Port Elizabeth of Yore: A Description from 1910

This description of Port Elizabeth is an extract from a publication entitled Cape Colony: its History, Commerce, Industries and Resources published in 1910.

Main picture: The Customs House at the entrance to the harbour with its tower

In tracing the history of Port Elizabeth, its development as a shipping port is a point which must claim a good deal of attention. The first genuine attempt at harbour improvement was made in the year 1855, when “The Commissioners for Improving the Port and Harbour of Algoa Bay” were engaged in considering and taking evidence upon the best plan of constructing a breakwater to shelter the shipping of the port. Surveys and investigations were made in the year 1869 by Sir John Coode, the eminent engineer, and he recommended the construction of an iron pile jetty to a length of 300 feet, to supersede the wooden structure then existing. The Government of the day, however, declined to give its sanction to the proposed works, and Parliament was never given an opportunity of expressing any opinion as to the practicability or otherwise of the scheme.

Above: 11 June 1895, SS Clan Macniel, first steam ship to berth at a jetty

Increasing trade at the port following upon the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley rendered further extension necessary, and in 1881 the wooden jetty was completed lo a length of 660 feet from the shore and was equipped with all necessary appliances and steam and hand cranes.

A short lime afterwards Parliament voted a sum of money for the construction of an additional jetty. This work, now known as the South Jetty, was in 1881 completed to a length of 810 feet and provided with the requisite machinery and cranes. The importation of dynamite and other explosives for the diamond mines of Kimberley, and the development of the gold-mines of the Transvaal, caused so great an increase in the shipping of the port that in the year 1895 the following new works were authorised:  A new approach to North Jetty, an extension and widening of South Jetty, and the construction of a new third jetty, since known as the Dom Pedro.

The actual completion of these works did not take place until the year 1902, and the resources of the port were taxed to their utmost capacity by the demands made for both military and civil traffic during the period covered by the Anglo-Boer War. Although there is every prospect of the trade passing through Algoa Bay becoming larger, it is considered that the present equipment at the docks is sufficient to deal with at least twice the amount of cargo now being handled. Port Elizabeth possesses a splendid roadstead, with excellent holding ground, where vessels can ride with safety if in possession of sound tackle.

No harbour or light clues are charged against any vessel of any nationality, and water and ballast may be obtained from lighters at a reasonable rate. Warehouse accommodation to the extent of 33,534 square yards has been provided for the reception and sorting of general cargo, and is served by railway lines on both sides, thus securing a quick transfer from ship to truck and an equally prompt dispatch. The electric plant supplies current for arc and incandescent lighting for storage, and for power purposes.

Above: North Jetty using electric cranes after 1895

It was not until the close of the eighteenth century that an attempt was made to form a township on the barren shores of Algoa Bay, and then only a few storehouses and huts were put up, just prior to the building of the first fort. In April 1820, the first of the British settlers arrived, nearly 3,000 men, women, and children being landed by means of surf boats, and from that day to the present time the town has steadily increased. That the merchants, and in fact the inhabitants generally, are alive to the possibilities of the port is evidenced by the town’s reputation as one of the cleanest, most advanced, and most progressive in South Africa. Its roads are clean and well kept, the more important of them being macadamised and subsequently tarred, and it has been discovered that this practice is, in the long run, advantageous in every way. On all hands are to be found handsome public and private buildings, and the improvements which have been made during the last half-century are great indeed.

Fifty years ago, the foreshore was fringed with barren sand-dunes, but these have had to give way to a substantially constructed seawall and large and handsome business premises. The residential quarters of the town have expanded in all directions, stretching to the north and south ends and even extending to the delightful suburb of Walmer, which is one of the most picturesque places within reach of the Bay.

Above: The seawall is visible on the left

One frequently notices that, when some commercial prosperity is being enjoyed by a town, neglect or indifference (perhaps both) has caused the inhabitants to overlook the need for the provision of healthy open-air spaces for the enjoyment of young and old. No complaint of this nature can be made against the Bayonians. First and foremost is the camping ground at Humewood, situated on an elevated plateau overlooking the beach. Campers may here erect their own tents on payment of a small weekly rental for the site occupied, or they may hire bungalows, marquees, or tents from the Town Council at weekly rents ranging from 5s to 12s. 6d. An unlimited supply of water is furnished to the campground from the town mains, and during a recent season about fifty of these structures or tents were in occupation.

Above: Camping ground at Humewood

Three public parks stand to the credit of Port Elizabeth, and all of these are under the control of the Town Council, which is responsible for their up-keep. A feature of special interest in St. George’s Park is the Pearson Conservatory, the largest structure of its kind in South Africa, containing a valuable collection of fern and palms. Of very great importance to the town are the municipal market buildings, which have cost about £80,000. These comprise a feather market hall in which sales by auction and nearly all large public functions are held. It has a seating capacity of 4,000 and possesses a fine organ upon which recitals are given on Sunday evenings. On the same floor is the museum, one of the attractions of the Eastern Province.

Band parading past the Feathermarket Hall

From an architectural point of view buildings which are among the first to attract attention are the town hall, clubs, banks, warehouses, and Volunteer drill hall. The churches, of which there are several, are mostly remarkably handsome structures, and money has in some instances been lavishly expended upon them.

Various industries are carried on in the town, such as engine-repairing works, flour- and saw-mills, the preserving of fruit, jam-making, candle and oil works, tanneries, and other minor concerns. The Port Elizabeth Agricultural Society has an excellent ground, which is well provided with most suitable accommodation for the large number of exhibits sent to its annual show.

Apart from the volume of trade which is carried on in the town by reason of its being a formidable rival to Cape Town as a port of entry, there is a very large amount of business, chiefly in agricultural produce, done with an increasing suburban population and the large number of natives in the surrounding districts. Since the outbreak of plague in the province some ten years ago, very large sums of money have been spent in constructing sewerage and in perfecting the sanitation of the borough by a thorough system of cleaning drains and streets.

First Provincial Hospital situated on Ricmond Hill

Lovers of sport are well provided for in the various tennis, cricket, football, and golf clubs, and the facilities for yachting, boating, and swimming are unrivalled.

In the census of 1911, the Port had a total population of 30,692, of which 18 ,229 were white.

Cape Colony: its History, Commerce, Industries and Resources compiled by Somerset Playne [London 1910, JC Juta & Co]

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