Port Elizabeth of Yore: Defences during the Boer War

 

Although Port Elizabeth was never directly affected during the Anglo Boer War as it was never occupied or fought over, measures had to be taken to prevent the destruction of infrastructure in the unlikely event of a Boer raid. 

The blog only covers those defensive measures. 

Main picture: One of the two forts at the Upper Van Stadens Dam which was constructed during the Anglo-Boer War

 

Erection of town defences

At some stage during the war, the British received word of a possible Boer invasion and started setting up town defences.  Part of these were a series of forts and trenches around the area.  Four of these trenches are still visible just off the How Avenue parking area of Settlers Park.  None of these forts can be traced.

Boer War trenches in Settlers Park

Boer War trenches in Settlers Park

 To man these defences, volunteers were requested. Nine hundred names were collected  and eight Companies formed. On 5th February 1900, the first parade of the Port Elizabeth Town Guard was held under the command of Major Herbert Mallors Smith, an ex PAG officer.

A plaque identifying that these are Boer War trenches

A plaque identifying that these are Boer War trenches

Forts at the Upper Van Stadens Dam

The provision of water to Port Elizabeth from the Van Stadens River, 35 km west of the town, was first mooted in 1862. This was an ongoing process of development, the Upper Van Stadens Dam with its intake weir, filter beds and caretaker’s cottage being completed in 1893. Construction continued early in 1899 on the provision of a pump house, with engine and pumping weir, about 3 km downstream from the Upper Dam complex.

Plans of the Van Staden Dam forts

Plans of the Van Staden Dam forts

Despite its enthusiastic formation in February 1900 and regular drills in the Feather Market Hall, the interest of the Port Elizabeth Town Guard flagged during the year. However, the activity of Boer commandos in the Colony soon precipitated action there, as it did in other centres. At a special parade on 14 January 1901, Lt-Col E J K Priestly, Base Commandant in Port Elizabeth, called for volunteers to form another battalion, to raise a mounted company and to guard the waterworks at Van Stadens.

The lower fort at the Upper Van Stadens dam showing the interior of the rounded north end

The lower fort at the Upper Van Stadens dam showing the interior of the rounded north end

The volunteers for the latter duty numbered 3 officers, 8 non-commissioned officers, 86 privates, and 2 buglers. Four days later, the wagon convoy taking ammunition and baggage left Market Square with an escort of two NCOs and ten troopers, while the main body of the Guard was transported by rail to Uitenhage, and then marched 24 km to the Upper Van Stadens Dam.

The Guard was divided into two, one party to protect the pump house and the other, the dam. The men remained at the dam for three months, building two small forts in the hills to the west and south-west. They returned to Port Elizabeth on 14 April 1901, with the exception of two officers, a sergeant and twelve mounted men who had volunteered to stay behind. It is believed that the returnees were replaced by British troops of the 3rd Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, which had landed in South Africa on 30 March 1901 and had its headquarters in Port Elizabeth.

British Troops parade on the Donkin

British Troops parade on the Donkin

Although it is not known how long the forts and waterworks were garrisoned, the 3rd Bn Loyal North Lancashire Regiment returned to England in February 1902 and the Town Guard was disbanded in October of that year, five months after the end of the war.

Similar in construction to the Jansenville Fort, the two Van Stadens forts have unmortared stone walls about 2 m high, although the tapered loopholes occur at only one level.

Jansenville Anglo Boer War Fort

Jansenville Anglo Boer War Fort

The Upper Fort is circular in plan with an external diameter of about 10 metres. In addition to an internal wall offset beneath the loopholes, it has an external batter (or slope) to the wall. The entrance on the south side is covered on the outside by a freestanding length of loop-holed screen wall. A paved walkway or firing step, 1 200 mm wide and 150 mm high, runs around the inside of the circular wall. Apart from a collapsed section of wall, about 3 metres long on the west side, the fort is complete.

Van Stafens Dam Upper Fort showing the entrance with the outside screen wall to the right

Van Stadens Dam Upper Fort showing the entrance with the outside screen wall to the right

The Lower Fort is in the shape of a parallelogram with rounded ends and measures about 7,5 x 17 metres. The walls are 700 mm thick and also have an external batter, but no internal offset. The entrance, situated in the middle of the east wall, is protected by a projecting right-angled wall similar to the Jansenville Fort. An interesting feature is a 1 m wide and 1,2 m deep trench, which begins outside the entrance to the fort and extends 22 metres down the hill to the east to join another, U-shaped, trench at right angles; this was undoubtedly designed to provide hidden access to the fort, as this slope of the hill faces directly onto the Upper Dam and the caretaker’s cottage. Apart from a 10-metre section of the west wall and a 3-metre length at the south-east corner, which have collapsed to below the level of the loopholes, the fort is reasonably complete.

British troops landing in PE, 1900

British troops landing in PE, 1900

 

Sources:

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine

http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol102rt.html

 

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