Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Era of Coaches

Prior to the advent of the railways, long distance travel was arduous at best and tediously long to boot. Imagine being jolted for days on end on an ox-wagon. Every single depression, or stone protruding from the ground along the way, would be felt. Unlike Europe, the Romans had never constructed roads in South Africa. In the Cape Colony, bush tracks ultimately became the “roads” through usage and not by design. 

After the age of the post cart came the coaches, an imported concept from the American Wild West. 

Main picture: Geo. Alcock & Sons Coach Builders, Blacksmiths & Farriers, Korsten, Port Elizabeth

Travelling time

Aside from modern mythology, what was travelling between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown in an ox-wagon really like? In these slow-moving conveyances, this journey would take a week. At night, the passengers would be compelled to sleep on the hard, unforgiving, stony ground. Mothers would be under duress attempting to pacify sick children and comfort small bored kids. Meals en route were extremely problematical. Without refrigeration, no fresh products could be taken with them.

The advent of the post cart reduced the travelling time from a week to two days while the introduction of coaches shortened it to one day.

Cobb’s stage coach stops to change horses & pick up passengers on the journey to Kimberley

A South African attempt at coach design

The first coach made in the Eastern Province was manufactured in Grahamstown, but perhaps one of the strangest vehicles to make its appearance on the Old Bay Road, was the one known as Judge Dewar’s coach. In August 1873, the whole of the circuit transport equipage, used by the judges of the Eastern District Court, was sold. This, no doubt, prompted the judges to have a coach constructed to their own design by Messrs. Robertson & Douglas of Long Street, Cape Town. When the coach arrived at Algoa Bay, it was described as the “most singular vehicle ever to be imported into the Eastern Province” and was referred to as the “judge’s contraption.”

The front of the vehicle was fitted with seats and a folding hood and had all the appearance of an ordinary cart. The remainder looked like a cart but was provided with a detachable cover, constructed so that, when put in place, it could be locked as if it were a strongbox.

A replica Cobb & Co coach at Timbertown – not in SA but it would have looked the same in SA

At the back was a seat, like that on a dog-cart, where the servants could be placed out of earshot of the conversation carried on by those in front. The coaches, when they arrived on the old Bay Road, had much to contend with due to the state of the roads. In 1863, the Cape Argus reported that the roads in the Eastern Province were the worst to be found in any country in the world. “The cost and difficulty of making a main line of road between the two towns (Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth), 60 miles apart, must be very great, and it puzzles one to imagine how eastern flesh and blood can stand the ups and downs, the jolts and capsizes, to which travelling humanity in that province is liable.”

Post Horn

Mule wagon service to the Diamond Fields

The discovery of diamonds at Kimberley was the first of the discoveries inland which would ultimately displace Port Elizabeth economically. On the 26th July 1871, Tarry’s mule wagon service to the Diamond Fields using 12 mules was commenced, leaving Market Square with John H. Boys as the conductor. The wagon finally arrived at Du Toit’s Pan on the 8th July after a journey time of fifteen days. The fare amounted to £8.

In their day, coaches were equally important in the development of the country, and they were the principal means of transport for the thousands of emigrants, who had landed at Port Elizabeth to join the diamond rush. In the heyday of the new diamond diggings in the 1870s, coach and conveyance companies were formed all over the Colony. Apart from Tarry’s 12-mule carts from Port Elizabeth, there were the Port Elizabeth and Diamond Fields Conveyance Company, Queenstown and Vaal River Diamond Fields Passenger Company, and even the Graaff-Reinet Road Steamer Company.

A Post Cart crossing the drift at the bottom of Van Staden’s Pass

Road Steamer

Of these, perhaps the most innovative was the Graaff-Reinet Road Steamer Company, which with a capital of R 4000, proposed to import from England one of Thompson’s 8 h.p. road steamers. The contraption, it was claimed, was capable of drawing a load of 12 tons, which was equivalent to three ordinary wagon-loads, by easy stages of 30 miles per day.

Thomson’s road steamer ‘Derwent’ in operation at Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland. Thomson built his first road steamer in November 1867

Cobb and Company

Of all of these conveyance and coach companies perhaps the greatest was Cobb and Company, of Port Elizabeth. Towards the end of 1871, two Americans from Boston, Messrs Cobb and Cole arrived at Port Elizabeth with the object of establishing a line of mail coaches from the coast to the diamond fields and to any other towns where the trade warranted it. To this end, they imported 16 stage coaches.

The coaches ordered varied in size and were constructed to carry six to twelve passengers with a fair allowance for luggage. Cobb and Cole, however, never got going, and before the end of the year all of their coaches were purchased by a joint stock company of Port Elizabeth merchants and thereafter operated as Cobb and Company.

Cobbs coaches were of American manufacture. Instead of being fitted with the type of steel spring then commonly in use, they were suspended on their “chassis” by several thicknesses of leather bands on each side. The slightest motion caused the vehicle to sway fore and aft, thereby imparting a “soft gliding motion.” Padded seats were provided and the space between the seats was ample. Passengers could also be seated outside on top of the coach, and a luggage carrier was fitted at the rear.

The directors of the company were Messrs. Macdonald, Hume, Christian, Taylor and Griffiths. The first two coaches left Market Square on the 22nd September 1871 on a trial trip to Kimberley. The coach-and-six and the coach-and-four were driven by Cobb and Cole themselves. Having made a fortune in Australia and then returning to his home town in Brewster, Massachusetts, Cobb relocated to Port Elizabeth where he formed a partnership with fellow American, Charles Carlos Cole and raised £10,000 in capital from local businessmen

Gamtoos Ferry keepers house in 1875

The first coaches started running to the north by way of the Zuurberg commencing on the 4th March, 1872 when the first coach left the Phoenix Hotel on the Market Square at 5 a.m. for Dutoitspan. Others took the route to the diamond fields up the Old Bay Road to Grahamstown and to Queenstown. Cobb and Co. advertised the eight-seater Diamond Field stage coaches, which did the journey in five days and six hours, without any night travelling. Passengers were accommodated in comfortable hotels along the 450 mile route via Grahamstown, Cradock, Colesberg, Philippolis and Jacobsdal.

Many passengers, however, did not agree with the newspapers’ glowing accounts of the coaches. One described his experience in the vehicle “misnamed a coach” and in which he was trundled over the 86 miles in 17 hours from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown as follows: “There were nine passengers cooped up within a longitudinal box, closed not entirely overhead, but in front and behind, and one might say almost entirely around. We were deafened with the noise of the rattling, clattering, lumbering affair, to an extent [that] not one of the nine had ever experienced before.” Another complained that the “capsizing” accidents, which frequently occurred with Cobb  and Company’s coaches, were caused by passengers carried outside which made the coaches top-heavy.

Cobb and Company reached its peak towards the end of 1873. In September, £12 [R24] was charged for the single journey to the diamond fields, which was accomplished in six days. Five of the company’s coaches arrived almost together at Grahamstown one day that month. Three were from Port Elizabeth on their way to the Diamond Fields, one was the regular Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown coach and one was the “down” coach from the fields to the Bay.

Mule post cart

 Toward the end of 1874, Cobb and Company ran into financial difficulties because of the prevailing drought, the high cost of forage on the route and the high death rate among the horses. In 1875, Mr Carlton Jones was appointed sole liquidator of the company’s affairs and offered all its equipment for sale. For two years, Cobb continued on his own. Adam White Guthrie was associated with him and took over some of the stock after Cobb’s premature death.

The Port Elizabeth and Diamond Fields Conveyance Co. Ltd

The Port Elizabeth and Diamond Fields Conveyance Co. Ltd held its first annual general meeting in February 1873. From the outset, this company experienced many difficulties, especially during the first six months when it was working up its “trains” to the required standard of efficiency. In the first eight months, thirteen trains were despatched to the north, and in the following four months, fourteen trains. A weekly service was then started. In the first period, £3,166 [R6,332] was lost but in the second, a profit of £ 917] R1,834 was made. Mr Thomas Griffiths was chairman of the company and Messrs J.S. Kirkwood and G.M. Farnier, directors.

Advert for Cobb’s Coaches operating from the Phoenix Hotel

A journey to Uitenhage recalled

Unlike today, a trip to Uitenhage would not take twenty to thirty minutes; instead it would take three hours to complete. Another difference was that travellers and visitors would not own their own conveyance. Instead, invariably they used hired conveyances from one of the various livery stables in the town. One of the best patronised businesses was that Mr Rishworth in Jetty Street.

Yet another option was to use the post cart service which ran daily between both towns. Despite their nomenclature, they were also used to convey passengers.

The first passenger service to Uitenhage was an “omnibus” owned by Japie Kafaar who was also the driver. Eventually the word “omnibus” being Latin “for all” would be abbreviated to the contemporary word bus. Every week the coach left the Post Office in Market Square at 2 p.m. taking three hours to complete the journey which included a 15-minute stop at Innis Vale, the half-way point of the trip. The single fare was six shillings.

An old battered bugle is sounded, and the coach moves across the Market Square into Main Street. Along Queen Street, Princess and Adderley Streets, the horses steadily trot until they reache the split into Grahamstown and Uitenhage Roads. Shortly thereafter, the outskirts of town are reached, and houses are now only passed intermittently. The next landmark is the “Jim Crow” Inn located at the current Berry’s Corner. The erstwhile residence of John Centlivres Chase then appears on the left. Some of the elderly would still refer to this homestead by its original name Papenkuils Fontein.

Over the next rise, the historic settlement of Bethelsdorp came into view nestled within a swathe of salt pans. Scattered around were spacious wooden stores and humble cottages. This quaint outpost wore a patina of age with equanimity and dignity. Some travellers might have even met the eccentric septuagenarian. Dr. Vanderkemp and his thirteen-year-old wife, a former slave.

Further on, the half-way house, “Innis Vale” loomed into view. The passengers eagerly disembarked in order to stretch their legs and partake of some welcome refreshments. Then the shrill note of Kafaar’s bugle announced that the passengers must board the coach.

The upper Zwartkops is then negotiated and the horses are given a respite at the old Toll House to blow. It was then the final run into the straggling village of Uitenhage.

Scattered sparks of dying embers

Even before Cobb’s coaches commenced operation in September 1871, the ultimate nemesis of the previous forms of transport had already made its appearance, and would eventually eclipse them in totality. It was during May 1871 that the Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage Railway Company was formed. In fact, this meeting had been preceded by D. MacDonald and F.M. Pfeil surveying the line by 1866.

The first meeting of shareholders was held on the 1st November 1871 and on 9th January 1872, the Governor, Sir Henry Barkly, turned the first sod at Zwartkops. From July 1871, the Engineer in charge was James Bisset, also known as an architect who designed the original station in 1873. The first train ran on the line on 16th October 1873 and the official opening of the completed line took place on 21st September 1875. Also, in 1875, the Cape Government took control of the railway line by purchasing the Company.

Train at the Redhouse Station shortly after the railway line to Uitenhage was opened

The mists of time

As the line was extended, ultimately all the way to the Diamond Fields, the age of the conveyancers whether utilising ox-wagons, post carts or coaches, drew to a close.

Now largely unknown, the era of the coach was an interregnum between the ox-wagon and the railway carriage. In all aspects, the railway was superior – speed, comfort and quantity conveyed. Without being mourned, the older modes of transport passed into history with no melancholy eulogy to mark their demise.

PE Railway Station in 1910

Travelling speed

One forgets that the rigid wheel structure (broken wheels were a common problem) and the suspension – coaches suspended in the “fore and aft” fashion were apparently renowned for inducing seasickness – combined to make even a fairly short distance travelled quite uncomfortable and hazardous. It was bad enough in Europe where you would have had coaching inns at roughly 4 to 8 mile intervals, but in South Africa? You would be lucky to find another place for help within 16 miles!

Even with the arrival of the motor car, speed was dictated mainly by the road surface and one only really began to understand why trips even in the mid-1950s could take weeks. By then the main roads had improved a bit, but as soon as you left them the gravel began.


Who remembers the Kakebeen Ox wagon in the Port Elizabeth museum, and also the Stage coach that was used in 1952 to celebrate 300 years since van Riebeeck arrived in South Africa. There was also a covered coach similar to a Hansom Cab. Who remembers the celebration in 1952 at St Georges Park Stadium when the Stagecoach was pulled in by 4 horses and the dignitaries alighted? The Stadium was filled with thousands of PE school children who sang various anthems and songs. The lady directing the singing was a Mrs Kotie van der Merwe.


Coaching Days on Old Bay Road by Eric Turpin in The Herald Monday 14th December 1964

Port Elizabeth: A social chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (c 1996, E. H. Walton Packaging Pty Ltd for the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

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

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