Port Elizabeth of Yore: The First Sources of Water

As David Raymer points out in his excellent book on the water supply to Port Elizabeth entitled ‘Streams of Life’, “until 1880 the greatest problem [that] the settlement of Port Elizabeth faced was the question of a dependable and adequate supply of fresh water for the residents”.

This blog covers the first attempt to address this challenge.

Main picture: One of the original wells in Port Elizabeth

Creeks, kloofs and streams
As Raymer states, “from 1820 until 1880, no house in Port Elizabeth had water on tap unless the owner could afford rainwater tanks or underground storage tanks”. This problem would persist in the garden town of Walmer until the 1970s, almost a century later. Initially during the early 1820s, water would have been drawn by residents from the many creeks, kloofs and streams within walking distance of their homes in central Port Elizabeth. As J.J. Redgrave points out in his book, one of these streams was in a kloof which when converted into a road, became White’s Road. Unlike the kloof that was converted into Russel Road, this kloof never even had an informal name, but was merely referred to as the ““kloof near the church”. This church is presumably St. Mary’s. Redgrave confirms that “Most of the water which flowed down the kloof came from a wide, open vlei which covered the present Trinder Reserve [now called Trinder Square] in Western Road and was at one time the peaceful haunt of waterfowl.”

White’s Road or the “kloof near the church” after the water course was filled in

Another source of water near-by, was the stream in what is now Donkin Street. Water could also be drawn from the Baakens River and possibly even Shark River in an emergency. But what the nascent town of Port Elizabeth required was a secure and dependable water source.

Informal Wells
What was an obvious solution was the construction of wells. Today evidence of that solution being applied by the initial settlers can be seen in a well – which is still operational – at my great great-grandfather’s house at No 7 Castle Hill. In addition documentary evidence of a well located on the western side of the Market Square during the 1820s, is available to substantiate its existence. As this was a public well, it bears testament to the civic mindedness of the community.

The well at No 7 Castle Hill

The existence of this well is recorded due to the fact that an enterprising businessman, Fortuin Weys, built a pump to pipe water from this well to the beach, thereby making it easier for sale and transport to ships.

Without question, there must have been further attempts at constructing wells, both public and private, over the succeeding fifteen years, but none are extant. The dearth of records precludes one from understanding this period generally let alone a relatively minor topic such as wells.

JO Smith’s Proposal
It goes without saying that there must have been further attempts at well construction until 1846 given the industrious and enterprising nature of the settlers. That said, the next recorded attempt at providing a water supply was on the 17th April 1846, when a Mr. John Owen Smith wrote to the Colonial Office stating that he “has just returned from England bringing with him a quantity of iron water pipes for the purpose of laying down in such a spot as may facilitate the supplies of shipping with fresh water. Furthermore he explained “that for this purpose, it will be necessary to occupy a portion of Government ground as well as to sink a well upon Government property, a vast inconvenience is our experience for want of a ready and good supply of pure water to the shipping in this port”.

Exactly what JO Smith had in mind is unknown, but his scheme must have been predicated upon the fact that by 1846, the tonnage of goods shipped through Port Elizabeth exceeded that of Cape Town. After not receiving a reply within three months, an exasperated J.O. Smith dispatched two further missives in quick succession – on the 17th July and 25th August 1846. Suitably chastened, the Colonial Office in Cape Town still only managed a dilatory response by replying on the 23rd November 1846 as follows:


I have the honour to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 25th August last, on the subject of your application of the 17th April last, requesting to be allowed to lay down water pipes near the beach of Port Elizabeth, and in reply, I am by desire of the Governor to acquaint you that the delay in replying to the application has occurred by the document having been inadvertently overlooked in the Surveyor General’s Office.

Site of the original well at the Farmers Home Hotel in Parliament Street 

I am further instructed to inform you that his Excellency would not object to allow you to put down pipes or sink a well, on sufferance, upon the clear and distinct understanding that you shall remove the pipes and deliver up the well to the Government at any time upon one month’s notice, without any claim for compensation or remuneration in any way, provided the ground to be used for that purpose be clearly pointed out previously authorised and I would suggest to you to transmit to me a plan of the land you require”. 

It is not known whether Mr Smith pursued this proposal.

Map showing well in Market Square in 1849. It was dug in 1929 with the pump being manufactured by Fortuin WEys

Attempt at well-building in 1848

Extant minutes from 1848 indicate that the authorities were pursuing various avenues to provide water from wells. The first of these minutes is dated 5th July 1848 at which the Board of Commissioners resolved “that the Town Clerk address Mr Harries with a request that he will ascertain at the Registry Office by an examination of the diagram of Mr. Parkin’s property in the High Street whether a natural waterway from the opposite kloof exists and to take the Attorney General’s opinion on the subject”. 

Furthermore, it notes that “a letter being read from Mr. Coleman on the subject of supplying the town with water: it was deferred for consideration until the next meeting.” A week later on the 12th July 1848, the Commissioners decided to meet with Mr Coleman and resolved “that the Town Clerk shall advertise for tenders for sinking a well in the centre of the town to be 5 feet in diameter – the price to include sinking and masonry at foot and the well to hold not less than 6 feet of water”. In addition, it was “to be covered with a strong oak frame and trap door. For further particulars apply to the Town Office. The place to be fenced in for safety while the work is in progress”.

On the matter of whether a natural waterway exists to Mr. Parkin’s property, on the 19th July the Commissioners resolved “That the Attorney General was of the opinion that Mr. Parkin had a right to shut out the water if he could and recommend that the Municipality should adopt the best means of carrying off the water by the nearest outlet – which advice was given without fee.” Furthermore they noted that “There being no tenders sent in for sinking a well agreeable to the advertisement, it was directed that the day for receiving tenders should be postponed for a week and that the advertisement should be repeated.

Another one of the original wells in Port Elizabeth

Progress in well-building

Yet again there was a dilatory response from the Authorities. Over three months later, on the 4th October 1848, the Commissioners resolved “That Mr Joseph Morton should make a well near to Mr. Diesel’s property – the site to be pointed out by Mr. Proudfoot. The work to be done in conformity to the former advertisement and tender sent in by Mr. Morton”. Being on a roll, the Commissioners further resolved on the 28th February 1849 “That a well be sunk in the kloof [now White’s Road] between the houses of Mr. Bird and Mr Adcock. Tenders to be advertised forthwith. The site to be pointed out by Mr. Proudfoot.  This site was at the lower end of Whites Road”.

At their second meeting for the year on Monday 15th April 1849, the Commissioners submitted the following report to a public meeting at the Commercial Hall. “The Public Wells have been constantly attended to. A large one has been sunk at the bottom of Donkin Street and although at a depth of 42 feet [12.8 metres], no permanent spring has been found, yet it answers for a tank and a very large supply of water has been obtained there. A great portion of this well has been sunk through solid rock, but as the expenditure was becoming greater, it was thought advisable to leave off at a depth of 42 feet, having 10 feet diameter at the bottom and it is walled up from the rock to the surface. The well near Mr. Diesel’s property was deepened by 9 feet more, making the present depth 26 feet. A pump has been put into this well which has been found a greater convenience and it is most desirable that one should be provided at each public well in the town for otherwise it is impossible to prevent the dipping in of dirty buckets and other nuisances as well as the waste of much water”.

The Commercial Hall in which the Rev Francis McCleland held two shares is to the left of St. Mary’s Church. This is the building that was used by the Board of Commissioners.

Augmentation schemes

In 1851, the Algoa Bay Mooring and Watering Company built a stone tank over the Baakens River from which water was piped to the Market Square in order to supplement the existing well situated there.

With the rapid growth in population, there was clearly an ongoing search for additional water sources which could be tapped. One suggestion to augment supplies of water to the town was presented at a meeting of the Commissioners on the 29th July 1852. At this meeting it was resolved that Messrs. Doiner, Pattinson, Slater and Blaine should “repair to de Duin to ascertain the level of the springs there”. Far be it for me to second guess their logic, but given the fact that the Duine were situated south of Gomery and Welbedacht farms, how would the water be conveyed to Port Elizabeth?

Another potentially inane decision by the Commissioners was that regarding Donkin Street. All the original maps of the area indicate that there was a stream within this kloof. Yet when the ravine was closed in during 1855 to make a road, it was deemed necessary that the water be piped underground to the sea. The only logical explanation for this action could be that the water was not potable or of dubious quality.

1849 map of Donkin Street showing the stream which was ultimately filled in

At the meeting of the Board of Commissioners on the 2nd January 1856, the following letter was submitted on behalf of Mr. W.N. Coleman. Coleman was clearly obsessed with the issue of water supply as this is the same Coleman who had submitted a proposal eight years previously.

Spencer F. Innes

Town Clerk


I am instructed by Mr. W.N. Coleman to inform the Municipal Commissioners through you that for some time past he has been and is engaged in opening the spring on his property in the valley and that the result so far has happily developed a very copious supply of fine water which he purports to make available to the inhabitants of Port Elizabeth. 

I am therefore instructed to apply to the Commissioners for their sanction to an Act of Incorporation to enable Mr Coleman and others to be associated for the purpose to perform certain essential acts in a corporative capacity. Amongst these would be liberty to lay down pipes through the streets belonging to the Municipality for which I am very respectfully to ask the licence of the Commissioners. 

Mr. Coleman confidently predicts that these springs will afford sufficient water to supply the present population of Port Elizabeth, but should they not prove adequate, Mr. Coleman and his friends will nevertheless make them available to their full extent and as he does not ask the exclusive privilege he ventures to claim the credit of offering the best water from the most practicable source.

(Signed) T. Wormald

The Board decided to give Mr. Coleman permission to lay pipes on the terms proposed.

Map of the Baaken’s Lagoon which was eventually filled in, creating problems for the Town

Further schemes

Twice within January 1856 proposals were submitted to the Board of Commissioners. The first, on the 9th January, was a letter from Mr. G. Chabaud who requested that the privileges extended to Mr. Coleman also be extended to the Port Elizabeth Water Company. This proposal was acceded to on the same conditions.

Later that month, on the 30th, Mr. I. Miller presented the following proposition: “ That he offered them a piece of ground in Rufane Valley, extending over the sources in that quarter, for the purposes of opening any springs [that] the Board might think fit, free of any land charge to them and if springs of sufficient strength were discovered by digging, he would dispose of the said land to the Board at its original cost with interest  from the date of sale, or in other words, without any profit to himself.”

Appeal to Colonial Secretary

No information is available whether these two schemes bore fruit but based upon this appeal to the Colonial Secretary on the 29th January 1859 by the Town Clerk, Mr Thomas Wormald, the paucity of water was still a major concern and had to be addressed.


The inhabitants of Port Elizabeth are extremely anxious to adopt effective measures for obtaining a permanent supply of water for the town. A variety of sources have been suggested ranging 10 to 15 miles distant – from the Van Stadens River, the Zwartkops in the vicinity of Uitenhage and two other places nearer home.  

The difficulty has hitherto been to determine from which of these localities a good and sufficient supply could be obtained, within the compass of the community. The difficulties appear to be of an engineering character and there [have been attempted to] arrange any man unconnected with the government, to whom the matter might prudently be referred. I am therefore requested by those to whom I belong, to carry out the desire of the inhabitants to request his Excellency, the Governor, to permit the Assistant Civil Engineer Woodifield to make a survey and report thereon. 

The Government will therefore confer a great obligation on the Town, and I am permitted to add that Woodifield will cheerfully carry out any instructions [that] his Excellency may be pleased to sanction.

No record can be found regarding whether Matthew Woodifield investigated any water scheme during his short stay in Port Elizabeth. One of the prerequisites for the adoption of any of these water schemes was that pumping was not permitted. Other considerations such as water quality, seasonality and the requirement to supply maritime vessels also had to be taken into account.

Troops at the Commissariat Buildings where a well was situated

More wells dug

With no resolution of the water supply issue, on 10th June 1857 there was a call for tenders for the following five wells:

  • Opposite the Commissariat Buildings in Union Street
  • Opposite Mr Proudfoot’s in Queen Street
  • On the Hill near Bird Street
  • Opposite Mr John Geard’s
  • Opposite Mr Sparrow’s

In addition, the well in Constitution Hill would be deepened.

Work commenced on these wells with Messrs. Smith and Kemsley reporting in November of that year that they had selected a site opposite the Commissariat Building in Union Street. On this basis, they were authorised to purchase a pump and ancillary equipment. On 18th June 1859, it was resolved that the water from the Commissariat well would be pumped into the Union Street well. How the businesses and families transported the water from the well to their premises is unknown, but it is entirely possible that their servants and employees did the hard graft.

With the continual influx of immigrants, Port Elizabeth was swiftly expanding. This expansion was problematic but that encroaching on the Hill, as it was known, was especially so. It was probably no consolation to the inhabitants on the Hill that there was a supply readily available in the form of Trinder Vlei. As it was used as a watering point for animals and as a washing place for the black residents of Stranger’s Location in Russel Road, it was unsuitable for drinking purposes. Exacerbating the water supply problem of the Hill, was the covering up of the well in Western Road in August 1859.

North End was also experiencing water issues. In March 1859, Mr. McGrath complained to the Board that the pleas for assistance on this issue had not been addressed. A month later it was reported that the well on the north- west side of the prison had been deepened to seven feet.

Surrboats and ships at anchor in the Bay

Wells in 1860

In February 1860, orders were issued for wells to be sunk in Jetty Street and at the corner of Damant Street. Good progress was made with the construction of the well in Jetty Street with a strong spring of good water being struck. A large rock in the way meant moving the opening further up Jetty Street. During 1860, a further 3 wells were sunk in Town – in Grace Street, Britannia Street and Alice Street.

Port Elizabeth must have experienced a drought during 1860 because from the 26th September 1860, all Municipal wells were closed daily from 9am to 4pm.

By this time, the standard for well construction was as follows:

  • Diameter: 5 feet
  • Depth: 6 feet of water
  • Lining: Masonry
  • Protection against contamination: Covered with frames – usually oak, teak or yellowwood

The use of water from wells would never be a viable long-term solution especially as the town continued to expand.

Another solution needed to be sought.


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)


In 1854, the Kloof in Donkin Street was filled in. A poem was written by a William Selwyn, a resident, entitled “The lament of the Donkin Street streamlet, on being entombed by an Unpoetical Municipality.”

O list good folks a tale of woe

A tale of dark oppression;

Let briny tears your cheeks down flow

In sorrowful procession.

Till late I trickled down the glen

In sunbeams gaily sparkling;

But now entombed by heartless men

I creep on cold and darkling.

Beneath a huge chaotic mass

Of rubbish vile I mutter;

‘Mid frogs and fungi rank alas

A melancholy gutter.

The rustic bridge that bound my banks

In brotherhood together

Is torn away and its rude planks

Are gone, the “Board” knows wither.

Away! A dire revenge I’ll brew

My rage meanwhile I’ll bung tight

That sordid Board the day shall rue

When next I see the sunlight.

When turgid torrents rushing past

Adown my peeping square holes

Right through this execrable mess

I mad-man like will tear holes

I’ll heave aloft this lumb’ring load

And crashing down I’ll toss it

Till in the middle of the road

A mountain I deposit

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