Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Era of Landing Beaches and Boating Companies

Of all the ports in South Africa in the 19th century, only Port Elizabeth had to suffer until into the 1930s without a harbour. In spite of it being one the busiest harbours in the country, Port Elizabeth relied upon landing beaches until the 1870s and then subsequently on jetties until 1932.

Main picture: Timber on a Landing Beach

Of surfboats, surf labourers and landing beaches
Prior to jetties being built, all the cargo whether landed or shipped was moved to or from the Landing Beach. The area selected as the operating beach, based upon its lack of rocks, abundance of sand and its gentle slope, was the coast from Jetty Street to the mouth of the Baakens River.  

About a hundred yards south of the “harbour” stood a private dwarf jetty capable of handling a Whale Boat for passengers and their luggage. Since the Whale Boat would be in the surf, a small hand crane stood at the head of the jetty for hauling the luggage. From this small jetty to a point north of the river, the whole beach was warped. A warp was a large rope which extended from the high-water mark to the sea by which the surf boats were brought in and out. To do so, the boat had a small iron roller built in the front centre top where the rope was placed and carried along the boat and over the back when the cargo was landed, the surfboat was brought up as far as possible but when the cargo was shipped, the boat was kept in the surf in order to ensure that it is not stuck in the sand when fully loaded. Hence these contraptions were nicknamed surfboats.

Painting by Baines in 1848. Surfboats heading out the the ships in the roadstead from the dwarf jetty. Note how the rope is pulled through the guides forcing the vessel to meet the waves straight on.

With the advent of lighters, when shipping a bale of pressed wool, four Mfengu men would carry it on their heads, one at each corner, from the high-water mark to the boat in the surf.

Nakedness, decency and loin cloths
Since these black men would be working in the water all day, they were naked except for a loin cloth but often they were naked. Even though some photos suggest that these coverings were pure white, this is fanciful and probably staged for the recorder. What they did often wear was a “neutchie” made of the skin that covers an ox’s heart, which according to Mfengu custom, was all that was required.        

Surfboats anchored for the night
At night the surf boats would be anchored a little way out, the boatmen sailing out to them in a whale boat. If the surfboat was empty, the boatmen would sail it out to the ship that they were shipping from. Since these vessels only had a square sail, if the wind was off the land, sail out was easy but when loaded to return was another matter. They were compelled to tack backwards and forwards from point called Bird Rock to the bight at North End. Sometimes they would only get to their anchorage at the end of the day. In this eventuality they would have to anchor for the night and land the cargo the following day. This process was laborious and time consuming and since there could be anything from ten to twenty-five sailing vessels of various sizes in the bay, one can appreciate why certain vessels would be in the roadstead for months.

Mfengu unloading cargo from surfboats. Note the Gaff Rig in the stowed position

Precautionary measures
All vessels anchored to the left of the present breakwater head and never to the right.  This was a precautionary measure as the North End beach was free of rocks and should the vessel part from is anchor cable, its final resting place would be this sandy beach.

Time signal
At noon each day a large black ball was dropped from the Lighthouse on the Donkin Reserve as a time signal by which all watches’ time was set. When a south east wind was building up, the lighthouse would display flags and a small black ball as a warning to vessels in the Bay to release their cables as, if short, they had a tendency to snap as letting out the cable gave more play. With a long cable and a heavy sea running which would life the ship, there would appear to be about thirty or forty feet of cable showing out of the water. Hence it could then be seen how far back the ship was lying from her anchor. The mail steamer would lay just off the present breakwater head.

The Donkin Hill lighthouse

 Storage and dray carts
A beach always comprised boats of various sizes, small work sheds and stacks of cargo, some off which would be covered with canvas as well as the usual seafaring lumber, passages had to be kept open from the high water mark to the Boating Company stores. To enable the horses to get a footing, these passages had to be surfaced with gravel s one-horse dray carts would usually haul loads to and from the beach and store as the case may be. While the Boating Companies had two-horse wagons for delivering the cargo to the merchants, one-horse dray carts were mostly used as they were more suitable. These dray carts were mostly owned by various people who dispatched to the beach. To confirm the number of loads carted, a ticket being given for each load and payment made on a Saturday.

A dray cart

Lack of security
The Boating Companies’ stores were two-storey buildings standing in a long line from the red building at the foot of Fleming Street. Each company employed a nightwatchman but they were of little use or value as there were no fences or lights and very few police. It was well-known that unemployed and jobless individuals slept under the boats and lumber and “carried off”, a euphemism for stole, easily disposable cargo at night. Imagine the scene sketched above. Would the solitary watchman notice or even hear malcontents pillaging items. If he did, he would never intervene as it was too risky. The skeletal police force comprised an Inspector, several sergeants and a number of untrained and ill-paid constables in whom one could not place any trust. Even the prisoners’ clothes were marked P.E.P. Indicative of the risks to life and limb of the policemen, in order to protect himself when on night duty, Constable Harris always took his three dogs with him for protection.

Working conditions
Clearly the working conditions of the surfboatmen were arduous and onerous. For their seven shillings and sixpence per day (working days only) they worked in all weathers often from before dawn until it was dark. If the weather was too inclement or the sea too rough or dangerous, then the principle of no work no pay was enforced. The handling of logs was particularly irksome as they were floated to the shore which meant working in the water all day long despite the water temperature being in the single digits.

The Bay in Living Memory – Part 1 by Voullaire [Looking Back, Volume No 55, 2016]

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