Port Elizabeth of Yore: When Mohair was a Major Industry

Port Elizabeth was at the centre of the burgeoning mohair industry in the 1800s. It still is except that the industry is no longer flourishing. Before the motor vehicle assembly industry was established in Port Elizabeth during the 1920s, wool as well as mohair were the mainstays of the local economy.

This is the long-forgotten story of the rise of this industry off the back of the Angora goat and its fall in the twentieth century.

Main picture:  One of the last batches of Angoras imported from Turkey by Adolph Mosenthals & Co. in 1895. Mr.& Mrs. W. Mosenthal are seated in the buggy with Mr. H. Goldschmidt standing in the background. In the foreground are three Turkish goat handlers who accompanied the animals on the ship.

Misconstrued objective

What Col. Henderson had in mind when he imported a batch of Angora goats from Turkey in 1835 was solely to improve the quality of the meat of the indigenous, common or Boer goats.  As an auxiliary objective, he wanted to overcome the ravages of scab [disease] in these otherwise hardy animals.

A typical goat farm in the Karroo

When that shipment arrived, it comprised eleven impotent Angora goat rams, which must have been “sterilised” en route to Cape Town, one ewe and a ram kid born on board the ship.

Exactly what happened to the impotent rams on arrival in Cape Town is unknown but one can presume that they were swiftly converted into goat chops and steaks. On the other hand, the virile goat ram was used for crossing with the Boer goat herds in the Caledon district. The experiment proved to be so successful that the ram progeny were soon acquired by farmers in the then remote regions of Swellendam and Graaff-Reinet. Even at this point, little thought had been given to the fleece.

Focus on mohair

At this time, one of the pioneers of the British textile mohair industry, was Sir Titus Salt. With his co-operation, a number of animals were shipped to the Cape Colony by Dr. Henry White and F.W. Reitz of the Swellendam Agricultural Society. With the first shipment of mohair in 1857 valued at R20, the local merchants began to realise the value of the fibre industry. In spite of being extremely religious, none of these hardy farmers had taken interest in the fact that mohair had been used  as a fabric since biblical times. Now that they could monetise the hair, they were smitten. Money talks.

L-R: Adolph & Joseph Mosenthals

Also in 1857, Messrs Mosenthals of Port Elizabeth imported thirty animals from Turkey, of which ten rams and four ewes ended up in Graaff-Reinet. Smaller shipments occurred up to 1868; in total the shipments from 1838 amounted to approximately 100 animals. Apart from these shipments, another three were made in 1869, 1879 and 1880 respectively, augmented by other shipments, these formed the basis of the leading studs in South Africa today. Even after the Sultan of Turkey attempted to prevent the further export of Angora goats in 1880, small lots of rams were still smuggled out of Turkey with the last group of four arriving in 1904.

Mosenthal’s building in Market Square

Zenith of the mohair industry

1880 was a baleful year. Apart from the Sultan’s prohibition on the export of Angoras, there was an outbreak of the dreaded pleuro-pneumonia which killed thousands of animals. Soon this loss was made good, and with selective cross-breeding, the quality of the herds also improved. With mohair once more being in demand, the total number of goats increased, reached 4.4 million by the time of Union in 1910. In 1912, the year of peak production, the national herd yielded an output of 24,000,000 lbs of mohair. Of that production, no less than 80% was produced in the Eastern Cape with Port Elizabeth’s harbour being the natural point of export.

Post Office with Mosenthal’s Building in background in 1910

Mohair takes a knock

First to strike was WW1. As the traditional buyer of the mohair was Britain and shipping was restricted to essentials only, exports were stymied. The aftermath of the war with depressed demand which, coupled with two disastrous droughts, sent mohair prices and animal numbers plummeting. By 1920, the record number of 4.4 million goats had dwindled to a meagre 2 million in the space of 10 years.

There was a slight revival of interest in mohair during the 1920s but then came the disasters of the Great Depression and the drought of 1933. With the mohair prices slumping to3 c/lb, the number of Angora goats slumped yet again to plateau at 1 million.

A saviour appears

The knight in shining armour was not to be the revival in the mohair price. Instead it was an industry representing the future: the motor vehicle assembly and component plants. Once again it was the location of the harbour which had a profound influence on the future of Port Elizabeth. That begs the question, now that the motor vehicle industry is no longer the generator of jobs, what will be its successor.  On this occasion, the harbour will probably not feature in that equation.

Source

Port Elizabeth: From a Border Garrison Town to a Modern and Industrial City edited by Ramon Lewis Leigh (1966, Felstar Publishers, Johannesburg)


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