Port Elizabeth of Yore: Acrimonious Rivalry between Uitenhage and Port Elizabeth in the 1860s

For the most part, the relationship between the two adjacent towns was cordial but with an undertone of superiority on the part of the residents of Uitenhage. This situation was about to deteriorate. During the 1860s, the state of healthy rivalry degenerated into fierce acrimonious contestation. At issue was the length of rural roads that the Uitenhage Divisional Council was responsible for vis-à-vis Port Elizabeth. Yet another contentious issue was the ownership of the tolls collected on the main roads. 

This episode is a timely reminder that rash impetuous decisions must never supplant rational compromises however aggrieved one party feels. A wilful disregard for the truth and the facts would prolong the dispute until wisdom prevailed. This situation is eerily similar to modern disputes about resource allocation a la the proposed NHI.

Main picture: The Wylde Bridge which replaced the Rawson Bridge

Nub of the problem

At issue was the fact that the length of roads for which the Uitenhage Divisional Council was responsible was 580 miles which compared unfavourable with the meagre 30 miles under the Port Elizabeth Divisional Council’s control. Moreover, this fact was exacerbated by the disparity in the value of the rateable properties. Whereas the assessed value of Port Elizabeth’s properties amounted to £ 1 364 794 as compared with Uitenhage’s £ 865 753. Thus for every £1 492 worth of property in Uitenhage, ratepayers were charged for one mile of road whereas in the case of Port Elizabeth, it amounted to £45 493 worth of rateable property.

It was clearly grossly unfair that the financial burden borne by Uitenhage’s ratepayers was thirty times greater than that of Port Elizabeth’s ratepayers. Compounding this problem, Uitenhage was also beset by the expense and difficulty of collection. With a population of a little over three to the square mile, a surface area of 6,233 square miles and with the population mostly in poor financial circumstances, tax collections were tedious and poor. On the other hand, the comparable figures for Port Elizabeth was a population density of 58 per square mile, a surface area of 251 square miles and relatively well-to-do ratepayers, tax collections were considerably easier and a higher percentage collected.

The Government’s solution

In recognition of this inequity, the Government ordered the Port Elizabeth Council to pay the following subsidies: Alexandria £700, Humansdorp £500 and Uitenhage £480. In a thinly veiled disdain of this order, the Port Elizabeth Council – PEC – reluctantly paid and then only upon written applications by the respective Divisions and often only when threatened with legal action. In addition to stalling the payment, they clutched at straws by claiming that no funds were available, or that payment could only be made when all the rates had been collected. Furthermore, the PEC incessantly pleaded with the Government to be relieved of these onerous subsidies but to no avail.

As a political solution, the Government proposed a compromise by agreeing to scrap the subsidies if the PEC took over the maintenance of the Alexandria road, Uitenhage’s portion of the Grahamstown Road and the Humansdorp Road, thus leaving Uitenhage to maintain only the Graaff-Reinet Road. Even this equitable distribution of the responsibility for the rural road infrastructure was unpalatable to the PEC. Their gall knew no bounds when they demurred, politely rejecting the compromise. In desperation, the Cape Government reduced the subsidies as follows: Alexandria £400, Humansdorp £350 and Uitenhage £300.

Formal letter of protest from the Uitenhage Divisional Council in 1867 Page #1

The question of tolls

If the maintenance cost was a minor scuffle, if you will, then the question of the tolls would be the main fight. Once again Uitenhage’s claim was well-grounded in fact. In essence this pertained to the fact that Port Elizabeth had three tolls or one toll for every 10 miles of “national” road whereas Uitenhage had erected seven tolls or one toll for every eighty three miles of national road. Some of the latter were so unproductive that they had to be abandoned whereas the former, being a rapidly expanding seaport, produced huge revenues. Furthermore what was grist to the populist discontent, was the fact that of the 580 miles of roads, 230 were main roads almost exclusively traversed solely by wagons to and from Port Elizabeth. To add salt to the wound, few of these carriers were ratepayers in Uitenhage. This was a shining example of what is currently referred to as “The Tragedy of the Commons” which is used in social science to describe a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users, acting independently according to their own self-interest, behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action.

Formal letter of protest from the Uitenhage Divisional Council in 1867 Page #2

The matter was referred to the Attorney General, Mr. Porter, for his legal opinion and whether Act No. 10 of 1864 applied to bridges as well as ferries. Mr. Porter ruled that Uitenhage was not entitled to such Tolls. Donning the mantle of the vengeful stepmother, the PEC triumphantly informed their rivals in Uitenhage that in future that they would no longer be entitled to any revenue accruing from the tolls on the Rawson Bridge. In a reflexive response, as if adding insult to injury, the vengeful Councillors in Port Elizabeth, immediately claimed a refund amounting to £ 905 7s representing half the tolls paid since January 1865. In a fit of pique, Uitenhage promptly replied that they were definitely entitled to the Tolls as they considered that the Rawson Bridge was in the Uitenhage Division and not the Port Elizabeth Division. On a point of honour, they flatly refused to make any refund.

Map of the Port Elizabeth Divisional Council

It was now that the wrangle morphed into a tussle with more than a passing resemblance to a gang fight. Each party now battened down the hatches plotting their revenge. If the PEC’s right punch had been the sharp right hook by refusing to pay half of the tolls to Uitenhage, their powerful left jab was their refusal to pay the subsidy of £480. Furthermore, they made payment conditional on Uitenhage honouring its debt arising from the refund demanded. The impact of this blow, flattened Uitenhage. Driven by a sense of outrage and disgust, Uitenhage picked themselves up before the count down was finalised, and plotted their strategy, one almighty counterpunch, something to deflate the PEC’s ego. No longer was it sibling rivalry. It was now unbridled war; a fight to the death. To the victor the spoils of war would accrue.

As Uitenhage dusted themselves off and prepared for a law suit, Port Elizabeth smugly prepared herself for round two of the battle by instructing their attorney, Mr. D’Urban Dyason, to take up the matter in readiness to defend the Council in Court. Instead of the knock-out blow as was anticipated, the manager was changed as first new Councillors had to be elected as the incumbents’ term of term of office had expired. Then the new incumbents had to make themselves au fait with the case before they could proceed. The infamous trial was held at the Circuit Court. It was packed to capacity with all the Divisional Council members from both Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage in attendance. No longer pretending to be virtuous, both parties went for the jugular.

When the verdict was announced, the favourite, Port Elizabeth, lay comatose on the ground having lost the case to an unanticipated almighty right punch and they were ordered to pay the costs.

Motto of the Port Elizabeth Divisional Council

The unfavourable verdict was greeted with great shock and utter dismay. A rematch was ordered. The opponents were once again to face off in the appeal against the verdict with the venue being the Supreme Court. Mr. Dyason, the attorney, was once again appointed to handle the case. Responding to this desperate calculus, the PEC went for broke when requested what security the Council would offer to ensure that the Council would abide by the final decision. Their offer was to pledge the entire rates for the forthcoming year, 1868.

On being informed of this incredible pledge, the Uitenhage Council was incredulous at the PEC’s insouciant concern about a possible monumental loss. In an understandable state of panic, the Uitenhage Council deployed one of its members, Mr. Mathias Hall, to attend the next Council meeting in Port Elizabeth. His instructions were to re-establish friendly terms, peace and friendship as had previously prevailed. Their suggestion was that the moiety on the Rawson Bridge be re-instituted and hence they could “kiss and make up.” With their blood up, Port Elizabeth was not as easily placated and willing to revert to the status quo ante. Port Elizabeth remained quite aloof citing the fact that the appeal case would shortly be heard in the Supreme Court.

The case was heard and Port Elizabeth won the appeal with Uitenhage having to pay the costs thereof.

Typical old Divisional Council roads, narrow and rutted, with a drift below and ox wagons toiling up the hill

Last laugh

The last laugh was on Uitenhage when, several years later, the whole “structure” was washed away in a storm. Upon the construction of the Wylde Bridge, which supplanted the Rawson Bridge, Uitenhage once again shared part of the Tolls and Port Elizabeth still grumbled why their tariffs were lower than the tariffs paid on the Port Elizabeth side.

Like their modern equivalent, it was only the lawyers who won in the end.


A Century of Progress. The Story of the Divisional Council of Port Elizabeth. 1856 – 1956 by J.J. Redgrave M.A. (1956, Nasionale Koerante Beperk, Port Elizabeth)


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