Port Elizabeth of Yore: A Lighter Meets its End at Chelsea Point

Prior to the opening of the first quay, the Charl Malan, in 1933, most freight was unloaded from a cargo ship in the roadstead onto a lighter which would transport the cargo to one of the jetties protruding into the Bay. As North Jetty was used predominantly to offload passengers from tugs & lighters, the jetties that were used to offload cargo were the South and the Dom Pedro Jetties. There the cargo was again manhandled being offloaded from the lighter onto the jetty from which it was loaded onto a train as the age of the truck had not yet arrived.

Main picture: Lighter aground at Chelsea Point

When my uncle, George Wood, started work at Michell Cotts, immediately after completing his schooling, one of his first jobs was to supervise the loading of these lighters at sea. He was issued with only one piece of equipment, a megaphone, with which to communicate with the loaders aboard the lighter. Apparently he possessed a natural stentorian voice and thus he discarded the megaphone in favour of his voice.

Being unpowered, the normal process of moving these lighters between the shore and the freighter and then between the freighter and the shore was to use a tug. During this process, the tug would pull three or four lighters at a time.

Above: A tuge pulling four lighters to the jetties

One day during the second decade of the 20th century, a batch of empty lighters was delivered to a freighter in the Bay. Perhaps there was a steady westerly wind blowing but whatever was the cause of a lighter drifting off, is now unknown. It drifted off from the roadstead in the Bay, around Cape Recife and was washed up at Chelsea Point.

With camera in hand, George Wood sped to the site where the lighter had grounded and took the photo above of it. As the date of this incident was probably 1915, there were only a few cars in Port Elizabeth and there was only a path across what would become the Dawid Stuurman Airport. Marine Drive would only be completed in 1922. So, in all probability, George was compelled to walk across the peninsular to Chelsea Point.


Photo by George Wood via his daughter, Rosemary MacGeoghegan

Commentary: supplied by Rosemary MacGeoghegan

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Embarking and Disembarking from Ships in Algoa Bay before 1933

While I have always been aware that baskets were used on occasions to transfer passengers to and from tugs, that always left the majority of the passengers with no ostensible method of transfer. After sleuthing by my brother Blaine and by means of an article in Looking Back uncovered by myself, the mystery has finally been resolved. Archaic and dangerous would be adequate descriptors of the practice employed.

Main picture: A tug ferrying passengers from North Jetty to an awaiting ship in the roadstead. Note the wicker baskets on the jetty as well as a steel rod hanging over the water.

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Explosives’ Jetty at the Creek

At the risk of overstatement, dynamite was characterised as being extremely volatile in prior centuries. Just like Johannesburg, where the explosives factory was established at Modderfontein which was originally located far outside the municipal boundaries, so it was in the rest of South Africa. This blog deals with how Port Elizabeth dealt with this risk or in modern parlance, its Risk Mitigation Strategy, during the 19th century.

Main picture: Overhead ropeway to transport the explosives from the landing stage to the magazines of the various importing companies

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Wages, Strikes and the Mfengu Beach Labour

In his thesis on the development of the Port Elizabeth Harbour, Mr E.J. Inggs raises some interesting facts not only about the convoluted path to the ultimate construction of a harbour but also the operation and importance of Port Elizabeth’s harbour to the Cape Colony.

Also of considerable interest  is his discussion of the issue of the wage levels of the Mfengu Beach Labour, as he calls the cargo loaders and unloaders. Their remuneration perfectly reflects what Economics 101 identifies as a fundamental factor in economics; supply and demand.

 Main picture: Mfengu unloading cargo from surfboats

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Harbour Operations before Jetties

Until the 1870s, Port Elizabeth harbour possessed no jetties. By implication, the passengers and cargo had to be transhipped onto tiny surf boats for onward transport to the landing beaches. People were carried ashore on the shoulders of the Mfengus much to the distress of the females. In spite of this clumsy and archaic method of operation, Port Elizabeth rapidly processed more exports than its sister port, Cape Town.

 This blog is a verbatim extract from the unpublished notes of Mr. C.G.H. Skead written in 1939.

Main picture: Surf boats in Algoa Bay in the 1860s

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Paddle Steamer Phoenix-Transition from Sail to Steam

By any measure, sea travel in the age of sail was tedious being of long duration and of indeterminate time span. Furthermore it was dangerous. Relying on a variable sporadic factor such as wind would forever impede progress. For instance, the travelling time from Britain to the Cape by sailing ship varied between 65 and 85 days. The development of steam power in the early eighteenth century would take over a century before it was utilised for the propulsion of ships. Initially the propulsion was by means of side paddles and later on rear paddles and finally screw propulsion.

Ushering in the age of steam for Port Elizabeth would be the steamer named “Hope” which was not noted for its longevity. Two years after being commissioned, it was wrecked in heavy fog at Cape St. Francis. A replacement was urgently required. This would be the 240 ton paddle steamer, the “Phoenix”.  

Main picture: The paddle steamer Phoenix

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: A Port without a Harbour

Needless to say, but when the 1820 Settlers arrived at Port Elizabeth, there was nothing awaiting them, not even a harbour. In fact, the sum total of the population of Port Elizabeth in 1819 was 35 souls, mainly men. Yet despite exponential growth in population and port activities, Port Elizabeth did not possess a proper harbour for the first 110 years of its existence.

How did the town handle the veritable flood of imports and exports until the first permanent  jetty was constructed in 1870 and the first quay in the 1930s?

 Main picture: Settlers landing in unstable flat bottomed boats

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