Port Elizabeth of Yore: Swimming at the Breakwater

Cynics in the 1800s probably referred to Port Elizabeth as the Port without a Harbour as Algoa Bay was devoid of any artefact commonly used by or forming a part of a functioning harbour. But as export volumes rapidly ramped up, the demand for a harbour became crucial. As a bare minimum, a breakwater was essential so that ships could seek refuge inside the breakwater during inclement weather. Finally, a proposal in 1855 gained acceptance. With construction almost complete, at the beginning of 1866, the Harbour Board provided a swimming place for men beneath the shield.

Whereas the Harbour Board was of the belief that the provision of a safe swimming place would receive affirmation and acclamation instead it was the object of criticism. How did such a kind generous offer devolve into its antithesis?  

Main picture: The newly constructed breakwater at the mouth of the Baakens River

International background
The background of the decision to build a breakwater was always controversial for two crucial reasons. Firstly, the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars had left Great Britain with a surplus of labour exacerbated by the Industrial Revolution’s effect of reducing the labour complement. Secondly, the Exchequer’s belt-tightening exercise had ignited a clamber for the colonies to cover their own costs. For that reason, the breakwater project was ab initio controversial.

Local discontent
To provide a swimming area, a stage was built in one of the bays formed between the sets of piles and the sea wall. In the report on this new facility in the Eastern Province Herald dated 20 January 1866, the newspaper was very complimentary: Altogether it is a capital place for bathing, at least for those who can swim. You leap from the steps into twenty feet of perfectly still salt water and can enjoy the luxury and benefit of a saltwater bath, without any of the disagreeable [unpleasantness] that attend the practice of bathing on the open beach (sic). The crowds that frequent the spot early in the morning and in the dusk of the evening testify how much the convenience is appreciated.   

Original breakwater

In his thesis Port Elizabeth Harbour Development 1820-70, Jon Inggs states that it was hoped that a similar facility would shortly be built for women.  Verbatim the EPH opined that “Here is a sea-port without the possibility of a lady enjoying the luxury of sea-bathing,  except by trudging two or three miles along the beach, and then the open beach must be used……… Were something of this kind be made, we feel satisfied that it would be a great inducement for country residents to visit the town during the summer season.

Moral degradation
Moreover, the EP Herald reported that in the interim, a strong protest was made “on behalf of  all who have any feelings of decency” against the misuse of the men’s facility. During the day when there are many ladies on the breakwater, two men went in and disported themselves in the sight of all, within the shield….. I trust that immediate measures will be taken by  the proper authorities”. It was generally felt that swimming should be restricted to before 8am or after sunset which “ would afford ample time to all, without depriving ladies of a walk on the breakwater”.

View of South End from the Breakwater

Soon there was trouble of another kind; the existential threat posed by sharks. It was reported that BATHERS near the breakwater must look out for sharks as there is a fine specimen of the genus disporting itself within the shield yesterday. One or two shots were fired at it but without effect.

To meet this conundrum head-on, the Council devised an ingenious solution. By June 1866 a married couple was appointed to manage the breakwater baths with the wife being employed to attend to lady bathers. A facility had been built for them adjacent to the men’s. But while  “the ladies from ‘early morn till dewy eye’ disport themselves in the placid waters without danger, the men should only swim before 7 am and after dusk.

Future of the swimming pool
The immediate future of this swimming pool was precarious at best. Already by 1866 the worst fears of the naysayers were eventuating. The harbour was slowly but inexorably silting up. The coup de grace was a heavy storm over the 19th and 20th November 1867 which instantaneously dumped huge quantities of slit in the harbour.

Less than a month later, on the 17th December 1867, the decision was taken to commence demolition of the breakwater. With more profound issues at stake, the prohibition against mixed sex bathing  was quietly dismissed and presumably the married couple were retrenched. It was only with the opening of Humewood Beach in the late 1890s that the prohibition against mixed sex bathing was relaxed, apparently without a fuss.

By 1910 females were allowed to swim with males but they still did not show much flesh

Thesis of Jon Inggs, “Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth Harbour Development 1820-70“, MA thesis, Rhodes University, 1986
Eastern Province Herald 20/1/1866
Eastern Province Herald 23/1/1866 Letter from “An Early Bather”
Eastern Province Herald 23/1/1866 Editor’s note
Eastern Province Herald 26/6/1866
Eastern Province Herald 08/6/1866

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