In the annuals of history, one of the key criteria for the establishment of a town was a ready water supply. What this meant in reality was that towns were located on a perennial river with a persistent strong flow. Not so Port Elizabeth. This problem was to bedevil its development over the years.
Where did Port Elizabeth obtain its water supply from, especially in the early years?
Main picture: On this puny stream, grandiloquently called Shark River, that supplied Port Elizabeth with its first piped water
Prior to the establishment of Port Elizabeth as a town, the town was divided into a dozen farms. With such low demand, even the modest streams in the area and rainwater would suffice. In addition, ships would call in Algoa Bay to replenish their water supply. Most drew water from the springs in the area. For instance, in those days, Donkin Street was a gully with a spring close to the top of the ridge. However, probably the waters of the Shark River were used more often. In 1752, it was the quest for water that caused the disaster to French sailors from the warship “Le Necessaire” when their boat was upset in the surf, off what was to become Happy Valley.
In 1779, the traveller, author and botanist, William Paterson, visited the Zwartkops River, and then inspected the DEIC [Dutch East India Company] beacon on the site of a spring. This beacon was probably on the heights on the north side of the Baakens [Beacon] River where a map from 1789 indicates “Baakjies Fonteyn”. These springs below the Fort later supplied the settlements water.
As the town grew after 1820, there was a timely reminder that the town’s location was not ideal. Apart from a narrow strip of land between the sea and the Hill, water supply was also a vexatious issue. Initially the town was forced to rely upon wells and rainwater tanks. The first well to be dug was in Market Square and the enterprising Malay, Fortuin Weys, led a pipe from this well down to the shore to supply ships. It must have been an arduous process to fill the barrels on the surfboats and then to row out to the vessel in the roadstead and lift it onto the rolling ship. But that it how the water supply process operated without a harbour.
Another well was dug in front of the Commissariat Building, located somewhere close to the current Post Office. Apparently, this well still exists under Newspaper House and still have to be pumped out occasionally.
When the Town Commissioners were set up in 1847, one of their first tasks was to organise the digging of fresh wells. These were dug in White’s Road, at the bottom of Donkin Street, on the hill near the present Bird Street and in Constitution Hill. Others were later dug in Jetty Street at the Damant Street corner, in Grace Street, Britannia Street, Queen Street and Alice Street.
The grim reality of a lack of reliable water supply was in evidence during the severe droughts of 1852 and 1860 causing the wells almost to dry up, placing the town on the brink of disaster.
After the town was created as a borough, the new Town Council began to consider piped water and offered a prize for the best scheme. In November 1849, Robert Pinchin established himself as a land surveyor and civil engineer. As part of his duties, he was responsible was surveying the town. As early as 1860, Robert Pinchin, now the Government Surveyor, suggested the Van Stadens River scheme, but this had to wait another twenty years before it came to fruition.
In the meantime, the Shark River Water Company had been set up and a dam was built across the Shark River in 1863. It was named “Frames Reservoir” after Clement Wall Frames who had a great interest in the scheme and who had property in the Shark River valley where he had a woolwashery. He leased the property from his cousin, C.E. Frames. In January 1864 the dam was complete and the Governor, Sir Phillip Wodehouse, was taken to see it on his visit to Port Elizabeth in February.
This water, however, could only be fed to the lower parts of the town as far as North End where pressure was not a problem. As it was somewhat brackish, most people still relied on wells and rainwater for drinking purposes. The scheme bankrupted him and Clement returned to working as a plumber and contractor. The Municipality then took over the water supply.
The Van Stadens Water Scheme was completed by September 1880, mainly through the efforts of John Hamilton Wicksteed who had been appointed Resident Engineer on 29th December 1877. During 1876, John Gamble, Hydraulic Engineer for the Colony and Consulting Engineer to the PE Municipality in the matter of the proposed scheme, decided that it was feasible to bring the water in pipes from a dam on the Van Stadens River. The necessary Water Bill had to be put before Parliament and an engineer had to be appointed before the most urgent work could begin. Wicksteed’s Dam is known as the Lower Van Stadens Dam.
September 1st, 1880 saw the first water from the Lower Van Stadens Dam flow to the Market Square. The official opening of the scheme took place during June 1881 bringing to a conclusion the long search for a reliable water supply. This was the culmination of the original plan by Surveyor, Robert Pinchin first proposed in 1861, a whole two decades prior. The contractor was JC MacKay.
In 1885, Consulting and Hydraulic Engineer, Thomas Steward, designed a second storage dam upstream known as the Upper Van Stadens Dam as the town had again outgrown its supply. In the meantime, Wicksteed was also appointed Town Engineer and the burden of the double task proved too much for him. In a fit of depression he committed suicide in August 1881. The second dam was built by Dollery and Fettes between September 1891 and November 1893.
The town was growing rapidly and even this new scheme proved inadequate. New plans were drafted and in 1907, the Bulk and Sand River dams started to supply the town. It was at that time that the St. George’s Park service reservoir was brought into commission with the ceremonial opening also being the unveiling of the Prince Alfred’s Guards memorial.
The need for an additional reservoir was required to handle the water demand was recognised in 1920. W. Ingram designed one in 1923 and contractors, Murray and Stewards, completed it on 16th October 1924. During November 1924, this reservoir, located on Cape Road, was formally opened by the Mayor, Archibald Linton.
With rapid industrial expansion between the two World Wars, water supply became a problem once again.
Apart this factor, a drought during 1827 further exacerbated the situation so that water restrictions had to be imposed on 13th December. As an interim measure until the proposed Churchill Dam was operational, water restrictions would have to become a way of life.
In 1932, the City Engineer, Mr George Begg, submitted a plan for a dam on the Kromme River and a start was made in 1936. Material for the scheme was shipped out from Britain but on the outbreak of war, suppliers requested an additional 10%. Some councillors opposed this and progress was delayed until after the war. In 1942, the Kromme River Committee decided to name the dam after the British prime minister in recognition of the important part that he had played in the execution of the war. In the Committee’s view, they wanted Winston Churchill himself to perform the opening of the dam. Churchill declined and requested that Jan Smuts do it in his stead.
In time, even the Churchill Dam was unable to supply the required quantities of water required. Yet another dam was required.
The Kouga Dam (formerly the Paul Sauer Dam prior to 1995) is an arch dam on the Kouga River about 21 km west of Patensie in Kouga Local Municipality. It supplies irrigation water to the Kouga and Gamtoos valleys as well as drinking water to the Port Elizabeth metropolitan area via the Loerie Balancing Dam. It was constructed between 1957 and 1969.
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging Pty Ltd, Port Elizabeth)
Water in Looking Back dated March 1980