Lawrence Green’s book Harbours of Memory sketches what the port cities of South Africa during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s were like. It provides a vivid depiction of life in those days. This blog covers excerpts of his musings and prognostications on early Port Elizabeth’s harbour and shipping activities, its different communities, its highways and byways and the characters that inhabit it.
Main pictures: Baakens Valley in the 1860s
Sailors, surfboats and the seafaring quarter
Old sailor men have told me that Port Elizabeth once had a seafaring quarter as rowdy and dangerous as old Cape Town’s waterfront streets. The surfboat crews of Algoa Bay, they declared, were every bit as bold and skilful as the Table Bay watermen. Just as Table Bay skippers feared the winter north-westers so the shipmaster of last century [18th century] dreaded the black south-easters at Algoa Bay.
Algoa Bay must be paved with lost cargoes, everything from steel rails and other “Glasgow jewellery” to slabs of marble and galvanised sheets. Hundreds of anchors have rested in the mud for centuries. Thousands of fathoms of valuable anchor chains have been abandoned there, enough to hold the fleets of the world. When bales and cases dropped from the slings, the Customs men known as “tide waiters” recovered some of the flotsam on North End beach, but Algoa Bay has swallowed greedily, fortunes in heavy freight that should have gone to the shore in lighters. Those who know only the modern all-weather harbour can have little idea of past hardships and disasters. Again and again the builders of walls and breakwaters were defeated by the violence of the sea and Port Elizabeth had to wait more than a century for the secure basin of today.
I can remember the wind-swept anchorage where passenger ships and tramps plunged and bucketed with strings of lighters bumping heavily against their sides. Gangways were smashed, passengers had to enter tall baskets and trust the magnificent blacks of vast experience who handled the rattling steam winches and lowered them safely on the decks of tugs. The trade of the port was carried on over the years in spite of wild and frightening storms and all too many shipwrecks. In the days of sail, a strong south-easter must have been a nightmare for those afloat. Shipmaster took compass bearings of Fort Frederick and Bird Rock and anchored in six fathoms, grey sand over clay. October to April were the months that they feared. When haze appeared on the horizon, when the air became cold and damp, when the port office hoisted a warning, then careful masters made for open sea. Some trusted their ground tackle but if their cables parted, the surf claimed them and they pounded on the sand. Others hesitated, tried to claw off the lee shore, their topsails carried away, mainsails spilt and they became victims of the heavy, breaking sea. Often by the next morning, a fine ship would become a mass of tangled rope and shattered timber.
As long as the wind blew from the west, Algoa Bay offered safe anchorage. When it veered to the east of Cape Recife, a swell rose and the lighters became hard to manage. Black south-easters filled the sky with dark clouds and masters realised the danger before the gale warning was signalled from the shore. Tarpaulins were dragged over the holds of lighters and all cargo work came to a halt. Small craft made for the shore. Ship after ship veered out more cable. Sixty fathoms became seventy, eighty, a hundred, a hundred and twenty, and men wondered whether the great chains would stand the test. Steamers with their fires burning were safe enough for they could use their engines to relieve the strain or move out to sea of necessary. Sailing ships had to rely on anchors and chain and springs. Their crews stared across the anchorage to see how others were faring and caught occasional glimpses through blinding spray.
Landmarks became invisible. They heard the roaring of the gale, the surf on the beach, the nerve-racking creak and groaning of the windlass. All night there would be the lightning and the rain, the wind blowing at seventy, eighty miles an hour, men working frantically by the light of storm lanterns, rockets going up, tar barrels ablaze as signals of distress. Dawn would show the black cloud masses still racing overhead. Dawn on the beach would bring sorrow to all who set eyes on the doomed and the dead. Sometimes the crowds on the beach were able to count the men in the bows of the wrecked ship, but they had to watch them drowning one by one.
Years ago during an early visit to Port Elizabeth, I was advised to call on two old citizens named Josephus Winter and Thomas Morgan. After this lapse of time, I can hardly believe my own notes, for these men talked freely of the eighteen fifties. They remembered Port Elizabeth as a place of sandy roads like an up country village; a Main Street crowed with wool wagons; post-cart drives with bugles; masses of foam blowing across Jetty Street and across Market Square during a south-easter. They had seen a sailing ship break away from her anchor and drive right through a wooden jetty, leaving a wide gap. Then she met her end on the rocks.
South-east gales brought work for the local shipyards. They caulked the damaged ships, fitted new rudders, fashioned new mainmasts and topmasts and rigged ships of all sizes. When the Star of Empire was dismasted and abandoned, Port Elizabeth craftsmen fitted her out again and sent her to sea as the Lady Grey. Famous little Cape Town traders were calling at Algoa Bay a century ago; the Lord of the Isles, which went on to Mauritius for sugar, the guano island vessel Alert, Captain James Glendenning’s Admiral, the Anna, Albatross and the Tonqyille. Port Elizabeth builders launched a schooner of their own in the middle of last century, the Penquin, for communication with Bird Island.
Mr Herbert McWilliams, the well-known architect and yacht designer, uses the old whaling cauldrons as flower pots at his home on the Swartkops River. The vertebrae of whales decorate his garden. Among his nautical museum pieces, are the figurehead of H.M.S. Medusa, one of Nelson’s flagships, ship’s lanterns, a signal cannon, bells and bollards and anchors.
Mr. McWilliams has pointed out that the city has a number of very narrow buildings. He traced this peculiarity back to the days when wooden spars from wrecks were used as main beams in new buildings. A spar of twenty seven feet long would span a roof or a floor, and so many a frontage was determined. Port Elizabeth owes its deep, narrow buildings to the gales in Algoa Bay.
Hotels and Canteens
Port Elizabeth had its pubs in the very early days, the Red Lion Tavern and the Robinson Hotel. In the eighteen forties came the Phoenix Hotel, named after the pioneering paddle steamer, the Phoenix that traded along the coast. Cobb’s coaches, drawn by eight horses, started from the Phoenix. By the middle of last century, there were rather more bars and canteens than the little town needed. Strand Street, which had a vile reputation, was the resort of smugglers, drunken seamen, escaped convicts and army deserters. Here the thirsty sailor men could refresh himself at the Standard, the Prince of Wales, Kromm’s, Ted Sasse’s, the Caledonian, the Admiral Rodney and other hotels and canteens. In this unlighted quarter, known as Irish Town, beachcombers slept in surf boats and defended themselves against a horde of rats.
Other early hotels in Queen Street were the George and Dragon, the Oddfellows Arms, the Rose and Shamrock, Fountain and Albion. The Vine in Sea Lane was known for some reason as His Lordship’s Larder. Queen Street also had, as a contrast, a garden filled with one of the finest collections of ship’s figureheads ever seen in South Africa. Mr Tee, the owner, did not exactly welcome shipwrecks. But he was always on the spot when wrecks were put up for sale, and the auctioneer could always rely on a bid for the figurehead. In this way, Mr Tee became the owner of a nautical museum far more romantic than the rusty anchors, chain and other marine equipment that surrounded the George Hotel in Main Street. Where are they now, those crude yet robust wooden statues of classical figures and naval heroes, those famous men and women staring with sightless eyes towards the oceans they had lost? These images of good luck were not always works of art. Some came from the benches of ships’ carpenters, though now and again, a shipowner commissioned a brilliant woodcarver and adorned a prow with a delicate figurehead that brought the whole ship to life. Mr Tee had a stupid looking man with a walrus moustache between two lovely female effigies in flowing robes. There was an eagle from a Yankee whaler and a lion from some unknown wreck. . Carved from pine and brightly painted, these were relics of the golden age of sail.
Dick Smithers, an American who made a living breaking up wrecks, was among the Port Elizabeth characters towards the end of last century. He ran a boarding-house as a sideline, and his dances with a pianist and three fiddlers were described as the best entertainment value of the period. Smithers charged an entrance fee of one shilling. Of course there were scenes of wild disorder when seamen of the different nations clashed, when fists and belts came into action. But on happier occasions the sentimental mariners gathered round the orchestra and sang with tears in their bloodshot eyes:
But a maiden so sweet
Lives in that little street
She’s the daughter of Widow McNally
She has bright golden hair
And the boys all declare
She’s the sunshine of Paradise Alley
[At these hotels and canteens], the stevedores fortified themselves with brandy before pulling off to ships in the bay. Often they needed strong drink, for their boats capsized again and again in heavy weather. People loved to watch the surf boats coming in and waiting just outside the line of breakers for a word from the coxswain. At the right moment, the coxswain would dip his long steering oar and shout, the men would pull together and come roaring in on the crest of a wave. Once the boat touched, all hands would jump into the water. With shoremen helping they would lift the heavy boat with slings and spars and rush her out of reach of the sea. Passengers were carried on shore by natives.
Irish Town was tough but an Irish priest named Father Murphy restored law and order. He rode a black horse and carried only a cane, When the black horse died, he acquired a white horse and an admirer called his hotel The White Horse in honour of the priest’s steed. Thanks to Father Murphy’s influence, the Roman Catholic prisoners in the little wooden jail were allowed out on Sundays to attend Mass. For three decades, Father Murphy visited the Irish emigrants who settled in Port Elizabeth. He died nearly a century ago, but the man and his famous horses have never been forgotten.
Port Elizabeth had a German colony in the 1850s and they gathered at Hirsh’s hotel, The Commercial, in Queen Street. It was not only the fountain with goldfish and lilies that attracted them. Hirsch also provided sausages and pumpernickel, Bavarian cheese and pretzels. His cooks transmuted the plain local cabbage into legendary sauerkraut, shredded and flavoured with caraway seeds, garnished with apples and onions and frankfurters. Hirsch imported the typical German herb liqueurs as well as the Rhine brandies and Steinhaeger gin and he kept an unfailing stock of regional beers to suit the exacting palates of residents and sailors. There came a time when the German colony in Port Elizabeth formed a Deutsche Liedertafel, gathering under a huge imperial coat of arms with black, white and red ribbons. They drank and sang and ate rollmops, and when the glasses were raised, the toasts could be heard in the street – Prost! Zum Whole! Zur gesundheit! Strange to say, a favourite meeting place of the German colony last century was the Britannia Hotel.
Among the picturesque corners of Port Elizabeth early this century, was the Chinese market garden. Chinese growers took their vegetables from door to door in pannier baskets. Even in those days, some people enjoyed authentic Chinese dishes, meat and fish cooked with sesame or peanut oil and mild spices; mushrooms and bamboo shoots, shrimps and almonds, and soya sauce; cakes flavoured with powdered ginger.
Malay fishermen carried their fish on long bamboo poles. Their mosques were at the lower end of Strand Street. The fishermen moved to South End later and lived in wattle and daub huts. Like the Cape Malays, this colony at Algoa Bay loved picnics on holidays and they streamed out to the Swartkops River in their carts. The fezzed men favoured brown suits with gold watch chains; women appeared in dazzling clothes. They danced their own volkspele and they sang:
So lank as die rietjie in die water le,
In die water le, in die water le
So lank as die rietjie in die water le,
Blommetjie gedink om my
Harbours of Memory by Lawrence G. Green (1969, Howard Timmins, Cape Town)