Port Elizabeth of Yore: Woolwasheries, the First Industry Emerges

Prior to the establishment of woolwasheries in Port Elizabeth, there were no industries in the town. The salient feature of economic activities was a focus on merchanting and activities related to the harbour. Activities such as house construction, shoe and bootmaking were prevalent but they were not undertaken on an “industrial scale.” Instead they were all undertaken on a “made to order” basis on the owner’s property rather than for stock in a factory.  

With the burgeoning wool trade, various entrepreneurs sensed a business opportunity. Thus commenced the woolwashing industry for which Port Elizabeth is still renowned.

 Main picture: Woolwashing in Humewood 

First businesses

Not content to let the proverbial grass grow under their feet and to fulfil their intended role as  a bulwark against Xhosa incursions into the Cape Colony, many settlers broke the mould and established the first businesses in Port Elizabeth.

In March 1832 the Grahamstown Journal listed Port Elizabeth as having the following business establishments: two surf boat companies, two whale fisheries, three tanneries, four brick and tile kilns, three salting establishments, four bakers, eleven retail shops and five canteens. In essence these businesses were supplying local needs rather than creating businesses to satisfy demand nationally and internationally.

Wool industry

Within two decades of the arrival of the 1820 Settlers, Port Elizabeth played a pivotal role in the wool export business in the Cape. Wool was sent here from the large sheep farms of the Karoo and outlying districts. In those days, one of the many methods adopted in woolwashing was that of putting the greasy wool into wicker baskets and immersing it in a running stream, thereby removing some of the dirt and grease prior to it being sun-dried and packed for further processing. During this process, a 100lb bale of wool would be reduced to 40lbs. Rivers around Algoa Bay such as the Zwartkops and the Baakens River proved to be ideally suited for this purpose.

First Colonial woolwashery

Before 1820, the Baakens Valley had been divided into a number of grants as it provided springs and shelter from the wind. What is today part of Settler’s Park on the Walmer side, was granted to Salmon du Preez in 1817. By the time that Thomas Handfield was farming there by 1836, this land became known as “Spring Valley” or “Handfield’s Valley.” He built a substantial stone house as well as a dam and kept a dairy herd and horses and developed a beautiful garden with orange, lemon and fig trees.

Dunell Ebden & Co’s woolwashing factory in the Baakens Valley in 1877

In 1840, he also started a woolwashery business as well, which in 1898 was described as the first of its kind in the colony. In March 1846, Handfield offered the house and the premises for sale.

Another resident of Port Elizabeth, George Uppleby, commenced wool washing shortly after Handfield. In 1846, Uppleby owned a house on the Baakens River. Being an enterprising and resourceful chap, much like Handfield, Uppleby first purchased a bakery in 1848 and then subsequently began woolwashing on the former property of Sampson Middleton on the Baakens.

Woolwashing on the northern bank of the Baakens River

In 1855, Marshall and Uppleby commenced a woolwashing business in Uitenhage which they eventually sold in October 1871 to J. Stratford. Thereafter Uppleby returned to Port Elizabeth and then in partnership with J. McIlwraith co-owned a produce and wool-pressing business.

The Sweet Waters of Uitenhage

The year 1843 was eventful for another reason: the first wool washer F.H. Lange, erected his factory on the river side. This move could today be regarded as the first step towards the establishment of an industrial base for Uitenhage and the woolwasheries were to play an important role in the future of the town. Lange’s example was followed by Peche in 1846, Christian Heugh and John Lear in 1849, C. Niven in 1861, Marshall & Appleby in 1865, Thomas Witheridge Gubb (Riverside) in 1866, and Henry William lnggs in 1867 (Springfields).

Richardson’s Wool Washeries

The extreme softness of the Zwartkops River water was the very reason that made Uitenhage’s reputation as a woolwashing centre. “Uitenhage’s Snow White” – as the washed wool became known – was internationally renowned and the town became the main centre of woolwashing in the colony. By 1875 10 woolwasheries were established near the town with a capital investment of £200 000. About 100 000 bales of wool were washed annually and exported through the Port Elizabeth harbour. In addition to extensive steam machinery, a high number of unskilled labour was employed in the washeries.

Inside the wool washers in later years

Apart from the closing years and the growth of the woolwash industry the period 1841 – 1875 was not an era of great progress for the town. Hampered by the rapid expansion of Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown, development was slow and Uitenhage acquired the nickname “Sleepy Hollow”.

The Gubb and Inggs families joined the lucrative wool washing activity in 1886, by buying out two of the 14 Wool washeries operating in the Zwartkops Valley (near the city of Port Elizabeth) at the time. In 1904 the two families went into partnership, eventually leading to the formation of Gubb & Inggs Limited in 1916.

Only known photograph of Henry William Inggs apart from his portrait while mayor in the Uitenhage museum. He died in office in 1892
This photo is a closeup of Henry William Inggs behind some woolwashing machinery
Wool being sorted in 1912 at the Gubb & Inggs Lower Woolwash, Cuyler St, just across the river
Some of the equipment at the Gubb & Inggs Lower Woolwash in 1912. The guy on the left is Herbert Inggs
Wool drying yards at Gubb & Inggs Lower Woolwash in 1912

Industry in decline

By the end of the 19th century, many of the woolwasheries in the area had closed down. The main reasons for this were that the work was seen as unhealthy for the labourers. In addition the industry was converting clear and beautiful streams into unhealthy swamps. Moreover, the nasty odour was polluting the atmosphere around the town.

Wool Store

Today the wool grease is used in cosmetics and skin lotions as it contains lanolin. If one could smell the gunk before its treated, you would probably have second thoughts about using it.

Wool pressing

The modern equivalent would be referred to as baling. During 1877, the following Wool-Pressing eastablishments were in operation:

Using steam presses:

  • Messrs. Blaine & Co
  • Messrs. E. Slater

Using manual presses:

  • Messrs. J&C Robertshaw
  • Messrs. Fairbridge & Gordon
  • Messrs. W. Monkman
  • Messrs. W. Christie
  • Messrs. J. Heugh
  • Messrs. J. Stratford


Uitenhage’s Evolution: 1804-1910 http://www.theheritageportal.co.za/article/uitenhages-evolution-1804-1910


Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

Photos of Gubb & Inggs plant as well as the Inggs men are courtesy of Jon Inggs, the great grandson of William Henry Inggs, one of the founders of Gubb & Inggs

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