Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Donkin Lighthouse

Signal Ball at Donkin Lighthouse in 1860s

Being in such close proximity to one another, I have often considered this lighthouse and the adjacent pyramid as being contemporary structures. Nothing could be further from the truth. This blog, largely based on the 1986 thesis by Jon Inggs, provides the historical detail from the conceptualisation to the erection of the Donkin Lighthouse.

Main picture: Signal Ball at Donkin Lighthouse in 1860s

Proposals and erection

While the Cape Recife lighthouse was being planned in the late 1840s, the harbour board also tried to entice the government into building a lighthouse on the hill at Port Elizabeth itself. The project was actively supported by the secretary to government, John Montagu (1843-52). However, the governor was “unable at the present moment to estimate for this work, but I hope to do so shortly“.

John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich FileJohn Montagu 4th Earl of Sandwich by Johann Zoffany

John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich FileJohn Montagu 4th Earl of Sandwich by Johann Zoffany

The matter was raised again in the mid-1850s when the admiralty surveyor, Lt Joseph Dayman, pointed out that a lighthouse near the Donkin memorial would be invaluable to shipping at night. The project, however, did not get off the ground until early 1857 when the matter was discussed by the harbour master, H G Simpson, and assistant government engineer, Matthew Woodifield. In October, Woodifield arranged to look for a suitable light while in England. In September 1858, the harbour master reported that the mechanism for the proposed harbour light had arrived. This event was followed in November by good news when the executive council announced that “the light will be treated as a public one, and [the] cost of it will be borne by the General Revenue.” In December, the harbour master upset public opinion by suggesting that the crumbling Donkin pyramid be pulled down and the stones used to build the lighthouse. The proposal resulted in the monument’s restoration.


Nevertheless, almost another year went by before it was actually decided to build the lighthouse on the Donkin site. Initially the delay resulted from waiting for the British government to decide whether it or the Cape government was responsible for the cost of construction and maintenance. Once this was resolved, the decision had to be taken as to where to put it: on the port office or Donkin. The harbour master estimated the respective costs to be £150 and £350. He felt that the light was to be specifically an aid to ships wanting to anchor at night, rather than it being a general extension of the existing aids to coastal navigation. The port office scheme was eventually scrapped when it was found that the existing building was not capable of supporting the extra weight.


Subsequently the Port Elizabeth municipal commissioners delayed matters by raising the question of the right to build on the Donkin reserve which had been declared a public place in 1821. They eventually gave approval in November and the harbour board undertook to build the lighthouse on behalf of the government for £350. The lantern had cost £217 13s 3d in 1858.

Another nine months were to pass before the approval was given for construction to commence. Because the government engineer’s plan included accommodation “not contemplated in the original plan“, and would therefore exceed the original estimate, the lieutenant governor had ordered that the project wait until parliament reconsidered the matter.

Finally, in May 1860 the harbour board engineer, Alfred Warren, was given instructions to start the 17-metre lighthouse “forthwith”. It was completed a year later and came into operation on June 1, 1861. As a result, new sailing directions for Algoa bay were issued. The harbour board submitted its account of £942 18s 5d to the government which was £120 13s 1d more than the estimate. “The extra expense has arisen chiefly from the difficulty of procuring the stone for the plinth and the expensive process of dressing it.” The plinth was eventually provided by local building contractor, Charles Inggs, for £66 16s 1d.

The Time Ball

During 1862, the harbour board made inquiries into the possibility of placing a time signal on the Donkin lighthouse. It was to be activated from Cape Town by telegraph, then still under construction. The initial cost was estimated to be less than £300, with a further £150 a year for maintenance. In March 1863, steps were taken to ascertain the cost of the time ball itself. Early in 1864, the harbour board again appealed to government to finance a time signal on the Donkin lighthouse.


The time ball was eventually put into place during July 1865. It was officially dropped for the first time at 1 o’clock on August 26 by a signal from the observatory at Cape Town. The Herald reported:

If we mistake not, this is a “feat” in the history of electric telegraph science hitherto unaccomplished…In no part of the world, we believe, has there been a timeball dropped…at a distance of five hundred miles by one through current.

The ball itself was made of wicker-work covered with black painted canvas. It was 1.2 metres in diameter and fixed to a 4.3-metre iron bar, which swivelled on a framework attached to the lighthouse gallery. When not in use, the ball hung downwards with the shorter arm of the bar uppermost. Just before 1 o’clock Cape mean time each day – except Sundays and public holidays – it was hauled uppermost ready to be dropped when the trigger was electrically activated from Cape Town. It was noted, however, that the “correct mean time is 1 hour 28 minutes 34.6 seconds”.

Despite this technological advancement, early in 1866 the harbour board had to report that “the irregularities in its discharge have been so numerous that its value to the shipping has been seriously impeded.” These teething problems were overcome and the following year the board was able to report “the more satisfactory working of the time signal, which, under the supervision of the harbour master, Mr. Skead, has become a most valuable addition to the port“.


Later developments

The first lighthouse keeper was Charles Hammond for whose family the adjoining cottage was built in 1865. Hammond kept meticulous meteorological records and served until his death in January 1881.

In November 1929, the height of the lighthouse was increased by 30 to 40 feet because of interference of the electric lights from the Hill behind it. Moreover, the light was made more powerful by the replacement of the acetylene burner with an electric light.

Finally, in 1973, the Donkin lighthouse was taken out of service and replaced by a lighthouse at Deal Party.



Thesis of Jon Inggs, “Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth harbour development 1820-70“, MA thesis, Rhodes University, 1986

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


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