The Authorities always have to find a source of revenues to cover the costs of the maintenance of the roads. In the case of vehicles and animals using them, they always have a ready solution: charging a service fee in the form of a toll. In Port Elizabeth, the first toll was installed within four years of Port Elizabeth being established. It was located in Queen Street, just beyond the future Russell Road and commenced operation in August 1824.
Main picture: The old Toll house at the Sunday’s River Bridge on the Grahamstown Road
Location of the Toll Gates
The site of the original Toll Gate was located where the Queen Street Baptist Church would be erected some 34 years later. In 1824, this location was entirely appropriate as this site was outside of the village itself and was surrounded by open veld. The object of this toll was to raise money for the upkeep of the road to Grahamstown. A toll amounting to 4 shillings was levied on every ox-wagon and other traffic passing this point.
The next Toll Gate to be established – also along Grahamstown Road – was at Rawson’s Bridge over the Swartkops River, which was erected in 1859. The third toll was erected at Korsten’s Drift on the Uitenhage Road and finally a fourth was erected at Parkin’s Farm near Green Bushes on Cape Road.
These Tolls proved to be a lucrative source of revenue as the tolls had been placed at strategic points to intercept the incoming and outgoing traffic from the Bay.
At each gate stood a Notice Board, indicating the tariffs payable. These varied over the course of time but this example is indicative of the rates and the basis of the charge.
Design of the Toll Gates
The Toll itself consisted of two large gates some distance apart placed like a barrier across the road and opening in either direction. The upright posts and gates were painted white in order to make them visible in all weather and lighting conditions. Chains were also placed on the gates to prevent unscrupulous travellers from slipping through unobserved and to prevent animals from straying. Human nature being what it is, there were many farmers who made wide detours across the veld to avoid payment of their toll obligation. Given the current furore about the payment of tolls in Gauteng, this behaviour is neither modern nor novel.
Adjoining the gates was the Toll House, invariably in a poor state of repair and always the chief source of complaint by the tollkeeper. They were also invariably patched and mended almost beyond recognition until the parsimonious Councillors were compelled to take remedial action in case the structure collapsed.
As an example of the nature of these complaints, is this letter by Jacob Jost to the Chairman of the Divisional Council dated 12th July 1871:
I would beg respectfully to draw your attention to the Toll House at Korsten’s Drift. The whole structure is some 16ft by 8ft with a partition in the middle, and this is all the accommodation provided for my wife, myself and four children.
As the traffic at the toll extends throughout the whole night and morning, the door has to be opened at all hours, either to take the toll or to examine at the lamp, the ticket of the returning waggoner. The cold winds thus admitted into the place render it quite unfit for people to sleep in without taking cold, from which I can assure you it is impossible for us to keep free.
To render the house habitable, I would beg to request you to authorise the building of an additional room of say 8ft square, the cost of which would not be great and yet this would add to my accommodation.
In the hope that you will accede to my request.
I am, Gentlemen,
Your obedient servant
After being stirred into action, the Divisional Council made amends. Coming to their rescue was the firm of Dunnell & Ebden which offered to supply wooden houses then being offloaded from the schooner “Vigilant.” These houses were 10 ft square and 7ft high could be assembled in an hour. Apart from their ease of erection, two or more structures could be erected together creating a larger whole. The price, complete with roof, was surprisingly low at £20 per unit. The offer of wooden houses was rejected and a tender from Mr J.H. Willis was accepted at a cost of £55 per unit. Presumably, these were constructed from brick and mortar.
Modus operandi of the Tolls
The Authorities must have possessed some insight into human nature when operating these tolls. The conundrum facing them was to ensure that the tollkeeper handed over all the proceeds of the revenue earned without siphoning off a large portion thereof.
The solution that they adopted was elegant. Instead of concerning themselves with the probity of the tollkeeper, they auctioned off the annual lease of the tollgate to private parties. Thus they were assured of receipt of the sum due in advance. Due to the lessee’s desire to maximise their earnings, they rigorously ensured that Tolls were correctly charged and collected irrespective of the time of day or weather conditions. The sale of Toll concessions were held annually by public auction from the steps of the Town Hall. In the case of the Rawson Bridge, the revenue from the auction of the concession was split between Uitenhage and Port Elizabeth as it deemed to be fair.
Apart from the competition between the tollkeepers for concession, the local auctioneers vied with one another to conduct the sale which carried a commission of between 1 to 2 percent. Amongst the earliest auctioneers were Mr Pilkington, Mr J.A. Holland and his partner William Armstrong, followed later by James Somers Kirkwood and Alfred E. Marks.
This modus operandi functioned exceptionally well and generated huge revenues for the Councils especially in the 1860s and 1870s before the advent of the railways. In June 1869, the results of the auctions were as follows:
This auction was not atypical as the Rawson Bridge Toll would invariably fetch the highest price. The reason was for this state of affairs was self evident as this tollgate lay on the Grahamstown Road, which served the farmlands of Alexandria, Albany and Somerset.
Condition of Rawson’s Bridge
On the other hand, the Rawson Bridge also engendered the greatest amount of concern and vexation to the lessees. The primary reason for their anxiety was the age of the bridge. As such, it was showing signs of rapid decay in the late 1860s being only 10 years after its construction in 1859. The extent of the problem was such that after several heavy rains, the river was swollen and much of the traffic was fearful of crossing it.
The situation was so dire that the incumbent lessee, William Ferriman complained that a number of travellers avoided the unsafe bridge by crossing the river at the old wagon drift near Perseverance, higher up the Swartkops River resulting in his losing valuable toll fees.
In a formal letter of complaint to the Divisional Council, Ferriman stated amongst other things, the following:
“I can mention the names of several farmers who go through the old drift, among them Messrs. Biddulph, Reed, Van Niekerk and Van Rooyen. Last month, 15 wagons passed through the same road and more. Mr. Hitzeroth, who brings a great many loads of salt over the bridge, now goes the other way. Mr. J. Smith of Sandflats and many others, go to the Uitenhage market rather than risk crossing the bridge here.
A great many farmers who bring their own produce and accompany their wagons in carts and other conveyances, now send their produce down by transport riders who carry about three times the quantity a farmer does on a wagon. Seven others were on their way through Somerset, but on hearing of the poor state of the bridge, offloaded their wool and sent it by carriers.
Mr. Humphrey came to the bridge intending to cross it, but returned. Mr. Currie’s horse fell with him on the bridge and was hurt a great deal. Mr. A. Hudson’s horses also fell, broke their harnesses and hurt themselves considerably………”
Eventually the old bridge was washed away and all traffic ceased. The unfortunate lessee at that time was Mr. Nelson Pearson who was forced to pay his monthly rent of £30 despite no tolls being generated. In spite of protests to the Council, Pearson was compelled to continue paying.
Opposition to Tolling
While the Council might have viewed the tolls as an excellent source of revenue, the users were not as complimentary or sanguine. A vastly different view was expressed in a Memorial to the Chairman of the Divisional Council, Mr. Alfred C. Wylde in 1870:
“We, the undersigned landowners, farmers, and travellers, have observed with surprise that Mr. G.T. Reed has given notice of his intention to move, at the next meeting of your Board, for the removal of the Toll from near Green Bushes to Fairview.
How the public are to be benefited by such a course, we fail to see, but believe it is in the interest of the public that the Toll at Green Bushes be abolished and we had hoped that the frequent complaints from producers would long ere this have procured its abolition.”
“ We are aware that the expense occasioned chiefly by the ferry at Gamtoos River, the toll at Van Stadens and that at Green Bushes deter many of the farmers from the Long Kloof [sic] and elsewhere from bringing their produce to Port Elizabeth markets……………..”
Another concern of the complainants is that many of them would now be compelled to pay tolls for the first time at Fairview was much closer to town. Concerns were also raised about taxes already being paid in Divisional Council rates, Municipal rates, market dues et cetera. This bears an eerie similarity with current gripes about the morality of tolling roads.
The future of tolls was thrown into disarray by the opening of the railway line between Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage in October 1873. Furthermore, the rapid extension of the line inland dealt a severe blow to the Tolls.
Moreover, the construction of many country roads also allowed the tolls to be easily evaded. The end result was the declining interest in the sale of the Tolls. By 1887, the auction only realised the following prices:
Despite the dwindling revenue, the Tolls lingered on until a Proclamation dated 1st July 1903 announced their total abolition throughout the country.
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)