Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Grandiose 1905 Harbour Scheme That Never Was

At the turn of the 20th century, Port Elizabeth still did not possess a harbour. For fifty years no progress had been made in spite of a barrage  of requests. In 1905 the Cape Government submitted three proposals to a commission of engineers in London to adjudicate them.

The commission recommended the submission by Coode, Son and Matthew but would this proposal be the plan to eventually be executed?

Main picture: Proposed new dock at Port Elizabeth with the outer wharf at North End

Picking the correct winner

The initial demand for the building of a harbour had commenced in the 1840s. In haste the first breakwater had been built. Conceiving in 1855 and completed in 1866, its longevity was one year. Silting both from sand travel along the coast and the flood in 1867, had made the harbour inoperable. The immediate solution was to demolish the breakwater. Hence the Colonial Government as well as even the most eminent harbour engineers were wary of most solutions. Unanimity as to a solution could never be attained. By the turn of the century, the pattern had been well entrenched. Periodically, usually every decade, a chorus of demands would be raised demanding action on the harbour question. Proposals would be requested, recommendations would be submitted but in the end either all would be found defective, too costly or simply ignored. The pattern had been set. Indecision and prevarication prevailed.

In harbour matters, the Cape Government always referred plans for major modifications or upgrades to an independent Commission of Engineers in London for their recommendation and comment. This was a sage move as lack of interaction with the local players could prevent politicking and bias from interfering with the decision-making process.   

In 1905 yet another set of proposals was elicited, the first of the new century. In a clear CYA [cover your a…] move, the Cape Government submitted the latest plans to a Commission of Engineers in London for their consideration. The Commission’s reply was not an unconditional acceptance as they modified it in certain important aspects. The main features of this plan in its final form were a southern breakwater of 2134 metres  [7 000 feet] connected to the shore by means of a viaduct of 305 metres [1000 feet]; a northern pier of 2286 metres [7 500 feet] with its starting point near the North End station and a masonry jetty 310 metres long to the north of the existing North Jetty. With an entrance of 305 metres between their extremities, the north and south piers would enclose an area of 3 square kilometres [740 acres].

Lighter alongside a ship in a swell in Algoa Bay

In effect this proposal meant the transfer of the harbour to the northern end of the town. This aroused the opposition of the business interests operating on the foreshore around the existing three jetties. As a consequence, this plan was placed in abeyance and no further action was taken. Maybe the plan was not placed in file 13, but it had been placed in a filing cabinet gathering dust. The harbour plans were once again on a road to nowhere gathering dust but no traction.

Going out to the Mail Boat in a south-easter

Albeit unstated, apart from relocation of the harbour, economics played the role as the Grinch as the cost of the project was estimated to be R 6 444 000, an inordinate amount of money in those days.

Further proposals submitted

Further proposals were submitted by various experts. Yet again the Commission of engineers in London was consulted. The mandate of the Commission was to decide between three locations: Port Elizabeth, North End or at Swartkops as per Cathcart William Methven’s proposal.  

The Commission duly reported back in 1913, recommending the implementation of that part of the plan drawn up by Coode et al. In accordance with good governance procedures, the plan still had to face one more hurdle viz Parliament. Finally in the following year, 1914, the fourth year of the four-year-old Union of South Africa, it  was passed. Once again delay loomed. Parliament only sanctioned the construction of the southern breakwater as the initial instalment of the larger scheme as proposed by Coode, Son and Matthew.  At last it seemed as if a final decision on the future development of the Port Elizabeth harbour was to be implemented.

Working alongside a ship in calm water under the lee of the new breakwater

Yet another hiatus loomed. The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 would cause the project to be shelved.

An interesting point to note in this prolonged controversy is that much of the opposition to harbour development arose from an influential faction who owned the surf boats used to transport passengers and goods between the ships in the roadstead and the jetties. To forestall further opposition, the first Union Government nationalised these companies in 1910. Thereafter these companies operated for the account of the State.

Uncertainty reigns unabated

In 1923 the port was inspected by another eminent harbour engineer, Sir George Buchanan, who was impressed with the lighter system. As such he questioned the necessity for a costly breakwater and piers for ocean-going ships to come alongside. Apart from the completion of the half-finished breakwater to a length of 2591 metres to afford shelter to ships during the worst storms, Sir George considered that further harbour works were not essential at Port Elizabeth. Fortunately for Port Elizabeth, his recommendations were rejected.

In the meantime, the Union Government came to the conclusion that the area which the breakwater would enclose would be too large; so large in fact that it would be able to accommodate the whole British fleet and with space to spare.

In 1925 the Union Government appointed the van der Horst commission to investigate, for the umpteenth time, the future development of the Port Elizabeth harbour. The Port Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce submitted a detailed memorandum recommending the construction of a north pier of only 1219 metres  as well as building the southern breakwater to its original design length.

In 1930 Union Government authorised expenditure of R 1 208 000 which would be utilised on comprehensive improvements. In effect these improvements were merely upgrades to the existing lighterage system. Fortunately this expenditure still catered for the completion of the breakwater but in no way did it endorse the original grandiose  plan devised by Coode et al.

Veil of uncertainty lifted

The appointment of J.F. Craig in 1930 was an inflection point in the harbour saga. It was Craig who conceived the plan for a small, more economical harbour that could be extended cheaply and rapidly  as the need arose. More importantly, his plan incorporated the provision of proper berthing facilities. Another saving grace of his design was the all-important point of developing an enclosed harbour while the breakwater was being built. This harbour would have deep-water berthage which, stage by stage, would replace and eventually supersede the lighterage system.

An unstated consequence of Craig’s proposal is that it was the death knell of the grandiose harbour plan of Coode, Son and Matthews. By any objective measure the proposal by Coode had been a dead end and a tortuous meandering route which delayed the development of a harbour from 1905 to 1930, a hiatus of 25 wasted years. Craig’s plan with its simplicity and expansion possibility, had saved Port Elizabeth from the diseases of indecision, politicking and prevarication which had beset the project for 75 years.


Port Elizabeth: From a Border Garrison Town to a Modern and Industrial City edited by Ramon Lewis Leigh (1966, Felstar Publishers, Johannesburg)

New Harbour Scheme for Algoa Bay, South African Railways and Harbour Magazine, February 1931

Addendum: Description of the proposed new harbour in the SAR&H Magazine

Under the proposed scheme, the southern breakwater, which has now reached 3,900 feet from the foreshore, will be 5,100 feet ·on completion, while the present North Jetty will be pushed out, swinging away slightly to the south, and the two arms will form an enclosed area of about 260 acres of sheltered water. The present south breakwater pushes straight out in the bay for about 2,000 feet and then curves towards the north. On the straight portion it is proposed to form what may be called the south quay, which will be 400 feet in width, and on which three single-deck type sheds, each 350 feet by 72 feet will be erected so as to accommodate four or five ships.

Between the southern arm and the North Jetty is the Baakens River mouth, which is at present sealed up by sand banks. It is proposed to canalise the mouth of the river, from which will be run out the west quay, where five cargo sheds will be constructed which will enable the handling of from six to eight ships. Over the river mouth a railway bridge is to be built for the purpose of conveying traffic from the southern section of the goods yards.

After the chief quays have been formed, the erection of the east wharf (2,500 feet) will be carried out. This particular work will not

be hastened, only the ” core ” being put down in the form of a rubble mole. The area between the breakwater and this mole will serve as a sand and wave trap, ensuring to double the extended North Jetty-will, like the southern wharf, be 2,800 feet long, but

Note that on this harbour plan from 1924, the westmost quay is opposite the North End Station. In contrast one of the very small quays is what ultimately became the Charl Malan Quay. This drawing illustrates how grandiose this scheme was

narrower, i.e., 200 feet wide. Provision is to be made for three two-deck type flat-roofed sheds, served with lines in direct connection with the. whole of the Union railway systems. This quay, which commences outside the present terminus station, will be

protection to the inner basin below from silt, thus reducing dredging to a minimum. The outside of this eastern wharf is intended for

dealing with oil tankers. At present Port Elizabeth has no facilities for the handling of bulk cargoes of petrol.

A 600-Ft. Entrance.

The entrance to the main dock, i.e. the inner basin, will be 600 feet wide. The main quay used by the mail steamers. In addition, perishable exports, such as eggs, cheese, meat, fruit, etc., will be handled there. It is intended to regard 40 feet as the standard depth off the north quay, and as the largest liners serving in African waters draw, when loaded, 32 feet, this depth should be sufficient to meet all future requirements.

In addition to the quays, provision is made for a sheltered anchorage for ships. Another section of the scheme is the area to be reclaimed along the existing foreshore.1t is proposed to reclaim a very extensive area, to provide for additional deep-water wharfage, extensive shed accommodation and assembling grounds, including the necessary network of ·railway tracks. All the existing sheds will “become obsolete.

Handling of Cargo.

Every arrangement to facilitate the handling of cargo has been incorporated in the scheme. Indeed, it will be possible to deal with cargo at a faster rate than at present, despite the fact that the lighterage system holds the record for the rapid despatch of vessels, but it must ·be borne in mind that whereas a ship can be offloaded in record time (both sides of the vessel being worked at a time), as the cargo has to be handled no less than four times to the storing sheds, all the ” speeding up ” done by the lighters is negated. This repeated handling will be totally done away with under the new scheme. This modern harbour, as outlined, will be able to deal with any vessel afloat, and the project has created tremendous interest, not only in Port Elizabeth, but throughout the Midlands districts and even further afield.

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