Most residents have probably heard of Sharwood’s or even filled up at one of their garages but what most would not be aware of was that Alec Sharwood was both an entrepreneur and an innovator. Prior to Sharwood introducing a fuel pump at his first garage, vehicles were laboriously refuelled by decanting petrol from a drum.
Sharwood’s was to change all of that.
Main picture: A great moment in Port Elizabeth’s motoring history as a Whippet motor car on a round-the-Union publicity drive calls at the City’s most modern filling station during the late 1920s. In the white coat, shaking hands with the driver, is Alec Sharwood.
Fuel pumps had already been invented in America prior to the production of motor cars. Regardless of the reason why the leap from using fuel pumps in refineries to utilising those self-same pumps to fill the fuel tanks of vehicles was not made, is unknown. Probably part of the reason is the human condition of partitioning facts resulting in a blinkered ability much like our grandparents’ inability to comprehend how pictures could be transmitted or man travel to the moon.
As luck would have it, Alec Sharwood was in the right place at the right time. Nonetheless, this must not detract from his entrepreneurial ability to convert a concept into an extremely successful business.
History of Fuel Dispensers
The first fuel pump was invented and sold by Sylvanus Bowser in Fort Wayne, Indiana on September 5, 1885. This pump was not used for motor vehicles, as they were not yet being produced. It was instead used for some kerosene lamps and stoves. Bowser later improved upon the pump by adding safety measures, and also by adding a hose to directly dispense fuel into automobiles. The first fuel dispenser was patented by Norwegian John J. Tokheim in 1901. Fuel retail industry giant Tokheim-OPW, was named after him.
Many early gasoline pumps had a calibrated glass cylinder on top. The desired quantity of fuel was pumped up into the cylinder as indicated by the calibration. Then the pumping was stopped and the gasoline was let out into the customer’s tank by gravity. When metering pumps came into use, a small glass globe with a turbine inside replaced the measuring cylinder, but assured the customer that gasoline really was flowing into the tank.
Even though Sharwood was born in Kimberley in 1899 during the eponymous siege, Alec already possessed a connection with the Eastern Cape as he was a direct descendant of an 1820 Settler.
Like many young men of his era, Alec was enamoured by the Great War and longed to be involved. Young Alec had already completed his schooling at Christian Brothers College in Kimberley and at 16 had signed up as an apprentice fitter and turner with De Beers. In 1917, Alec joined the Royal Flying Corps which was later to be renamed the Royal Air Force where he qualified as single-seater Scout pilot.
After the Armistice, Sharwood rejoined De Beers but a life changing event would occur in 1921. An arm injury in a motor cycle event peremptorily ended his fitting and turning career, so Alec completed his apprenticeship in De Beer’s drawing office. Not one to let some impediment stand in the way of his career, Alec offered his services gratis to a local motor garage in order to learn something about selling cars. He aroused the interest of an American who was looking for an agent for the Dort motor car. Alec was won over without much persuading. In 1923, Sharwood returned to his roots and opened the Bathurst garage in Grahamstown. This enterprise doomed to fail within one year as the Dort factory went into liquidation. As a consequence, Sharwood had once again to seek employment and for this endeavour, he headed for the bright lights of Port Elizabeth.
Sharwood recalled when his serendipitous moment occurred as follows. “I had one Dort to sell and I was down at Charlie Wardrop’s garage filling up from a four-gallon tin of petrol. I said to him ‘You must sell a lot of petrol’ and he replied, ‘Yes, but it is a pain in the neck, a necessary evil’”
This was Alec’s light bulb moment when Alec recalled what an old friend of his father had said to him at the age of 13. He impressed upon the young lad that if ever he was unemployed and then overhears somebody complain about a “necessary evil”, then he should specialise in that.
Having heard that petrol pumps had recently been introduced in the USA, and on a small scale in Johannesburg, Alec was set on what his next enterprise would be – open a filling station with petrol pumps. As luck would have it, he was aware that an American, John Edward Gray, was in town attempting to negotiate a deal for the distribution of petrol for the Atlantic Refining Company of Philadelphia. As he had been unable to entice anybody to enter into negotiations, he was prepared to provide Alec with a pump gratis as long as Alex provided the site.
Further good fortune arose when a Mr. H.O. Frielinghaus and his brother Arthur, let Sharwood have the use of a site at Baakens Bridge rent-free in order to establish the first filling station in Port Elizabeth. It was located at the junction of Baakens and North Union Streets in Uppleby’s old wool store which had been built in 1856.
Two early customers ensured the success of this venture: Gould’s Bus Service and Major Alister Millers’ Union Airways.
The original North End station at the foot of Mount Road was built in 1925. Two years later the building was demolished and a modern filling station erected. Sharwood’s entrepreneurial flair was again in evidence when Sharwood’s pioneered retreading in Port Elizabeth during 1926. Expansion continued apace with the opening of a branch filling station in 1926 at Five Ways and another in Walmer in 1930. Despite their worst fears, the company survived the depression but the period was not without its difficulties
Thereafter, with the growing fleet of vehicles on the roads, the business continually expanded. In 1940, the original Sharwood’s filling station at Baakens Bridge was demolished to be replaced with a new building designed by Eaton and Merrifield. During WW2, Sharwood served for five years with the South African Air Force, mainly in administrative and training roles.
During the period subsequent to WW2, growth again proceeded apace with 1952 witnessing the opening of another branch station at Berry’s Corner. 1954 was a tumultuous year for Sharwood’s when BP SA acquired the interests of the Atlantic Refining Company. Ten years later in 1962, the Adderley Street head office and filling station were completely rebuilt and modernised.
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging Pty Ltd, Port Elizabeth)
Port Elizabeth: From a Border Garrison Town to a Modern and Industrial City edited by Ramon Lewis Leigh (1966, Felstar Publishers, Johannesburg)