These excerpts are the 1939 recollections of Mr. C.G.H. Skead about the early days in Port Elizabeth, its harbour and miscellaneous maritime activities. They were originally printed in 1964 over three editions of Looking Back, the Quarterly Bulletin of the PE Historical Society.
Main picture: View of Port Elizabeth from the harbour dated 1867
Early days of the harbour
Born in 1871, my first clear recollection of the harbour of Algoa Bay was when my father, Captain F. Skead, took my brother Cuthbert and I onto the Breakwater from whence we watched the porpoises playing. At that time all the sea traffic was brought by sailing vessel and the only jetty was a small one built at the foot of Fleming Street. We boys used it for leaving our clothes on while we bathed on a splendid sandy beach running south to the Baakens’ River.
There were some very good swimmers, notably Rowbotham and Gronan, (who was afterwards killed by a lion in his hut at Umtali), who would in fine weather swim right out and be away an hour or more. Danger from sharks was never thought of until many years later when Mr. Rodwell, bathing from the end of the South Jetty, had a leg bitten off by a shark, which had been attracted by the throwing fish offal into the water from the end of the pier.
Construction of the first really useful jetty was commenced in the 70s, at the foot of Jetty Street, and ran out beyond the breakers only, until extended in later years. A sea wall ran northwards about a mile, built to protect the railway line, then recently built as far as Uitenhage. At that time, it was being extended as far as Grahamstown. Cobb’s coach ran between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown, carrying passengers. Southwards from the breakwater at the mouth of Baakens River ran an unbroken sandy beach, except at low tide when a low flat rock was exposed. The breakwater had banked up a short sandy beach on which several bathing machines were placed. Further on lay the wreck of the old slaving vessel, the Dom Pedro, just about where the jetty of that name now stands. The original line of the beach had been at the foot the of South Beach Terrace, but the Harbour works had pushed the shore back seaward.
All the cargo to and from the port was carried by sailing vessels, taking about 90 days for the voyage from England. It was a fine sight to watch these ships enter and leave the harbour under sail. A fully rigged ship in a spanking breeze was an unforgettable picture, and the departure of the man-of-war Raleigh under full sail was talked of for many years after.
When there was a seasonable rush of shipping there were times when the port equipment could not cope with the rush, and sometimes 20 but up to 40 vessels were riding at anchor at one time, which was a fine temptation for south-east gales to wreak their havoc. Cargo was discharged into flat bottomed lighters carrying about 40 tons which sailed to buoys floating beyond the breaking surf. There they would pick up the buoy, which was fastened to an anchor further out to sea. From the anchor a warp was fixed well up the beach, somewhere between the site of the North Jetty and the Baakens River mouth. The lighter picked up the warp, which was then slung fore and aft on rollers. The lighter then gradually worked shorewards with the scend of the sea, until it grounded on the beach. From there the Mfengus carried the cargo on their heads to the stores built above high-water mark. This process was reversed when shipping cargo.
The falling tide would often cause complications in the course of discharge, leaving the lighter almost high and dry before unloading was completed. Then pulley blocks were fixed to the boat and the warp, with a long rope woven through, and a large number of amaFengu were set to haul on it. As a wave came in and lifted the lighter slightly, the beach labourers put all of their weight on, and usually the boat floated off by degrees. Sometimes the rope broke. As a result, the Mfengus all dropped off into the sea, and then the band played! The overseer, ( particularly one – a big man, an ex-sailor with a large golden beard), would swear at the labourers with all the language that he could muster, knocking them about with lumps of coal or a billet of wood, if handy, and finishing up by cursing those of us who were looking on and enjoying his discomfiture.
This method of shipping and discharge was interesting and ingenious and the speed with which the cargo was handled both then and later, when jetties were available, was astonishing.
As surf boats were necessary to take crews to the lighters at anchor in the bay, a fine type of oarsman was developed, able to handle the boats in all weathers. It was magnificent to watch a boat in a S.E. gale or S. Westerly swell, with a strong tide running. The crew would lie on their oars just outside the breakers, awaiting word from the coxswain, who would be using a long oar for steering. They would give way together on getting word, bringing the boat in on the crest of the wave, right up on to the beach, where men would be waiting to assist. The boatmen would then tumble out smartly, sling the boat on long spars fore and aft, and carry her bodily out of reach of the waves
The reverse process to get the boat off the beach, was equally interesting and very difficult to perform in bad weather. The boats might then drift down with the current and have to be hauled back southwards over and over again until a chance lull enabled one to get through the heavy surf. Capsizes happened at times, but I never saw one.
Until the jetty at the foot of Jetty Street was extended sufficiently to allow them to be landed there, passengers and ships’ crews had to be brought ashore in surf boats and carried to the beach on the backs of the Mfengu but that was long before my time. Even when the jetty was available it was sometimes dangerous. Once my father, mother and brother, Cuthbert, capsized and thrown into the water. Cuthbert was missing for a time until a sailor saw a foot sticking up and pulled him out.
Afterwards the passenger service was carried on by launches under the control of Schello, and more especially the Messinas. It was very efficiently run; and, to their credit, not a single life was lost, notwithstanding the fact that the trips to and fro were often run at some peril.
A new jetty, the South Jetty, was built later as trade grew, and was followed by the Dom Pedro, which was later used as a base for building the new harbour wall. To power the cranes, steam power was initially used, then hydraulic, and finally electricity.
Stevedoring was mostly done by contractors owning sailing boats to take the beach labourers to and from the ships. Names of these that occur were Chiazzari., Olivier (Frenchy), the Messinas, Schello and Gini. The work was no child’s play, even in fine weather, but was very hazardous in rough weather with a heavy sea running, a strong tide, ships rolling and lighters pitching and tossing alongside like corks.
Once a month one of the sailing boats (usually Chiazzari’ s) was chartered to take stores to the lightkeepers at Bird Island, and my father always went too, in order to inspect the lighthouse. They were often away for two or three days. On several occasions great anxiety was caused when the boat was away for a week. This arose when the landing stage at the island had been unapproachable due to bad weather. Later, when the first steam tug, the Koodoo, carried out this service, we boys often accompanied my father on these trips. Once a pleasure trip to the island in the coaster Melrose was organised. Many ladies and men went on the voyage, but there were many “lame ducks” on board before she returned.
More and more tugs followed the Koodoo; among them were the John Paterson, James Searle, Sir Frederick, H.B. Christian, Sir William Macintosh, John Dock, and the C.F. Kayser. There were also many privately owned passenger launches which were run as trade began to develop such as the Ulundi, the Germania, the Colonist and the Countess of Carnarvon, (sunk in the river near Lourenco Marques when gunrunning during the Boer War) as well as the Alert and the Garth.
The landing work was gradually taken over from private contract by various boating companies. Several of these failed when times were bad, and eventually only two were left – the Union under James Searle and the Port Elizabeth under James Forbes. These two then amalgamated and operated as the Associated Boating Company until the Government took them over. The work was very efficiently and economically performed by these companies, but vested interests were being created and had to be eliminated.
While still very young, we boys often used to sit on the Donkin Reserve to watch for the arrival of the Union SS Company’s mail steamers, which they had started to run once a month as far as Algoa Bay. Afterwards the Castle Mail Packet Company’s steamers, under the control of Donald Currie & Co., also started operating. Cargo for East London and Durban was discharged at Algoa Bay and transferred to small coasting steamers, such as Tenton (lost off Danger Point with great loss of life), Melrose, Venice, Dunkeld, and Cornland, on which my brother Willie’s first job as a purser.
The mail service was increased first to a fortnightly and then to a weekly service, run alternatively by the Union and Castle steamers until eventually they were amalgamated into the Union-Castle S.S. Company. Names of earlier steamers that I recall are:
Union S.S. Company: The first, I believe, was the Norseman, though I never saw her; the American, sunk at sea. (John Paterson was drowned while landing at Madeira from the steamer that had picked up the survivors). Arab, Athenian, Nubian, Briton, Roman, Saxon, Norman, Dane, Tartar, Spartan, Moor and the Scot, (a lovely yacht, very fast, which held the record between Southampton and the Cape).
Castle Company: Norham, Pembroke, Drummond, (lost off Ushant in 1896 with only two survivors, my brother Willie being lost in her. Roslin, Grantually, Warwick, Dunvegan, Dunottar, Tantallon (wrecked off Mouille Point).
The advance in steamer tonnage can be gauged by the advertisement of the “new mail” steamer, Pembroke Castle, of some 3000 tons burthen with “all the latest improvements”. There was no electric light yet and I can still see those candle lamps in the cabins, swinging ceaselessly in gimbals, to and fro, up and down, while one lay in a bunk, deadly sick and watching them, quite fascinated, while the smell of grease and oil was everywhere.
Reminiscences of the Town
Port Elizabeth town, as I first knew it, extended south as far as Rudolph Street and up the slope of the South End Hill, mostly occupied by boatmen and coloured folk and it was a very rough place. In the centre it extended to about Rink Street and across to Hospital Hill. It was said at this time that when Pattinson built Myrtle House in Park Drive, he had gone “outside the Bay”, but when Bain (the Mayor) built the big double storey house, (now incorporated in the Nazareth Home), he was said to have “gone farming“. Northwards the town ran along Queen Street, straggling along Princes and Adderley Street with odd houses dotted about the flats. The Salvation Army Boys’ Home, on the rise beyond the North End Park, then Lundie’s house was quite isolated.
The gaol was there then and experienced a great time when O’Donnell was lodged there after shooting Carey, the Irish informer, after the Phoenix Park murder in Dublin. He had journeyed on friendly terms with Carey all the way from Southampton to the Cape, and when rounding Cape Receife on board the coaster Melrose, he shot him dead. The Prince Alfred’s Guard was called out to guard the gaol against a possible rescue attempt by local Fenians and one of the sentries at night gave the challenge and shot a donkey! The great joke for some time was “Who shot the donkey? No. 2 Company, P.A.G.! “
Further out was Cradock Place, the historical residence of Frederick Korsten, then occupied by the Chases and Fairbridges. In town there were two native locations. One situated on Hospital Hill, where Mackay and Irvine Streets are now, was called Strangers’ Location, while the other, called Gubb’s Location was located where present-day Mill Park is situated. Between the two was bare veld, and battles royal were frequently fought between the two locations. Detachments of the P.A.G. were more than once called out to intervene. One great improvement from those days is the disappearance of the native canteens, which utterly demoralised the natives.
The Malay Quarter was in Strand Street and contained two mosques, but it was a dirty, rough place, and a part of town to keep away from. Eventually, about 1880, the Railways took over all the property between Strand and Railway Streets, and the Malays were moved to South End.
The Military Reserve, as its name implies, was reserved for military purposes, and there were no houses on it, except for the barracks below the Fort, until you reached Gordon (then called Stormy) Terrace.
An interesting place for the boys was the “Vlei” later called the Trinder Reserve. It was an open dam and a great p1ace for sailing boats and catching paddas. It was said that in earlier years Bishop Merriman, who travelled round his Diocese on foot, reached the Vlei, then surrounded by rushes, undressed, bathed, and then went to breakfast at the Phoenix Hotel. Floods used to cause great damage in the runoff down the Hill roads. I have several times seen Whites Road scoured out, with great holes into which an ox wagon could easily be dropped. Russel Road frequently suffered, and people were drowned by being washed into the drains. One mFengu man was washed right through and came out alive on the sea front below Griffin Street. On one occasion such great quantities of rubble were washed down Cooper’s Kloof (Albany Road) that, when the tram line was cleared in Queen Street, only the tops of the single-decker trams could be seen. Today storm drains and tarred roads prevent this recurring.
The most severe flood was in the Baakens River in November 1908, when there is reason to believe that 12 inches of rain fell in 12 hours on the watershed between Parkin’s and Greenbushes. The river, coming down, wrecked a wood and iron building, which jammed against the road bridge in South Union Street. The incoming tide, helped to push the water back until the whole valley was flooded; the water overflowed into North Union and Commerce Streets, finding its way. over the road at the foot of Jetty Street into the sea, doing immense damage. A large lawsuit followed, which the Town Council all but lost. A similar flood had happened some fifty years earlier and should have served as a warning.
The town passed through various stages of development. The opening of the diamond fields, in the early ’70s, created a boom which suffered a severe setback with the collapse of the diamond mines in Kimberley, until Rhodes amalgamated them and put diamonds to the fore again. There were ups and downs till the gold fields opened. Port Elizabeth was the only available port for dealing with the growing traffic until East London opened up and obtained a good share, arousing great rivalry and jealousy. Then Durban opened her fine harbour and got all the heavy traffic for Johannesburg owing to the shorter distance for haulage. This was shared still later by Lourenco Marques.
However, all this time the country was developing rapidly and railways were built everywhere. Wool and hides grew to be huge items of export, and the gold fields’ development extended trade and business in all directions. The gold slumps of 1888 and 1896 upset the applecart badly, as of course did the Boer War, but the discovery of the cyaniding process eventually established the gold fields on a definitely sound basis, which was naturally reflected at the coast and throughout the country.
In those days there was little in the way of amenities as known today, and each (person) had to make his own interests and amusements. Cricket and football were played on very rough grounds, a little tennis, no sea bathing as it is known now, riding for those who could afford to keep a horse, while one who could own a Cape cart and two horses was a rich man. Cycling on the penny-farthing high bike was a novelty, and I remember my pride when I imported my own, bought out of my own savings at a cost of £19, when I was nearly twenty years old. Then the solid tyred safety bicycle was introduced and soon after pneumatic tyres supplanted solid tyres. Once a year a sports meeting was held in St. George’s Park on a track a quarter of a mile in circumference, around the Union cricket field. Howard Sherman was a very keen worker, and these meetings were most successful. The Caledonian Society also ran an excellent Scotch sports gathering, each New Year. The annual race meeting at Fairview was a great event and drew entries from all over the country but Johannesburg eventually drew off the principal owners, and the local meeting declined.
An occasional touring company called and provided evening entertainment – notably Disney Roebucks’, a really fine combination of actors. The Wheelers with their farces, were also very entertaining, and the Scarelso Operatic Company was excellent – at least so we thought! Fillies’ Circus was quite a good show. Otherwise there was only private hospitality and occasional subscription dances, while for men without homes only billiard rooms and pubs offered entertainment. Twice a week the Gymnastic Club turned out in the Drill Hall, and at one time had over 80 active members. About 1880 the Port Elizabeth Institute, (Later the Athenaeum Club), was formed to meet the need for recreation amongst young men and was a great success. Bioscopes later helped to afford amusement while outdoor sports such as sea bathing, golf, etc., were indulged in. ·
Somewhere about 1885 a one-horse-drawn tram line was laid down from Market Square to about the Railway Hotel. Later, when electric trams were proposed, there was immense opposition from interested parties. This was also the case when electric light was to be introduced in place of the old gas lamps, and when the water service was to be extended by building the Bulk and Sand River dams.
Frequent visitors in the early days were the handsome fore and aft schooners from U.S.A., bringing Yankee notions, knocked down furniture, and timber ships from the Baltic, especially when the Rand was calling for timber and P.E. was the only available port. There were also teak ships, which usually discharged the timber through a hole cut in the ship’s bow and then it was rafted it to the beach. A small schooner from Mauritius, the R.L.T., ran regularly with sugar, and the captain, a Yankee, was quite a character. He once said to a very thin shipping clerk “Brainey, I guess you’ll have to pass the same spot twice to make a shadow!” Regularly, once a year, a large quantity of tea, rice, fireworks and Chinese goods, were brought from Hong Kong by the steamer, Crown of Aragon, later sunk at Fort Arthur by the Japanese as a block ship.
An elegant arrival was Lord Brasserj’s yacht, Sunbeam, on a world cruise. In about 1889 the ship Sedan was destroyed by fire in the bay. My sister Winifred first saw the smoke, and then we watched all day. With great difficulty they cut the ship’s cable and towed her out to sea, where she burned for two days. The wreckage was often used later. Soundings for the new harbour were taken to ascertain whether the sand travel reached out as far as the wreck lay. During the Boer War, another burning ship, Mariposa with a cargo of hay, was towed into the bight and a gun boat put several shots into her, but the wet hay swelled and closed the holes, so that she could not sink. She burned for weeks and was beached, but although she was floated off eventually; I don’t think she was ever of use again.
A feature of the foreshore for many years was the wreck of the steamer Gambia opposite the railway station. She arrived in the early 70s in a fresh south-easter and went to the assistance of a sailing vessel that had parted her anchor and was drifting ashore. A hawser was passed to the ship, but it parted and fouled the steamer’s screw. As her anchor had not been prepared for dropping, she also drifted on to the beach. Mr. C. W. Frames made attempts to refloat her, but without success, and her wreckage was eventually blown up.
The jetties were only built for handling cargo from lighters, but a trial was made of bringing the Clan McNeil alongside the North Jetty for discharge. The attempt was successful, but it was realised that it could only be done in fine weather, and then only with great risk to the jetty. Small coasters used to come alongside frequently, and an occasional sailing vessel in good weather. My firm, Forbes & Edinborough, was the first to load at the port a full cargo of maize from the South Jetty.
Thesen & Co. started in the coasting service many years ago with the Agnu, followed by the Ingrid and the Outeniqua, running first to Knysna for timber, wagon wood, etc. One of the advantages enjoyed by P. E. was that it was open port, until the new docks were opened, when port dues had to be charged, as at other harbours.
HARBOUR WORKS. Sheltering works had been contemplated for many years and an attempt was made in the 60’s by putting down a pile pier from the south side of the Baakens River. (The river formerly flowed about 100 yards north of its present outlet but had been diverted to its present course to allow a straighter run off.) From the end of the pier a rubble breakwater had been laid down northwards, parallel to the shore, and for some time small vessels were able to get shelter. Then the harbour, thus formed, began to silt up through the sand drifting between the piles. It was then hoped to stop this by filling up between the piles of the jetty with rubble, but the sand then worked round the end of the breakwater and settled under its lee, making things worse, as the whole harbour silted up and became useless. Eventually the whole had to be undone again which was a huge job. About this time the gunboat, Thunderbolt struck the reef off Cape Receife which is now named after her. She sank just on getting off the end of the breakwater, where her wreckage lies today, covered with sand.
Many schemes for building docks were presented, the principal one being Sir John Coode’ s plan for an open pier from the shore to a dock built out in deep water, where it was thought it would not be affected by sand travel. There was also Methven’s plan for a dock at Zwartkops River mouth, somewhat after the East London plan. It is probably fortunate that nothing was done as, with the much better dredging equipment and other facilities today, it has been possible to implement the present successful system of docking.
During the period when plans were being proposed, a sea wall was built southwards and the whole filled in, as it became necessary, to form a solid base for erecting warehouses. In addition, a foreshore for the South and Dom Pedro jetties was created.
GALES: While sailing ships were riding at anchor, the fear of heavy S.E. gales was always present. The shipping usually suffered badly and there were many wrecks, which gave the port a bad name with underwriters. On the other hand, it was often openly stated that many a ship was sent to Algoa Bay in the hopes that an opportunity to lose her might occur. I recall once seeing a vessel, appropriately named Zephyr, depart and quietly sail along in a light S.E. breeze to beach herself in a comfortable spot. But when a big gale raged it was really a terrible sight! One would watch the ships pitching and heaving at their anchors, and one might be seen to bring her head round, followed by her foresail and foretop sail, as she headed for the beach on her last journey. The bones of former wrecks strewn along the beach would help to make her landing hazardous and were also a danger to a lifeboat going to her assistance. I remember seeing from the Donkin Reserve in the gale of the 1st September 1902, three ships part one after another, strike on the bar, and drift northwards in the strong current running, until brought up by the sunken wreck of the steamer, Queen Victoria It was like striking a rock, for in no time each ship was smashed to pieces in the fierce seas, and collapsed like a pack of cards. Out of some 70 men drowned at the time, 60 were lost in these three wrecks.
I used to hear frequent talks of the great gale of the 19th September 1869, when eleven ships were lost and only two, the Cape City and the Turkish Empire, rode out the gale, the latter a lame duck. The next serious gale was on the 30th August 1888. As a clerk recently joined an insurance firm, I did not see much of it. The heads were out all day, probably anxious from an insurance point of view, and had to stay and look after the office. So, I could only sneak out occasionally to the jetty and walk out, after hours, to the North End beach, to see the wreckage of nine vessels strewed everywhere. Curiously enough, two vessels rode out this gale as also in 1869, the Burgomeester Schorer, and the Tweed, a lame duck. In the gale of 1st September 1902, nineteen ships were lost, and a launch, the Countess of Carnarvon.
Between these very severe gales there were, of course, many others, causing occasional wrecks. It is curious that, in a heavy southeaster, the strong wind tends to keep the huge waves down and they do not appear so terrible, but a strong northerly current is caused. But when a S.W. gale springs up after a south-easter, huge rollers come thundering in, making a wonderfully fine sight, but dreadfully uncomfortable for ships rolling broadside on to the waves, often causing them to part anchor. In such a case, a ship could put up sails and get clear, as there was no lee shore close by.
As there is always a bar running along the N.E. beach, unless a vessel was small enough to cross it at high tide, she always landed on the bar and bumped and bumped until she bumped over into the deeper water inshore and landed quietly on the beach. Should she broach to on the bar, she would roll violently from side to side until she bumped across, and one wondered how anything on board could hold. Should a vessel remain fixed on the bar it was more difficult for a lifeboat in a heavy sea to get at her, and she would be too far off for the rocket brigade to be of much use.
There were several instances of ships being saved when not too firmly fixed to the beach, by being towed off at high tide in a strong land wind, and even of being blown off without assistance. If the sails had been left set, the strong wind offshore and the rising tide could lift her off the beach. Occasionally a ship on parting would endeavour to tack out, but the chances were small, and I don’t remember one ever being successful. The classic attempt was in the late 60s, when the Anne Marie attempted it, but in trying to wear the ship off the mouth of the Zwartkops, there was insufficient room, and she went ashore. At the auction sale of her cargo, several hogsheads of wine were put up and Hughes, a hotelkeeper, was standing on the head of one up-ended. Marks, the auctioneer, was just saying “Going, going”, when he shouted “Gone – Hughes”, as the head of the cask collapsed, and Hughes fell in.
Quite frequently, after bad weather outside, “lame ducks” limped into the bay, partly dismasted or with other severe damage. A lame duck is like a motor-car with a punctured tyre. The principal shipwrights, when steamers needed repairs, were Crabbe & Lucas, and afterwards Mangold Bros. It was a very profitable trade. After a gale, Messina, Schello, or even the Harbour authorities, would send out tugs to scour the neighbourhood for lame ducks. They often secured a very profitable tow, if not an occasional salvage.
Launches were sent out to lie off Cape Receife, to intercept sailing vessels almost due and destined for Port Elizabeth “for orders”. They would be given instructions from the ships agents as to what port they were to go for discharge.
In earlier days whaling was carried on to quite a considerable extent. Catches were landed and tried out at the Fishery, just beyond the present slipway, and for many years many huge whale bones lay about the beach. Just behind the beach was a large house, built by C. W. Frames, which was overwhelmed by the drift sands and destroyed. A small dam was built in the Sharks River (Zak River) valley, now Happy Valley, Humewood, and the water was piped to the lower areas of the town. This served the town well until the fresh supply was drawn from the Van Staden’s River.
In 1883 violent volcanic explosions occurred at Krakatoa in the Straits of Sunda and huge volumes of dust were thrown into the air causing wonderful sunset effects everywhere. A similar occurrence happened later in South America when volcanoes erupted, but the results were not so vivid. Sometime after the Krakatoa eruption, large quantities of pumice stone were brought in by the currents and they drifted onto the beaches. At the same time, quantities of dead fish were cast up and it was thought that poisons from the eruption caused their death. However, I do not think so as such happenings have occurred at other times.
Note: Many editorial corrections have been made to the original memoirs for readability purposes.
Three editions of Looking Back by the PE Historical Society:
1: Volume IV No. 1 dated March 1964
2: Volume IV No. 2 dated June 1964
3: Volume IV No. 3 dated September 1964