Port Elizabeth of Yore: How not to build a Breakwater

Was it a Comedy of Errors or Merely a Dose of Reality?

With the rapid growth in exports from Port Elizabeth, incessant demands arose to build a proper harbour in the form of jetties and a breakwater. The initial attempt at harbour building was the construction of a jetty using the wreck of the vessel Feegee as its base. Its usefulness was short-lived as a sudden gale drove several vessels through it, irreparably damaging it.

Various configurations of a breakwater were later proposed and the design that was adopted was constructed just south of the Baakens River. This was the start of a town’s nightmare as first the sea and then a flood were to silt the harbour up, posing a threat to the operation of the landing beaches. Instead of a crowning achievement, this episode resulted in not only the necessity of dismantling the breakwater but even more disconcerting, it caused the postponement of the construction of the breakwater and quays by 60 years.

If successful, it would have been a transformative change for a town in no small measure defined by its primitive method of discharging cargo onto flimsy lighters out on the roadstead.

Main picture: The breakwater south of the Baakens River – a fatal design flaw

Raison d’etre

In an attempt to break the power of the amaMfengu Beach Labourers, the Boating Companies had demanded that proper harbour facilities such as jetties and breakwater be constructed in Port Elizabeth. Not forgetting the fact that the amount of cargo handling would be halved if a harbour was constructed, they relished the prospect of gaining the upper hand in the age-old contestation between management and labour. In the mistaken belief that by employing the industrious, sober amaFengu instead of the indolent inebriated Khoikhoi, the Boating Companies would reduce their costs, they switch their employment practices to hiring only MFengus. In a large measure, they did profit by their decision. In this regard the MFengu were the paragons of Productivity Gods but it came at a cost; they demanded higher wages and even ultimately participated in the Cape Colony’s first strike.

The amaFengu loading ivory onto the lighters for shipment to the vessels in the roadstead

Early proposals

With the loss of all the records of the harbour to a fire in the Public Offices during 1854, all earlier recommendations and proposals, except immaterial letter and departure and arrival books, have been lost. 

What is evident from records after this date is that all the correspondence and related decisions were being made by the Harbour Commissioners none of whom possessed any technical knowledge on harbour design. All that they possessed was a bright and enquiring intellectual and a burning desire to construct some form of harbour. Without an eminent harbour engineer on board for the journey, they were bound for a rough ride. Devoid of that guiding hand, towards the end of 1955 they had reached consensus. They would construct a breakwater north of the southern reefs adjacent to South End and south of the mouth of the Baakens River. The unintended consequence of this critical decision would only become evident when once again the Baakens River would carry flood water bearing tons of sand in suspension and flotsam as cream on top, into the harbour.

Above: Mfengu unloading coal from surfboats

On the 30th January 1855, the dye was cast. The Board of Commissioners resolved to proceed with construction of the breakwater even though the final design was not yet fully formed in their minds. In a large measure, without a formal plan cast in stone, the construction would be by stealth, bending to the exigencies and whims of the moment. In effect the design would be a work in progress. Ironically this modus operandi would be employed when constructing the North Jetty in the 1870s and also later when the modern breakwater was built at King’s Beach in the 1920s. In this case even Parliament was hoodwinked by the game of poker that was being played.

Based upon unanimity within the Board of Commissioners, they held a second meeting with the Governor at which he agreed to vest certain Crown Lands in trust with the Commissioners. In order to proceed further, the Colonial Legislature voted a sum of £3,000 in aid. On their return, the Commissioners diligently set to work collecting evidence to validate their proposal for erecting a breakwater. Lacking qualified engineers, they selected persons of known “integrity and intelligence” to review their plans and decisions. On their concurrence, the Commissioners submitted their plans in due course to the Colonial Secretary for the Governor’s consideration.

After submission, the plan was duly approved. The next critical step was the appointment of a competent engineer. A Mr. Matthew Woodifield A.C.E. of the Civil Engineer’s Department at Meiring’s Poort was duly appointed but he would only be available in situ at the end of February 1856. In the interim, various preliminary activities could commence. These included the construction of a quarry on the hill in South End adjacent to St. Mary’s Cemetery together with a railway line to the site of the breakwater. Apart from this, workshops were built, effective staff were appointed, and large contracts were entered into. No difficulty was experienced in obtaining both skilled and unskilled labour with the calibre of the skilled labour being such that the level of supervision required would not be great.

Above: The breakwater and at right angles to the breakwater is the shield

The reason why I classify this as Construction by Stealth is that in 1856 it was only proposed to build a “Boat Harbour” and that the capital outlay would not exceed £25,000 and that it would take three years to construct. In their report for the year 1856 the Commissioners state “that the progress had been most satisfactory and that 289 feet or one third of the proposed length had been completed in so skilful and satisfactory a manner as to elicit the approbation of those who were disposed to differ from the Commissioners on the general plan of the breakwater.”


During the early part of 1857 construction focused on the completion of the masonry. Presumably this was the section from the shoreline at high tide to where the piles of the breakwater commenced. Even though sneezewood was the most appropriate timber to use as piles, as they not available in sufficient quantity, ironwood from the Tsitsikamma Forest had to used instead.

Progress was steady and at the end of 1859 the breakwater had extended to a distance of 836 feet from the highwater mark and during 1860 another 277 feet was completed. In total this made a completed length of 1113 feet. 1860 had been a difficult year. Piles of the greater length required were scare hindering construction. The average length of piles used during that year was 38 feet while the depth of water was 21 feet. Consequently, progress was slower, yet labour costs soared. A ray of sunlight shone through the gloom. The advantages derived from the use of the uncompleted breakwater were palpable. Permission was granted for “passage boats for boat stands at the breakwater.” Another important advantage was that the lighters plying to and from the vessels in the roadstead, could land at the breakwater. The residents of Port Elizabeth must have been overjoyed at these developments as it vindicated their belief in the benefits of constructing a proper harbour.

 In August 1861, there was further vindication of their beliefs when H.R.H. Prince Alfred, the Governor, Sir George Grey and the accompanying toadies and suits landed at the breakwater. Instead of being compelled to climb down a slippery rope ladder from a vessel bobbing in the Bay into a surfboat, pulled into shore using warps and then disembarking into the breaking waves at the shore, they climbed onto a special landing on the breakwater christened the “The Princes Stairs”.

Above: Close-up view of the original breakwater with South End in the background

Filling up the piles

I daresay that this was the most controversial decision to be taken on this project. This is one of those recommendations that justify obtaining the opinion of the most qualified, an extremely experienced and probably the costliest engineer in harbour construction. While the Commissioners might not have been aware of the complex flows of sand in the Bay, now known as the Driftsands Bypass System, they were well aware that there was sand in suspension drifting north westwards along the coast.

The most crucial decision to be taken related to whether the piles had to be filled, wholly or in part, with stones. All the Commissioners were in little doubt that “filling-up” was indispensable in order to attain the full advantages of the breakwater. Despite this they conceded that “all works of this nature were experimental” and required “the opinion of some eminent marine engineer with sufficient local knowledge.” Apart from this, they were by now not unaware that the completion entailed a far greater outlay than originally intended.  

Against this backdrop, with the blind leading the blind, calamity inevitably awaits.

As if to test the construction, on September 12th 1861 a violent south easter gale accompanied by the heaviest seas that had been witnessed even by elderly residents in 30 years, lashed the breakwater. In his report, the Resident Engineer reported that apart from the slight displacement of two piles, none had been damaged. What the gale had damaged was not the breakwater but the landing i.e. the offloading beach. The immense gale had stripped the beach of sand in the inner anchorage and exposed the rocks beneath.  Measures were then put in place to remove the greater portion of these.

The Engineer again drew attention to the fact that the construction had extended over a long period, principally due to a lack of funds. At that time, it was estimated that the cost to complete the scheme would be £45,850 and that the work would take another two years. This implied that the cost had almost doubled for its original £25,000. I have no doubt that certain bureaucrats in their warm sunny offices in Cape Town choked over their tea and scones and were apoplectic at the level of over-expenditure.

It was also during this period that the lighthouse on the Hill became operational being used on the 1st June 1861 for the first time.

In their report for the year ended December 1861, the Commissioners state that during this period the breakwater was practically finished to within the shield and that a commencement would be made with filling in the pile-work with stone. On the 1st January 1862 only 23 feet of piling remained to be completed. During September 1862 the supply of piling ceased, creating a stoppage for several months. “After mature consideration” the Board of Commissioners had unanimously concurred to fill in portions of the breakwater including the whole of shield when it was completed. In effect despite appearances of decisiveness, they had hedged their bets regarding filling in the breakwater. 

Whether the Governor experienced a nightmare, had an epiphany or was merely being cautious, on the 8th September 1862 he instructed Mr. Andrews, Engineer of the Cape Town Harbour Board, to inspect the works in Port Elizabeth. In his decisive report, Andrews was adamant that “closing up the pile-work would create a deposit of slit within the breakwater and ‘form a dangerous shoal’ and that the Jetty be left open.”

Moreover, Mr. Andrews reported that “the shield should be filled in solid as in the original plan but with some alteration in details. He also recommended that the filling in be commenced at once, that the upper courses of stones should be of very heavy material, stones of fully six tons in weight and that the direction of the shield be turned one point of the compass to the eastward.”

Andrews indicated his concern that the Harbour Works would cause outer shoals and hence ruin the landing places. To obviate this from occurring, he prophetically also recommended that the Baakens River be diverted to the south of the breakwater. Moreover he insisted that they obtain a large scale chart of the Bay and record depth soundings periodically onto it. This would alert the authorities to any alterations occurring in the Bay. In concluding his report Andrews explained that he had to adopt a cautious approach as there is always a “certain amount of uncertainty attached to them.”  

Above: Lighters in the shelter of the original breakwater with the sand dunes in the distance being the future Humewood

For the year ended December 1863, the Resident Engineer reported that “the work of filling in is being proceeded with, soundings were taken and no perceptible alterations had taken place in the depth of the water on the inside or outside the breakwater.” Apparently the early soundings do not seem to have been recorded and the earliest records to be found are dated to 3rd November 1864. 

Was the harbour project now a case of “so far so good” or “All’s well that ends well.” The situation was comparable to that of a person who had accidently fallen off a fifty-storey building when he is half-way down exclaiming “so far so good” .  

Probably to obtain a second external opinion, the Governor in 1863 directed that Mr. Bourne, Colonial Railway Engineer, should inspect the works. Like Andrews, he also recommended that the shield be filled in with stones. Then he hedged his bets. Instead of providing his fulsome blessing to filling in all the piles he recommended a more cautious approach. The filling in should commence at the shield and then only proceed 400 to 500 feet towards the shore. Based upon the results of the regular soundings should the filling in past this point be continued. He cautioned that if the breakwater was “filled in solid, so much silting would take place and produce a very obstructive shoal.”

Above: Original breakwater with South End in the background

In spite of these experts’ opinions, the Commissioners and the Resident Engineer, after due and fulsome considerations, rejected their advice. In their opinion it would be inadvisable to leave any gap in the pile work as the current passing through the opening in the breakwater would deposit the sand in suspension within the basin.

In the report of 1864, the Commissioners reported that filling in with stones was proceeding apace and the only silting being experienced was by the ingress of water between the piles. They stated their confidence that once the filling in was complete that silting would cease but with a sense of foreboding they claimed that “should it prove otherwise, a steam dredger would be necessary.” This report bore all the elements of a CYA.

Towards the end of 1865, the Commissioners reported that the works were rapidly approaching completion as far as the structure itself was concerned. During that year, 39,846 tons of stone had been deposited within the breakwater and that in all likelihood the decking would be completed during 1866.

Owing to the silting, Mr. Bourne was once again requested to inspect the works which he duly did in December 1865. In his report upon completion of his visit, he concluded that “the silt had been deposited in the basin as a natural consequence of the production of still water in the basin by the filling in of the shield and the jetty.”

This report did not conclude the matter and bring finality to the issue. Instead it energised it. If the breakwater had not been filled in, the objective of a breakwater would not have been fulfilled. And so the debate and disagreements continued. It became self-evident that whatever option had been selected, a dredger would have been required as the only effective remedy. During 1865-6, vessels of considerable tonnage were sometimes moored within the shelter of the shield and the breakwater, the first vessel being the Calcutta.

In February 1866, Mr. F Molesworth Pfeil was appointed Resident Engineer, replacing Mr. Warren, who had been in office since 1859. He reported that the shoaling up and encroachment of the beach was proceeding, especially during the north-west gales as predicted by Andrews in 1862. By now the outer shoal was in line with a continuation of the shield, which at times was most dangerous.

Above: 1862 painting by Bowler showing the railway line from the quarry to the breakwater

Flood spoils the broth

In spite of all the ructions and contrary views, during the 1867 session of Parliament, the Commissioners submitted a plan for further proposed works embracing a quay along the beach, a canal connecting the Baakens to the harbour and a steam dredger, costing £40,000 all told. This expenditure was authorised by Act No. 14 of 1867.  

As always, Port Elizabeth’s periodic floods would be destructive . A heavy storm over the 19th and 20th November 1867 was to once again overload the Baakens which burst its banks and carried down a large quantity of sand and silt which it spread over the area of the basin, averaging four and a half feet in depth. Being the first major flood since Port Elizabeth’s creation, one can forgive the Commissioners for not taking this factor into account but not in this case as Andrews had recommended diverting the river to south of the breakwater.   

In his report dated 17th December 1867, the Resident Engineer lamented “that owing to the flood there was not enough water for vessels to be moored inside the shield and that the shoal at the end of the shield was causing so heavy a break (sic) in the sea that one boat had been swamped by it.” The Commissioners of the Harbour Board immediately suspended any further works of construction “pending the advice and opinion of some competent engineer.”

The total amount spent on the Harbour works from January 1856 to December 1868 amounted to £164,581 which included £820 spent on the construction of the lighthouse and £1,655 on the Port Office. Instead of acquiring a steam dredger as originally proposed, the decision was made to demolish the breakwater and shield. No further outlays would be made and no further careers would be tarnished in attempting to salvage it. Although no record was kept of the cost of demolishing and dismantling the breakwater and shield, it is understood to be no less than £90,000.

In September 1969, a commencement was made with the removal of the breakwater. Dumping rocks into the sea between the piles was straightforward and effortless whereas removal was strenuous, gruelling and costly. Ten years later the Engineers report of 1878 was still reporting that work was still proceeding.

It had been a costly mistake not only in the amount of money wastefully spent but also due to the fact that it disabused anybody from being involved in harbour development in Port Elizabeth for another 70 years until such time as memories had been totally erased of this embarrassing fiasco.

Bereft of options, Port Elizabeth would soldier on. In the process, it was to gain accolades – deserved but not desired – for being the most productive harbour in the world in the operation of a port without a harbour.  


Thesis of Jon Inggs, “Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth Harbour Development 1820-70“, MA thesis, Rhodes University, 1986

The Harbour Supplement [Eastern Province Herald 28 Oct 1933]

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