Like all the major roads up from the centre of town to the top of the hill, these roads were originally kloofs with streams, jagged rocks and steep cliffs. So it was with White’s Road. The original steep embankments on either side precluded the construction of buildings except for the Opera House. Except in historical circles is the engineer in charge, Henry Fancourt White, today remembered for his legacy. Even his name has been obliterated, being replaced with the name, John Kani. Despite this iniquity, he will be recalled by golfers in an elite manor house in George, renamed in his honour as Fancourt.
This is the story of this significant road in Port Elizabeth’s history.
Main Picture: This is the earliest extant photograph that I can find of White’s Road. It shows the devastation after the torrential rains of 20th & 21st November 1867.
How did the people get to the top of the hill before the conversion of the kloof into a proper road? According to JJ Redgrave, it was follows: “Up till the forties [he is referring to the 1840’s of course], the Hill or hills were inaccessible for the most part, except up Military Road and by stony footpaths – one from the side of St Mary’s up to the Monument [the name given to the Donkin Pyramid at the time] and the other past the site of St Augustine’s up to the Reverend McCleland’s residence.”
Redgrave continues as follows: “White’s Road was then a stony, rugged, steep kloof with a strong stream of water running down it in which some of the town’s laundry used to be performed. The little footpath up it commenced near the present Public Library and zigzagged in places under bushes and rocks before emerging at the corner of the present King Edward Mansions.
The early Bayonians [Port Elizabeth residents] referred to it as the “kloof near the church.” Most of the water which flowed down the kloof came from a wide, open vlei which covered the present Trinder Reserve [now called Trinder Square] in Western Road and was at one time the peaceful haunt of waterfowl.”
Henry Fancourt White
Henry Fancourt White was born in Yorkshire, England in 1811 and emigrated to the Cape Colony with his parents as 1820 Settlers. They were allocated land at Riviersonderend near the mission station of Genadendal, but resettled at Assegaaibosch in the Langkloof. In 1836 Henry left South Africa for Australia in order to acquire road-building experience. White was appointed assistant surveyor by the colonial government in New South Wales. After a dispute with a magistrate, White was dismissed from government service despite a 1842 petition supporting him, being submitted by a large number of settlers.
According to Looking Back dated June 1978, fate would now take a hand and return White to the land of his birth. After an inspection of the pass over the Outeniqua mountains, the Colonial Secretary [1843 to 1853] John Montagu of the Cape Colony, lamented the atrocious state of the pass. The only two experienced engineers at his disposal were Charles Michell and Andrew Geddes Bain both of whom were inundated with work and could not be spared. Determined not to delay the start of this long-overdue work any further, he brought out the unemployed Henry Fancourt White from Australia.
The headquarters and main construction camp were established at the foot of Cradock Kloof and in due course a village began to take shape which in later years would be named “Blanco” after the builder of the pass, White. Apparently the name White apparently was unacceptable to the local community. When the Montagu Pass was completed in December 1847, Inspector White and his construction gangs were moved to the Eastern Cape to tackle the Zuurberg Pass.
In March 1850 Henry Fancourt White, now the Superintendent-General of Roads, was supervising the building of the Zuurberg Pass when the Eighth Frontier War commenced. For safety sake, he and his convict labourers were posted to Port Elizabeth. Amongst the projects that they were involved with was the construction of the eponymous White’s Road. As the original road was only half the width of the present one and was constantly being washed away by the rain with disastrous results in the Market Square, where all the stones and debris accumulated, the road had to be widened and metalled.
Metalled roads are the roads made of successive layers of smaller stones, until the road surface was composed of small stones compacted into a hard, durable surface. These are made up of cement concrete or coal tar. Roads made up of mud and gravel which are generally found in the rural areas are unmetalled roads. These are uncovered roads. The usage will be limited during rainy season. Metalled roads are suitable for every weather.
For the next three years White was engaged on various road improvement schemes in and near the town, notably the bridge across the Baakens River and metalling of High Street (later Main Street and later still Govan Mbeki Street). Main Street and these roads up the kloofs would only be tarred in the 1890s.
In 1853, White resigned his post as Inspector of Roads. In a complete change of career, in 1854 he was elected to represent Port Elizabeth in the old Cape Parliament but only held it for a year. At about this time, White, who was then 44, married a widow, Mrs. Sarah Bosworth. In 1849 White acquired land near the foot of Montagu Pass. After his marriage he settled in the George district and in about 1860 he built a large mansion with a magnificent view of Cradock Peak and named it Fancourt, after his middle name. Henry was only able to enjoy this idyll for six years before passing away in 1866. Fancourt changed hands several times over the years but in January 1903 it reverted to the family when Montagu White purchased it for R7000. Montagu’s first priority was to restore this manor house to its former glory. Disaster was to strike the White family in 1916 when Montagu himself, his sister, Mrs. Ham, and a member of the Vintcent family of Oudtshoorn were to die from mushroom poisoning. In this manner, the White family would forever lose control of this exquisite estate.
Storms and upgrades
Even after it was widened and culverts laid down, it was still only a stony, dusty track with plenty of mud in wet weather.
This road did not last long for on the 7th November 1851, White’s Road and both bridges over the Baakens River were destroyed due to torrential rain.
On the 11th November 1862 the rebuilding of White’s Road finally commenced.
Five years afterwards, it happened yet again. The rain storm over 20th 21st November 1867, which destroyed a large part of South End, also affected White’s and Russell Roads but not to the same extent.
JJ Redgrave stated that “At White’s Road the destruction was even greater [than Russell Road]. The main sewer leading from the above the old Theatre to the sea had become choked up and burst, and at the same time the gas pipes in this part also exploded. The stone buttress of the retaining wall of St. Augustine’s Church was swept away and carried several feet down the roadway, causing a chasm several feet deep extending across the road, cutting off all communication between Market Square and White’s Road. The Market Square itself was strewn with rocks, stones, and rivulets were flowing across it in various directions.”
In the early 1870’s several cyclists had attempted to cycle up White’s Road using the latest invention, the penny-farthing bicycle, all with calamitous results. Finally a Mr. J.T. Brown claimed the honour of being the first to negotiate the steepness of White’s Road.
In 1881 under Mayor Kemsley, the first horse-drawn tram service was initiated. As these could operate on level ground, the tram line only ran from Market Square to Adderley Street North End. Partly in order to service the Hill, electric trams replaced the horse trams on the 17th June 1897. These new lines included the hills: White’s Road, Russell Road and Walmer Road
Finally in 1929, White’s Road was closed to animal-drawn traffic.
On the 17 December 1948, the final electric tram slowly made its way up White’s Roads for the very last time. The electric trams were being replaced with buses. The venerable White’s Road has now been renamed in honour of John Kani, a well-known local actor, removing any link with its creator.
Legacy of Henry’s son
Henry’s son, Montagu White also made a huge legacy for himself in South Africa. He was responsible for a significant portion of the layout of the original Boksburg. He also commissioned the erection of a dam on one of the branches of the Natalspruit that was later to be known as Boksburg Lake. White’s idea to provide the town with a sheet of water for recreational purposes was a failure initially as a muddy marsh was an initial outcome. This was termed ‘White’s Folly’ by his critics. A cloudburst a few months later filled the dam to the brim. Today Montagu White is commemorated in Boksburg by two streets named after him: Montagu Street in the CBD and White Avenue in the suburb of Parkdene.
Recent photo by Jonker Fourie:
Various undated photos:
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton (Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).
Fancourt (Looking Back, 1978, June, Volume 18, Number 2)