Lost Artefacts of Port Elizabeth: Swartkops Mineral Spa

Today taking a cure at a mineral spa is definitely out of vogue. However in the past, the belief in the curative properties of the various minerals was widely extolled. Even Erwin Rommel, at the height of WW2, spent time at a spa. Perhaps it was the relaxation that was the cure and not the minerals. Nevertheless, the supposed healing properties were invoked by all and sundry.  

Even Port Elizabethians adopted this cure, now a distant memory 

Main picture:  Swartkops Mineral Baths after the developments in 1936 

Like many other discoveries, the fact that the banks of the Swartkops River harboured a mineral spring was unknown but what was suspected due to vague rumours abounding was that the area possessed oil. To prove the veracity of this claim, Port Elizabeth witnessed a South African first; the first borehole sunk in search of oil.

Chalybeade Spring at Swartkops

A certain Mr. Adam Guthrie was appointed to investigate the claims. The initial plan in 1908 was to drill to a depth of 3900 feet but at 3348 feet, the initial plan was aborted. A hot spring was struck. A flow rate of 150 gallons per minute was measured and the temperature was 54.4 degrees Celsius. With a pressure of 100lbs per square inch, it was so strong that drilling could not proceed. As they surmised that the spring could be of some value, the drilling for oil was ceased. Under pressure, this water rose to several feet above the surface and a quarter of million gallons of water continued to flow until it was capped by the Department of Water Affairs in 1969.

Upon analysis, it was found that the spring water was saturated with healthy minerals. In order to take advantage of this fortuitous discovery, a Company purchased this piece of land that it was already leasing in February 1910 and planned to exploit it. To cater for visitors, two bath houses were built and a further cottage in 1915. In addition aerated mineral water was bottled for sale in Port Elizabeth. As the Company was unable to raise sufficient money to build a proper sanitorium, the shareholders chose to liquidate the company at the end of 1916. As the motor car had not yet become ubiquitous, one wonders what market this spa would attract. Presumably most customers would have to travel my train to New Brighton.

Swartkops Mineral Baths-original buildings
Original buildings of the Swartkops Mineral Baths

To capitalise on this spring, the Algoa Mining Company built a fully equipped spa and sanatorium containing 40 bedrooms, 16 bathrooms, a dining room, a drawing room, a billiard room and a cinema. At an unknown date, the spa was purchased by the Pearson family of Port Elizabeth. In September 1922 they advertised a new double-storeyed hotel with a broad verandah and balcony.

In 1936 a magnificent new spa was built. The equivalent of a five-star hotel, it included a magnificent piece of architecture named Spring Hall. A fountain set in green Swedish marble was built over the spring head and water poured out through metal jets into a pool below.

After the Second World War, the Swartkops spa went out of vogue. Antibiotics had been invented and people lost belief in natural cures.

Algorax Factory which produces carbon black
The Algorax Factory, which produces carbon black, became an unwelcome neghbour

In 1960, the Phillips Carbon Black factory – now called Algorex – was built in the vicinity of the spa. This was not conducive to the use of the facility. This was akin to a shot across the bows. Reading the lie of the land, the Pearson family sold the spa to industrial developers four years later. In 1969, the Department of Water Affairs sealed the borehole with an enormous concrete plug. To add insult to injury, the waste water treatment plant was built on one side of the spa in 1975 and the Railway’s Electric and Diesel Depot was constructed on the other side.

34-013 in Spoornet maroon livery at Swartkops Loco Depot, Port Elizabeth, 20 April 2013
34-013 in Spoornet maroon livery at Swartkops Loco Depot, Port Elizabeth, 20 April 2013

During the 1960s & 70s, I can recall a huge stockpile of timber from motor vehicle cases. Nothing ever seemed to happen to this timber but steadily accumulate. One day it vanished in a blaze. What happened and why, one will never know. Nonetheless, theories abounded.

In 1984, this spa building, which was then still being used by a “timber merchant”, was demolished and the spring capped.

The marketing page
 It reads as follows:  One is naturally and wisely guided by the opinion of experts and the voice of experience when choosing the Spa at which one will “take the cure”. In “Town and Country News” (London), Arnold Richards describes Zwartkops Baths as “One of the most effective mineral baths in the world.” Other experts have confirmed this view. These remarkable Radioactive Chalybeate* waters contain in ideal proportion … medicinal properties which world-famous Continental spas lack and have to add artificially.

Zwartkops Mineral Baths pamphlet

Amazing cures have been affected in cases of rheumatism, sciatica, lumbago, gout, insomnia, nervous complaints, painful afflictions of the muscle and joint, strains, sprains, indigestion, also intestinal, liver and kidney disorders, obesity, anaemia, general debility etc. Thousands from all parts of Southern Africa, including long-suffering invalids have regained health through drinking of and bathing in these wonderful waters. Special medical and other treatments are available at the Sanatorium.

“Zwartkops” has other great claims to the patronage of health-seeker – it is the only Coastal Spa in the Union … it is unique in South Africa in that the Spring, Baths and Hotel are all in one building (a wonderful convenience to guests) … it has the distinction of being the hottest Chalybeate Spring in the world: 130 °F. (Pure cooled Mineral Water is used to reduce the temperature as desired) … it enjoys the equable climate with which Port Elizabeth is blessed. All these and breezes from the warm Indian Ocean, conspire together to pleasantly and quickly restore vitality and health.

Zwartkops Mineral Baths Sanatorium. PE Queen of Holiday Resorts_Poster

The modern hotel accommodation is all that could be desired … well-balanced menus include the famous Nelson Pearson health food products … the sea, river and beach are near … long wide sundecks invite one to relax and enjoy the freshness and beauty of it all.

Single and Double Rooms, also Suites with private batch and toilet at varying terms … hot and cold mineral water installation in every room … radio … 25 private baths … guests have easy access to Port Elizabeth‘s cinemas and shops. Visitors by rail should book to Zwartkops Junction (car meets guests by arrangement). Proprietor: Nelson Pearson, Box 3006, Port Elizabeth (Phone 007 Zwartkops or 2642 Port Elizabeth).

Image Captions:

Drinking Fountain in Spring Hall over actual Spring-head. the Hot Mineral Waters are brought up 3,260 feet in steel pipes. Thus they do not come into contact with the atmosphere and there is no loss of temperature, nor of medicinal properties and beneficial gases. No other spring in the world, it is believed, has this peculiar advantage. These Chalybeate waters are quite palatable and are most beneficial to the blood, stomach, intestines, etc., and greatly aid the digestion.

The sheltered warm swimming pool with sun-bathing lawns. Floodlight at night. Filled by ever-flowing, health-giving mineral spring water at body temperature.

Chalybeate waters – also known as ferruginous waters, are mineral spring waters containing salts of iron.

A second opinion
In the E.P. Herald dated 19 May 1997, an article entitled Font of Pleasures Past, Eugene Olivier light heartedly reviews the “Zwartkops Pleasure Dome” known formally as the Zwartkops Spa and casts it in an negative light: “The changing rooms were about as attractive as those as at Humewood Beach which were nothing to write home about. No doubt you could hire costumes if you were prepared to be laughed at like granddad. If my memory serves me correctly, there was a fountain of bubbling hot water inside and glasses available. I think they were made of plastic and chained somehow. The water looked as if the entire Parks first rugby team had bathed in it. Some of us had other weird opinions as to the origin of this so-called “miraculous fountain of perpetual youth”. One sip was enough to convince you that your worst suspicions were true. The smell was equally offputting, reminding you of a chemistry teacher’s experiment that went wrong.

After an hour or so, due to the high iron content, you notice a red stain appearing on your arms and eyebrows. Your five-o’clock shadow gradually became a nine-o’clock rust mark, and you observed the blonde you had brought with you slowly turning into a redhead.”

Lost Health Resort  by Khitab (June 1973, Looking Back, Vol X111, No 2)
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)
Zwartkops Mineral Spain by Allister Mowbray (Looking Back Volume 35, September 1996)
Font of Pleasures Past by Eugene Olivier (E.P. Herald, 19 May, 1997)

4.7/5 - (7 votes)

1 Comment

  1. This was the most awesome building and what a terrible loss to our City of a world class tourist attraction

    Very very sad

  2. Once again thank you for the enlightening and interesting story. I just love taking the Waters, anywhere in the world where there are mineral springs I can be found. Swartkops Spa were starting to deteriorate when I was a little girl; I remember my parents saying what a shame it was going to ‘rack and ruin’. I recently heard over the radio that the sea has many beneficial minerals which take away takes aches and pains. In January I had aching legs, five wonderful swims in the sea and the aches have never returned.

  3. I remember as a young boy walking from the village of Swartkops to the spa and bathing in the mineral bath. The hotel was closed by then but we managed to get in to the baths.

  4. Good day. Where exactly was the building situated? I am aware that it was somehwere along Grahmstown Rd, but not sure where exactly.

    kind regards, Scott.


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