Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Birth of South End

South End has experienced a tumultuous past. From devastating floods in 1867 to the destruction of a culturally diverse community through forced removals in terms of the Group Areas Act  in the 1960s, South End has experienced it all. 

The focus of this blog is the early beginnings when the Baakens River isolated South End from Port Elizabeth and its subsequent transformation from a huge farm into a residential area. 

Main picture: Port Elizabeth from an agrarian South End in 1830

The History of the Farm

Originally, South End consisted of four portions of land. The first portion, a farm, known as Paapenbietjiesfontein, lay south of Walmer Road and stretched as far as Shark River. The second was the section along the foreshore. The third was the land granted to Fairfax Moresby, captain of the HMS Menai, for his role in assisting in the landing of the 1820 Settlers. He  was also responsible for surveying Algoa Bay and naming the islands, Jahleel and Brenton. The fourth section bordered Walmer to the west.

On 21st October 1820, the farm Paapenbietjiesfontein was allocated by the Acting Governor, Sir Rufane Donkin, to Mynheer Gerhardus Oosthuizen. After his death, his daughter, Johanna Magdalena Oosthuizen bought the entire estate from the joint heirs for £135. She married a tall bearded Hollander, Jacobus Andreas Roedeloff, whose name was abbreviated to Rudolph. Later this was to become a well-known street name in South End. After Roedeloff’s death, his surviving spouse, Johanna, married William Gardner. Again, Johanna was fortunate in that she outlived her husband. For whatever reason Johanna was unable to claim husband number three either because of her failing charms or lack of available men.

South End viewed from the Hill in 1911

Up until that time, thirty years after the establishment of Port Elizabeth, South End was merely a farm, which was apparently the object of undesirable visits from poachers and “marauders” whose increasing audacity obliged its owner at the time, Andries Roedeloff, to issue a stern warning to the public by way of a notice as follows:


The undersigned hereby gives notice that there is NO PUBLIC ROAD in connection with this land, except the road leading to Mr. Muller’s Farm known as “Welbedacht” [Walmer] which forms his N.West boundary line. As he is daily losing stock, besides suffering damages done to the farm, he hereby makes known his determination of resisting in future ALL TRESPASSERS. 

Signed: Andries Rudolph

  Papebise Fontein                                                                28th June 1849

Early development

After the death of Johanna Magdalena Gardner, her sons acquired the estate but were not keen to look after it. In 1859, presumably after her death, the estate was subdivided into building allotments. This marked the beginning of what became known as South End.

South End from the original breakwater

Although building plots were now available in South End, very few of them were purchased or developed. One of the factors stalling the area’s development was probably the lack of a suitable bridge across the Baaken’s River. Another factor was the cost of building and hence house renting was very expensive as it was not yet the responsibility of the Town Council to build houses for its inhabitants.

According to Redgrave, “The development of South End was very slow and even in the late sixties, there were still very few dwellings in that part of town. Those that were in existence were of an extremely primitive architecture, not to speak of the wattle and daub huts and tin shanties of the Malay fishermen dotted all along the foreshore.

South End from Cuyler Crescent in Central
South End from Cuyler Crescent in Central

Initially the only dwellings in South End apart from the Malays on the foreshore was an ancient red and yellow tenement that stood for many years in Thomas Street denoting the early domicile of the Rudolph family whose family graveyard was at the top of Rudolph Street. In Thomas Street lived the Gardner’s whose family graveyard was situated further up Walmer Road.

A collection of tin shanties called the “Wooden Diggings” lined Scott Street and the sea came right up to the South Beach Terrace, hence its name. On the site once occupied by the Tyrone Hotel, stood for many years a large kraal where people used to keep their cattle, sheep, goats and horses during the night and turn them out to graze on the commonage every morning.

South End in the early days
South End in the early days

Firewood was regularly collected in this area by the neighbours while the local blacks gathered large bundles of wood, which they carted off on their heads to sell in the adjoining town from door to door.

View of South End from the Jetty

From a nearby quarry, great quantities of stone was excavated for sale as ballast in unloaded ships in order to give them sufficient weight on the high seas. The stone was conveyed in wooden trolleys, which ran on narrow rails. The loads were drawn in strings of five or six trolleys by oxen on the old South End breakwater where they were tipped into the waiting surfboats and taken to the ships at anchor in the roadstead.

As Redgrave noted, “Westward from Rock Street, southward to the Duin Farm boundary and the 1st Avenue of Walmer, there were no streets for many years and the whole face of the countryside was covered with sand hills, bush and scrub.”

South End: View of Rudolph Street after the flood in November 1867
South End: View of Rudolph Street after the flood in November 1867

Bridging the divide

In those early days the South End area was always referred to as “the place over the river”. Access to it was gained by wading through the shallow part of the Baakens River or by obtaining a lift on passing wagons. A narrow wooden footbridge for pedestrians was first erected but the piles having rotted, the whole structure was swept away during the great storm of 1847. The Malays then plied ferryboats for the conveyance of people at a penny per crossing but that proved unsatisfactory and the people began to agitate for a new bridge, which had to be more substantial than the previous one. The bridge was subsequently built in 1852 partly by public subscription and partly by convict labour under the supervision of Mr. White, then in charge of the roads.  It was named the Union Bridge because it connected the town proper with “the place over the river”. The newly constructed thoroughfare, soon to be much used, bore two names – North Union Street and South Union Street – by which they are still known.

South End North Union Street
South End North Union Street

Redgrave continues the saga as follows: “But in October 1857, heavy rains fell and the Baakens River came down in considerable volume and one Sunday morning between eight and nine o’clock, a great portion of the fabric of the bridge was suddenly swept away into the sea. Shortly afterwards the remainder, including a large portion of the causeway, shared a similar fate, leaving an impassable gulf which separated Ward 8, or South End, as it was called, from the rest of the town.   

Fortunately, nobody was on the bridge at the time. It had already been rumoured for some time that the bridge was insecure, and the wonder was that it had stood for five years, having been built upon shingle instead of on solid rock, which could have been found a few feet below its foundation. At best it was a sorry apology for a bridge.”

Rufane Vale in 1880
Rufane Vale in 1880

What could the community do but revert to the use of ferryboats to convey people across the river? Spectators were also rowed to view the scene of destruction. Luckily, the wooden part of the structure was rescued and safely moored alongside the South End breakwater, then under construction. During the course of numerous meetings and discussions at which it was proposed that a more substantial bridge to span the Baaken’s River be built, the proposal was accepted and a new bridge constructed.  In this case, it would carry both pedestrians and other traffic in perfect safety. This old wood-and-iron bridge served its purpose until it was replaced by a new and enlarged bridge built in reinforced concrete during the years 1921-23.

South Union Street

With the advent of the Harbour Board and the construction of the old South End breakwater and other extensive undertakings in the vicinity, great improvements in South End began to manifest themselves. As a result, dwellings of every shape and size began to spring up including the humble cottages of the Malay fishermen and the shops and stores that catered for their needs.

The Beach at South End in 1878


South End – As We Knew It by Yusaf Agherdien, Ambrose C. George and Shaheed Hendriks (1997, Kohler Carton and Print, Port Elizabeth)

Hills Covered with Cottages: Port Elizabeth’s Lost Streetscapes by Margaret Harradine (2010, Express Copy & Print, Port Elizabeth)

Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)

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