 3’-6”. The use of a dual system was briefly kept, to ease the transition for the existing wider lines, but in only a few months the government standardised all railway development on what became known as the “Cape Gauge” of 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm).

Sir John Charles Molteno

Although it was first meant just to ease construction of railways through mountainous terrain, this gauge later went on to become the standard for all railways in southern and central Africa.

Economics of the gauge

Even though the railway line from Port Elizabeth to Uitenhage which was the only line under consideration from Port Elizabeth at that time did not face the prospect of impassable mountain ranges, what was of greater importance from their perspective was the cost. As the principle of railway using this gauge had been used successfully in other countries and it was installed at less than half the cost of the 4 ft – 8½ ins. gauge of English lines but it would nevertheless allow a travelling speed of 18-25 mph, it was accepted as the gauge to be used. In effect, at a speed pf 25mph, that would imply that a day’s drive between the sister towns would be reduced to one hour.

It was established that by being economical during construction, avoiding all extravagant expenditure in stations and the usual lavish outlay upon railway works, this line could be laid for about £3 000 per mile, including rolling stock – especially as it presented no engineering difficulties, being practically level and the only expensive work was a bridge over the Zwartkops River. The survey for the line had been completed by Mr D. Macdonald C.E., the Government Surveyor, and Mr M. Pfeil C.E. by the time the first Railway Bill was tabled in 1866. Subsequently Mr D. Macdonald, in his capacity as the Engineer of the Company, also prepared the plans for the line.

Port Elizabeth, September 1879. Construction gang at station

Construction commences

The response to the share offer was above expectations, some 2400 shares being taken up locally. The first General Meeting of shareholders was held on 1 November 1871, for the purpose of electing nine directors, in whom the general management of the Company would be vested.

Sir Henry Barkly

There was great excitement in the Bay when on 9 January 1872 the Governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Henry Barkly, turned the first sod at Zwartkops. The delay in settling land matters for the Port Elizabeth station was the reason for this ceremony having taken place at Zwartkops.

At a meeting of shareholders held in August 1872, it was resolved to accept the Company Engineer’s offer to take over unsold shares and to complete the line for £61 000. The Engineer drew the Chairman’s attention to the fact that because of the decision to adopt the 3′ – 6″ gauge instead of the 3 ft gauge, on which the contract price had been based, and on account of the increased price of labour and iron, the ultimate cost would be more than had originally been estimated.

Cape 1st-class 4-4-0T standing at Redhouse c 1880

A progress report dated February 1873 revealed: “There is every probability of the earthworks being completed before the rails arrive. The delay for these having been caused partly by the strikes among the iron workers at home and partly by the correspondence between this end and England before an order could be placed.

The Cape Government Railway [CGR]

The discovery of diamonds, and the consequent rush to Kimberley that started in 1871, gave impetus to the development of railways in South Africa. Shortly afterwards, in 1872, the Cape Colony attained responsible government under the leadership of Prime Minister John Molteno, who presented plans for an enormous network of railways to connect the Cape Colony’s main ports to its interior and, more importantly, to the Diamond Fields. In his very first speech to the Cape Parliament he announced the purchase of all existing lines and the founding of the Cape Government Railways.

The announced expansion was to see the construction of a network over ten times more extensive than the total length of railway that existed in the whole of southern Africa at the time. The management of this system – which was to become the nucleus of the future South African Railways – initially fell under his Public Works Department, until July 1873, when Molteno established a separate Railway Department under the renowned engineer William Brounger.


The first three locomotives for the new Cape gauge lines were built by Manning Wardle & Company in 1873 and 1874. The first two, ex works on 12 March and 3 May 1873 respectively, were delivered in 1873 to Mac Donald & Company, contractors to the Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage Railway Company in Port Elizabeth. The contractors named them Pioneer and Little Bess respectively.

The third locomotive, ex works on 6 February 1874, was delivered to the Western System in Cape Town in 1874 and was numbered W46 in the Western’s number range.


During the Railway Debate in Parliament in 1872, on the subject of railway extensions, a Bill was introduced for raising sufficient capital to proceed, inter alia, with an extension from Zwartkops to Bushman’s River (Alicedale) at an estimated cost of £288 750 (including the cost of the line from Port Elizabeth, already authorised). This project was sanctioned, and an immediate start was made with the earthworks. In February 1873 it was reported: “On the Government line to Commando Kraal (Addo) we found the Gov. Engineer, Mr Bisset C.E., hard at work with the contractor, Mr Gatlifte, very early in the morning on the top of the hill beyond Rawson’s bridge … Nearly eleven miles of earthworks have been completed, having been brought right to the Zwartkops River.” This line was known as the North-Eastern Railway, and ultimately linked up at De Aar with the railway extension from Wellington.

The entity tasked with controlling and managing the rail network in the Cape was the Cape Government Railways (CGR) which was the government-owned railway operator in the Cape Colony from 1874 until the creation of the South African Railways (SAR) in 1910

Government’s plan

The government’s 1872 plan was for lines to strike northwards, from the three ports of Cape TownPort Elizabeth and East London, towards Kimberley and the developing hinterland. These three lines became known as the “Cape Western”, “Cape Midland” and “Cape Eastern” lines respectively. They were intended to bring the towns of southern Africa’s vast hinterland into direct railway connection with the country’s ports, thus driving the development of the interior and building an export economy.

The Cape Midland Line was begun in 1872, when the Cape Government took over the rudimentary and incomplete line of the Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage Railway Company. However building accelerated massively over the next few years, with twin lines reaching northwards to Graaff-Reinet, and eastwards to Grahamstown. These connected with the Cape Western Line at De Aar and thus to Kimberley.

Test run

At the Annual General Meeting of The Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage Railway Company on 1 September 1873, the contractor stated that most of the machinery etc. was on its way out from England. Six weeks later the Eastern Province Herald of 17 October 1873 reported : “Yesterday, 16th day of October 1873 should be a red-letter day for the Eastern Province, for on that day was started the first train – was heard the first railway whistle . . . .Between 2 and 3 miles of rail having been laid, and the engine, Pioneer, ready for work, Mr Bisset, the Engineer in charge of the works, merely intended to try the engine out with a few trucks along the line so far completed, and he had invited a few friends to join him in the experiment”.

When the private railway from Port Elizabeth to Uitenhage was purchased by the Government in 1875, this line and its extension to Graaff-Reinet became known as the Midland Railway.

Report on the opening

The good news rapidly spread through the town that the train was to start at 3 o’clock, and long before that hour crowds of people flocked to the workshops and the station, where the Pioneer stood, with the three open trucks linked behind it. Just before the appointed time the engine, with a preliminary snort, ran up the line for a short distance and back again as a test. The three trucks were speedily crammed by uninvited guests as well as Mr Bisset’s friends, which included the Mayor and Councillors, and at the word of command, steam hissed and the whistle shrieked in the face of the darkies, who thronged the fence and who were almost besides themselves with amazement and excitement.

Original Station Jetty Street – September 1875

Away went the train at goodness knows how many miles an hour, greeted at every prominent point by cheers from men, women and boys who felt, even if they did not understand, that a new life had dawned upon the country.” On reaching the terminus at Sydenham, the train stopped, and the passengers alighted. A tent had been pitched at this point and the guests were invited to drink a bumper of champagne to the success of the enterprise.

The ceremony marking the opening of the first section of the North-Eastern Railway as far as Commando Kraal took place at Jetty Street station on 24th July 1875. Immediately after this function a train with invited guests left for Commando Kraal. The scheduled time for the 32-mile run was 2 hours and 20 minutes including a stop at Zwartkops and Coega.

Crest of the Cape Government Railway

It was a memorable day when the first 21 miles of the railway line that was to unite the port of Algoa Bay with Graaff-Reinet and the far interior was officially opened for traffic on 21 September 1875. Although the day had not been declared a public holiday, shops and stores were closed.

Those who had not been fortunate enough to obtain tickets for the event, had at least the satisfaction of witnessing the arrival of the FIRST TRAIN with five coaches filled with passengers from Uitenhage and ten trucks laden with over 200 bales of scoured wool, the particular industry of the sister town, thus providing ample evidence that the line was not open for passenger traffic only, as had been rumoured.

‘Little Bess’ locomotive used at the opening of line to Swartkops.

Long before 10.30 a.m., the hour appointed for the departure of the train for Uitenhage, Jetty Street presented a gay and lively scene. As soon as the station doors were opened, there was a rush for the platform and the fifteen coaches awaiting the invited guests. At 10.40 a.m., to the accompaniment of stirring music from the Volunteer Band, the train was off on its 21-mile journey. As Uitenhage hove into sight, the excitement could hardly be contained. Loud cheering greeted the train as it drew up the pretty little station. As the passengers alighted and mingled with the local spectators on the platform, Mr W. Hume M.L.A., Chairman of The Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage Railway Company, surrounded by the principal shareholders, made his way to the entrance. Addressing the Honourable J. X. Merriman, Commissioner of Crown Lands and Public Works, he said: “Mr Merriman, on behalf of The Uitenhage Railway Company, I beg to hand over to you this line, complete and fit for traffic.” Whereupon the Commissioner replied: “Ladies and gentlemen in taking over this line from The Uitenhage Railway Company, I have much pleasure in declaring it open for public traffic tomorrow.”

Although the shareholders of the company were very pleased with the purchase of the line by the Government, it was the first time this decision had come to the ears of the citizens of Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage. They were shocked at being “deprived” of their railway.”

Early map of the Cape Colony’s Railway system as planned by Premier Molteno and completed in 1882.

A luncheon was then served to the guests in the Dutch Reformed Church schoolroom, and all enjoyed an excellent meal. Toasts were proposed and drunk to the health of the persons connected with the undertaking and to the railway. A friendly spirit prevailed until Mr Merriman rose to make his speech. His tactless remarks about the “unjust charges levelled against the Government which he represented” were just too much for some of the guests and an otherwise pleasant function ended in an uproar. The Chairman being unable to control the situation, slipped away quickly, followed by Mr Merriman and a few dignitaries, whilst those who remained behind amused themselves by creating as much noise and disturbance as they possibly could.

Mr Paterson, one of the guests, returned after a while and, addressing those still in the room, all of whom were talking and gesticulating wildly, said that he protested against the way in which an otherwise happy gathering had been perverted into a political meeting. It was a great relief to all when the time arrived to board the train for the return journey. At 4 o’clock the train steamed out of the station and the Uitenhagers were left to give vent to their feelings of joy by a magnificent display of fireworks from the Market Square to mark the birth of the railway.

North End, the first station out from Port Elizabeth in 1896. [Transnet Heritage Library]

The Railway Station

The meet the requirements of the passengers and the trains, a novel form of building was required: the Railway Station. By the time that the Port Elizabeth station was constructed, the general form, functions and elements had already been determined.

Opening of the Train Station in Port Elizabeth. Note that there are only canopies as a roof

H.L. Huisman described the station as follows: Passenger termini are composed essentially of two elements, firstly the platforms and rail tracks in the arrival and departure hall and secondly the station entrance building, in which the booking hall, waiting rooms, baggage room, buffet, restaurant and shops are normally all situated at ground level. This is a convenient arrangement for passengers and staff, providing quick and easy movement between the platforms, and the facilities in the entrance building.

The first major railway terminal in South Africa was completed in Cape Town in 1878, fifteen years after the railway to Wellington had been opened. It was designed by Mr A.W. Ackerman, architect and civil engineer, who had arrived at the Cape from England in 1875. He had left the Government Service in 1878 to start his own practice in Cape Town. The station, designed in the Victorian style of the period, served the public for more than eighty years, only being replaced in the early 1960s.

Train at the Redhouse Station shortly after the railway line to Uitenhage was opened

In July 1871, Mr J. Bisset, civil engineer and architect, was appointed Resident Engineer of Harbour and Public Works at Port Elizabeth. He had come out from England in 1858, as one of a team of five assistant engineers under Mr W.G. Brounger, for the Cape Town to Wellington railway. He had left “The Cape Town Railway and Dock Company” in 1862 and had been in private practice in Cape Town for nine years, of which two years had been spent with “The Sea Point Tramway Company”.

Mr Bisset was the architect of the first passenger terminal in Jetty Street and he must have also been responsible for the goods station in North End and the railway workshops, all of which were built during his term of office in Port Elizabeth. Most of his time was devoted to the Port Elizabeth – Uitenhage Railway, being built by a private syndicate, and the Government line to Bushman’s River (Alicedale).

Goods wagon in station with small boys playing on railway line, viewed towards the south T[ransnet Heritage Library]

The original station, which is still in existence, was completed in 1875. It comprises a double-storied building with three arched doorways which led to the booking office and other facilities and, beyond, to the platforms. The Eastern Province Herald of 24 November 1874 reported: “The right wing was fitted for the telegraph department and the left wing for offices of the accountants etc. The rooms on the upper floor were reserved for the Resident Engineer and his staff.”

The inside view of the station, taken on the opening day of the railway, shows only a canopy roof over each of the two platforms. The roof structure as we know it today was provided in the 1890s, when the wing in Station Street was built.

Entrance of the PE Railway Station

Mr Bisset held the post of Resident Engineer in Port Elizabeth until 1879, when he retired on account of ill-health and returned to Cape Town. His last assignment was “a report on the practicability of working advantageously for railway purposes the forests in the neighbourhood of Knysna.” On his recommendation a sleeper factory was established there in 1885 for the supply of creosoted yellowwood sleepers.

He returned to private practice in the early 1880’s, eventually retiring in 1892. For the next ten years he devoted much of his time to civic matters and was elected Mayor of Wynberg in 1893. James Bisset died in 1919 at the ripe old age of 83.

The second stage of the station development began in 1890, when preliminary plans were in preparation for a new two-storey building. In that year Mr E.J. Sherwood, quantity surveyor and architect, joined the Railway service, and was appointed at Port Elizabeth under the Resident Engineer, Mr R.H. Hammersley-Heenan, to prepare the working drawings and the bills of quantities and to supervise the erection of the new station.

In the Annual Report of the Cape Government Railways for 1890/91 it is recorded: “Ample provision has been made for the requirements of the traffic at Port Elizabeth. The buildings and rookeries in several streets have been demolished and a plan has been agreed upon which will be a great improvement to the appearance of the town.” A start had been made with the foundations, and in July 1891 tenders closed for the erection of the superstructure. The building was ready for occupation early in 1893.

Mrs. D. Picton-Seymour in her book “Victorian Buildings in South Africa” (1977) remarked that there was a definite similarity between the new wing in Station Street and the office section of the old Cape Town station, and as Ackerman was working for the Railways and the Public Works Department, Port Elizabeth station may well have been built to his design.

Bearing in mind that Ackerman designed the Cape Town office block whilst he was in the employ of the Railways (1875- 1878), Sherwood, no doubt, would have been briefed to use those drawings and to adapt them to suit the local requirements and the site in Station Street. The single-storey parcels-office on the corner of Station and Jetty Streets, and the double­ vaulted roof over the platforms and tracks formed part of the same scheme.

Port Elizabeth station

On completion of the station project, Mr Sherwood left the Government Service to start his own practice in Port Elizabeth and, in partnership with his son, he designed many prominent buildings in this town and in Uitenhage, Graaff-Reinet and Cradock.

Office accommodation for the Midland System staff soon proved inadequate. In 1898, only five years after the new wing had been completed, the building had to be raised to three storeys. Except for some internal alterations the external architectural features of the buildings described have not changed much since the turn of the century.

The three branches join

By 1885 the separate sections were connected, and the Cape Western line reached Kimberley, marking the end of an epic which had begun in 1872, with the network completed faithfully according to the original 1872 plans. From an initial total of 92 kilometres in 1872, the Cape Colony was now criss-crossed with over 2,000 kilometres of railway.

The original Uitenhage railway station. No longer in use


Wikipedia The Coming of the Railway to the Cape by H.L. Huisman [Looking Back, July 1985]

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