Port Elizabeth of Yore: The First-Recorded Shark Attack

Perhaps the reason why so few shark attacks occurred during the 1800s was due to the fact that most people were unable to swim. Hence when they attempted to swim, it was in the shallow water. On the other hand drownings were commonplace as they were unaware of dangerous conditions such as rip tides and life savers were unknown.

This blog covers the shark attack on the 28th January 1886 off the South Jetty in which young William Rodwell lost his leg.

Main picture: Bathing House at the mouth of the Baakens River

Swimming at the Bathing House
According to Voullaire in his epistle entitled The Bay of Living Memory,  “At the side of the Baakens River mouth and at the edge of the sea stood a wood-and-iron Bathing House built on piles  about 2.4 metres high with steps facing the sea, and at high tide the water would cover several of the steps. During that period of the 1800s’ Mr and Mrs Carswell were in charge of the Bathing House. The bathers were instructed to keep in front of the bathing house as at the corner of the seawall, the sea was then deep with a strong current around that corner making it dangerous for bathers.  

On the afternoon of the 2nd October 1886 ten months after the town’s first shark attack, the residents of the town were shocked to hear that four Collegiate girls, who were boarders, were drowned at the bathing house. Apparently some girls were bathing when a strong current swept eight of them out to sea. Nearby workers rushed down and launched a whaleboat and did all that could be done to rescue them and resuscitate those that they could. Although six were rescued, only four recovered meaning that four must have died.

Swimming at the Landing Beaches
Before the North Jetty was constructed, there was only one jetty along the landing beaches and that was the dwarf jetty, a private jetty erected and owned by John Owen Smith, owner of one of the Boating Companies operating on this section of the beach. Voullaire recalled that the boys used this jetty which had been built at the foot of Fleming Street used it for leaving their clothes on while they bathed on a splendid sandy beach running south to the Baakens River. This area was known as the Landing Beaches as the cargo from the ships on the roadstead would be landed hereby means of surfboats.

Amongst these youths were some who were excellent swimmers, notably Rowbotham and Gronan who was later killed by a lion at his hut at Umtali. Being exceptional in the water, in fine weather they could swim right out to sea and be out for an hour or more.

In later years, when the bathing beach was no longer available for the enthusiasts among the young men, they relocated to the new South End Jetty where a bathing house had been erected.

Rodwell’s unequal fight
One of the regular swimmers at his bathing house was one Rodwell who usually went out and swam around a buoy and back again. One morning he had swum around and was on his return journey  when spectators on the jetty spotted an enormous shark heading in Rodwell’s direction. A warning shout was frantically given as Rodwell, swimming with all his might, made a beeline for the jetty with the shark in full pursuit. The race was an unequal one as the sleek shark soon overhauled its quarry and prey. As it did so, it turned on its side and made a determined grab at the escapee’s leg. This was partially rebuffed by means of a dextrous turn at right angles. Being partially unsuccessful, its cruel razor sharp teeth nevertheless made a high gash in the thigh. Fortunately Rodwell felt no pain as he surged for the jetty. As he grabbed for the steps, a youngster, a Malay, and men working there caught his hands and proceeded to haul him out of the water.

South Jetty with two of its unique cranes

Equally unrelenting and determined to prevent his prey’s escape, it grabbed one of the legs below the knee. It was then a case of both pulling with all their might. The shark won but only the consolation prize being Rodwell’s leg below the knee. In the main prize stakes Rodwell had won. He was still alive.  

South Jetty-View from the Donkin

The role of Joe Olivier
Joe Olivier who lived at South Union Street, South End, started a Boating Company with offices at the foot of the South Jetty. When he moved to First Avenue Walmer, he purchased a small one-seat trap and horse for him and his son to travel to and from business. By the way, this was the man who would build the first slipway north of King’s Beach.

Whether from experience, knowledge or wisdom, Joe was aware what to do in circumstance such as this viz that time was of the essence. If Rodwell had been taken to hospital in the trap or by cab, he would have bled to death before reaching hospital on Richmond Hill. In order to save Rodwell, he would have to find a doctor who could staunch the blood-loss before taking Rodwell to hospital.  That was Joe’s objective as he sped past Birch’s shop in Main Street en route to Donkin Street where many doctors lived.

Store of William Rodwell on the corner of Dagleish Street and Military Road

As this calamity had happened early in the morning, no cab was available at Market Square. In any case, any cabs out would have been at the Railway Station. How the doctor was transported to South Jetty is unknown but in all probability it was by horse. There his leg was amputated above the first gash made by the shark on the thigh. He refused to take chloroform and bore the operation unflinchingly.

The pluck and indifference to pain then displayed by Rodwell was most remarkable. He called for his clothes and paid the bathing housekeeper 1/- which he owed to him.  Only then was he driven to the hospital, a distance of 1½ or 2 miles in a cab.

This incident evoked great consternation among the habitual swimmers from the jetty. Many were to be subsequently seen after that bathing off the sea wall where there was shallower water where sharks could more easily be spotted.  For days after the incident, large hooks on chains were baited and several sharks were caught but not the one wanted. Rodwell was fitted with an artificial leg and walked the streets for years afterwards.

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).The Bay in Living Memory Part 1 by Vollaire (Looking Back, Volume 55, 2016)

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