At the risk of overstatement, dynamite was characterised as being extremely volatile in prior centuries. Just like Johannesburg, where the explosives factory was established at Modderfontein which was originally located far outside the municipal boundaries, so it was in the rest of South Africa. This blog deals with how Port Elizabeth dealt with this risk or in modern parlance, its Risk Mitigation Strategy, during the 19th century.
Main picture: Overhead ropeway to transport the explosives from the landing stage to the magazines of the various importing companies
Before 1836, there were privately owned magazines in the vicinity of St. Stephen’s Street on Richmond Hill dating back many years. As the town expanded, these magazines were eventually surrounded by residential areas. This situation was intolerable for the residents as dynamite or gunpowder was notoriously volatile in that age. It was, without a doubt, regarded as a danger both as a storage location and while being transported through the streets of the town. What exacerbated the situation was the discovery of diamonds at Hopetown in the late 1850s and the discovery of gold on the Reef in 1886 by an Australian gold prospector George Harrison. In order to operate these mines, vast quantities of explosives were imported and the closest port was Port Elizabeth.
To mitigate this danger, on the 30th September 1852 a grant of land was made at the “Creek”, the mouth of the Papenkuils River, adjoining the large cemetery grant. The granter was the Government and the terms of the grant expressly stipulated that the site would be used to construct gunpowder magazines. By all accounts, it appears that this grant remained unutilised for many years until once again local agitators drove the authorities into action. To remove this hazard, the authorities mandated that it was illegal for explosives to be transported through the town.
Even though the land grant had been made in 1852, by 1862 inertia still prevailed and no progress had been made to construct the explosives or gunpowder jetty. According to the PE Telegraph dated 13th February 1862, on the 30th January 1862 the Town Clerk, H.O. Hutchinson had issued instructions that tenders be called to build gunpowder magazines near the Creek at the site marked off by the surveyor, Pinchin. To avoid inconvenience, the period during which the gunpowder could still be stored at the magazines in present use was extended to May 1st. Frederick Barnard was appointed the storekeeper of the private gunpowder magazine belonging to John Owen Smith.
In the Port Elizabeth Telegraph dated 6th December 1862, they noted that in spite of the deadline being set as May 1st, as at today’s date the gunpowder was still being stored in the Hill Magazines. A motion in the Town Council that gunpowder only be handled at the Bight and stored in new magazines, was defeated in the Town Council.
Finally the Town Clerk, H.O. Hutchinson, took a tougher stance. It was reported in the PE Telegraph dated 22nd July 1863 that Hutchinson had ordered the owners of the gunpowder in Harvies Magazine on the Hill to remove it within 14 days to the New Magazine near the Creek.
Fifteen magazines were erected on the southern bank of Smelly Creek, a wetland at the mouth of the Papenkuils River where rotting vegetation gave rise to offensive odours in bygone days. Renowned for its birdlife, especially its flamingoes, it has long since been filled in for use as a railway marshalling yard. From this magazine, a 1.6km aerial ropeway was strung to a landing-stage which transported the explosives from the ship to the shore.
For the next thirty six years, the dynamite was offloaded at a landing stage out at sea and then taken by a ropeway to these magazines.
Steamer Queen Victoria
Explosives served multiple functions, one of which in a port town was clearing the hulks of wrecked vessels. An excellent example was that of the double-bottomed steamer Queen Victoria under the command of Capt. Edward James Heno which struck Thunderbolt Reef in April 1896. It was a calm and clear moonlit night when the lighthouse keeper sighted the distress flares and contacted the Port Office by telegraph. The James Searle (1) was despatched with the ship’s local agent, Capt. Palmer, aboard. He advised Heno to beach the sinking vessel in the “most sheltered part of the Bay” opposite the Humewood Beach Hotel, which was located where the Elizabeth Hotel [now Garden Court Hotel] was later constructed. Over the next few weeks, her cargo was discharged, the holes patched and the sea water pumped out. Then she was refloated and towed to anchor off North End but attempts to salvage her proved to be futile. In August she parted her cables and landed on the beach near the wreck of the Jorawur. The hulk was auctioned off to Joe Martin for a mere £5. This rock bottom price was a result of a new regulation which imposed a fine of £70 per annum for any owner failing to remove a wreck from the beach. Despite this, the hulk lay high and dry in the bight for many years until she was ultimately blown up.
The grant did not lie dormant or unused but the original idea of erecting a jetty on this site had probably been forgotten and not acted upon. The spark that ignited the renewed interest in constructing this jetty is unknown. It might have even been an unplanned explosion at one of the inland diamond or gold mines that raised awareness of the dangers of explosives*. Whatever it was, in 1896, the Harbour Board voted funds for the construction of an explosives jetty sited off Brighton Beach.
In 1898, twenty three magazines were built on the opposite side of the creek along North End Beach / New Brighton Beach together with a jetty and a light railway.
There was just one small consideration when building a jetty along this stretch of beach. Part of the reason why the Rocket Brigade was so unsuccessful in snaring ships with their rope might have been the appalling weather, but equally responsible was the fact that many vessels got stuck on a sandbar some 350 metres offshore. To bypass this obstacle, presumably the jetty would have to be longer than that.
The equipment needed to construct an overhead tramway for the jetty was imported from England. Eventually the jetty was officially opened three years later in 1899. By 1906 it had fallen into disuse and was finally declared derelict and dismantled in 1918. Unlike the slipway at Humewood Beach, the sea was more efficient at the Creek and removed any remains within a few years.
As the magazines were located close to the New Brighton Hotel, their proximity to the hotel resulted in a decline in trade. Ultimately the hotel was closed and later converted into a TB hospital.
* Probably the famous explosion on 19 February 1896 of a train in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, which included 8 trucks carrying 60 tonnes of dynamite for the gold mines. It blew a crater 60m long x 50m wide x 8m deep and was heard up to 200 km away. 3000 houses were lost, over 70 people killed and more than 200 injured. That would get the Government’s attention for sure!
Algoa Bay in the Age of Sail 1488-1917 – A Maritime History by Colin Urquhart (2007, Bluecliff Publishing, Port Elizabeth) – Steamer Queen Victoria
Gazetteer of the Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage Divisions of the old Cape Colony, compiled by Bartle Logie and Margaret Harradine (2014, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)
Algoa Bay in the Age of Sail 1488-1917 – A Maritime History by Colin Urquhart (2007, Bluecliff Publishing, Port Elizabeth) Page 157
Explosive Subject, (Looking Back, December 1978, Volume 18, No. 4)