Port Elizabeth of Yore: Construction of the Breakwater

Despite a breakwater being a critical component of  a harbour, Port Elizabeth was deprived of one until the 1920s. That consigned the unloading of the ships to be performed in the roadstead, an archaic practice, long since abandoned by other ports.

The initial attempt at building a breakwater in 1856 was disastrous as it became unusable due to silting after the flood in 1867. It would be fifty years before another attempt would be made to construct the breakwater.

Main picture: Breakwater with the Charl Malan Quay still under construction

Futile first attempt
Export volumes from Port Elizabeth increased exponentially over the years. Despite this, up until 1854 cargoes were landed by surf-boats onto the beach or the first jetty, of wooden-pile construction. By that year no less than 148 ships had anchored in the Bay, while 210 vessels, representing 45,081 tons and £80,000 Customs duties, were recorded for 1856. The need for a jetty and a breakwater was undeniable. The first attempt at building the first jetty had already been made from 1837 to 1842 but it would be destroyed when three vessels were driven through it during a storm on the night of 26th August 1843.

By 1852, four schemes had already been mooted for the construction of a breakwater viz:

  • Lloyd scheme in 1845
  • Jamison scheme in 1847
  • Pilkington scheme from 1849 to 1851
  • Salmond scheme in 1852

Notwithstanding the desperate need, each in turn, had been dismissed and rejected.

The first breakwater 1856-66. The Baakens at this stage still had a lagoon

Finally in 1856 the building of a breakwater south of the mouth of the Baakens River was begun under the supervision of Matthew Woodifield, the Government Engineer, and Alfred George Warren, the Harbour Board Resident Engineer. The design comprised two components viz a 366 metre [1200 feet] wooden piled breakwater and at right angles to it a 107 metre [350 feet] long shield. The wooden decking was 3 metres [10 feet] above the high water of ordinary spring tides and, up to the high tide level, the breakwater was given a filling of rubble. This material was supplied from a quarry on the southern bank of the Baakens River valley and was transported on railway tracks to the breakwater.

The first breakwater with South End in the background

By February 1866 both the breakwater and the “shield”‘ were completed at a final cost of £50 000.  From soundings regularly taken, a problem was soon discovered. The harbour was becoming shallower. From the outset silting was a problem. In five-years it had silted first on the weather side of the works, then around the shield and finally, into the tiny harbour itself. The final nail in the coffin was the flooding of the Baakens in 1867 which resulted in the deposition of 1.4 metres of silt throughout the whole area thus rendering it useless for navigation. As a consequence, the whole structure had to be demolished.

The only benefit of this failed experiment was the lesson learnt that it was dangerous to construct a solid barrier at right angles to the shore without consideration of the effect that it had in arresting the movement of sand. Worryingly, in the light of this disaster, the decision about a future course of events had become a political hot potato with Sir John Coode being arrayed against the Harbour Engineer, the Harbour Board and the Colonial government. Even the decision about how much of the breakwater should be demolished became contentious with each party deferring to the others. Finally, in 1884, being 8 years after its completion, were the breakwater and shield demolished.

Quarry used to supply rocks to fill in the breakwater

The Cinderella Project
After the failure of the first attempt at building a breakwater, Sir John Coode, consulting harbour engineer for the Cape authorities, was requested in 1870 to report on the feasibility of building a breakwater given the problems experienced with the movement of sea sand within Algoa Bay and then to submit a plan for consideration. This proposal was rejected after due consideration.

Seven years later, in 1877, Sir John prepared yet another blueprint in order to take into account the power of the “sand-travel”. To do so, the proposed harbour works would commence with a steel-piled viaduct 305 metres [1000 feet] in length. Jetties would project shorewards from under its lee. Thereafter the remaining 610 metres [2000 feet] would comprise a solid concrete breakwater with its coping 2.7 metre [9 feet] above the high-tide level. Without any substantiation, Coode stated “I may say with every confidence that the design…………. Is the only one to afford deep-water berthage at Port Elizabeth.” Inasmuch as Cape Government probably concurred with Sir John, they declined to implement the scheme claiming that a cheaper solution in the form of a series of jetties would suffice.

Titan crane in operation

Faced with the prospect of deadlock, the Cape Government referred the whole question to a Commission of Engineers, of whom Coode was a member, sitting in London. In 1880, the Commission accepted Coode’s 1877 plan but the Cape Government refused to accept the plan. Instead it ordered the construction of a 183 metre [600-foot] jetty to be known as the North Jetty.

Yet in 1890, another Constructional Engineer of repute, suggested a breakwater, 2438 metres [8000 feet] in length, lying like a lost concrete island off the foreshore but without even a connecting viaduct in order not to disrupt the sand-travel.

Divers were used to manoevre the concrete blocks into position

The Cape Government set up a conference to judge the submissions of Mr. E.E. Sawyer and Capt. Skead, the Harbour Master. The prevailing dogma at that time was encapsulated by the creed that “Further, we feel we ought to say that we are confident that it would be impractical to construct a breakwater anywhere in Algoa Bay which would afford complete protection to vessels lying at the jetties without, at the same time, prejudicially interfering with sand-travel along the shore.”

There are two types of sand-travel in Algoa Bay. Immense quantities of sand used to move from around  Cape Recife and along the face of the sand dunes while sand in suspension after south-easterly weather was carried by the northerly, inshore drift. The planting of Port Jackson willows on the dunes has been an effective deterrent to the dry-sand drift but sea-borne silt was still a problem. All the protagonists of the various schemes – the engineers: Coode, Hawkshaw, Hartley and Hammersley  and Harbour Master Capt. F. Skead R.N., all considered this to be the dominating factor. It was only at the turn of the 20th century would the forceful Sir John Coode be persuaded to scrap his proposed viaduct.

Crane used to hoist concrete blocks and also the barges used by the divers

Further proposals were made in the 1880s and 1890 but none came to fruition. By 1899, the North Jetty had long since been completed and extended and South Jetty commissioned. In 1902, the South Jetty was widened and lengthened and the Dom Pedro Jetty commissioned.   

Further proposals muddied the water. In 1903, the Harbour Board instructed an eminent harbour engineer, Mr. C.W. Methven to report on the feasibility of building a harbour at the mouth of the Swartkops River.  Then the Commission in London recommended a scheme by Coode, Son and  Matthew which featured a southern breakwater as well as a jetty in North End. In effect this proposal would transfer the harbour to the northern end of the town. Due to the opposition by various business interests, no further action was taken on the commission’s grandiose  plan. Further proposals were submitted by various experts. In 1914 the whole matter was submitted to Parliament which sanctioned the construction of the southern breakwater

After the WW1 Interlude
Once again the process was interrupted. Faced with the prospect of war, the fighting in Europe took precedence.

Only now could construction commence on the breakwater. The outer works scheme was sanctioned in 1914 and although the need of a sheltered deep water harbour was desperate, progress was painfully slow and there were to be difficulties before the harbour became a reality.

Barge picking up a concrete block to transfer it to the Titan crane

An interesting point to note in this protracted squabbling, much of the opposition to harbour development came from an influential faction who owned the surf boats  and plant used to transfer cargo and passengers between ships in the roadstead and the jetties. In a shrewd move, the first Union government nationalised these companies in 1910.

In 1919, the construction of the southern breakwater began at last, albeit at a very slow pace. The first block of the projected 3.2 km breakwater, commencing from the end of the old Dom Pedro Jetty was only laid on the 2nd November 1922,  when the Minister of Finance, Hon. Henry Burton KC, laid it. The 360-ton Titan crane, brought here for the project, was used to lower the concrete blocks commencing at the Dom Pedro Jetty site. The Dom Pedro Jetty was not initially demolished, but the concrete blocks were placed on the southern side against the jetty. A diver was used to direct the crane driver in the placement of these blocks. From the photo below, it appears that concrete blocks were later loaded onto a barge from a diminutive jetty close to the South Jetty. From this point the blocks were transported by this method across the harbour to the Titan crane. The blocks were cast in the ‘block yard” which was on the left after you passed the narrow gauge yard, just before the Port Captains house at the S bend.  

As luck would have it, in 1923 the port was inspected by an eminent  harbour engineer, Sir George Buchanan who recommended that apart from completing the half-finished breakwater to a length of 2580 metres, he considered further harbour works to be not essential for Port Elizabeth. Having endured rejection and failure for 60 years, they were elated when his recommendations were rejected.  

After yet more political wrangling and machinations, the breakwater which had commenced in 1922, was finally completed 12 years later in 1934.

Fortunately the Harbour Engineer who in the 1920s had opined as follows has been proved to be comprehensively wrong: “Any sheltering works constructed in this Bay and connected to the shore by a solid structure are certain to silt up and in time become useless

Rather than silting up the harbour, the silt has formed a huge sandy beach beside the south wall of the breakwater itself, posing no threat to the harbour itself.  

Mr James Smith – foreman on construction of the breakwater

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)
Thesis of Jon Inggs, “Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth Harbour Development 1820-70“, MA thesis, Rhodes University, 1986
Brochure entitled Opening of the Charl Malan Quay [in the protected harbour of Port Elizabeth]
Port Elizabeth: From a Border Garrison Town to a Modern and Industrial City edited by Ramon Lewis Leigh (1966, Felstar Publishers, Johannesburg)

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