Port Elizabeth of Yore: Development ignited by the Saltpans

In a manner of speaking, the salt pans which span over the northern areas of Port Elizabeth, are its mineral wealth. Unlike the mines in the north, their minerals are easy to extract without expensive machinery or underground excavations. Furthermore their lifespan is measured in millennia and not decades.

It is thought that in all likelihood, these salt pans have been used for millennia but not on an organised basis by the local Khoikhoi. The saline deposits of this district have long been famous, but until the foresight of Frederick Korsten, that there had been no attempt at systematic development. It was the entrepreneurial spirits of this one man that turned this untapped resource into an asset for the area.

Main picture: Swartkops salt pans

Prior to 1812 and Korsten
Amongst the pre-1820 visitors to this salt pans were a Scottish plant collector, Francis Masson who visited Algoa Bay accompanied by Carl Pehr Thunberg, a Swedish botanist and physician. They visited the Zwartkops salt pan in 1774 and Thunberg recorded seeing hyenas, buffalo (a herd of 500 – 600), zebra, quagga, hartebeest, kudu, elephants and rhinoceros.

First industry
Unbeknownst to most people in Port Elizabeth today is the fact that the salt industry is the oldest industry in the area. What was the spark which ignited this industry in the early 1800s when the Port Elizabeth area was devoid of people. It was the entrepreneurial mind of Frederick Korsten who during a visit to this deserted area foresaw the possibility of tendering on a British contract to supply their forces with cured and salted meat. Apparently it was Jan Hoets, Fredrick Korsten’s father in law and business partner, who was first involved in salt collection for the VOC – hence Korsten’s involvement with salt.

In 1812 Korsten won the contract which required the farm being converted into a production plant for raising, slaughtering, curing and salting cattle by the thousand. Finally the meat was placed in barrels. Whether Korsten tendered for these contracts in his own name or in another name is unknown but what we do know is that for several years the firm Cawood had a contract to supply Mauritius and St. Helena with 150,000 barrels a year while a further 70,000 barrels were shipped to foreign ports via Great Britain. In 1820 Korsten sold his business but not the main house. Due to the incompetence of the new owners, in 1824 Korsten was compelled to take over the reins once again. This salt was obtained from the salt pan on the lands of the Bethelsdorp missionary station and the trade was one of the settlement’s main sources of income.

St Mary’s eyes the saltpan’s revenues
On being appointed to the position of clergyman at St Mary’s Church in 1825, the Rev Francis McCleland was placed in the invidious position of establishing a new church literally from the ground up. With no generous donors to smooth the way, Francis had to cajole the struggling congregation to spare a penny for the church building fund. It was only in 1832 that the church was completed. Notwithstanding that the church lacked many amenities.   

Undeterred Frances was firmly set on doing all in his power to raise funds for the infant church. His initial tack was to claim portion of the revenues from the salt pans in the Uitenhage district which had been granted for church purposes by the Cape Government.

Notwithstanding that undertaking, the Dutch Reformed Kerkraad in Uitenhage laid claim to it all. In the face of the iniquity of such a stance, Francis was unbowed. He tirelessly began a prolific letter writing campaign, petitioning the supine authorities to acknowledge the right of St Mary’s Church to obtain their fair share of the revenue. Nonetheless, it was all to no avail.

Francis Masson

Snow-white pan
In the neighbourhood of Port Elizabeth there are several saltpans, the closest of which was the Zwartkops Saltpan. It is situated about three kilometres to the east of Zwartkops River and is known as the Grootpan. This saltpan has been developed to become one of South Africa’s largest sources of this commodity. As a consequence Port Elizabeth is one of three large centres of salt production in South Africa, the others being Saldanha Bay and in the Britstown-Vryburg area of North West Cape.

Today this area is surrounded by working class housing and the thick bush which once covered this area has long been consumed by the fireplaces of these simple homes.  In the 1900s, it was magical. At the centre of this dense bush, stretched a dazzling flooring of snow-white salt, its crystals glancing in the sunlight as if some generous fairy had scattered diamonds in wild profusion to add to the glory of a snowfield. For a couple of hundred yards or so all round, this bed of salt extended, encircling the pan, and in the centre was the wide, shallow, deep blue water of the pan itself. It is indeed a wonderful sight.

View of a saltpan, near the mouth of the Swartkops River by RJ Gordon in 1778

Men at work
The pan had been worked more or less systematically by the previous owner, Mr. Hitzeroth, but its capabilities were never fully realised until it passed into the hands of its present owners, ‘The Zwartkops Saltpan Company’. Upon acquiring possession, the company obtained the best advice available for the working of the deposit, and the result was the present production system.

The shape of the pan is an almost perfect oval, about 1,600 yards long and 1,000 yards wide. At its deepest it is about two feet when full, and after heavy rains. The sources of supply are saline springs, and these by their continued inflow have covered the whole bed of the pan with a thick crustation of salt some two inches thick, firm enough to bear the weight of the workmen and the carts used for transporting the salt. The system of working is extremely simple. When full of water to its utmost edge, the pan is, of course, unworkable, but immediately evaporation commences, and as the water recedes, working can commence. As the water evaporates, the salt is deposited upon the permanent salt floor of the pan. The extent of this deposit may be estimated by using the density of the brine at 23 lbs of salt to the cubic foot, taking the average depth of brine over the surface of the pan at six inches. Based upon this calculation, the pan would yield 600,000 bags, or 60,000 tons of pure salt.

Map of PE showing the Mission Salt Pan previous known as the Bethelsdorp Salt Pan or the Grootpan. Smller saltpans such as the Redhouse and Chatty Salt Pans are not shown

As the water evaporates, the salt deposited on the floor is scraped off with iron straight handled spades. It is then washed by being worked backwards and forwards in the shallow brine with solid wooden rakes. It is then raked beyond the edge of the brine and piled into mounds some four to five feet high. In this position the salt rapidly dries, and in the course of a few hours it is loaded on to wooden handcarts and wheeled into the drying sheds on the margin of the pan. On entering the shed the foreman samples the load and grades it as first, second, or third grade quality. The load is then stored according to its quality. In the sheds the salt rapidly loses all its moisture being ready for bagging in the course of three to thirty days. The grain of salt varying from coarse to extra fine, undergoes no crushing, but is simply sifted if required for table use or salting of butter, and thus the original crystal is retained. The chief grades for the market are coarse, medium, and fine, which are distinguishable by the letters C.B.A. extra coarse (for cattle-feeding), C.C. or extra fine A.A. Ultimately the salt is sold to the wholesalers in bags containing 200 lbs. net weight of salt.

Flamingos at the salt pan Swartkops

Compare the work performed here with that carried out in the salt mines of other countries at enormous expense, whereas at Grootpan it is processed using entirely natural processes. No artificial evaporation or no expensive machinery is required for the purpose of refining. The whole work is done by nature. The supply is practically inexhaustible, and when in full working order the pan can produce about 300 tons of salt a day. The ease of collection is such that one gang of workmen, generally consisting of four, can in one hour collect as much salt as they can process during the remainder of the day.

Quality of the salt
If the work is not interrupted by inclement weather, the sheds are heaped up to the roof. Of these there are five large sheds capable of storing about 8,600 tons, and six small sheds capable of containing 3,600 tons so that all in all, the Company has sufficient storeroom for 120,000 to 150,000 bags or to 15,000 tons of salt. It is not only apparently inexhaustible, but it produces salt of the utmost purity, equal, in fact, to that of the Stoke Prior Works in Worcestershire, which has the reputation in those days of producing the finest salt in the world.

Railway transport
Even though the saltpan estate is bounded by the railway on three sides, the company was compelled to transport the salt to the railway siding by ox-wagon. Ultimately the company at their own cost built a branch line connecting the salt pan with the Midland Main Line at the Aloes siding, which is operated by the Government. This then allowed supplies of salt to be loaded onto the railway trucks in the sheds at Grootpan and delivered from there to any railway station on the Cape system. The company incurred a considerable expense to create these facilities, but the advantages thereby gained were enormous. The shipping was greatly expedited and increased, since the salt could then be railed in trucks directly from the salt sheds at the salt pan to the jetties in the harbour, and thence discharged into the holds of ships lying alongside.

Salt lake

In 1894, the directors of the company were Messrs. E. Stephani (Mosenthal & Co.), A. Hirsch (Hirsch Loubser & Co.), T. W. Gubb and H. W. Dalldorf (Dalldorf, Schabbel & Co.), the last-named firm acting as selling agents and secretaries to the Company.

By 1894, the company had obtained three silver first prize medals at various Colonial Exhibitions and a gold medal at Kimberley in 1892, in fact wherever it exhibited its products, the Grootpan Salt received the highest awards and commendation.

Mission Salt Pan
The Mission Salt Pan, originally known as the Bethelsdorp Salt Pan is located approximately 12 kilometres north-east of Port Elizabeth on the old Uitenhage road between Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage. It is approximately 28,4 metres above sea level in a depression which is surrounded by the existing residential areas. Geologists maintained that in prehistoric times the sea pushed up to the Mission salt pan via the Swartkops and Chatty Rivers at high tide, leaving seawater behind at low tide. This water evaporated which left behind salt crystals on the bottom of the pan. Virtually the whole area mentioned above was a swamp. As far as we could ascertain, the local inhabitants of this area (Khoi-koi) used to gather salt in these pans during the period 1790 under the guidance of British missionaries, Drs. Philip and Van der Kemp. During rainy times the salt in the clay and swamp dissolved and after the rainwater had evaporated, the salt deposit was reaped, sold and traded by the local inhabitants. In later years, wells were dug in the higher and drier areas of the pan and brine extracted. Eventually certain parts of the pans were allocated to track-holders who later became legal owners of certain parts of the pan, which has been handed over from generation to generation as inheritance. During the late 1950’s Federal Mining and later Swartkops Sea Salt (Pty) Ltd. obtained permission from the track-holders to change over to mass production by pumping seawater from the Swartkops Salt Mine brine dams to prepared clay dams, for mass production of salt to take place. Cerebos operates from the Redhouse Salt Pan.

Guide to Port Elizabeth (1894, Dennis Edwards & Co, 19 Long Street, Cape Town)
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)
A Pinch of Salt by Khitab, Looking Back, Volume III, Number 1, March 1963
Website of Swartkops Sea Salt Pty., Ltd

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  1. Good afternoon Dean. I am writing an article on the History of Lake Michelle (350 homes) for our quarterly newsletter. Lake Michelle is built on what was once a salt pan and was “mined” for salt in late 1700s, 1800s and into the early 1900s. I am looking for an illustration to make it more interesting and found the beautiful painting in your post. May I use this painting and who would I have to ask for permission to use it (I can’t make out the artist’s name). I would naturally acknowledge the source.

  2. Hello Dean. I have just seen that the artist is Doroth Moss Kay and that she has no doubt passed on. Could you possibly then put me in touch with whoever it was that you obtained permission from to use the painting. Thanks allan

    • Hi Allan

      Don’t hold your breath.
      I don’t live in PE anymore so I took a trip down
      Never got an answer so I just used it.
      Dean McCleland

  3. Dear Dean it was in fact Jan Hoets , Fredrick Korsten’s father in law and business partner who was first involved in salt collection for the VOC hence Korsten’s involvement with salt


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