Port Elizabeth of Yore: Uitenhage enters the Industrial Age

By 1806, two years after the town of Uitenhage was founded, the districts of Uitenhage and Graaff Reinet possessed 72.9% of the sheep in South Africa. With only 19.2% of the Cape’s population, and 60.4 head of sheep per person in these districts, one has two wonder why this anomaly arose. It would take another 20 years after the establishment of Port Elizabeth in 1820 before the export of wool would make sheep breeding a profitable undertaking. It is these exports which would provide the impetus for the creation of wool processing industries in both Uitenhage and Port Elizabeth.

Main picture: Springfield – One of the first woolwasheries in Uitenhage

The development of any industry is never a straight line from conception to sales being generated. Often it is an unintended consequence or a confluence of other factors such as climate and soil conditions which creates a new industry. In the case of sheep breeding, the reason for the overabundance of sheep must have arisen due to idyllic conditions whether they were vegetation, climate or soil. But even if these conditions were ideal, the breed of sheep favoured by the Boers was the so-called fat-tailed sheep which were not prolific producers of wool but more importantly there was no nearby port or even logistics network to move the product to the end user. Crucially what the Boers also lacked was marketing skills and connections with export markets. All of these drawbacks had to be addressed and it was entrepreneurs such as the Mosenthals who stepped into the breach and applied their skills to resolved them.

This woolwasher is located at the bottom of Brickmakerskloof

Developing a market

It was the arrival of Jewish entrepreneurs such as the Mosenthals which would change the vector of this industry. By not being parochial and understanding that the world was their oyster, they initially just concentrated on the exporting of the wool. The next stage in the development of this market was the type of and quality of wool produced by the sheep. It was here, once again, that the Mosenthal’s international viewpoint came to the fore. They recognised that their intervention in the quality of the herd was paramount to the success of the industry. In this regard they were instrumental in the importation of superior breeds of sheep and even the financing of these new breeds.

In order to achieve the maximum price for the wool on the overseas markets, they would have to meet the discerning buyers requirement for “a clean article of good and uniform staple” id. est., consideration of the fibre of the wool with regard to its length and degree of fineness.

L-R: Adolph & Joseph Mosenthals


In order to achieve this, it was necessary to first submit the wool in its dirty state to a woolwashing establishment. The lowest level of beneficiation in the wool industry is woolwashing. Whether it was the existing exporters such as the Mosenthals who initiated this process by issuing tenders or whether entrepreneurs sensing an opportunity approached the exporters is unknown but what we do know is that Thomas Handfield established the first woolwashing facility in on his farm in the area of Settler’s Park area of the Baaken’s River in 1840. Like all of the initial such establishments, they were fairly rudimentary in nature. This process consisted of placing the raw wool in a basket, inserting it in flowing water, removing it after it was clean and then spreading it over poles to dry it. Various other woolwashing establishments were set up in the succeeding years. The most well-known ones being near the mouth of the Baakens and at Shark River i.e. Happy Valley.

Uitenhage enters the scene

As luck would have it, from a woolwashing perspective, Uitenhage had an card up their sleeve, something that would trump Port Elizabeth’s proximity to the port and an abundance of entrepreneurs. And that card was an ace, the “soft waters” of the Zwartkops River which were much more preferable for washing wool. Apart from water quality, the quantity of water available from the Zwartkops River in those days, before the construction of the Groendal and other dams and the erection of extensive irrigation systems in the catchment areas, was more advantageous for wool washing. With its close proximity to Uitenhage, many entrepreneurs resident in Port Elizabeth also commenced operations in Uitenhage.   

The claimants to the title of the first woolwasher in Uitenhage goes to the firm of Heugh & Fleming who commenced operations in Uitenhage during 1845, five years after Port Elizabeth. It is interesting to note that both of these persons were in fact residents of Port Elizabeth. The only implication of this situation is that they must have become aware that the hard water prevalent in Port Elizabeth was not suitable for woolwashing. It might well not have been the river water that was problematic but rather the fact that due to the paucity of river water, sea water was used. This was less than ideal. At that time, the Zwartkops provided copious quantities of waters sufficient in fact to meet the demand of multiple woolwashers.

Woolwashing in Humewood at the Fisheries – now Hobie Beach

Method of washing

According to Sellick, “In the early days the wool was opened out from the bales and steeped [soaked] in cold water in a wooden trough. The natives then washed the wool about with their feet, after which it was taken to the drying floors and dried by the natural warmth of our climate. An improvement was made by having two baths, one hot and one cold. The fleeces being innocent of sheep dip a fair result was obtained. The natives sometimes objected to working in the cold water in a half nude condition. So mechanised means were sought. The introduction of a rotary washer worked by steamer power, the invention of which is attributed to the later Mr. Niven and the use of tanks in which the wool was forked by hand, was the next improvement.

A local firm sent its representative to Verviers [a Walloon city and municipality located in the Belgian province of Liège], and imported the first set of machinery. This was known as the “Leviathan” and was extensively copied, but strange to relate, the essential device was omitted, owing to the difficulty of making it locally. About 18 of these machines were imported from Rochdale, but were not efficiently used. Messrs. Gubb and Inggs have these machines in use and have adopted the latest methods of washing.

Woolwashing establishments

In attempting to obtain a reliable chapter on the development of woolwashing in Uitenhage, I consulted three books and articles viz Uitenhage – The Garden Town by Otto Terblanche (editor), an article entitled Uitenhage’s Evolution 1804-1910 by Albrecht Herholdt from Restorica and Uitenhage – Past and Present by WSJ Sellick.

This was problematical as the details per each source differed, in some aspects materially. As the most comprehensive was the book Uitenhage – the Garden Town and as it appeared to be the most accurate, I have based this section solely upon this book.

Differences between sources: Red = Major difference; Orange = Minor difference

Railway line

The cost of transport between the woolwashers in Uitenhage and Port Elizabeth was slow, tedious and costly. Fortunately, the logistics sector was in the throes of a technological revolution with the introduction of a rail service between the two towns. One of the main arguments for the construction of a railway line between Uitenhage and Port Elizabeth was the necessity for providing a better method of transit for the wool washed at the woolwasheries in Uitenhage. Certain people argued that the line was only fit for passenger and not goods traffic. This argument was probably advanced by all sides of the technological divide. The existing ox wagon service providers feared for their livelihoods whereas the technophobes were unable to envision the possibilities of the new service.  

1875 Opening the Uitenhage Station

The first train from Uitenhage on 21 September 1875 arrived at the Port Elizabeth terminus shortly after breakfast. Attached to the train were ten gaily decorated trucks which were loaded with over 200 bales of scoured wool, the so-called Uitenhage snow-white. This was a strident refutation of the perception that this line was unable to offer anything but a passenger service.

The woolwashers association

By the late 1870s, there were already 11 woolwasheries, extending for a distance of nine miles. Thus, it came as no surprise that the woolwashers on the Zwartkops River formed “The Uitenhage Woolwashers Association” on 17 July 1883. The agreement was signed inter alia by Henry W. Inggs, T.W. Gubb and F.&P. Lange. The objects of the Association were primarily to ensure a uniform scale of charges for washing wool and the regulation of the labour market. However, by the turn of the century many of the woolwashers had closed down.

Springfield Woolwashery

A shameful legacy

From being viewed positively as the generator of wealth and a source of employment, an intractable issue arose. This related to the destruction of the once clear and healthy water of the Zwartkops River by converting it into a malodorous unhealthy sewer. This had profound implications in the townsfolk’s viewpoint of the industry. The most telling criticism of the industry arose from the press which no longer viewed them as darlings but viewed the industry more critically and openly stated that woolwashing “does the place more harm than good”. They provided a raft of evidence to underscore their claims.

Per the book Uitenhage – the Garden Town Four main reasons for this negative viewpoint were cited:

  • That it had “converted what was once a clear and beautiful stream, into a miasmatic unhealthy swamp, polluting the atmosphere of the town.”
  • That it has “demoralised the (African) labouring population with its unhealthy work by day and by night, that drunkenness now prevails.”
  • There was a high death rate due to the hot moist unhealthy atmosphere in the factory.
  • The artificial bridges which had been built over the Zwartkops River collected all the refuse from the wool which resulted in a nasty odour which polluted the atmosphere.

It was searingly obvious that changes were urgently required otherwise official sanctions would have to be imposed. Alternatively, they would be compelled to be relocated.

Early plant of Gubb & Inggs

 The Scab Act

Sheep scab is a serious skin condition of sheep. To alleviate the intense irritation, the sheep will scratch and rub itself against fences, trees and rocks causing wool loss and scab formation. Sheep scab is one of the worst diseases from which an animal can suffer. The 1894 Scab Act made dipping compulsory on a national basis but met with intense opposition. It caused serious tension between the government and farmers and also between commercial producers and less prosperous farmers or pastoralists.

On the introduction of the Scab Act (1894) much difficulty was caused in washing by the effects of the dips on the fleeces, and the result was that the method in use was unsuitable to the new conditions. According to Sellick, the increased costs and the low rates charged owing to competition rendered the woolwashing business unprofitable. The result was that one after the other closed down.

Sheep with scabs

Operation of Lange’s plant

During 1865 some 7,000 bales of wool were washed at Lange’s, a firm which combined traditional as well as more modern techniques in woolwashing.

Lange’s supply of water was led in an aqueduct from the Zwartkops River. The greasy wool was conveyed into large tanks, about 18 x 7 x 8, which were supplied by hot water into which cold water was pumped. It was estimated that 2,400 gallons of hot water was used every two hours. From here the wool was conveyed to fourteen washing pits where the base was constructed of iron bars which filtered off water and dirt while fresh water constantly flowed in. In each pit stood two ‘Mantatees’, thigh deep in water, who was able to wash four bales per day. The ‘Mantatees’ were described as ‘the most industrious of all the native tribes.’ They resided in a village on the opposite side of the river. Once all the dirt had been ‘kicked out’ of the wool, the water was drained off, the wool was put in large baskets and carried to the drying grounds, of which there were seven. Here African women spread the wool about with large wooden forks, where it was left to dry and bleach in the sun. Thereafter the wool was transported to the packing shed, where the labourers tramped in a number of bales per day.”

In 1868 it was reported that Messrs. Lange could wash and deliver 60 bales in one day.

Gubb & Inggs

By the turn of the century, the state of the industry was parlous. Faced with the daunting prospect of intense competition and hence plunging charge-out rates, profitability waned resulting in mergers and plant closures. The once vibrant and prosperous industry bore all the hallmarks of decay. In addition, the local industry had been too insular and had not replicated the overseas plants in automating the labour-intensive processes.

Gubb & Inggs factory

One solution was mergers and one such business combination in 1907 was that of the Gubb and Inggs families, leading eventually to the company Gubb & Inggs Limited being incorporated in 1916. Following the birth of Gubb & Inggs Limited, the company consolidated its position and grew steadily. The year 1945 marked a major development period, when the IDC and other principal shareholders, acquired the entire shareholding of the company.

Herbert Inggs

According to Otto Terblanche, “In 1947 it was decided to introduce carbonising (removal of seeds and vegetable matter) and many thousands of bales were treated annually. Later a further mill, solely for the purpose of combing various types of wool, was added to the company’s works. With modern production techniques the company could compete with established mills overseas. The completion of the combing mill was yet another landmark in the history of the company and a step forward in the industrial field in South Africa.

Mohair combing was introduced during 1963 – yet another major milestone. The production of the first commercial tops from Cape mohair by Gubb & Inggs, represented a major breakthrough in the field of local production of high-grade worsted cloths from South African raw materials. It was then stated that mohair combing in South Africa would add materially to the value of the local clip, will earn more foreign exchange and would provide more employment. It was also believed that pure Cape mohair tops would be in strong demand overseas.

The company’s shares were listed on the JSA in 1964. In 1976 the company acquired the entire stockholding of the group of wool and mohair merchanting companies then controlled by the Stucken family. This acquisition enabled allied activities within the wool and mohair trade to be fully integrated and rationalised and utilisation of the vast experience and expertise of the Stucken Group in international trading enabled full use to be made of Gubb & Inggs plant capacity. Today, at the company’s modern and expanded mill in Hendrik van Eck Drive, processing of a comprehensive range of raw wool and mohair into scoured and carbonised products, and into combed tops, is carried out.

HW Inggs

The growth of the wool industry in Uitenhage could be gauged by a comparison of 3,000 bales processed in 1904 with about 132,000 bales processed in 1973. By 1973 Gubb & Inggs employed over 900 European and non-European employees. The number of bales processed in 1976 was 50 times greater than the number processed in 1904. In 1979 it was also reported that 26 million kgs of wool and mohair were processed by Gubb & Inggs per annum. The company then had a total employment of some 1,000 people.

In 1984 Gubb & Inggs obtain complete control of a group of companies known as the OSB Group, who were also engaged in the primary processing of wool and mohair. This resulted in the acquisition of scouring and combing establishments both in Dimbaza, Ciskei and in Texas, USA, and has substantially increased the firm’s productive capacity. Gubb and Inggs was proud to state that its South African operation was one of the very largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, and as far as mohair is concerned, the largest in the world.

During 1991, Gubb & Inggs acquired a company with considerable expertise in the refining of wool grease, namely Karee Chem. This company now operates on site at Gubb & Inggs and refines the wool grease extracted from the effluent stream into high quality Anhydrous Lanolin of BP Grade.

In July 2004, it was reported that Gubb & Inggs has closed into wool combing operation. All other early stage processing operations will continue at Gubb & Inggs, including the combing of mohair. Stucken & Co is the holding company of Gubb & Inggs, the only multi-natural fibre early stage processor in South Africa.


Uitenhage – The Garden Town by Otto Terblanche (editor)


Article entitled Uitenhage’s Evolution 1804-1910 by Albrecht Herholdt (1988, Restorica)

Uitenhage – Past and Present by WSJ Sellick (1904, Uitenhage Times Office)

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