Port Elizabeth of Yore: Ushering in Electricity and Lighting

The lack of street lighting in the pre-electricity era must have made walking outdoors at night particularly dangerous. If nothing else, this factor must have induced the Town Council to expedite the installation of street lighting as the technology enabled this feature. Furthermore commerce and industry required electricity to operate all manner of equipment, apparatuses and appliances which the use of electrical power enabled.

To do so, Port Elizabeth would ultimately require its own generating equipment which in turn would require it to import coal.

To say that the introduction of electricity would fundamentally change society was a gross understatement. It would transform society in ways which were unthinkable previously. Apart from facilitating nocturnal social intercourse, it would also facilitate the introduction of shift work in industry.

Main picture: Installing overhead electricity cables

Tentative foray into electricity generation
On the 15th October 1882, electric light was exhibited in Port Elizabeth for the first time by the South African “Brush” Electric Light and Power Co. Three lamps in the Market Square and three on the Hill were lit by a generator housed at Mangold Bros’ “Phoenix Works” in Baakens Street and kept on between 8.30 pm and midnight.

In its annual report dated 31st December 1892 presented to Parliament, the Harbour Board stated that in terms of Act 23 of 1890 it was enabled to finance the acquisition and installation of equipment to drive hydraulic cranes and provide electricity to light the Board’s property properly. Work could now be performed after dark on fine, still nights. An electric powerhouse was built in 1906.

That still did not address the Town Council’s requirement to supply electricity to its residents.

Mount Road Power Station
To supply electricity to its residents would require a proper power station and not arbitrary generating units which could be used on special occasions. What Port Elizabeth required was its own power station. The Town Council set the ball rolling.

Mount Road Power Station in 1910

This long-cherished dream came to fruition when, on the 28th June 1905, the foundation stone of the Mount Road Power Station was laid on part of the old Agricultural Show Ground yard. Shortly thereafter during July, building commenced on a generating station at the south-end corner of the Old Show Ground Yard. With an installed generating capacity of 1,200 kW and a capital outlay of some £180,000, Port Elizabeth embarked on its role as a supplier of electricity to its residents and commercial and industrial undertakings.

Turbine hall

It is interesting to note that the Old Show Ground Yard was situated at the foot of the present Mount Road, and included the site of the Old Gaol, where rumour has it that the public gallows once stood. The Power Station was built on the site of the jail cemetery.

Opening Mount Road Power Station-01-img212
Opening Mount Road Power Station-02-img216

Opening Mount Road Power Station-03-img217

Designed by A.S. Butterworth, the Town Engineer, it was opened on 1 May 1906 when Mayor Alexander Fettes switched on the first streetlamps. The Electrical Engineer was Richard Pape.  The Western Electric Company obtained the contract for laying and jointing the distribution cables which were installed in the principal streets, the limits of the town then being Adderley Street, Walmer Road and Cape Road as far as Roseberry Avenue at the top of Target Kloof. The form of supply was 240/480 volts Direct Current, and the first residence to be connected was 117 Cape Road. This supplied fifteen private consumers and thirty street lamps and in its first month, the Works distributed 4 708 units of electricity.

Sketch of the Mount Road Power Station by Peter Hartman
Location of the Mount Road Power Station showing the adjacent cooling pond

From 1905 to 1914 the undertaking grew steadily and as the system demand increased, both the generating plant at Mount Road Power Station and the D.C. cable network, were augmented. At this stage it became evident that the direct current system had reached the practical limits of its development and a 6,600-volt alternating current network was therefore introduced. This came into operation during 1915, along with the transformer substations which were established at salient points in the City, and where the voltage was reduced and distributed to consumers in the local area.  The system slowly migrated from DC to AC for two reasons.  Firstly, it is a simple matter to step voltage up or down if it is AC and, secondly, large electric motors which require AC were starting to predominate over the early consumption that was mainly for lights and ovens which can use either with little effect on the output.

As industry in the area grew and the volume of exports from the Karoo and Uitenhage areas increased, so Port Elizabeth found itself battling to cope. Its distance from the Eskom network and the load centres in the north suggested to the Council that they should construct their own power station. Permission for this was granted to build a new power station on the existing site in 1924, and became operational in 1925. The lighting of parts of the town during celebrations and the Christmas season was extended when in December 1926  the Council agreed to the lighting of Humewood, including the Octagon, during the summer season.

Laying the first underground electricity cables in PE

The electricity network continued to expand, and in 1928, following requests for electricity from the Village of Redhouse, and the Municipality of Uitenhage, a decision was made to transmit  power at 22,000 volts by means of a dual-circuit overhead lattice-steel tower line from which the latter town was provided with power about Christmas 1929. Following upon this development, a number of 22,000-volt load centres were established in order to reinforce the existing 6,600-volt system which had been fed direct from the Mount Road Power Station up to this time.

On the 27th February 1930, the lights in New Brighton were formally switching on by W.C. Adcock, Chairman of the Electricity and Industries Committee. On 2nd April Redhouse was “switched on” too. Amongst the special occasions when lighting was used to facilitate an event was during 1932 when the Donkin Reserve was lighted to allow the PAG to undertake night training.

Mount Road Power station in very early days. Cooling pond alongside was connected to North End Lake

Water for the cooling of the plant was drawn from the North End Lake. The capacity of this lake is approximately 757 million litres which was sufficient to ensure that the run-off from the catchment area was sufficient to maintain that level. If evaporation had been excessive, a contingency plan had been prepared. This involved pumping sea water through the intake works and pump house near the foot of Broad Street.

The demand for electricity grew rapidly as the street lighting system expanded and more people purchased electrical appliances. Industry also grew and towards the end of the 1930s, Port Elizabeth was regarded as one of the Union’s industrial centres

Swartkops power station
The growth of the system was such that in 1948 the Mount Road Power Station had been extended to its maximum capacity on the existing site, and the City Council then decided to purchase power from the Electricity Supply Commission. There was considerable debate among city councillors and ratepayers as to whether Mount Road should be expanded or a new power station built. In the latter part of the 1940s, the Port Elizabeth Municipality turned to Escom for assistance. By 1949 it had been decided that Escom would establish a power station in the area to assist the municipal supply. Mr. AM Jacobs, Escom’s second chairman, was personally responsible for the overall design and layout of what was to become Swartkops Power Station. The power station would be built in the Swartkops area of Port Elizabeth, drawing its water supply from the river of the same name. The Commission agreed to establish a new power station at Swartkops, where suitable facilities for the generation of electricity existed.

Cable laying team

By 1950, levelling and terracing of the site had begun and contracts awarded for the main station building steelwork. Meanwhile orders were placed for the new plant, including two 95 400 kg/hour boilers and two 20 000 kW turbo-generators at an estimated cost of £3 142 000. The power station was expected to be in operation in the middle of 1953. It was designed for three 20 000kW turbo-generators initially, and thereafter 30 000 kW sets as required.

1951 to 1952 saw the terracing for the main building and the foundations of the boiler room completed, excavation of the foundations of the turbine room and the construction of the chimney stacks were going ahead and railway lines for the coal supply were also being laid. Since the orders were placed, estimated equipment costs had risen by £1 million so that when the first ICAL boiler and Parsons turbo-generator were installed a year later than expected, they cost well over £4 million. The station’s associated village for employees was also established, consisting of two blocks of flats and some eighty houses.

As the initial Swartkops Power Station approached completion, the City Council, desirous of retaining the right to generate all the power in its own area, purchased this station, which at that time had an installed capacity of 40,000 kW. While this relieved the pressure of the increasing demand on Mount Road Power Station for the time being, it soon became evident that additional plant would have to be installed at Swartkops, and the first extension of 20,000 kW capacity was therefore brought into operation in time to assist the undertaking  in meeting the winter load of 1958.

Water from the North End Lake was used by the Mount Road Power Station

Boiler 1 was lit for the first time on 28 April 1954 at 21:54 and Turbine 1 started some eleven hours later. Swartkops commenced operation on Saturday 1 May. Mount Road Power Station was kept available until November, while Swartkops was still being tested, then underwent necessary overhaul and repair. By the end of the year, Swartkops was operating at its maximum output.

The introduction of this new source of power in the region led to an immediate growth in customers. December 1955 saw supplies to both residential and business customers grow by between 10 and 11% each over the previous year’s figure. By now however, Escom’s new power station was under different ownership.

Subsequent Operation

Swartkops Power Station in 1954

Two further extensions to the generating Station, comprising two 30,000 kW Turbo-Alternators and three 210,000 lbs./hr. Installation of boilers have been carried out by the Municipality, and the generating capacity then stood at 120 MW. A fourth 30 MW Extension was then constructed and brought into service in 1967. As of April 1955, Port Elizabeth’s power stations, Swartkops and Mount Road supplied the city and surrounding area’s needs.

Taming the Great Monster
Escom’s 1954 Annual Report noted that Swartkops was established in ‘different circumstances’. At the time it was normal for power station licences to establish an area or undertaking where electricity would be supplied. In Port Elizabeth however, Escom did not apply for a supply area as the municipal supply served such a large area that it was thought there would be no other customers. In short, Swartkops was expected to supply Port Elizabeth alone, and it was licensed to do that. In addition, the construction of the power station strained Escom’s human and financial resources, as this period was a time of expansion in which several other power stations were either being planned or constructed. These included Hex River, Salt River 2 and Umgeni Power Stations. A solution was found in 1953, while Swartkops was still being erected. In June, the Port Elizabeth Municipality offered to purchase the power station from Escom. The Municipality made the offer based on several factors, including: Municipal ownership of both Mount Road and Swartkops Power Stations would obviate the need for duplicate sets of costs for personnel, maintenance and repair. This meant significant savings. The Municipality would benefit from the modern infrastructure at Swartkops, namely workshops and offices. Swartkops would be under local control. It was not uncommon for Municipalities to own their own power stations. Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Bloemfontein owned their own power stations. City officials and businesses wholeheartedly supported the purchase. The City Council approved it 17 votes to 2. Escom was not averse to the offer, as it would ease the strain on its resources and the Port Elizabeth Municipality was in any case the only customer. The unprecedented nature of the sale notwithstanding (it was the only time Escom has ever sold one of its power stations), ministerial approval was obtained and Swartkops was sold for £8,8 million. Nevertheless, Escom’s relationship with this area did not cease. The Commission reserved 10 MW of the power station’s capacity for emergencies and in 1963 established a small Eastern Cape Undertaking for local farmers

After approximately 34 years of service, the Swartkops Power Station ceased operations in 1986

Swartkops Power Station in 1960

By 1995, with a new government installed and a Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) underway, Swartkops was called back to service. On 9 January, the station was back in regular operation, with 48 new jobs created as a result. Swartkops’ operation would help to limit demand on Eskom. The following year however, saw Eskom offering the Municipality a tariff structure that made the power station, by now 42 years old, uneconomical. The decision was taken to retain Swartkops for emergency purposes once more. At least one more ‘bit of excitement’ was to be had. In March 1996, coal overheated in the storage bunkers at the station. Firefighters had to be called to the site, to flood the coal to prevent a fire. Soon however, there would be little need for a coal supply that supplied a daily rate of consumption of 2000 tons. On 4 June 1996, without any ceremony, Swartkops went into standby mode. Equipment was maintained and standby fuel kept at hand so that it could be ready to operate within twelve hours. A school pupil who visited Swartkops when it was closed in 1996, remarked that he left feeling ‘a bit sad that this great monster had been suddenly tamed in a space of a few hours’. Engineering consultants Merz and McLellan were appointed to make recommendations about the power station’s future. Although Swartkops was now in reserve, it still had to be maintained. The Municipality had to budget R28 million a year for this. Moreover the power station was by now considered to be obsolete. Merz and McLellan recommended closure.

On 11 November 1997, after almost half a century of operation and again without any ceremony, the station was finally closed down. Some employees were retrenched or took retirement and others were redeployed within the municipality. Tenders were invited to dismantle Swartkops. RUKO Projects was awarded the contract to dismantle the plant, and with remove the asbestos. 1999 however, brought news that might have saved Swartkops from its fate. It was suggested that an industrial development project in the Eastern Cape, the Coega Industrial Development Zone, required local power. A Port Elizabeth-based energy company, Energy Ventures Group (set up by the Swedish power generation giant ABB) began investigating the R700 million refurbishment of Swartkops for this purpose. Finance could not be found however and the project was shelved.

Swartkops Power Station

In 2002, Swartkops Power Station was still standing. Its six 76,2m chimneys remain a landmark in the area. The HV yard and the automated control room are still active and the buildings are used by RUKO to reprocess scrap. The company has been contracted to redevelop the site and various options are being assessed. Only time will tell when this Eskom-built power station will vanish from the Swartkops landscape altogether.

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)
Port Elizabeth: From a Border Garrison Town to a Modern and Industrial City edited by Ramon Lewis Leigh (1966, Felstar Publishers, Johannesburg)
Port Elizabeth: City of Industrial and Commercial Opportunity (1938, Issued by the Port Elizabeth Publicity Association)

Rate this post

Leave a Comment.