Port Elizabeth of Yore: Frame’s Reservoir – The Unlikely Dam

The saga of how Port Elizabeth acquired an unsuitable dam on a trickle of a river as its first primary water supply in the 1860s, is explained in this blog. Sadly after a few decades the water became saline and no longer potable. Perhaps this venture was emblematic of the era where vision was limited by parsimony and where, despite the Council’s laudable motives, was doomed to failure. 

For all that, the Town Council did protect the interests of its residents by not financing the project itself. So, when bankruptcy did occur, no losses were borne by the denizens of the town. 

Main picture: Opening the valve at the Frames Dam in 1863

Alternatives appraised

It is perhaps a little surprising to the layman why the Baaken’s River was not unanimously selected as the site of Port Elizabeth’s first dam. I have yet to lay my hands on a cogent reason why the Baakens could not have served as the site for Port Elizabeth’s first dam. Probably the most compelling argument is that by the 1860s, wool-washing operations had been established along its banks and in the river itself. This would surely preclude its use as a potable water source yet what of the alternative of drawing water further upstream such as at Settlers’ Park?

The Baaken’s River at Settlers’ Park

By excluding the Baakens, the net of possible dam sites had to be cast much wider with its attendant impediments and implications. When the Town Engineer, Mr. Robert Archibald, submitted a report on the subject of water supply on the 17th January 1862, three possibilities were raised; Van Stadens River, the Zwartkops Rivers and the Shark River. It was Mr. William Brooksby Frames who moved that the latter two rivers be included in the survey of possible dam sites. In proposing the nondescript Shark River at Gomery (Humewood), Brooksby Frames could in retrospect be characterised as being conflicted or partisan at the very least. In addition, Mr. Henry Rutherford moved that £50 be offered for any treatise relating to the water supply. Mr. Alfred C. Wylde sagely proposed an amendment to this motion that it be held over until the data had been prepared by the Engineer in order to provide the competitors with the relevant information for their applications. This motion in its final “three rivers” form, was seconded.

Opening the value at Frames Dam in 1863
Frames Reservoir [Mark Finningan’s collection]

Before casting aspersions on others for not being aware of the Shark River’s location, I would like to make an admission. It was only subsequently to my relocating to Johannesburg that I became aware that the trickle that flowed through Happy Valley, was in fact the mighty Shark River on which Port Elizabeth’s first dam was constructed.

It was a Dr. Richard Nathaniel Rubidge and a Mr. Leslie who were tasked with analysing the water from the Shark River and at De Duine springs adjacent to Cape Recife. To up the ante, during 1862 the Town Council resolved to offer prizes of 100 guineas and 50 guineas respectively for the best and second-best treatise on the supply of pure water to the Town. Robert Pinchin’s scheme titled “Oude van Staaden (sic)” won the second prize but it was vetoed by Messrs. Rutherford, Kirkwood and Geard with an avalanche of criticism that it was “surrounded by engineering difficulties and would be so expensive and hazardous”. The scheme proposed by Pinchin, The Pinchin Scheme, was to languish in abeyance until 1880.

Map of pre 1820 farms the in southern areas of the future Port Elizabeth

Shark River proposed

A stop-gap measure as proposed by Mr. Pinchin and by Mr. Clement Wall Frames, nephew of Mr. William Brookesby Frames, was in all likelihood met with palpable relief. In terms of this laudable proposal, they would supply water to the lower parts of the town from the Shark River. Only this area could be supplied as the water was gravity-fed. At that time, the water from the Shark River was used for a woolwashery established by Frames on the south bank.

Aerial view of Frames Reservoir on the Shark River

For this venture, known as the Shark’s River Water Supply Company, capital amounting to £10 000 was raised in subscribed shares of £100 each. In 1863 construction commenced with a masonry wall being constructed across the Shark River. This storage reservoir, with a capacity of over half a million gallons, was officially opened in January 1864 and christened the Frames Dam. During a visit to Port Elizabeth in February 1864, the Governor, Sir Philip Wodehouse, came to inspect it. The reservoir was named in honour of Clement Wall Frames, who initiated the concept, built the dam, laid the pipeline to town and leased the land and the river from his cousin, C.E. Frames. The opening ceremony was preceded by a morning hunt and a champagne breakfast. Water from the storage dam was conveyed to the town by a pipeline laid between the beach and Main Street and extended as far as North End. The pipes utilised were imported from England. In order to provide a convenient source of water, taps were fitted at regular intervals along its length.

1864 Map of Frames’ Reservoir and Sharks River


Prior to this water supply, it would not have been entirely fanciful to picture people bathing in one bucketful of water. Taking advantage of the fact that the Phoenix Hotel in Market Square was on the main line and hence had water in bucketfuls, the landlord of the hotel advertised in the Eastern Province Herald during March 1866 that fresh water baths were available using fresh water piped from the Shark River. It crowed that there was “no stinting of water; Towels and soap provided free. Charges moderate”.

Opening the valve at Frames Dam in 1863

Notwithstanding this, the scheme failed, and Clement Frames went bankrupt. As a consequence, he was compelled to return to his previous trade as a plumber and contractor. The Town Council stepped into the breach and entered into an arrangement with the new shareholders whereby they would pay the new owners of the venture, now known as the Shark’s River Works, an amount of £500 per annum for a period of ten years to continue supplying this water.

During the ensuing severe drought from 1865 to 1866, crop failures and livestock losses were experienced.  Townsfolk were also confronted with the effects of the drought, especially those residing on the Hill as they depended on water from horse drawn carts. Owing to insufficient pressure at the intake of the Frames’ Dam, the piped water could not be pumped up the hill to the residents who were obliged to use old wells in the area, or failing that, if they owned rain water tanks, to use any residual water remaining in them.

Water from the Shark’s River was sold at an exorbitant fee of three or four pence per quart or at a half crown per barrel which were occasionally filled from a horse trough instead of the appointed pumps at the wells. Furthermore it was claimed that some “rogues were even collecting water from the muddy Baaken’s River” and selling it as clear Shark’s River water.

Mouth of the Shark River with Lazaretto Contagious Diseases

Demise of Frame’s Dam

In 1894, extensions were made to the wall of the Frame’s Dam but to no avail. A far greater challenge had struck. The water from the dam was condemned as unhealthy because it contained salts of magnesia that caused diarrhoea. Even ships arriving in Algoa Bay refused to take water from this dam. Once the Sand and Bulk Rivers water schemes came into use in 1905, Frame’s Dam was abandoned as a source of water for the inhabitants of Port Elizabeth.

Frames Reservoir

Interestingly, the Great Flood of 1st September 1968 washed away the Beach Road Bridge at the mouth of the Shark’s River, yet it caused minimal damage to the Frame’s Dam, which still stands today. This piece of trivia has always puzzled me as I always assumed that the construction methods available in Port Elizabeth in the 1860s would not withstand such forces.

Beach Road over the Shark River did not survive the flood on 1st September 1968


Streams of Life: The Water Supply of Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage by David Raymer (October 2008, Express Litho Services, Port Elizabeth)

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

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