Port Elizabeth of Yore: Swimming Practices and Locations

Swimming in the 19th century must be understood against the backdrop of the conservative mores of that era. This resulted in a flurry of rules to prevent men and women swimming together. By the end of the century, attitudes towards “mixed swimming” were more relaxed.

This blog chronicles the saga of sea swimming in Port Elizabeth from its first attempt at the breakwater in 1866, the construction of the first swimming pool in Port Elizabeth and finally to swimming at Humewood.

Main picture: Swimming facilities just north of the mouth of the Baakens River

Swimming at the Breakwater in 1866

When building the breakwater in February 1866, Mr A.G. Warren created a bathing place beneath the “staging” but this proved to be only suitable for men.

Per Appendix 7 of the thesis of Mr Jon Inggs, of Gubb and Inggs fame, the issues raised were as follows:

At the beginning of 1866, the Harbour Board provided a swimming place for men beneath the shield. A stage was built in one of the bays formed between the sets of piles and the sea-wall. Altogether it is a capital place for bathing, at least for those who can swim. You leap from the steps into twenty feet of perfectly still salt water, and can enjoy the luxury and benefit of a salt water bath, without any of the désagréables that attend the practice of bathing on the open beach.

Breakwater viewed from Fort Frederick
Breakwater viewed from Fort Frederick. Note that the Baakens River mouth at that stage was a lagoon like many other Eastern Cape Rivers. In 1856, the surplus rock from the construction of White’s Road was dumped into this lagoon eventually resulting in a narrow channel as we know it today.

The crowds that frequent the spot early in the morning and in the dusk of the evening testify how much the convenience is appreciated. It was hoped that a similar facility would be shortly built for Women. Here is a seaport without the possibility of a lady enjoying the luxury of sea-bathing, except by trudging two or three miles along the beach, and then the open beach must be used.  Were something of this kind made, we feel satisfied that it would be a great inducement for country residents to visit the town during the summer season.

 In the interim a strong protest was made “on behalf of all who have any feelings of decency,” against the misuse of the men’s facility. During the day “when there were many ladies on the breakwater, two men went in and disported themselves in sight of all, within the shield… I trust that immediate measures will be taken by the proper authorities”. It was generally felt that swimming should be restricted to before 8 am or after sunset which “would afford ample time to all, without depriving ladies of the pleasure of a walk on the breakwater”. 

The breakwater circa 1866 from the Donkin Reserve
Above: The breakwater circa 1866 from the Donkin Reserve. Also note the huge sand dunes where Humewood is located

Soon there was trouble of another kind. BATHERS near the Breakwater must look out for sharks. There was a fine specimen of the genus disporting itself within the shield yesterday. One or two shots were fired at it, but without effect.

By June 1866, a married couple were appointed to manage the breakwater baths, the wife being employed to attend the lady bathers. A facility had been built for them adjacent to the men’s. But while “the ladies from ‘early morn till dewy eve,’ disport themselves in the placid waters without danger”, the men could only swim before 7am or after dusk.

Sea-bathing machines

In January 1862 and September 1877, enterprising people provided sea-bathing machines on the beach near the breakwater. The success or otherwise of this “machine” cannot be ascertained.

Bathing House at the mouth of the Baakens River

Bathing Pavilion

On 21st October 1880, the Sea Bathing Association announced the opening of a Bathing House. This was built on Harbour Board property at the mouth of the Baakens River. It was constructed on piles and leased from the Municipality. Fresh water was laid on and bathing costumes could be hired.

Bathing House at the mouth of the Baakens River in 1894

Gentlemen were permitted to bathe from daylight till 9 am and from 5:30 pm till dark. Ladies bathed in between. Season tickets and single use tickets could be purchased.

A Tragic 1886             

1886 would bear witness to swimming tragedies, the first arising on 28th January 1886 when the first recorded shark attack in Port Elizabeth occurred off the South Jetty. While William Rodwell was having an early morning swim, a shark appeared. Onlookers alerted him and he swam for the steps alongside the jetty. Helpers were waiting, but before he was clear of the water the shark bit off a leg below the knee. Rodwell was given help as quickly as possible and survived.

Later that same year, long after the shock of this incident had receded from the forefront of the residents’ memories, another tragic incident occurred but of far greater magnitude. In this case it involved eight Collegiate pupils who were swimming off the Bathing House close to the mouth of the Baakens River. On the 2nd October 1886, a strong current swept eight girls beyond their depth and though six were rescued, only four recovered. For their heroic efforts, Alexander Kemp, Louis Tonks and Alexander Ferguson were all presented with medals by the Town Council for going to these girls’ rescue.

Salt water swimming pool

By the end of the 19th century such prudishness must have largely been extirpated within the white community even though there was probably some unofficial Apartheid between the various races in Port Elizabeth.

First swimming pool in PE was on the Esplanade on the harbour

The earliest attempt at forming an official swimming club was at a meeting held at the Algoa Hotel on the 8th March 1898. The proposed objectives of this club were to teach swimming and life saving, to promote swimming by organising competitions and to promote water polo.

Transnet Heritage Society April-1901 showing the swimming pool in the harbour
Above: The sea-water swimming bath, off Fleming Street.

A General Meeting was held on the 22nd March and over 80 members were enrolled. The first President was the Mayor, James Wynn, with Vice-Presidents being T.A. Brewster, Dr A.C. Jackson and Captain B.J. Snow. On the 15th April, the Committee of the P.E. Amateur Swimming Club chose a Maltese Cross with a life buoy in the centre, as its badge.

These relaxed mores probably allowed the construction of the first swimming pool in Port Elizabeth. On the 2nd July 1898, the Mayor, Alexander Fettes, opened the new sea water swimming bath on the reclaimed land south of the Customs House. This opening was commemorated by holding an “Aquatic Carnival”. The land was donated by the Harbour Board while the Council spent £4000 on its construction.

Sea water swimming pool off Fleming Street#02

G.W. Smith designed the bath reported to be one of the largest sea water baths in the world at that time. It held 12,000 tons of water, the concrete walls were 4 feet thick and its dimensions were 150 x 50 feet. An electric motor pumped water from the end of the North Jetty and a valve controlled the flow back to the sea.

The bath was demolished between May and June 1930.

Swimming hazards

Apart from the risk posed of drowning due to treacherous rip currents especially on the southern coasts, there was a miniscule risk of being attacked by sea creatures. The first such recorded attack happened on the 18th January 1886 when the first recorded shark attack occurred off the South Jetty. While William Rodwell was having an early morning swim, a shark appeared. Onlookers alerted him and he swam for the steps alongside the jetty. Helpers were waiting, but before he was clear of the water the shark bit off a leg below the knee. Rodwell was given help as quickly as possible and survived.

Bathing at Humewood

1893 saw the initial opening of the Humewood area for swimming or for housing. On the 30th May 1893, the Harbour Board sold 20 “marine villa sites” on the south beach between the original Happy Valley and the Klein Sak Rivier – the Shark River at Happy Valley. The area was named Humewood after the Chairman of the Harbour Board, William Hume.

Humewood Beach in the early 1900s
Humewood Beach in the late 1890s

Already the Government had laid a railway line past it for use in the dune reclamation project. By the 20th December 1893, a passenger train service was commenced. Furthermore a direct road to the property was in the process of being constructed. Instead of having to use a circuitous inland route via  the future Forest Hill, one would be able to commute directly along the coast.

The narrow gauge railway line over the puny Shark River which was the original water source for Port Elizabeth until the Van Staden's Dam was constructed
The railway line over the puny Shark River which was the original water source for Port Elizabeth until the Van Staden’s Dam was constructed

With the opening of the electric tramway extension on 21st January 1902, the passenger train  service was terminated on 23rd October of that year. A tram ran every half an hour at a cost of 3 pence per trip.

Tram at Humewood Station
Tram at Humewood Station

In order to prevent the repeated movement of the waves from removing parts of the land, groynes or low walls, were built out from the coast into the sea. Also in time for the 1907/8 summer season, ropes were hung to demarcate the bathing area and a bandstand was erected north of the mouth of the Shark River.

15977769_10154287780818977_772441360026821621_n (3)

LThis was an historical moment in that even the photos state that “mixed bathing” was allowed. This must have been prior to 1913 as the Bathing House had not yet been built

Prior to 1913, Humewood did not possess an elegant cafe as the one operated by Robert Cells did not meet that standard. April 12th witnessed the opening of the Octagon Cafe. It had been designed by A.S. Butterworth and was owned by the Municipality. The concrete went down to bed-rock. The forty foot diameter cafe could seat 400 people and consisted almost entirely of leaded light glazing.

The structure of the Octagon was neither durable or easy to maintain. By 1941 it was deemed to be “an eye-sore“. Consequently in 1942, it was demolished.

Octagon Cafe on Humewood beach
Octagon Cafe on Humewood beach

1913 also witnessed the commencement of construction of the Bathing House on the southern bank of the Shark River and the demolition of the existing ladies’ bathing house. On the 4th July 1913, the foundation stone of the building was laid by the Mayoress Mrs. A. W. Guthrie and on 6th December it was opened by the Mayor, presumably a Mr. Guthrie. The building was designed by A.S. Butterworth and built by Kohler and Sons. It had a concrete foundation based on rock. Whereas the foundations were indestructible, the structure was not. After damage sustained by a raging Shark River after the 1968 floods, it had to be demolished.

Beach clothing

From photograhs of beach-goers, it is evident that the during the first decades of the 20th century the accepted dress code was a suit, tie, jacket and hat. It was only in the 1920s or 30s that suits became passe. No flesh was exposed as even sunbathing in swimming costumes was frowned upon. Costumes were not a fashion statement and were described as follows: “Nobody owned their own costumes but you hired them from the Bathing House for the day. Those costumes, mostly dark green or maroon with a bright yellow stripe across the waist, were very long. The thick knitted woollen ones just scooped up the sand when swimming. They looked terrible on the men. The lifesavers also wore them.

Humewood in 1913

The following is an extract from an article in the magazine “The African City” about a holiday experience in Port Elizabeth and Humewood in particular.

Having arrived at Port Elizabeth, we take a car from the Market Square to the popular suburb of Humewood, passing en route, some of the busy thoroughfares at the South End of the town, and as we move quickly away from the noisy streets, we can admire the pretty little villas with their nicely laid out gardens. In a few minutes we find ourselves at Humewood where mixed bathing is in full swing. Comfortable deck chairs with hooded tops can be hired for a few pence, and we take our places amongst the crowd on the sand, settling ourselves comfortably to watch the bathers.

Sand castle competition
Sand castle competition

After having refreshed ourselves at one of the cafes, we visit the children’s playground, with its merry-go-rounds and side-shows, sand-modelling competitions and sports sports, and above all its bathing and paddling pools which are crowded with little ones enjoying themselves hugely.

A little further on, we find picnic parties making merry under the shady trees of the Humewood Valley, and then we come to the Fisheries, where we are just in time to see the fishing boats arriving with their spoils. Further along the beach is the Point, a favourite resort for the sea angler”

Humewood bathing house built in 1913
Humewood bathing house built in 1913

In 1919, the Ratepayers approved the borrowing of £150,000 to build a tidal pool, an hotel and make assorted improvements. This is unlikely to have been the tidal pool at the MacArthur Baths as they were only constructed  c1950.  It is possible that the tidal pool referred to was the joining of the groynes with a transverse seawall.

The Band Stand
The Band Stand

As Humewood beach was only accessible to the ordinary folk from 1893, I have presumed that there was mixed bathing ab initio but nowhere am I able to verify this fact.


Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging Pty Ltd, Port Elizabeth)

Thesis of Jon Inggs, “Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth Harbour Development 1820-70“, MA thesis, Rhodes University, 1986


Leave a Comment.