A Description of Port Elizabeth in 1874

In his book A Descriptive Handbook of the Cape Colony, John Noble provides a description of all the major towns in the Cape Colony in 1874. His narrative about Port Elizabeth itself is glowing. However he concludes by stating that the “country about Port Elizabeth is very uninviting.” Included in the blog are the census figures for 1874 as well as a detailed description of the wool washing process which had by this time become more mechanised.

This is a verbatim transcription from Noble’s tome.

Main picture: View of Port Elizabeth in 1873

General description

We leave the Karoo, as we cross the outliers of the Great Winterberge, and returning to the seawardside enter upon what is by far the most beautiful part of the Colony—the Eastern Districts. These may be said to commence with the coast districts of Humansdorp and Uitenhage, stretch inland over the lower end of the Zuurberg up to Somerset, and thence extend in a line eastward parallel with the Winterberge, Katberg, and Chumie Mountains, to the old frontier boundary, where the Keiskamma River runs down to the Indian Ocean. The area of this territory is estimated at a little under 19,000 square miles, and it includes no less than twelve divisions, namely, Humansdorp, Uitenhage, Port Elizabeth, Alexandria, Bathurst, Albany, Somerset, Bedford, Fort Beaufort, Stockenström, Victoria East, and Peddie. In 1865 it contained a population of 130,500 souls. The conformation of the country is highly pleasing, and often very picturesque. Along the seaboard there are grassy hills and dales variegated with luxuriant copse or clumps of natural shrubbery ; gradually rising above these, are bold krantzes or ridges, and undulating flats, occasionally covered with dense bush, reaching

up to the mountain ranges, which are verdant and wood-fringed to their rocky crests. The soil in most places is adapted for agriculture, but the large extent of sweet grassy pasture, forming the richest sheep walks, has naturally enough made wool-growing and cattle farming the favourite andmost profitable pursuits. The clip of wool in these divisions in 1865 was 4,000,000 lb., and there were depastured—of woolled sheep 2,022,483 ; African sheep, 13,600 ; Angora goats, 39,850 ; common goats, 759,323, besides horses and cattle. The ground under cultivation was 84,410 acres, and the yield of wheat (exclusive of other cereals), 128,000 bushels, of which Humansdorp, Uitenhage, Alexandria, and Bathurst alone raised 100,000 bushels.

The chief port for these districts as well as for most of the midland territory, the Free State, and the Interior, is the indentation of the coast beyond Cape Recife, forming what is known as the harbour of Algoa Bay. Here, on what was a ridge of barren sand-hills there has grown up the town of Port Elizabeth, whose rise and progress conspicuously represent what colonization has accomplished and is accomplishing in South Africa. Fifty-four years ago, a small fortification and a few huts occupied by two or three traders and fishermen were the only evidences of life—a mere dot of civilization on the margin of a savage wilderness. Then came the flow of British immigration, dispersing over the country and developing production and creating Commerce, of which this, as the principal seaport eastward of the Cape, became ” the golden gate.”

Anyone now arriving in Algoa Bay will find before him all the evidences of an enterprising, prosperous, and populous place. For two or three miles along the waterside and up the sloping hill ascending from it, and on the brow of the height above, there rise in succession warehouses, stores, manufactories, shops, offices, dwelling houses, churches, schools, hospitals, villas, and other buildings, of every description and variety of architecture.

The harbour is an open but safe roadstead, with good holding ground, and the loading and discharging of steamers and ships are very expeditiously done by means of lighters and surfboats, and large gangs of Fingoes and Kafir labourers. There are two landing jetties, where passengers may reach terra firma without the discomfort and danger which formerly attended debarkation, when the alternative was a leap into the surf or being carried in the embrace of nude aborigines.

Close to the principal landing-place, in Jetty Street, is the Eastern Districts’ Railway Station, and along the sea wall skirting the water’s edge the lines of rail are laid which will shortly connect Uitenhage and the Midlands as well as Cradock and the Northern Districts with the port. Immediately above this is the central and business part of the town, forming what is known as the Main-street, extending from Market Square through Queen’s Street, and Prince’s Street to the Prison buildings at the North End.

Nowhere in the Colony is there a livelier, busier scene than here, especially during the wool season, when the huge transport wagons, carrying from 6,000 to 10,000 lb. come in laden with bales of wool, skins, or ivory, to load up again with merchandise for the Interior towns and villages, as far even as the limits of the Free State and the Transvaal Republic.

Some idea of its aspect may be formed from the accompanying illustration, representing the Market Square, crowded with groups of dealers, vehicles, and animals, the produce wagons with their long teams of oxen being a prominent feature. The large building on the left hand is the Town Hall, of which Port Elizabeth is justly proud. It is a stately and commodious structure somewhat in the Italian style, but with a portico of Corinthian columns, and is said to have cost £25,000. The Borough Council Offices are there, as well as the Chamber of Commerce, the public reading-room and Library, and a small Museum ; and there is a magnificent hall about eighty feet long by forty broad— undoubtedly the finest in South Africa—for public assemblies and entertainments.

On the terraced ground above, there is St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, of graceful gothic order, with tower and spire. To the right again are the offices of the agents of the Union Mail Service (Messrs. TV. Anderson & Co.), and adjoining them the Magistrate’s Court Room ; while on the opposite side of the square are the Telegraph Office, the Post Office, and the large and

Advert in EP Herald by Phoenix Hotel in 1849

well-conducted Phoenix Hotel. Along Main Street there are several very handsomely finished edifices used for business purposes, which would be creditable to any English city. The Guardian Insurance Buildings, the warehouses of Dunell, Ebden, & Co., TV. Dunn & Co.’s, Mosenthal’s, Deare and Deitz, Taylor & Co., Kettle’s Emporium, and the new offices of the London and South African Bank, built of dressed free stone, quarried from near the Zwartkop’s River, are among the most imposing and ornamental.

First Standard Bank premises in Port Elizabeth

The immense stocks and the amount of business transacted in some of these mercantile establishments unmistakably indicate the commercial enterprise and wealth of the Bay merchants. One of the largest stores is that recently completed by the old colonial firm of Messrs. Blaine & Co. Their premises have a frontage to Jetty Street, of over 200 feet, with a depth of 190 feet down Damant Street on one side and nearly 300 down Commerce Street on the other, and are three stories in height with cellarage below. The Jetty Street frontage is divided into three compartments, one being the counting-house, 104 feet by forty-three, fitted up with every convenience ; another being the forwarding room, 120 feet by sixty-five feet, and the remainder being occupied as bonding stores, wool pressing and engine rooms. The upper stories are apportioned for the different departments of the business,—one comprising building materials, such as galvanized iron, deals, slates, and all kinds of fittings; a second provisions and oilman’s stores ; a third agricultural implements and general ironmongery ; and a fourth Manchester and all sorts of soft goods, &c. In these departments, again, there is a sub-division of various articles, and the visitor may see in one, for instance, hundreds of ploughs, which are now greatly in demand by the frontier Fingoes and Kafirs ; or in another, a large array of musical instruments, from which as many as 100 harmoniums and fifty pianos are sold off within a month or two. In the wool stores there is accommodation for 6,000 bales of wool, the average quantity in store during the season being 4,000 bales. Four double presses are constantly at work and can press as many as 800 bales a day, the presses and machinery being worked by steam power, and hydraulic pressure in the form of an ” accumulator,” weighing thirty-two tons. There are also lifts and weighing machines, circular and upright saws, and lathes, and other appliances for repairing or making machinery for the wool-washing and other establishments. The machinery and buildings on the property are insured for about £40,000 and the stock for £80,000.

Besides Messrs. Blaine’s, there are other warehouses which, although not quite so extensive nor so well arranged, have equally valuable stocks, and whose branch establishments are spread throughout every district northwards and eastwards.

Loads of timber in the Algoa Bay Landing and Shipping Company

The population of the town is estimated at about 15,000, and the value of fixed property assessed at upwards of £1,200,000. Land and buildings in the Main Street and its neighbourhood have of late years increased in price to an unprecedented degree. The extent of ground available for business stands being restricted, sites which formerly sold for a few pounds now realize as many hundreds and in some instances thousands. The original erf or allotments at the corner of Main and Jetty Streets exchanged hands prior to 1834-5 for a small cask of wine. Last year a tenth part of this block, having a frontage of about fifty feet, was secured by the London and South African Bank, as the site of their new offices, for £5,000. Another site more recently purchased by the Standard Bank, with about thirty-five feet frontage in the Main Street, also cost a like amount. In the adjoining thoroughfare of Strand Street, the inferior tenements which formerly existed are giving place to large goods’ stores, and other buildings, and the Town Council have in contemplation further improvements in that locality.

EP Herald at bottom of White’s Road

The residences of the principal inhabitants, however, are on what is termed the ” Hill,”—in contradistinction to the ” town below.” This is a flat table-land on the terraced ground above the Main Street, the ascent of which is rather trying to the obese pedestrian on a hot day. Its aspect and surroundings are very pleasant and enjoyable, as the height is generally fanned by fresh cool breezes from the sea. Scattered irregularly over it are many fine mansions and pretty villa residences. There are also one or two handsome churches, such as the Scottish Presbyterian and Trinity Church; an admirably managed hospital; a well-endowed collegiate establishment, the Grey Institute ; and a well-regulated Club, where, after the labours of the day, the mercantile class usually congregate for relaxation, and courteously extend their hospitalities to visitors. On the open flat beyond the Hill, there is the attractive St. George’s Park, laid out and planted by the corporation of the town some ten years ago.

The Churches in Port Elizabeth number no less than sixteen, embracing Church of England, Wesleyan, Independent, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Roman Catholic places of worship ; there is also a building used as a Jewish Synagogue, and a very tastefully designed Malay Mosque maintained by an annual vote of £500 from the local rates.

Bird Street, 1858 by Sarah Holland AN H162 83.JPG

It has most agreeable walks through avenues of trees, shrubs, and flowering plants, and is ornamented with a fine conservatory, rock work, water basins, and grassy plots. The Park, like the Grey Institute, the Hospital, and the Town Hall, was originally created chiefly by the aid of the revenues accruing from the waste lands with which Port Elizabeth was liberally endowed during the Governorship of Sir George Grey. Part of these lands were some time ago sold in allotments for building purposes, yielding an annual quitrent revenue available for the maintenance of the local institutions. A portion of the park lands still remain unsold and as the town progresses their value will be greatly enhanced. There are at present no suburbs corresponding to Rondebosch or Wynberg, where the inhabitants can resort, although some localities such as Walmer, Emerald Hill, and the woody coast lands towards the Van Staden’s River might easily be rendered very attractive in these respects. In their neighbourhood, are to be found many pleasant verdant slopes and patches of bush and clumps of trees, with cool freshening breezes from the sea, which naturally suggest a pleasant retreat from the ” weariness, the fever, and the fret of the Bayonian’s incessantly hard-working life.

Port Elizabeth has been truly described by one of its writers as ” a place of business—not of pleasure. The man who goes to reside there, presuming he goes for the reason which attracts nine hundred and ninety nine out of every thousand, to get a living, must make up his mind not only to work but to work hard. A drone receives no mercy, be his status in society what it may. If he be a man of independent means people write him down as an ass for selecting such a spot for the enjoyment of dignity or ease. If he be dependent upon his physical or mental resources to earn his daily bread, he soon discovers to his cost that sloth and apathy find no ready response there. If he be sober and industrious, and willing to work there is work of all kinds for him to do, and plenty of it if he goes the proper way to look for it.” The amount of business done and the extent to which it has progressed may be gathered from the statistics of the port. These show that while forty years ago, the goods imported were only valued at £20,288, they amounted in 1872 to £2,447,280. The exports of produce in 1835 were valued at £33,000, and in 1872 they reached £3,137,400. Of the articles of colonial export contributing to this large increase, the principal one is the staple of wool. In 1835 the quantity shipped from this port alone was 79,848 lb. In ten years it increased to more than 2,000,000 lb. In 1855 it exceeded 9,500,000 lb. In 1865 it extended to nearly 30,000,000 lb. ; and in 1872 it swelled to 39,396,927 lb.

Although, with the exceptions mentioned, the country about Port Elizabeth is very uninviting, stretching for miles over the dry plains known as the Bay flat?


Fort Elizabeth.— Population, Urban, 12,974 ; Rural, 1,476. Horses, 818; Mules and Asses, 111; Draught Oxen, 2,291 ; Other Cattle, 2,051 ; Wooled Sheep, 1,559; Other Sheep, 3,068 ; Angora Goats, 206 ; Common Goats, 432 ; Ostriches, 10.


Wool-washing, however, is an extensive business, carried on all over the country. From Cape Town, where Messrs. Marquard and Co. have their steam manufactory, on to Mr. Tudhope’s, at Aliwal North, nearly every division has one or more at work. But the chief centre of this industry is on the Zwartkops River, at Uitenhage, and the extent to which it has been developed, as well as the contrast between the process of wool washing now and in former times, merits a brief description.

Woolwashing in Humewood

Twelve years ago, there were only three woolwashers on the Zwartkops River, and their manner of washing was of the most primitive character. The dirty wool was put into tubs of water, and stirred about with forked sticks or poles, till a great deal of dirt was separated from it, although it was very many shades darker than the present ” Uitenhage snow white,” so eagerly sought after by home buyers. A long stride towards perfection was made when square tanks, with bottoms of perforated zinc, were introduced. The clean water was made to flow into these tanks from sluices in a wooden water shoot,” and the dirty water escaped through the perforated bottoms of the tanks. In each of these tanks two Kafirs, men or women, stood, and kicked the wool about with their feet until it was sufficiently clean. This was called ” cold water foot-washing,” although the wool was soaked in hot water previous to its being thrown into the tanks ; it was then carried into the drying grounds, where it was tossed about with forked sticks, and spread out in the sun, over a floor of river pebbles, until sufficiently dried and bleached. This process raised the reputation of Uitenhage washing considerably ; and it was by it that the first “snow whites” were produced. But this was soon to give way to cheaper, more perfect, and more expeditious steam washing, and foot-washing is no longer employed.

The machinery employed at these establishments vary in some minor particulars, but the general principle adopted is the same in all ; and although visitors with a taste for machinery would find something fresh to interest them at each establishment, a general description of one establishment will serve for the present purpose. The establishment we select for description is that of Messrs. F. and P. Lange. A well-designed and substantially built building, 150 feet long by 60 feet wide, contains the washing machinery. In the centre of this building is an engine of 25-horsepower, which drives a shaft 145 feet long, setting in motion all the machinery, i.e., “devils,” “washers,” ” hydro -extractors,” packing machines, pressing machines, centrifugal pumps, turning lathes, circular saws, &c. The first process to which the wool is submitted is ” devilling.” The ” devil” is a closed circular box of about six feet diameter, inside of which revolve, with great rapidity, a spindle, from which radiate long metal teeth. The wool is so shaken and loosened by this process that a great deal of the dirt is thus extracted. This dirt falls through the bottom part of the ” devil,” which is made of perforated zinc. The wool is next put into tanks of hot water, varying in temperature from 100° to 170°, according to the quality of the wool. It is next passed into the u washers,” which work in cemented tanks 35 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 3 feet deep. There are six of these washers and tanks at Messrs. Lange’s establishment. Each of the tanks is the channel for a powerful stream of cold water, which is admitted at the front of the tank through a sluice in an underground culvert, which runs the whole length of the building. The wool, as it passes through the machine, is worked up by the machinery against the current, and, as all the dirt is driven to the lower end of the stream, the progress of the wool is into purer water.

“When the wool is thrown into the washer from the soaking tank, it is first drawn into a box, or drum, similar in construction to the “devil” already described, the difference being that this works in the water, and, by a spiral arrangement of the teeth in the spindle, the wool is thrown out when sufficiently whirled about. It is then raked forward by a series of forks against the stream, and deposited in a second drum, from which it is taken by a second series of forks, and ultimately raised out of the further end of the tank by a beautiful mechanical contrivance called the ” Belgian lift,” and deposited on a perforated platform, where it drains, until placed on small wagons, which run on a tramway to what are called the ” hydro-extractors,” where nearly all the water is taken out of it by centrifugal force. It is then taken to the drying grounds, where it is bleached and dried. The packing and pressing is also performed by steam, and immensely powerful racks and cogwheels are employed in that process. The bag is placed in a strong square box the size of a bale ; the sides of this box all open on hinges at the bottom, and when the bag is being filled with wool, they are closed with strong iron catches Above this box is a square wooden tube about 10 feet long, corresponding in its other dimensions with the wool bale in the box beneath. Into this tube the wool is thrown from the warehouse above and tramped down by a Kafir. When the whole, box and tube, are as full as the Kafir can tread them, the rack is applied, and squeezes the mass of wool into a nearly solid block the size of the bag, which is then sown up, branded, and rolled out ready for loading. The various plans employed for hoisting the bales on to the wagons are ingenious but would make our description too long. The quantity of wool washed in the 24 hours at this establishment is 100 bales, and the quantity of water required for that number 500,000 gallons.

It would be unjust to conclude this notice of the Uitenhage establishments without making mention of that of Mr. Niven, which is as large, if not larger, than that we have described, and where many most ingenious contrivances are used for accomplishing by machinery what at other places is done by hand. Mr. Niven may be called the father of wool-washing by machinery, as he was the first to employ machinery ; and all the processes now in use are more or less modifications of his inventions.


Descriptive Handbook of the Cape Colony: Its Condition and Resources by John Noble (1875, J.C. Juta, Cape Town)


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