Port Elizabeth of Yore: Ushering in the Age of Electrical Power

Initially it was conceived that the main use of electricity would for lighting as prior to the arrival of electricity, human activity virtually ceased at sunset. Before the age of domestic appliances, there were few uses for electrical power other than for lighting. To solve this drawback, gas had been introduced but its use had never gained traction.

This blog details the various attempts at generating electricity in Port Elizabeth, initially by means of generators and then later by means of the Mount Road Power Station. Much like the Betamax/VHS video format battle, electricity would come in two forms, Direct Current and Alternating Current, each with its own protagonists, benefits and drawbacks. Likewise, it would be cloaked in bitter divisiveness and controversy.

Main picture:  Installing overhead electricity cables

Competing alternative technologies

Electricity experienced an extremely traumatic birth. It came in two forms, DC and AC [Direct and alternating current] each replete with feuding progenitors: Edison and Tesla. Edison was already renowned as an inventor of note when he proposed Direct Current [DC] as the solution for lighting homes, offices and factories. Highly problematic to this solution was the fact that direct current could only be supplied over short distances thereby requiring the installation of generating plants throughout the city. Tesla, a Serbian émigré, on the other hand, championed the use of alternating current which could be transmitted over continental USA without inordinate loss of power.

Tesla on the left and Edison – the protagonists in the electricity debate

Tesla, an inordinately intelligent man, had arrived in America intent on working for Edison as his reputation had preceded him. Believing that Edison would support him in his ideas, he soon uncovered a narcissistic man intent on revelling in his own solutions unwilling to investigate alternatives. Soon a disillusioned Tesla came to understand that Edison would not countenance him propounding AC as the correct solution for long distance electricity transmission. The insoluble problem which both men understood was that the high voltage at which AC had to be transmitted in order to minimise power losses would be deadly if used in normal domestic and office situations.  

Soon after the acrimonious split, Tesla devised a method to step down the voltage to what is required by using a transformer. In fact, today’s electricity is transmitted at high voltages such as 400kv but used at 220v. The transformer boxes doting the pavements of the suburbs are evidence of this principle in action.  As if poking away at the scar tissue that had covered wounds of the past, Edison and his company General Electric was unrepentant. In roadshows to illustrate the deadliness of AC power, he would electrocute dogs in front of his customers. Faced with the daunting prospect of losing out to Westinghouse in the contract to supply electricity to New York from the generators at Niagara Falls, he used a convicted murderer and felon as a demonstration dummy. Strapped to the first version of an electric chair in full view of the assembled reporters, journalists and dignitaries, the high voltage AC current was switched on. Instead of instantly dying, he twitched, flailed and screamed in agony. Some spectators screamed in tune while others proceeded to vomit uncontrollably as the stench of frying flesh assailed their nostrils. It was searingly obvious that Edison, in spite of the adulation of the masses, had committed a marketing faux pas.The vocal critic of AC had been muted. Westinghouse in collaboration with Tesla won the contract to transmit the electricity from the Niagara Falls to New York City. Edison had lied shamelessly about the deleterious effects of AC power as it was perfect conspiracy theory fodder for the naive and uninformed.

Tentative forays into electricity production

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. This was clearly a marketing exercise illuminating the benefits of street lighting.

The first proposal made in earnest to instal electric lighting was by the Harbour Board. To enable work to be performed after dark on still nights on the North Jetty, they would require electric lighting. This matter was laid before Parliament in 1893 when their annual report dated 31st December 1892 was presented. In this report they requested the acquisition and installation of equipment to drive hydraulic cranes and to provide electricity to light the Board’s property properly. The electricity generating plant was to use the same facility as that housing the hydraulic plant. As management gradually perceived the benefits of nocturnal lighting, its use was extended to include the other jetties and marshalling areas. Over time additional power was required culminating in the erection of a separate electric powerhouse in 1906.

The chimneys on the left are those of the Harbour Board and on the right is the Tramway’s electricity generation plant

The second major use of electricity would also not be lighting but rather the proposed installation of electric trams to replace horse drawn trams with their limited capabilities in such a hilly town. To meet the demand for transport on the Hill, the Council proposed installing tram lines up both Whites and Russell roads with a branch line terminating in Cape Road outside the PE Golf Club.

To power these trams, the newly formed Port Elizabeth Electric Tramway Company was officially registered. To accommodate these trams, a fine new depot building was erected at Baakens Bridge. Apart from sheds, workshops and offices, a power station was erected. This power plant comprised two vertical steam engines of 560kW driving two 550v 500kW generators.

This source of power was used to illuminate the Town Hall on the night of the 24th December 1900 when Maj-Gen Brabant and Lt-Gen R.S.S. Baden Powell visited Port Elizabeth, arriving aboard the RMS “Scot”. Baden Powell was presented with a Sword of Honour, subscribed for by the people of the Eastern Province, and addresses, under the Town Hall portico.

That still did not address the Town Council’s requirement to supply electricity to its residents. In the absence of a private proposal to generate electricity, it would have to formulate its own plans.

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.

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 gaol cemetery.

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 streetlamps and in its first month, the Works distributed 4 708 units of electricity.

Sketch of the Mount Road Power Station by Peter Hartman

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, in which the voltage was reduced [stepped down] 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.

Location of the Mount Road Power Station

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 it became operational in 1925. The lighting of parts of the town during celebrations and the Christmas season was extended when in December 1926 when the Council agreed to the lighting of Humewood, including the Octagon, during the summer season.

Laying underground cables

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.


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)

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