Like all the major roads up from the centre of town to the top of the hill, these roads were originally kloofs with streams 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.
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 by 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 “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.”
In March 1850 Henry Fancourt White, the Superintendent-General of Roads, was supervising the building of the Zuurberg Pass when the Eight 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. 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.
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 JT Brown claimed the honour of being the first to negotiate the steepness of White’s Road.
In 1881 under the 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.
Recent photo by Jonker Fourie:
Various undated photos:
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by JJ Redgrave
Port Elizabeth-A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine