Port Elizabeth of Yore: Outspans and Road Inns on the Inter-Town Roads of later 1800s

Like modern day motorists, the waggoners of yore also required a place to rest, eat and refresh themselves except that their “facilities” were vastly more primitive than today’s Ultra City. 

What facilities, if any,  were provided and where were the outspans and road inns situated?

Main picture:  Outspan House built by JJ Berry in 1862 as an Inn for travellers. It was situated about a mile from the Rawson Bridge, halfway between Zwartkops and Deal Party Estate


Market days in Port Elizabeth

Until the advent of railways in the 1870s, the chief means of transport was the rugged Cape Dutch designed ox-wagon. On market days, the area encompassing the Market Square, Main Street through to Russell Road, and its side streets, would be cramped with a few hundred of these contraptions. Today we view drawings and photographs of this spectacle through our nostalgia tinted glasses. Instead we should put on our reality spectacles. Within this confined space, there could be up to a thousand oxen – if Redgrave’s number of wagons is correct – all of which had never received any toilet training. Moreover, the wagon drivers and owners would have been blissfully unaware of the stench generated by the oxen as they too were in desperate need of being “refreshed” after having slept under their wagons for several days, depending where their farm was located. What about the ablution facilities? There is no question that the owners would take advantage of the various hotels, such the Central, and other inns and drinking holes along Main Street, where they could down a Cape Brandy or five. But just as important were the needs of the wagon drivers. Where could they quench their thirst and perform other bodily functions? Perhaps in the sleazy hell holes in Strand Street?

Market Square on Market Day

Apart from farmers bringing their produce to market, there were also the “carriers,” those wagons used mainly to transport general merchandise from the ships to the chief frontier town, Grahamstown. Full loads varied between 6,000 and 8,000 lbs. For this they charged 2s 6d per 100lb to Graham’s Town and 15s to Bloemfontein. For other destinations, the rate was prorated. In reality, this was a pittance as the 160 km trip to Graham’s Town took two weeks. On their return journey, these wagons would be loaded with wool, skins and other goods destined for the vessels at anchor in Algoa Bay.

Need for outspans

To meet the needs of these carriers and other travellers, the government set aside rest places, known as Outspans, along the major inter-town routes, where pasturage and water was available, without the travellers having to trespass on private property. Here, at the end of a slow, jolting ride, the wagons would park, and the oxen outspanned to graze peacefully after a hard day’s work. With no facilities available for travellers, they would use the surrounding bushes as ablution facilities, then search for kindling and dry branches to start a fire, make coffee and then finally cook a meal. The sleeping quarters was a patch of sand underneath the wagon where a sheep skin would serve the dual purpose as a mattress and as a blanket. This facility was akin to a modern-day truck stop but without the amenities of any kind.

In 1860, this was about to change but not drastically. The Government had recognised the importance of these facilities and sought a body on which to confer that responsibility. For this purpose, they designated the Divisional Councils for their maintenance. In practice, their role as regards outspans related more to the opening of new ones as new roads were created, or closing ones where they were either disused or had been overused. In such cases, the outspans would revert to the Government Crown Lands whereas farmers wanting an outspan opened on their property, could apply directly to the Divisional Council.

At the commencement of this regulation, there were three existing outspans within the division of Port Elizabeth. There was one situated on the site of the Greenbushes Hotel on Cape Road but there was a smaller one at Hunter’s Retreat. The most used outspan with the most traffic was the outspan on the Fishwater Flats at Zwartkops. Being nine miles outside Port Elizabeth, it was a day’s drive from the centre of town and hence it was conveniently situated.

An outspan

Along Uitenhage Road, there were two outspans, both located on land belonging to the Mission Station at Bethelsdorp at which the Rev Thomas Merrington was in charge. He was the son-in-law of the Rev. J. Kitchingman senior, who succeeded Dr Vanderkemp as head of the Mission in 1811. It was during Kitchingman’s ministry that it was decided to found another Mission Station on the banks of the Gamtoos River. To fund the purchase of the farm on which Hankey now stands, an amount of £525 was raised from the inhabitants of Bethelsdorp. This was a vast sum in those days and one wonders how it was possible to raise such a sum from the indigent inhabitants.

Just to indicate the extent of the property owned by the Bethelsdorp Institution, in a letter dated 16th July 1866 by Rev Merrington, it states their property was contiguous to the following properties:

  • Cradock Place of Mr JC Chase
  • Baaken’s River Farm or Haartebeesfontein of Mr George Parkin
  • Chatty of Mr Scheuble
  • Cuylerville and Jagtvlakte of Mrs Armstrong
  • Perseverance, Schuins Draai and Fishwater Flats by Mr Hitzeroth

Controversy surrounding Bethelsdorp’s outspan

Of these three outspans, it was the two on the Bethelsdorp Missionary lands which created the most controversy and generated the most complaints. So much so, that 81 interested parties drew up a petition which was presented to the Divisional Council on the 19th May 1866.

An ox wagon outspanned for the night painted by Thomas Baines

This read as follows:



We, the undersigned landed proprietors, carriers, and others beg to represent to you the serious inconvenience experienced by us, as well as by all travellers in consequence of their being no proper outspan between Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage. 

We believe there is no road in the Colony on which there is greater traffic than on this road, and still the traveller is dependent on the tender mercies of the Missionary Institution of Bethelsdorp for an outspan. 

Very lately this Institution marked out two spots as outspans, one about six miles from Port Elizabeth and the other about eight miles from Uitenhage. But the extent defined at each is so limited that it becomes utterly worthless as a rest for cattle. Besides which, this extent is so watched over by sentries at night and day that no sooner does an animal pass over the line or supposed line than it is taken off to the Pound, unless some exorbitant rate be paid for the supposed trespass. To keep any animals on these narrow pieces of land is only possible by strict guarding to prevent their straying or tying them to the wagons.

The evil we complain of is not imaginary, but of such a nature as requires the careful consideration of the Divisional Council. And we would beg that you will take steps to secure a proper and convenient spot of sufficient size for an outspan on the road referred to, and if necessary, represent to the Legislative (sic) the necessity of making provision for the same by such means as may be deemed advisable.

Signed: J, Deetlefs, TJ Fleetwood, D Ramsden, W Roberts, GF Grewarm, CJ Vermaak, JS Reed, Own and 73 others.

Description of Bethelsdorp

In 1860, an eye witness described Bethelsdorp as follows:

Bethelsdorp, referred to as the Institution, occupies a very large extent of ground by far too large considering its present state: few people, little stock and fast decaying village – some 6,718 morgen!”

Betheledorp-Alms houses build back in 1822 by British settlers, at Van Der Kemps Kloof. This buildling is maintained by the UCC church which is also is build by setlers back in 1803

Several years later, the London Missionary Society decided to partition the land and allot it to the younger members of the community and gave them title to the land. This proved the ruin of Bethelsdorp as a Mission Station, for instead of working together as a community, they launched out as small farmers, first mortgaging their allotments for the purchase of oxen and this not being able to repay the loans, brought ruin on themselves and on the station.

The outspans provided for the convenience and comfort of the ox-wagon traffic along the highways, but there were no inns or ‘houses of accommodation’ for road travellers who undertook on horseback, or by cart, long and perilous journeys. To remedy this, the Government issued a Notice dated 3rd November 1859 stating that “As it is desirable to encourage the erection and maintenance of well conducted houses of accommodation for the use of Travellers upon many frequented lines of roads in this Colony, in localities where no land is available as a site except the public outspan, it is hereby notified that the Government will be prepared to entertain applications from individuals for the grant of a lease of a plot of land upon outspans in suitable places for the purpose of erecting thereupon such houses of accommodation as aforesaid, and to consider proposals from Divisional Councils for inviting applications for such leases in any particular places…………………..”

A River Crossing by an Ox Wagon

Conditions attached to constructing an Inn

A myriad of conditions had to be complied with before the Divisional Council would allow an Applicant to set up a Road Inn. First the Council had to select the land on which it would be built and then it had to certify that the applicant was “a fit and proper person to become an innkeeper.”

In turn the applicant:

  • Had to submit detailed plans
  • Had to plan to include a fenced-off dam
  • Had to guarantee a constant and plentiful supply of water
  • Had to personally only keep 25 cattle, 5 horses and 100 sheep
  • Was prohibited from keeping goats, swine and poultry
  • Was responsible for protecting the outspan
  • Was required to warn any trespassers on the pasturage
  • Was granted a 33-year lease on one morgen
  • Had to pay a rental 20s per annum
  • Had to hand buildings back to the Government on the expiration of the lease,

In return for meeting all these requirements, the innkeeper was entitled to charge 6d per span of oxen or horses using the water.

Mr Richard John Berry to the fore

Richard J Berry’s father, John James Berry, was born in Norfolk, England circa 1775. Some time before 1802, he arrived in Algoa Bay and married Clara Hermina Botha, sister of JT Botha of Buffelsfontein. Their son Matthew [baptised Matthys Jacobus] must have been born in late 1814 or 1815 as he was baptised in 1815 in George. The occupation of John James Berry was that of farmer. Fortune struck the Berry family when in 1818, John James Berry was granted Baakens River Farm.

The numerous members of the Berry family were well-known in the early days of Port Elizabeth. His sons, Richard John and Matthew, were both personalities in the town in their own right. In 1826, the farm passed to 1820 Settler, John Parkin and today includes the suburbs of Newton Park, Sunridge Park, Fernglen and Fairview.

John James Berry was to die on 29th October 1859 at the age of 84 without ever seeing what his enterprising sons managed to achieve in their lifetimes.

It was the enterprising Mr Richard John Berry who was first off the mark with a proposal for an Outspan. On the 6th July 1861 he submitted his application for a 33-year lease “on a piece of land forming part of the public outspan situated between the Deal Party farm, Fishwater Flats and the sea i.e. on the main road from this town to the Rawson Bridge at Zwartkops, for the erection of an inn or a hotel.” Enclosed in his letter was a plan of the proposed Inn which was to be of all brick construction under a slate roof, with stone foundations. It contained six bedrooms, a dining room, lounge, kitchen and stables at the rear for six horses. The buildings were to be completed within twelve months and one of the dams would be ready within one month of execution of the contract.

Meanwhile his brother, Matthew Berry, who had in the also been involved in deals with the Divisional Council, purchased the Deal Party farm, renaming it later to Beaconsfield Manor on which he erected the Beaconsfield Hotel. Beaconsfield at the time in the UK was a popular name in Victorian times after Benjamin Disraeli’s popularity. The Hotel he purchased was the old Zwartkops Retreat built/owned by Zepha Bowerman – wife of William – who had previously owned the Rawson’s Hotel in Zwartkops situated at the bridge. The Zwartkops Retreat was built opposite the old railway station.

The other notable Inn along these main arterial roads was the Jim Crow situated along the Uitenhage Road close to Cradock Drift. Along Cape Road, an Inn was established on the site of the present Greenbushes Hotel. In both cases, no details are available.

The Berry’s Demise

Change came to these Inns with the advent of the railways as public outspans became an anachronism at the turn of the century. Mr Matthew Berry then took over the Seaview farm, and after a torrid court case with the Divisional Council, he lost. Shortly thereafter, on 12th September 1884, he died.

Subsequently, the Council took possession of the old Inn, refurbished it and leased it to the Cape Mounted Police. When the police were subsequently relocated to their own quarters in Zwartkops, Mr. Hence was put in charge of the empty building. Thereafter it appears to have been sold to Nelson Pearson who used it as grazing for his slaughter cattle. Finally in the mid-1950s, the building was demolished and a part of Zwartkops’ history was destroyed with it.


A Century of Progress. The Story of the Divisional Council of Port Elizabeth. 1856 – 1956 by J.J. Redgrave M.A. (1956, Nasionale Koerante Beperk, Port Elizabeth)

Leave a Comment.