Port Elizabeth of Yore: A brief history of the land around the mouth of the Swartkops River

This article was originally written by Margaret Harradine and presented at a Zwartkops Conservancy Meeting. It discusses the history of the land at the mouth of the Swartkops River comprising the Fishwater Flats, Amsterdam Hoek and the Outspan.

Main picture: Swartkops in 1888 by Robert Harris

The very beginning

Even today, when the name of the river is officially spelt with an “S”, there must be many people who still think of it with a “Z”; somehow the old spelling is just more interesting! It is certainly a very old name. In 1752 the Governor of the Cape, Rijk Tulbagh, ordered the first expedition to this far-flung area, under Ensign Beutler. On cartographer Wentzel’s resulting map, the river is named, the setting up of a D.E.I.C. possessional beacon at the mouth is recorded, and the whole bay is named Zwartkops Riviers Baay. Succeeding maps into the 1800s kept this name along with the alternative Baay de la Goa. Barrow’s map of 1801 also shows the “Swartkops Rivier Bergen” in the interior and the military map of 1818 has the Swartkops Mountains. The origin of the name was a matter for speculation. For example, the Coega Koppies have only now been quarried out of existence, but they used to be prominent and could have been seen clearly from ships at sea. The late Hans Huisman was especially intrigued and after much research concluded that the “black hills” are the two main peaks of the Groot Winterhoek range: Cockscomb and Tierhoekberg. The Khoi name for this area was “Zungah”, which means “black or dark heads”, so this is simply another example of a direct translation into Dutch. In 1820 Capt. Fairfax Moresby of HMS “Menai” noted that the Zwartkops would become “a river of the first consequence if Port Elizabeth should continue to flourish” and that it was possible for ships to cross the bar for much of the time.

Fishwater Flats.

The names “Horse Place” and “Fish House Place” also appear on maps and as the name of the outspan adjoining it. The farm was granted to Gen. Jacob Glen Cuyler on 15 October 1817, next door to his main property “Cuyler Manor” and some of its history has been covered in articles about Redhouse and Zwartkops Rivier Wagendrift, which also became Cuyler’s.

1850 Sep. William Newton began operating a ferry or pont across the River much where the Wylde Bridge is today, making the journey north much easier. WC Adcock, who had an inn at the drift upstream, then opened the “Amsterdam Inn” on Amsterdam Flats on the new Grahamstown Road. Until this time the only crossing place on the river was at the drift on Zwartkops Rivier Wagendrift (Perseverance).

Distant View of Swartkops by James Mason AN H190 86

1854 Jan. The Amsterdam Inn had been completed and W Adcock offered it to let, “at the 12-mile stone on the new Port Elizabeth-Grahamstown Road, half-way to Capper’s Ferry” which was on the Sundays River. Adcock could be contacted on the farm. This hostelry appears regularly in the papers over time, under various owners and lessees.

1858 Sep 24. The Rawson Bridge was opened on the site of the ferry. It was designed by civil engineer Matthew Woodifield and much welcomed, but in 1876 a flood washed away the central pier and the public had to use a ferry again.

1860 Oct. The Rawson Bridge Hotel licensee was Thomas Chaplin. In 1861 William Cunningham had the licence for the Zwartkops River Bridge Hotel

Left to Right: No. 123 Amsterdamhoek, No. 126 Amsterdamhoek, Nos. 127 & 128 Amsterdamhoek. No. 127 was pushed down by a mudslide after the 1968 flood.

1866 The formation of the Zwartkops Land, Irrigation and Water Works Co., Ltd, which had bought Zwartkops Rivier Wagendrift and Fishwater Flats. The directors were Chase, Simpson, Buchanan, Fleming and Hume,

1871 Sep. 29 The iron and teak Wylde Bridge, made in London, was opened by Civil Commissioner and Resident Magistrate, Alfred Carrington Wylde. Having undergone major repairs more than once, this bridge is still in use.

1875 Begun in January 1872, the railway line between Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage was opened, making travel between the River and Port Elizabeth easy.

1881 J. Jones took over the Beaconsfield Hotel. This is a really Victorian name (Beaconsfield, now a suburb of Kimberley, was once a separate municipality) and was the title of Benjamin Disraeli (Earl of Beaconsfield).

1883 Mar. C.W. Alven acquired a licence for the Beaconsfield Hotel and in August it passed to his brother-in-law, Felix Rasper. The hotel boasted of both English and German bowling alleys that year.

Above: Amsterdamhoek in the 1930s

1897 Oct. The Zwartkops Valley Land Co. sold 60 erven from the wagon road to the River and Wylde Bridge. This became Zwartkops Village.

1899. Canon Wirgman of St Mary’s Church in Port Elizabeth, with members of the Railway Mission first conducted services at Zwartkops.

1901 In the P.E. Directory Tom Hancock advertised that he had taken over the long-established hostelry “The Beaconsfield Hotel”.

1902 Port Elizabeth’s harbour still consisted of only North and South Jetties, and the development of better and more modern facilities was urgent. The Harbour Board asked C.W. Methven (planner of the Durban harbour) to report on the practicality of building a harbour at the mouth of the Zwartkops River. Experts involved included Sir J. Wolfe-Barry. The 1904 report found it to be a sheltered place and with dredging and two breakwater walls, as at Durban, to be able to provide five miles of wharfage. There was much support for the idea, but nothing came of it.

1862 map of Swartkops area

1903 Smith, Sons and Dewar prepared a survey of that portion of Fish Water Flats on the road to the Wylde Bridge, with plots for sale.

1904 The Zwartkops Valley Land Co. was the new name of the re-structured company.

1905. The Port Elizabeth directory encouraged a visit to Zwartkops where J.W. Stock had the Beaconsfield Hotel.

1906 Jun. Tenders were called for a new Beaconsfield Hotel (E.P. Jones, architect).

1913. The current directory listed fishing and boating, with swimming in summer as attractions, and hotel and boarding accommodation in the village. Fifty-one names are listed as residents with shops and a Post Office. The hotel is now called the “Zwartkops Hotel”.

Tippers Creek at Amsterdam Hoek showing Loton Tippers house

1913 Jun. 14. The foundation stone of St Agnes’ Church (Anglican) was laid in the presence of all the Port Elizabeth clergy. The Bishop of Grahamstown confirmed a number of candidates. The Priest-in-charge was Rev. R.J.J. Garrod.

1916 Jan. The Zwartkops Primary School opened with pupils up to Standard 3. The wood-and-iron building had first been erected at the Sydenham School and then at the Mackay Primary School. A new school was built in 1948. At the end of 1989 the school moved to Bluewater Bay.

1916. The Beaconsfield Sailing Club (1884) and the P.E. Angling and Acclimatization Society formed the Zwartkops Angling and Sailing Club. Land with a wood-and-iron building bought by A.W. Guthrie at the Kimberley Exhibition was purchased. In 1929 the name Zwartkops Yacht Club was chosen.

Old photo of the Hoek, taken from 131, which was the Paterson’s original home

1923. The Rev. R. Garrod wrote: “to one who knew Zwartkops as an arid, wind-swept stretch of veldt, to see it now, a village with a village church and an ordered church life, is a matter of much interest and thankfulness”.

1931. Zwartkops became part of the P.E. Municipality.

1931 Oct. 31. The opening of the Zwartkops Yacht Club by Mayor Millard. It was designed by Herbert McWilliams in the form of the deck of a ship. The wheel came from the Western Knight, wrecked on the coast near The Willows, and the wheelhouse from the tug Sir Frederick.

1934 May 17. The new building of the Zwartkops Yacht Club was officially opened by Vice-Admiral E.R.G.R. Evans, Commander-in-Chief of the Africa Station. He presented the Club with the flag of the Discovery, the ship which took the ill-fated team of Capt. Robert Scott to the Antarctic.

Above: The Wylde Bridge at Swartkops Village

2006. The home for many years of Allister Miller (founder of Union Airways, later to become S.A. Airways, and the pilot in 1917 of the first aeroplane to come here) was demolished for a new development on the site.

The Outspan

The land bordered by Fishwater Flats, Deal Party, the sea and the river is bleak and barren and marked on maps as “low and swampy” near the river. However, there is an inlet, like an appendix, which from the earliest days was known to be the best fishing place of all and was known as the Modderspruit. The maps show a hut not far from the river and according to evidence given in February 1825 by George Smith, who had been employed as a fisherman, it was built by Paul Maré, apparently in connection with commercial fishing. On 16 December 1817 the Dutch warship “Amsterdam” was beached beyond the present Bluewater Bay after being damaged in a storm. It seems that the storm, wind and tides carried material from the ship onto the beach further south and that, according to the evidence, this was taken to Maré’s hut and sold from there. There were at the time waggon roads from the Bay and from Cradock’s Town. What changed the future of this unattractive place was the coming of the ferry and then the bridges, for now there was a new road and the need for an outspan and an inn.

Above: Fishermen on Swartkops River in 1910

1873 Jan. 14 Nelson Pearson (originally Niels Peter Piersen/Petersen) took a seven-year lease of the outspan, and in February applied for a liquor licence for a hotel there – the “Sportsman’s Hotel”.

1909 May 29. A hot mineral chalybeate spring was discovered by the Algoa Mining Co., which was drilling for oil on a small, leased site. In 1910 the Company bought the land and built two bath houses and a cottage, but, unable to raise the money to build a proper sanatorium, chose to liquidate at the end of 1916.

1922 Sep. Nelson Pearson advertised a new double-storey hotel at the Zwartkops Spa (Smith, Sons and Dewar), with a broad veranda and balcony.

1928 Jul. The opening of the new Zwartkops Mineral Baths (architects, Siemerink & Brinkman) for Messrs. Nelson Pearson. It boasted a number of Art Deco features and a fountain of green Swedish marble over the head of the spring. Everything was demolished in 1984 by the S.A. Transport Services and the spring closed off.

Amsterdam Hoek

This piece of land has a frontage to both sea and river and is listed as Government Land, apparently leased over time to various lessees – one map indicates J.S. Kirkwood.

Swartkops estuary

1846 Feb 24. The “Hook” to let: adjoining the Outspan on the Grahamstown Road on the east side of the Zwartkops River, 1000 morgen – apply at Cuyler Manor.

1880 Oct. Amsterdam Hoek was offered for sale. The advertisement in the paper suggested future “villa residences” with boating, shooting and fishing on hand, a jetty and bathing house and an oyster bed. For farmers there were pastures, firewood and lime burning.

1891 Jun 15. The land was sold to Loton Tipper, James Green and Nelson Pearson, who applied for a mortgage bond for that purpose. On retirement Tipper and his wife lived permanently at “the Hoek”. He built two wood-and-iron homes, the second uphill from the water in what is now Tipper’s Creek Road. Above the house there was a garden, now part of the Aloe Reserve, and here the graves of hunting dogs were once still visible. “Buffalo Lodge” was understood to have been the name of the first house. Tipper planned to give a plot on the River to each of his children as they came of age, however, only one small piece continued in the family, owned first by Nellie Tipper and then her sister, Louie Mackintosh. Two of the sisters, one being my grandmother, Bessie, were milliners and worked on Fridays until quite late. Their respective fiancés would meet them, hurry to the North End station and catch the train to Zwartkops where Loton Sr. waited in a rowing boat to ferry them through the reed beds to the home bank where their mother, Lizzie, waited with a lantern. On the corner opposite the house was a house belonging to the Roman Catholic diocese and used as a holiday home for the nuns. When the Bishop visited a fresh egg (my great-grandmother keeping hens) would be requested for his breakfast.

Above: Swartkops, 1895. Goods wagon in station with small boys playing on railway line, viewed towards the south. (EH Short)

In the 1950s on Sundays in good weather there was always tea on the dry grass in front of the “bungalow”, named “Halcyon”. Water came from a corrugated iron tank and was alive with mosquito larvae but boiling presumably solved that problem! Nellie and Louie loved fishing and collected bait on the sandbank opposite using a small rowing boat. Prawns with eggs were carefully put back, but there were worms and pencil bait too. The jetty in front of the bungalow was the place to sit and wait for a catch. The best time of day was always the evening when everyone would stroll down to the mouth and the river was beautiful. There were also once plenty of small crabs under the stones at low tide and the best swimming place was from the boat, where the riverbed was sea sand.

Swartkops Station

1898 21 April: On this date most of the plots on the riverfront were transferred into the name of Loton Tipper, but by the end of that year they had been transferred to others. Tipper retained a large piece of land, with his home on the edge of it, and this is now the Aloe Reserve, though as yet not officially proclaimed and therefore potentially at risk in the future.

1898 James Green was living in “Buffalo Lodge” and in 1902 was listed as a contractor living at Amsterdam Hoek.

1899 Loton Tipper advertised oysters for sale from his oyster beds and in 1928 he applied to renew his licence to cultivate them.

1913 March. The Zwartkops Hunt Club advertised that it had the shooting rights on Loton Tipper’s Amsterdam Hoek land.

Wood & iron homes… 42 The Strand, Swartkops. In its original state 1910 1915 and then as it was in 1991

1938 Architect Herbert McWilliams and Albert Milde came to live permanently in a small house which they went on to enlarge some three times, creating the familiar landmark known as “The Poop”, filled with their antiques and memorabilia. In July 1985 the house burned down. In March 1946 McWilliams launched the “Sprog”, a small yacht designed by him during the War while serving in the Navy. In 1948 he represented South Africa at the Olympic Games.

1940 May. War had been declared in September 1939. One of the three Fortress Observation Posts on our coast was built for the S.A. Artillery at the mouth of the River and is still there.

Swartkops river crossing by Le Vaillant

1946 Amsterdam Hoek received municipal electricity.

1952 Jan 1. Amsterdam Hoek became part of the P.E. Municipality.

1953 The Amsterdam Hoek Township Development Corporation was formed.

1957 The development of the suburb Bluewater Bay began. This part of the land had been owned by James Green.

1958 A Municipal water supply provided.

1962 The building of Settlers’ Bridge across the mouth of the Swartkops River began, necessitated by the new freeway along the sea front.

1968 The founding of the Zwartkops Trust, made up of dedicated volunteers determined to safeguard this fragile estuary. This body is now the Zwartkops Conservancy.


  1. No 42 was built by my great grandfather, William Brooker as his retirement home. Later owned by his daughter and son in law Adolf and Florence Aslaksen.Would be interested in any verification of the above information


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