Port Elizabeth of Yore: The 1905 Floods in the Gamtoos Valley

During the past two centuries, the Gamtoos Valley has experienced at least seven severe floods – 1847, 1867, 1905, 1916, 1932, 1944 and 1961. Of those, the 1905 flood was the most destructive, not from an overall economic perspective but rather due to the fact that my grandfather, Harry William McCleland, and his young bride, Elizabeth Daisy, were made destitute.

While my grandparents’ experiences might have been sadly lost in the mists of time, this account by a survivor, Mrs Gillbee, has survived 

Main picture: Gamtoos River in 1903

What actually happened

During the whole of the week, September 11th to the 15th of that year, there were heavy rains extending from George to the Port Elizabeth area, but it was the Gamtoos Valley that was the most severely hit. By Thursday, September 14th, the low-lying areas were under 10 feet of water. The Gamtoos Railway Station and bridge were washed away and the valley became a lake two miles wide. Hundreds of head of livestock were drowned and hundreds of people left homeless.

The old Gamtoos River Bridge

Luckily only one life was lost, that of Jacob Stumke, who was swept away while attempting to swim to safety. There is a graphic account of the rescue of a family: Mr. Van Rensburg, a farmer, was away from home at the time and hastened back to find his wife and three children clinging to the roof of the farmhouse, entirely beyond the reach of help. The house collapsed but the family managed to find refuge in a nearby tree. Neighbours managed to construct a raft, and the family was at last rescued, almost dead of exposure.

The Port Elizabeth area did not suffer so badly, but a dam near Perseverance burst and washed away part of the railway line so that communication between Uitenhage and Port Elizabeth was disrupted for several days.

The Story of Mrs. Gillbee

In the year 1905, Mrs Sarah Baker, widow of Mr. William Baker, owned the Gamtoos Ferry Hotel which is situated very near the west bank of the Gamtoos River. I, Lilian, her younger daughter, recall to mind the severe floods in September of that year.

The river had been rising all day and we children had watched with great interest. In the late afternoon our family, consisting of six or the seven children, and of course our mother, were sitting down to a “high tea,” consisting of boiled eggs and toast. Suddenly an alarm was raised by one of the hotel staff. He told us that the flood waters were rising rapidly and that we had better seek safety somewhere higher. Outside the water was about a foot deep and we were able to step from our stoep straight into a small rowing boat without getting our feet wet. My brother, Mr. F. Baker, remembers how one of the hotel guests was so terrified that he refused to get into the boat and instead clambered upon a step-ladder on the stoep. As the water rose, he climbed higher up the ladder until he could go no further, and then he called for help. The boat had to return, against the flood water, to rescue him.

My Grandfather, Harry William McCleland during WW1

My grandmother, Elizabeth Daisy Beckley, as a young girl taken on the front steps of the farm house Draaifontein circa 1895

We children and our mother were rowed to the Toll House, which stood on higher ground than the hotel and was nearer [to] the road bridge over the river. By then the water was so high that it could easily be touched from the bridge. We saw all manner of objects being washed down the stream: orange trees, furniture, drowned fowls and also pigs. The pigs tried to swim but were eventually drowned because of their frantic efforts, they cut their own throats with their trotters. We saw people marooned on roofs. They were rescued the next day. Only one person was drowned: an African man. His body was washed up at Jeffrey’s Bay. Cattle and horses were taken up the hill to safety.

 We spent a most uncomfortable night in the cramped sleeping quarters at the Toll House. Six to one bed. Mother had to sit up all night in a chair. The next day, I and my younger brother were taken to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Geissler. They ran a shop about 3 miles away from the river, in the Thornhill direction, and Mother knew [that] we would be safe there.

Hotel on the Gamtoos River is next to Gamtoos Ferry and is located in Cacadu District Municipality,

Story of Mrs. Tibbs, elder sister of Mrs Gilbee

After two nights spent at the Toll House, my mother and I returned to the Ferry Hotel. What a scene of devastation hit our eyes! Water had come through the windows, and [the] carpets and bedding were ruined. Even clothes hanging in the wardrobes were sodden. Mattresses were wet and full of mud, the coir had to be washed and dried and made up again with fresh ticking. I particularly remember the remains of our interrupted meal, still on the table. The teacups were filled with muddy water and the remains of our boiled eggs were filled with mud.

Placid Gamtoos River

Next to the Gamtoos Hotel were three small shops, a general store, a butcher’s shop and a bottle store. These had all been flooded and I remember the sugar running out of the bags, and the flour, damp and caked. The people came from the farm, “Mondplaats,” across the river, came and helped us to wash and dry all our sheets and blankets.


Looking Back, Vol XI No 4 (December 1971) pages 107 – 108

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