Having lived in Port Elizabeth until 1980, I had heard about Savage & Lovemore as they were so prolific but what I only discovered recently was that the famous so-called Third Avenue Dip was the brainchild of David Bailee Lovemore of Savage and Lovemore fame.
This blog is a verbatim transcript of the story of this iconic firm as recounted in the family history entitled Lovemores Then and Now – June 2000.
Main picture: David Lovemore with his first bulldozer
For many years the pioneering aspects of life in South Africa was reflected in the activity of the general merchants. Hard working men with bold vision made their fortunes through trading – and sometimes lost them again! The larger merchants were based around the coast where their ships brought in goods from other lands, and amongst these was a trading company in Port Elizabeth called Savage and Hill. This company was formed in 1846 and has carried through until the present day, with changes in name and direction, as the backbone of Darling & Hodgson’s construction operations.
Savage and Hill became William Savage and Son and their trading activities carried on until the Boer War, when the collapse of ordinary life resulted in their becoming insolvent, along with many other companies. When the war was over and life began to return to normal, it proved impossible to pick up old threads. The whole world was changing after the turn of the century; communications were improving dramatically, people were travelling, and South Africa was no longer such an unknown place. With the opening up of the Witwatersrand after the discovery of gold, the importance of the coastal cities diminished. The glory of the general merchant had dimmed, and Savage and Son gradually built up a reputation as brokers in the skin and hides business. This continued until the Second World War, and it was the business that young Andrew Savage (William Savage’s great-grandson) joined in 1946 when he came home from fighting in the war.
Andrew started a transport business under the family name, operating from an office in Paterson Road above the skin and hides store which gave it a characteristic pungent atmosphere! Initially he owned three flat trucks which were used to carry sand and stone for builders. They were all loaded by hand, and the precious shovels were taken home each night lest they were stolen. Gradually the flat trucks were replaced by tip-trucks.
The first one was an Albion with a secondhand tip body, which was fitted in the workshops behind the Savage and Son offices. One night when the men were working late to finish the truck, Andrew called in on his way home to see how everything was going, and after chatting to the men for a while – he jumped off the truck – straight into a half forty-four-gallon drum of old engine oil!! Such an incident can only have inspired the organization!
The business grew steadily, soon justifying the purchase of machinery to help load the trucks. This led to the tackling of all kinds of earthmoving jobs, under the name of Savage and Son Excavators, including in the early fifties a reclamation job for Eskom in Port Elizabeth, for which the first mechanical shovel was bought, and an irrigation cana1 in Kirkwood.
Andrew had grown up in Port Elizabeth with a friend, David Lovemore, who had also been in the army during the war. On his return home, David started farming and borrowed his uncle’s D4 bulldozer to build a dam, on the basis that he would earn the money to pay for the loan of the machine by doing some earthmoving for neighbouring farmers. This fulfilled a need in the neighbourhood and produced more work than David had ever anticipated. The earthmoving contracts were so much more lucrative than farming that by the end of 1948 he was contracting full time, using his uncle’s bulldozer, and splitting the profits with him. Most of his work involved building dams on farms in the Humansdorp and Steytlerville district and down the Sundays River Valley and his very first contracting job was for Hugh Savage, Andrew’s father.
At the beginning of 1950, David was appointed manager of McKiever’s earthmoving business and travelled around the country for them gaining considerable experience in this field. Within a year, he was back home in order to start his own business, with his father and a friend, P. Theophilus, financing the venture. D.B. Lovemore Earthmoving Contractor started operating with one bulldozer, a second-hand D6 bought as scrap from ·the Uitenhage Municipality for £ 2,500
Inevitably, his success and ambition led to a desire to enter a bigger civil engineering scene and he turned to his friend Andrew Savage for help and encouragement. Together, in 1954, they tendered for a contract for the South African Railways at Barkly Bridge. There was only one item in the bill of quantities but somehow the inexperienced couple obtained the wrong figure at the end of the calculations. Fortunately, the Railways kindly corrected the figure, and awarded them the contract. The two men worked well together, David’s intensely practical nature complementing Andrew’s management ability. They had not thought of joining up, however, until David had an urge to leave South Africa and see what life would be like in Canada. He asked Andrew if he would supervise his contracting business and look after the books in his absence. Andrew then suggested that the best idea would be for their two companies to amalgamate, and he would run the new company while David was away. Savage and Lovemore (Pty) Ltd was created in 1955, David holding 49% of the shares and Savage and Son, 51%. The subsequent developments were so fascinating that David gave up his idea of going to Canada and instead became happily absorbed in the activities of Savage and Lovemore.
When the Cape Provincial Administration put out a national road tender to private enterprise for the first time, it was awarded to Clifford Harris, and Savage and Lovemore managed to get a subcontract for the earthworks of the north section of the Olifantskop Pass north of Paterson. This was their first participation in a major road construction project and was successfully completed in 1956.
The first big contract for Savage and Lovemore, which was started in February 1958, was known as the Modder River contract. David lived on site for several months, getting everything underway before leaving to get married and go overseas for a five-month honeymoon with his wife, Enid. Andrew took charge of the contract immediately after the wedding and he and his wife Twinks have many happy and amusing memories of the months they spent living there.
Contracts followed one after the other all around the country and Savage and Lovemore had become a significant force in road construction by 1978, the year in which Andrew and David decided to retire from their executive positions in the company. They were both unassuming men who had derived tremendous personal satisfaction from the challenge of proving themselves major road builders in South Africa, and who had enthusiastically inspired others to work with them to create this great construction organisation within Darling & Hodgson. They had led Savage and Lovemore through its pioneering days and set it on a successful track and they now felt that it was time to pass the reins over to men of a different nature who would maintain what had been established and develop the company further as a contributor to Group profits. They remained actively involved for some years until David relinquished all associations with the Group to become fully involved in farming, and Andrew fulfilled his ambition to enter politics when in 1981 he was elected Progressive Federal Party member of parliament for Walmer, Port Elizabeth, although he remained on the Group board until 1984.
Among Savage and Lovemore’s contributions were the DF Malan airport’s extended runway, Sir Lowry’s Pass and the William Moffett freeway.
Bruce Hall commented as follows: “I worked for Savage & Lovemore from 1969 to 1975 & what you have said about the two men is absolutely correct. Andrew was the businessman, always dressed in a suit while David was the man in khaki visiting the sites & getting involved in the tenders. He had the knack of walking the length of a proposed new road & at the end giving his estimate of the cost of construction. The civil engineers would then go & crunch the numbers & invariably found David’s estimate to be very accurate. While I worked there they undertook the biggest road construction project in SA. The concrete road from Somerset West to Cape Town. The price of the contract was R6m. Huge at that time, but now you could perhaps build one kilometer of road. It was a great company where staff were valued & treated with respect.”