Port Elizabeth of Yore: Robert Pinchin: The Engineering Juggernaut

Robert Pinchin should be remembered for his contribution to the development of Port Elizabeth and the water supply in particular. In 1862 he wrote a treatise advocating the Van Stadens Water Scheme. It was only after more than a decade of prevarication that the Town Council acted upon his recommendation. Moreover he was involved in engineering in all its manifestaions. Ironically what he is remembered for is his ascent of the Cockscomb peak in April 1870.

Main picture: Baakens Street. 1862. The house centre right is on the land granted on 1 Oct 1821 to D.A.C.G. John Craig. At the end of 1826 he sold the land with a stone house. The house became the property of Capt. John Burton, then his widow Mary, who married Thomas Henry Martyn. Mary Ann Burton then married Robert Pinchin, and after her death he and their daughter lived here with his mother-in-law – hence Pinchin Lane. It was sold to Mangold Bros. in July 1879 for their foundry, and they demolished it in 1882 for stores.

Personal and family life

Robert Pinchin was born in England in 1821. En route from London in 1849 to India, he was persuaded to remain in the Cape. Due to lack of work opportunities, he sought work opportunities in Port Elizabeth. He married a widower, Mary Ann Burton, on the 13th September 1853 and after her death Pinchin and their daughter lived in sideroad off Baakens Street with his mother-in-law – hence known as Pinchin Lane. Robert Pinchin died in Port Elizabeth on the 9th May 1888 at the young age of 64 probably due to contracting a dose of flu.

Above:  Baakens Street. 1862. The house centre right is on the land granted on 1 Oct 1821 to D.A.C.G. John Craig. At the end of 1826 he sold the land with a stone house. The house became the property of Capt. John Burton, then his widow Mary, who married Thomas Henry Martyn. Mary Ann Burton then married Robert Pinchin, and after her death he and their daughter lived here with his mother-in-law – hence Pinchin Lane. Later it was sold to Mangold Bros. in July 1879 for their foundry, and they shortly afterwards demolished it in 1882 for stores.

From his scientific tastes and education, he was not a man to attract many friends in a town of commercial men. He took no part in politics, nor did he seek municipal distinction, being out of touch with what may be termed “strife for office”. Upright, straightforward, and accurate in his business affairs, he made many friends among the Dutch farmers. Few enjoyed the privilege of his confidence, and though to most he would appear unusually reserved in manner, yet the young surveyor would find him animated and enthusiastic upon professional subjects. On his death-bed he sat up to write out a trigonometrical formula which he greatly admired for its simplicity,  in his assistant’s – Mr. Henry Lewis Spindler – memorandum book,. He had passed the crisis of a dangerous disorder and had just returned to his office in a weakened condition, when a chilly south-east wind brought on an attack of inflammation of the lungs, to which he succumbed on the 9th of May 1888.

Background to PE’s water problems

From the date of its founding in 1820 Port Elizabeth has suffered from the lack of a reliable water supply. For forty years after the British settlers landed the little port struggled with wells, springs and other sources which were inevitably insufficient, but despite the efforts of officials and entrepreneurs, there was no sign of a permanent solution. By 1862 the Town Council was desperate and offered prizes for the best proposals for the supply of potable water to the town. The second prize of fifty guineas was won by Robert Pinchin, an engineer and surveyor, who believed that it would be possible to bring water to the town from the upper reaches of the Van Stadens River through the steep and formidable Van Stadens gorge. But the Council was unimpressed; they felt that the scheme could not be taken seriously as it would be too expensive and too difficult to construct.

Professional life

In 1842 he was articled to Mr. W. J. Lord, formerly of the Royal Engineers, and on the expiration of his pupilage he was employed by Mr. (now Sir Joseph) Bazalgette, who was surveying a proposed railway from Birmingham to Stratford-on-Avon. On the completion of this work Mr. Pinchin, in 1846, had charge of the entire survey of the Parish of Moncton Combes, in Somersetshire. From the end of 1849, Pinchin was a land surveyor, civil engineer and architect.

In the same year [1846] Pinchin sailed for India. In taking his passage, however, provision was made to give Cape Town a call, and if professional prospects mere at all bright, he proposed making the Cape Colony his future home. This was all the more desirable, as India was then universally denounced as an unhealthy country for residence. On arriving in Cape Town Mr. Pinchin called upon the several Government officers in charge of public works. The result was disappointing. Civil engineering at that date was confined to the construction of a few main lines of road and simple bridges, the erection of prisons, and other Government buildings, works which held out very little encouragement for gaining either professional experience or a suitable livelihood.

Park Drive. Lot 8. No.14. Later known as ‘Waldhaus’, built in 1877 for Robert Pinchin. Demolished for Greenwood Primary School

When on the eve of continuing his journey to India, he was advised to call upon the  Mr. Charles Bell, the then Surveyor-General for the Colony, and at this visit Mr. Pinchin’s professional future was decided. Mr. Bell pointed out that the only lucrative or permanent professional employment in the Colony for some years would be Government land surveying and advised Mr. Pinchin to devote his attention to this branch of his profession and remain in Cape Colony. Through Mr. Bell’s kindly advice and assistance he passed the necessary Government examination, and was licensed to practice as a land surveyor in the Cape Colony.

No favourable opening offered itself in the Cape districts, which were at that time overstocked with surveyors, so Mr. Pinchin proceeded to the eastern province. Port Elizabeth, in 1846, was insignificant compared with its present influential standing, but was even then rapidly rising in mercantile importance. Mr. Pinchin’s advent was, therefore, professionally propitious, and subsequently most advantageous from a financial point of view. The laying out of this “Liverpool of South Africa,” Port Elizabeth and suburbs, may be said to have been Mr. Pinchin’s lifework. For, though enjoying a widespread professional connection, he made his headquarters at Port Elizabeth, where he was an authority on local land questions until the time of his death. By November 1849, Robert Pinchin had established himself here as a land surveyor and civil engineer.

He advocated the Van Stadens water scheme and, in vain, even wrote a treatise on it.

From 1863 to 1868 he was in partnership with George William Smith, the Government Engineer and Surveyor, later his successor. While Pinchin was in partnership with G.W. Smith. Pinchin laid out much of the first streets and properties in Central, Port Elizabeth and became a respected consultant. Pinchin also negotiated a supply of water from the Shark River Co. to the municipality.

Eventually the depressed trading conditions led to the termination of the partnership, and Mr. Pinchin enjoyed for many years almost a monopoly in surveying. The enlargement of the town and municipal improvements gave Mr. Pinchin opportunity for the exercise of his abilities as a civil engineer. Prize designs were invited by the Municipality for supplying Port Elizabeth with water, and Mr. Pinchin’s scheme was many years afterwards adopted, and construction carried out by Mr. Wicksteed, at an outlay of about £150 000. The works for a water-supply to Uitenhage were entrusted to Mr. Pinchin, but his extensive and lucrative land survey practice left him scant time to pursue other branches of the profession.

In 1872, when the Colonial Government commenced the construction of railways, Mr. Pinchin’s services were in constant demand for valuing, defining, and dividing town-lands for the various works and expropriations naturally attending the introduction of railways. About this time he became acquainted with Henry Lewis Spindler, assistant to the Chief Resident Railway Engineer. Mr. Pinchin, on the part of the public, and Mr. Spindler on the part of Government, carried out the settlement of the many and varied land questions involved in the compulsory expropriation of property. The professional ability and integrity displayed by Mr. Pinchin averted any recourse to law, and his services were appreciated both by the Government and his clients. When Mr. Spindler retired from the railway service in 1879, and entered upon private practice, Mr. Pinchin became his professional associate, and remained so to the day of his death. In 1881, G.W. Smith again joined Pinchin in partnership, at Port Elizabeth, and on Pinchin’s death in 1888, took over the practice.

Mr. Pinchin was elected an Associate of the Institution on the 3rd of February 1874 and was subsequently included among the Associate Members.

Example of Pinchin’s work

In November 1863 the Municipality purchased the land at the corner of Military Road and Baakens Street on which the temporary Trinity Church stood. A wool market, designed by Pinchin and Smith, was built on the site and opened in April 1866. In 1885 this was connected to the new market buildings. An ornate facade was added in 1894 to better house the museum which was in the building from 1887. After the museum was moved in 1919, a produce exchange was created in the vacated space. The market itself was demolished in 1933 for the building of the Wool Exchange.

Park Drive: Lot 8 No 14 known as Waldhaus in 1905. Built in 1877 for Robert Pinchin. Demolished for Greenwood Primary School C2

Other interests

Mr. Pinchin enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as a geologist and was for many years a member of the geological societies of London and Vienna. On several occasions his knowledge of the eastern province of the Colony saved prospectors and others fruitless search for coal, gold, et cetera; and his services were freely, and in most cases gratuitously, offered to surrounding farmers to encourage search for precious stones, minerals, and in well-sinking. One of the last of many benefits conferred by him upon Port Elizabeth was the careful arrangement of geological specimens acquired by the Eastern Province Naturalist Society.

During the period 13-18th April 1870, a party from P.E., including Robert Pinchin, F.S. Fairbridge, W. Armstrong, George Chase and W. Wormald, ascended the Cockscomb. Pinchin wrote an account of the trip for the Herald. His party claimed to be the second to have reached the summit, the first being Capt. Bailey’s survey party some 9 years earlier, but it was in fact the third. The mountain, part of the Great Winterhoek Range, is a mariners’ landmark, and in 1840 Lieut. Sherwill, long fascinated by views of the mountain seen from the deck of a ship, climbed Cockscomb with a companion and wrote an account of it.

Another of Pinchin’s interests was astronomy. Using his three-and-a-half-inch telescope made by Troughton and Simms of London, he invited Henry Lewis Spindler and Charles Hammond to join him on the 4th December 1874 at Fort Frederick to observe the transit of Venus across the sun.





Article in the Sketcher on the 3 November 1883


ROBERT PINCHIN, Esq., C.E., F.G.S., &c.

The subject of our sketch arrived in Port Elizabeth at the latter part of 1849, having previously left the office of Mr., now Sir Joseph Bazulgette, the eminent engineer in London. There being no engineering work in the colony at that date, with the exception of mountain pass road marking, Mr. Pinchin decided to adopt the collateral branch of his profession, viz., surveying, as his principal business. Port Elizabeth in 1849 was but small place; indeed, the town consisting of a few houses south of the River – there was no bridge – the Main Street, Queen Street as far as St. Patrick’s Hall, and a few houses in Victoria Street near what was known as Robson’s Chapel. White’s Road, Donkin Street and Russell Road, were natural kloofs or ravines, with bush and grass. The whole of the Hill above the Donkin Pyramid to St. George’s Park, the Hospital Hill, the hill westward of Princes Street, from St. Paul’s Church to the New Jail, nearly all the sub-divisions constituting the northern. part of the town, and, with £ow exceptions, the whole 0£ the town south of the River, has been bid out by Mr. Pinchin, together with some halt dozen towns and villages in various parts of the Eastern Province. Mr. Pinchin may justly be regarded as the father of the Port Elizabeth water works, having from the first strenuously and persistently advocated the scheme of bringing the Van Staden’s River into town. He in 1862 wrote a treatise upon the subject showing its practicability, &c., for which he received a small prize. The views of the Town Council, however, being rather Utopian upon the matter of water supply, the scheme was opposed, their committee stating that in their opinion “the bringing water to Port Elizabeth from Van Staden’s River, through the gorge, is surrounded with engineering difficulties, and would also be so expensive and hazardous and undertaking that they cannot recommend the Council to entertain it.”  There were wise men in those days Mr. Pinchin has paid great attention to scientific pursuits. Besides holding diplomas in his profession, he is a Fellow of the Geological Society of London, a Member of the Imperial. and Royal Geological Institute of Vienna, and has contributed papers to those Societies, which have been published.  

Review of Pinchin’s life from an unknown newsclipping

Transcribed Newspaper Clipping on Robert Pinchin

Robert Pinchin

A Port Elizabeth Worthy

“Ubique” (Royal Artillery)

THERE is a word you often see, pronounce it as you may
“You bike,” “you bykwee,” “ubbikwe “—alludin’ to R.A.
It serves ’Orse, Field, an’ Garrison as motto for a crest,
An’ when you’ve found out all it means I’ll tell you ’alf the rest.


I feel sure that when Kipling wrote these lines, had he but known, he would have coupled R.A. with R.R., but as his name is not mentioned, I will endeavour to tell you “ ’alf the rest”.

It is just forty years since he died, and though his memory is still kept green to a few by his works and records. To the greatest number Pinchin Street, within 100 yards of the “E.P. Herald” Office, is the sole reminder of a life that meant much to Port Elizabeth in the early days. I have but a faint recollection of the man, so draw these notes entirely from a series of letters of his dating from 1871-1876.

He was a land surveyor and civil engineer by profession, and anything else as necessity required, and always a very busy man. In his profession he appears to have got through an enormous amount of work. Judging by the number of farms surveyed by him and the beacons placed to mark their boundaries, and when one recalls that he was single-handed and the amount of detail in all his documents mostly in duplicate, all in manuscript, the wonder is that he found time to eat and sleep, let alone take on extra jobs.

One of his letters is to a R. Stewart, manager of the Standard Bank at Port Elizabeth asking him to transfer 24 shares. PE was the head office of that institution in those days. Later he tenders to purchase more of those shares at £3 1s. each. Evidently he knew how to invest his savings. Next there is a letter to the Divisional Council, undertaking the valuation of the Division in three months. This meant little more to him than having forms printed. The writing seems to be a diversion and the substance a gift. He was then called upon by the same body to inspect the Rawson Bridge at Zwartkops, which appears to be in a parlous state. In a page he tells what is wrong in detail and how to correct it., and in doing so I feel sure he did not hold the traffic up for a single day.

He is Chairman of the P.E. Fire Brigade Committee and as such he is called upon to take stock and report on the appliances. It appeared to have everything to extinguish fires with except water. In his capacity he writes to P. Findlay thanking him for his timely discovery and promptness in subduing a fire at Kirkwood Marks’ premises and enclosing cheque for £5 5s as he understood Findlay junr had spoiled a suit of clothes in helping. This letter is written the day after the fire. Thanks and reparations were prompt in those days.

Later he is reporting to the Town Clerk as sanitary inspector on Ward III, east of Main Street. It seems to have been a particularly juicy spot. Then he is refusing to decide the difference between two farmers, as he puts it. They have had one surveyor and failed to agree. They are not likely to agree on the same subject merely because he (P) comes along. He suggests that they sign a deed of commission to him as arbiter and he will settle the matter between them finally. He was very skilled in these matters and his judgements, though lengthy and verbose, were always clear and fair and delivered on the day contracted for.

In May 1871, he is forwarding a box of shells and fossils to the Vienna Museum. This has been ready packed for a long time, but on account of the Franco-Prussian War he deferred sending it. Possibly this may account for the export of large quantities of shells from Sea View by the German Missionary early in the century.

He is asked to reply to ten questions, mainly geological, with reference to the Birds Islands. These have been sent to Captain Skead, with the suggestion that perhaps Pinchin could answer if he could not. Pinchin has only once been to the Islands, but this observation is so keen that he is able to reply to the lot in detail. Among his geological achievements is a map and section from Port Elizabeth to beyond Somerset East, made quite 70 years ago, which has been confirmed again and again by the drilling machine. There is also a letter to a geologist in Cape Town, stating what minerals exist and where they are to be found in this district. He starts at A and ends at Z practically without a break.

Both Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage are going in for water supplies: Strange that in those days there should have been the question of a joint supply from “the Springs” as at the present day from “Groendal.” However, Uitenhage got the Springs supply while Port Elizabeth got Pinchin to negotiate with the Sharks River Water Co. One of his conditions of report was that he should have full control of the reservoir, valves and pipe line for three or four days. Was it the name or his nature that made him take his precaution? The battle of Van Stadens and Bulk River supply had been waged for about ten years before the former was finally decided upon, though the Town Council had awarded its premium to the author of the latter scheme. This full history of this award is not recorded on any official document but it is not without interest.

Conveyancing is a side-line of R.P.s. It is interesting to note that in those days a deed appears to have been registered about 14 days after the diagram was framed. Seven days is the record. He also seems to have had a businessman’s holiday showing the Railway Engineer where to put culverts within the Municipality and how big to make them. He is also engaged by the Harbour Commissioners before the appointment of a conservator, in checking the driftsands which had already overwhelmed the village beyond Sharks River and were threatening the South End. It appears to have been an enormous task when one considers that it started at Governor’s Kop, a remote spot in those days and that the Sahara of sand spread to Recife and South End Cemetery but his ideas were sound and are today accepted as the correct method of dealing with drift sands. The railway was of course the deciding factor, though this only came into being 20 years later. But there is no doubt that the foundation and spade work was done at Governor’s Kop and Schoenmakers Kop.

One of his architectural clients appears to be deferring matters hoping for a a drop in prices. Pinchin advises him that since his job was tendered for prices have advanced 40 per cent, bricks are unobtainable, and that “Blaine’s” are getting them fro Capetown. No wonder the client got cold feet. To economise in the building of a pair of semi-detached houses he builds only one underground tank, with a dividing wall three feet high. Quite a sound idea for local conditions.

He furnishes plans for a hotel at Innes Vale on the Uitenhage Road. This is deferred for a drop in prices and finally abandoned when the railway opened in 1875. There is a letter to a man in the Free State who is keenly interested in artesian boring telling him of the geological conditions that must exist before he can hope for a successful strike. In 1874 he arranges to value the seven Wards of the Municipality in the short period of two months and complete plans showing the position of each assessment and a plan from trigonometrical surveys of the whole Municipality within six months – a truly marvellous achievement for one man. He was however obliged to apply for two months extra to complete the last item.

Evidently a large gas burner had just been installed in the Town Hall and criticisms are levelled against the danger from fire so Pinchin has to satisfy all the parties including the insurance companies that all is well. He is constructing a tank at the Hospital, the idea appears to be to lead water from the dam at the top of Cooper’s Kloof to it but Pinchin is very much against the idea on account of the impurity of the supply. Right again!

Work on the Uitenhage water supply is in full swing. His chief man appears to be an overseer at 12s 6d per day who has a reputation for getting drunk and upholds it. There are the usual obstructionists and critics and the Council has a difficulty in providing tents for the workmen yet in spite of all this the work is carried to a successful conclusion. Pinchin’s total fees are £250, so Uitenhage was in luck.

Late in 1875. The P.E. Town Council is again “for it” because their works have caused flood water to wash away a house in Rudolph Street. So once more Pinchin is called in, and he proves conclusively that the water came from another source. Rudolph Street must have been a precarious locality for building before there were hard streets or water channels. A tremendous amount of land transfer work was in progress with the requirements of the Railway and yet Pinchin is able to manage a run across to England.

These five years are, I believe, are typical of Mr Pinchin’s life and work so we can sum up  his job as architect, land surveyor, consultant and civil engineer, sanitary inspector, chief of the fire brigade, consultant of the drift sands reclamation and geologist, and I do not think anyone can say that his duties could have been better discharged.

His letter days are saddened by domestic troubles and he was unable to give his whole energies to his work. His clients were still loyal and sympathetic towards him and patient. He died in 1888, unable to complete works that he was then engaged upon.

Truly he served Port Elizabeth well and all that he took from the town he gave back in full measure.  


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