Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Poor White Problem – 1920 to 1960

Port Elizabeth has experienced phenomenal population growth spurts on a two occasions: first the Afrikaner influx and relocation from the platteland and then there was the migration of the Blacks. The consequences of unbridled migration for both communities were catastrophic in terms of nutrition, accommodation and general living conditions. Being English speaking and white to boot, I was blissfully unaware of the devastation, havoc and suffering that this enormous influx created until much later in life.

In 1904, immediately after the Anglo Boer War, the Afrikaner was a scare commodity in Port Elizabeth. Representing roughly 3.9% of the white population, they were virtually a ghost community lacking Afrikaans schools and churches. By 1960, this situation had been reversed with the Afrikaans schools and churches – numbering 13 NG churches – being operational.

The focus of this blog is white poverty as a consequence of over-rapid population growth, lack of education and marginalisation.

Main picture: Demolishing slum dwelling in Korsten in 1903

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Its Institutions, Trade and Population in 1877

This blog is a verbatim extract from the publication: The Port Elizabeth Directory and Guide to the Eastern Province of the Cape of Good Hope  for 1877

It provides a contemporary view of the town in a sometimes overly honest manner such as the words describing the town as “pleasingly disappointing” and bemoaning the paucity of trees.

Main picture: BIrd Street highligting the paucity of trees

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The creation of the initial “Harbour”

For the majority of the 143 years from 1652 to 1795 during which the Dutch occupied the Cape, Algoa Bay and its potential use as a Harbour can be likened to a black hole. Nothing was known about it and the Government authorities were ignorant of its existence. The raison d’etre of the use of Cape Town was that it served as a replenishment station en route to the Dutch East Indies. Nothing more and nothing less.  

It took more than a century after 1652 before the Dutch authorities displayed a modicum of interest in this Bay. This blog deals with that unhurried awakening of interest and its gradual adoption as a harbour. If the truth be told, without the British occupation of the colony, the recognition and adoption of Port Elizabeth would possibly not have arisen and some other river mouths such as the Zwartkops, Buffalo or Kowie would have snatched the prize.

Let it be crystal clear: It was not a foregone conclusion that the harbour in Algoa Bay would be situated at the mouth of a paltry stream such as the Baaken’s River.

Main picture: Blockhouse on the Baakens River in 1803

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Was 1884 a Year of Penury or Opulence?

The rating of the state of the economy is subjective. It is a function of the observer’s personal status and wealth at that moment in time. Even if poverty is visibly evident, many wealthy people cannot internalise or comprehend what impact the state of the economy has on impoverished people. This situation can be likened to the current divide in South Africa.

In this blog, I will utilise a letter written in 1884 by hides and skin merchant, Peter Titheranton who bemoans the ostentatious displays of wealth, to underscore my contention. Titheranton’s views can be juxtaposed with what Harradine emphatically states in her singular book, The Social Chronicle in which she states that ‘this was a period of drought and deep economic recession causing great hardship from retrench­ments, insolvencies and general unemployment’. This will provided balance in the debate but will not justify the wealth and societal imbalances.

Main picture: Sketch of Wesleyan Methodist Church in Russell Road. Commenced erection in 1870, opened in 1872 and closed on 7 Dec 1969 to be demolished in order to widen Russell Road

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Korsten vs Vagrancy and Trespassing in the 1830s

The most extensive and productive farm in the Port Elizabeth area over the first three decades of the nineteenth century was that of Frederick’s  Korsten’s Cradock Place. It covered the area from today’s Korsten, taking in swathes of today’s Algoa Park and swept down to the mouth of the Papenkuils River. Like most farms, it also experienced the twin depredations of vagrancy and trespassing.

In early 1833, probably after a spate of incidents, Korsten decided to take action.

Main picture: View of Cradock Place by Walford Arbouin Harries in 1860

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Baakens can be Deadly

Normally the Baakens River is a placid stream but is extremely deadly when provoked by flood waters abusing its avuncular nature. It might be endearing when untroubled by raging water but caution always needs to be taken.

On the last Tuesday of January 1834, the Baakens River showed that even a seemingly placid stream can be deadly.

Main picture: Bridge over untroubed waters

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The First Seawater Swimming Bath

Of all the recreational facilities that Port Elizabeth required at the end of the 19th century, a state-of-the-art seawater swimming pool located in the harbour was not on that list. It should not have been amongst the highest ranking priorities but yet clearly in the rankings of the Port Elizabeth Municipality this was the one that they, in their wisdom, selected.

This is a detailed description of this facility taken from the 1899 issue of The Visitors’ Guide

Main picture: April 1901 – the swimming pool in the harbour

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The first attempt at ship building

An enterprising local resident, John Owen Smith, entered into various disparate business ventures. Several of them such as mining copper in Namaqualand or recovering guano on Bird Island, required a seagoing vessel. This is what set in motion the necessity to build one locally. The unlikely location selected was a non-descript lake at the western end of Kragga Kamma road known as Lake Farm.  

Main picture: Lake Farm in 1944

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