Port Elizabeth of Yore: Ructions with Uitenhage over Water

By the 1860s the public’s demand for a reliable and adequate supply of water was vocal and persistent. In 1866 the Council mandated a Committee to investigate whether the flow rate from the van Stadens River would suffice for the town’s water need. In spite of clearing all the hurdles, the Council prevaricated. In 1874 it announced a new ploy: purloin Uitenhage’s supply. What’s not to like about that suggestion?    

Main picture: Aerial photograph of the Nine Eyes of the Uitenhage Springs [Bob Binnell]

It was 8 years after the report from the Committee tasked with investigating the feasibility of using the water from van Stadens River was presented to the Council when somebody had an epiphany, a veritable stroke of genius. They conceived of the innovative idea of drawing a supply of water from the Uitenhage Springs, situated in the foothills at the eastern extremity of the Great Winterhoek Mountain Range, on the farm Sandfontein about five and a half miles from the town of Uitenhage.

Above: A close up of artesian water rising to the surface

Now for the ultimate shard of fake news that is news with a smidgeon of truth, but wielded like an axe against its opponents. The Town Council justified using water already allocated to Uitenhage due to its proximity to this “elder sibling” of Port Elizabeth “as there was water leakage and evaporation between the Springs and Uitenhage.” As such, “they were entitled to claim what Uitenhage could do without.” To force their illogical suggestion being implemented, they attempted to get a bill entitled the Port Elizabeth Water Supply Bill passed by Parliament empowering them to pipe water to Uitenhage and utilise the balance saved. The Port Elizabeth Council intending to construct a weir at the Springs from which water could be piped to Port Elizabeth via Bethelsdorp by means of a 10 inch cast iron pipeline over a distance of 37 kms.

The Springs Water Treatment Works. The only processes are stabilisation and disinfection

According to David Raymer in his book entitled Streams of Life, “This hand-handed decision was defeated as the Bill was rejected by the Legislature once the erf holders had indicated that there was insufficient water for the land under cultivation.

The unbecoming behaviour of the Port Elizabeth Council generated intense ill-feeling between the two towns with the Uitenhage Councillors calling for a public debate on the matter. The meeting was held on the 25th November 1873 in the old Court House opposite St. Mary’s Church which was filled to capacity. The Rev. Father O’Brien chaired a rowdy meeting. Inhabitants from Uitenhage claimed that there was insufficient water for themselves for irrigation let along satisfying the demand of a much larger town than Uitenhage. A Mr Dobson lashed out at the Eestern Province Herald for statements that bemoaned the selfish attitude shown by Uitenhage.

One of the nine eyes at the Uitenhage Springs-

The meeting adopted a resolution that “it is not advisable to entertain any proposal from Port Elizabeth regarding the sale of water from Uitenhage. The subsequent motion evinced strong dissension. It embodied a vote of censure of the Commissioners for their actions regarding the water question and that the Governor should be asked to protect the commonage rights of Uitenhage against all-comers. This almost led to a fight between one of the Commissioners and the Town Clerk.

The Uitenhage Times could no longer conceal its anger and wrote: “Uitenhage is merely a teat of a milk cow which is punched and pulled and squeezed…..”


 Steams of Life: The Water Supply of Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage by David Raymer (2008, Privately Published)      

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