Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Untimely Demise of the First Jetty

When the elements defeat ingenuity and determination

The first practical scheme to improve Port Elizabeth’s harbour facilities was mooted barely ten years after the arrival of the 1820 Settlers. This reflects the stunning growth of Port Elizabeth as a harbour. Notwithstanding the determination of the local residents, politics and other considerations would intrude to prevent the hopes and aspirations of this dream being realised.

Nine years after being mooted in 1831, construction of the First Jetty commenced in 1840. The maxim, “The past we inherit and the future we create,” was now validated. This blog covers the cycle of this project from its initial conceptualisation to its unfortunate, untimely and unexpected destruction in 1843.

Main picture: The first jetty

Beaches as Landing Places

Prior to the construction of a jetty, the landing of goods and passengers had hitherto been upon an open beach, through a high and frequently dangerous surf, by means of boats expressly built for that purpose. The inconvenience, expense and injury to property by damage of sea water, as well as danger to passengers sustained due to this primitive mode of disembarkation, according to Pamela Ffolliott, “induced the merchants of the port in 1837 to attempt the experiment of a jetty and having driven fourteen trial piles along side of a wreck which bore the fury of the surf unimpaired for two years, they called the attention of the public” to its possibility as an anchor for the construction of a jetty.    

Landing of the Settlers by HWHC Piers AN H110

Initial meetings

It was in late 1831 that the first agitation for an improvement in the port facilities arose. This was truly remarkable in that it bore eloquent testimony to the enterprising spirit and indomitable character of these folk. Not for them hands extended for alms and succour. Instead by their own efforts and determination would they succeed in their newly adopted homeland. At the forefront of this charge was Captain Francis Evatt, Commandant of Fort Frederick, who had convened a meeting in Uitenhage with the relevant authorities to discuss the construction of a jetty in Port Elizabeth.

The lessons of this meeting are timeless. Instead of a vapid idea with little substance, two models of a proposed jetty were displayed at the meeting. The first was by the newly-appointed harbour master, Edward Wallace [1831-1834], while the second was presented by Lieutenant F.B. Fielding of the 98th Regiment. The meeting resolved to approach the British Government on the matter. To this end, a committee was appointed to draft a petition.

Above: Hillside House at 14 Bird Street was built in the early 1830’s for the Harbour Master Edward Wallace. The house was extensively altered in about 1881 for the General Manager of the Bank of Africa. Later it was used for a time as a students residence, and finally the house was restored by the University of Port Elizabeth to provide offices. Wallace’s house was in all probability not as large and ornate

The first spanner in the works was the announcement in the Government Gazette that a stone pier would be built in Table Bay “which will necessarily lead to the cessation of all expensive works, however important, in other parts of the Colony.”

Despite of this damper being placed on the project, local resolve did not wane. At a follow-up meeting on the 3rd March 1832, a third model was displayed together with cost estimates of the various options. One required 3000 guineas [1 guinea = 21s] plus 50 convicts whereas the others were estimated at £3,000 each. Furthermore, the new projector, an archaic word for a person who plans and sets up a project, John Parkin, offered to maintain the jetty for £50 per annum.

John Parkin of Baakens River Farm

In their ongoing quest to keep this project on track in spite of a potential hiatus of five to ten years while the pier in Table Harbour was being constructed, the committee decided to raise funds by selling shares at £25 each. To secure their rights and the interests of the shareholders, they applied for an ordinance to be enacted in this regard. By now, a prominent local businessman from nearby Cradock Place, Frederick Korsten, had been appointed Chairman of the Jetty Committee. Another meeting was held on the 20th April 1832. In a flurry of developments, a share list was immediately opened. This allowed by 300 shares at £25 each with £1,700 being committed by potential shareholders. Within three days, 120 shares worth £3,000 had been taken up.

As the acting secretary, W. M. Harries warned prospective investors that 60% of the shares had already been subscribed for and that a £1 deposit would be required if the scheme was sanctioned by the government. Moreover he confirmed that subsequent calls would not exceed £5 per share at a time.

A necessary evil in the path of the process would now have to be surmounted: officialdom. Faced with the prospect of having to make a decision, what action does any self-respecting civil servant do? Kick for touch. And so it was with the Surveyor-General, Charles Michell, and the Government Architect, John Skirrow. In their report of June 1832, they complain that “we regret to state that it is not possible for us to form any correct idea of what so important structure ought to be in the absence of proper data.”

Charles Michell

Hardly had the Jetty Committee received this reply, than they replied by providing additional information which they deemed to be sufficient. Again the two government officials in their cosy offices in Cape Town were unfazed even at such an expeditious reply. In their reply to the Jetty Committee during July 1832, they bemoaned the fact that “the Committee had not perceived the full extent of the queries [that] we addressed it.” Furthermore they decried “the brief manner…” and the reply being “far too vague.”

Now they applied the coup de grace. Michell and Skirrow submitted that a proper survey be undertaken by a qualified engineer. The Jetty Committee recommended that a military engineer stationed on the frontier would suffice. By September, the Governor had granted permission for one of the officers to undertake the survey subject to the proviso that it would be at the convenience of the Commanding Officer. Nothing further came of this proposal and it died a silent death.

Second attempt by the Jetty Committee

In a bid to resuscitate the proposal, in April 1833 the Jetty Committee approached the Deputy Surveyor General, W.F. Hertzog, through J.C. Chase, to inspect the site. Fortune smiled on the Committee on this occasion. As Hertzog was travelling in the vicinity, the Governor granted him permission to stop over in Port Elizabeth with a mandate to survey the proposed site, to determine how close it was to a quarry and finally ascertain the cost of local labour.

Willem Frederik Hertzog

Hertzog duly arrived in May 1833 for his inspection but reported back to the Governor that as he had not been assisted by the Committee and none of his questions had been answered, he had drafted his plan for a site of his own choose. Supported by Francis Evatt, the Committee vociferously disputed Hertzog’s allegations. Perhaps to forestall any further delay, the Committee accepted Hertzog’s proposed site.

Yet again, the Project lost momentum and faded away, no doubt lost in some seldom opened drawer. It seems to have been sucked into a black hole as no trace can be found of it in any archives or local newspapers. Once again, it had to be revived. A petition was circulated during mid-1834, but it too sank like a stone in water.

Revival of the Jetty Project

It was events 850kms away in Cape Town which sparked renewed interest in a jetty in Port Elizabeth. Perhaps local interests had grown wary of continual delay and were now asleep at the wheel. Entrepreneurs had formed the Cape of Good Hope Navigation Company whose object was “the speedy and regular conveyance of goods and passengers between the Eastern and Western Provinces” using “one or more Steam Vessels.” Promoters of the Port Elizabeth Jetty Company were also involved with the steam ship company. Its first steamer, Hope, was launched at the Clyde early in 1838. While on its maiden journey to Port Elizabeth, it was wrecked west of Cape St. Francis in March 1840.

PE showing the First Jetty by HW Piers 1840

Unusual stimulus

Surprisingly, the immediate local stimulus for a jetty at Port Elizabeth came in the form of a shipwreck. On the 10th August 1837, the three-masted schooner, Feejee, ran aground at the very spot recommended for a jetty by the deputy surveyor general in 1833. Ironically the Feejee was wrecked for the very reason that a jetty was required. Bad weather had prevented the boatman from unloading her immediately on her arrival on the 28th July. Curiously enough, an anonymous correspondent to Lloyds placed culpability for her loss on the inactivity of the boatman rather than on the inclement weather.

It was a local merchant, John Thornhill, who was first to realise the potential of the Feegee. While the bureaucracy in Cape Town continued to raise a chorus of concerns, close scrutiny of the wreck by Thornhill planted a realisation in his mind. If the wreck could survive the pounding surf and the buffeting waves, so too could a jetty. Once he had realised the potential, Thornhill rapidly set to work. His marketing skills came to the fore when he arranged that a dozen Port Elizabeth businessmen club together in order to purchase the wreck of the Feegee for £ 244. With his usual boundless enthusiasm, within two weeks Thornhill had applied to the government for “ the use of a Pile Engine & Double power crane for the purpose of driving piles as a foundation for a jetty in Port Elizabeth from the wreck of the Bark Feejee now lying there”.

In his thesis, Liverpool of the Cape, Jon Inggs explains how the piledriver was set up. “A 15 metre trial platform on fourteen 11 metre piles was quickly built under Thornhill’s supervision using the wreck as a base. A temporary platform was constructed by lashing spars from the wreck to its masts and rigging about 2.5 metres above the high water mark. This was then used to support the ‘pile engine and monkey’ which was employed to build the pile-based structure independent of the wreck. Once completed, the projectors proposed to link it with the shore by means of ‘massive chain cables’”.

Financial complications

Next, like all projects, the necessary evil called finance arose. Thornhill proposed to form a joint stock company in order to raise enough money to commence building a permanent structure. It was proposed to raise the £6000 required to build the approximately 180 metre jetty by issuing £10 shares. After the plans were approved by “an Engineer of high eminence in the Colony”, the Port Elizabeth Jetty Company was officially constituted in March 1838. Despite only £4000 of the estimated £6000 was pledged, the scheme forged ahead on the understanding that the rest of the money would be received. The next issue that would delay the commencement of operations, was the signing of the Trust Deed. It took over a year until May 1839 when all the shareholders except one had signed the instrument.  Wayward shareholders further impeded progress by not paying up their shares or even worse, forfeiting their shares by not even paying the £1 deposit on them.

In spite of delinquent shareholders, work proceeded apace and by April 1840, work was sufficiently far advanced to allow the laying of a foundation stone at the masonry section of the jetty. On a positive note, the Governor gave permission to use convict labour on the project but cash flow was constrained. By November 1839, the company called in £3 of the proposed £10 on each of the shares.

An underlying financial had not yet been addressed. Unheeded was the fact that 228 of the 600 shares had not yet been taken up. In desperation, the Chairman of the company approached the government for a loan of £1000 “on the security of the works and the future revenues of the Jetty”. Their unvarnished reply mentioned the fact that the Government could in all honesty no authorise “any advance on the security of a work so liable to damage, if not destruction”. What a prescient comment.

They also drew attention to the “fact that less than two-thirds of the shares had been taken up”. Management must have been keenly aware of this fact yet the proceeded in a great haste to complete the jetty without tapped additional sources of loans.      

By February 1841, £3300 had been spent leaving the company with a disposable balance of only £92. Attempts were made to dispose of the remaining shares largely without success. The only other option was to prune the original plan extensively. The items sacrificed included the warehouses, a tramway and an additional 30 metres of jetty to accommodate steamers. The final dimensions & composition of the jetty were as follows:

  • Dimensions: 6 metres wide & 208 metres long
  • Composition: 146 metres of wood & 63 metre stone abutment covered with wooden decking

In spite of the litany of financial woes, by July 1841, ship’s boats were already using the jetty to land and ship supplies. By January 1842, the jetty company was able to charge for using the jetty. Eventually on 22nd March 1843, the company officially commenced shipping cargo with a record 17 ships lying at anchor in the roadstead. At the same time the first vessel was repaired off the jetty. According to Inggs, “The work was completed in 5½ hours by the Isemonger Brothers for £60 on the ‘no cure no pay’ principle. The 250-ton brig, Vanguard, had put into Algoa Bay with a dangerous leak which ‘was effectively repaired with ease, dispatch, and without the smallest accident’.

Eight days later on the 30th March 1842, the jetty was awarded official recognition when it was declared a legal landing place by the Customs Department. To ensure that the residents were not held totally in the thrall of the new jetty, the local customs official, D.P. Francis, correctly pointed out “that there was no chance at present of this Jetty superceding the greater portion of work, which must still be carried out at the beach”. To exploit the potential of the jetty, , Captain E.H. Salmond procured a five-ton sailing boat from Cape Town to work between the ships at anchor and the jetty.

Disaster strikes

By any measure it can be confidently stated that this new jetty bore the hopes and aspirations of the town on its piles and decking. Discussions about the town’s prospects vis-à-vis the other proposed harbours such as at the Kowie River even outstripped all other topics of discussion.

Painting of the Landing in Algoa Bay by Thomas Baines

Yet this elation and joy was misplaced as five months after coming into operation, it was totally destroyed on the 26th August 1843 when three ships were driven through it during a vicious gale. The official report read as follows: “Friday night the gale increased until it raged to an extent that had not been witnessed since 1835. The night was truly terrific. So extreme was the darkness that no object could be distinguished except in the momentary glare of the lightning, while the roaring of the tremendous surf and the howling of the wind was perfectly deafening. At about 4 o’clock, the Brig ELIZABETH ROWELL came, stern on, about the centre of the Jetty, through which in a very few minutes she made a complete breach, carrying away the decking of the Jetty upon her quarter deck. The crash and concussion were tremendous, but the crew of the Brig contrived to land in safety upon the Jetty. Within a quarter of an hour afterwards the unfortunate  LAURA came foul of the outer part of the Jetty which was still standing – on which a part of the crew scrambled, but the joy of these poor fellows at their escape was doomed to be of short duration, for the SEA GULL now dashed against the same part of the Jetty, carrying everything away and sweeping off the men who had taken refuge there who were hurried into the raging surf and never seen more. When day broke the beach presented an awful sight. The largest and most valuable half of the jetty has been destroyed, and the whole structure rendered useless.

As luck would have it, eight other vessels in the roadstead managed to ride out the storm. How is it possible that the three ships that broke free from their moorings would all smash into the jetty? Eleven lives were lost and the total damage, including the ships, amounted to £ 30,000. The Port Elizabeth Jetty Company was wound up. The Government allowed it to sell its land and the remains of the jetty by public auction on the 9th March 1844. The lands was subdivided into 12 lots of which 11 were successfully. This offset the company’s loss by £920. Ultimately the jetty had cost its promoters £6,000 and some shareholders lost as much as £ 150 each. In 1844 by great great grandfather earned £200 per annum which represented a fairly substantial remuneration in that era. 

Ironically, John Thornhill, the initial promoter of the jetty scheme, was aboard the paddle steamer, Phoenix, when it arrived in Port Elizabeth a week later after this disastrous storm. When the jetty was nearing completion, John Thornhill had decided to dispose of his shares and relocate to Cape Town. Hence, John Thornhill had suffered no loss on the collapse of the Port Elizabeth Jetty Company. His premises in Port Elizabeth had already been taken over by the Mosenthal brothers who had relocated from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth.


Thesis of Jon Inggs, "Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth Harbour Development 1820-70", MA thesis, Rhodes University, 1986                                                                                                                                                                                   One Titan at a Time by Pamela FFolliott & E.L.H. Croft (1960, Howard Timmins, Cape Town)                                                                               Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton (Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).

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