Port Elizabeth of Yore: A Port without a Harbour

A Port is defined as a town or a city with a harbour making Sir Rufane Donkin’s christening of the hamlet on the sweeping littoral in Algoa Bay as a Port presumptuous as it would be 50 years before the first stage of North Jetty would be constructed in the 1870s. In a country of modest means conflated with political considerations, Port Elizabeth would have to wait another 60 years until a fully-fledged harbour was built in the 1930s.

Nonetheless, the residents were extremely proud of their jetties with their outmoded modus operandi. So as not to be mired in resentment and anger, instead they transformed this old technology into an efficient methodology with which they were justifiably proud.

Main picture: Surfboats landing on the landing beach

This blog is a verbatim extract of a history of the harbour written by C.G. Skead written in 1939 before the memories of the old Port Elizabeth vanished from memory like the delete function on a computer. The original text has been lightly amended to accord with current sensibilities and language usage.

Mfengu unloading cargo from surfboats in 1870s

 Born in 1871, my first clear recollection of the harbour or Algoa Bay was when my father; Captain F: Skead, took my brother Cuthbert and myself onto the Breakwater from whence we watched the porpoises playing. At that time all of the sea traffic was brought by sailing vessel and the only jetty was a small one built at the foot of Fleming Street. We boys used it for leaving our clothes on while we bathed on a splendid sandy beach running south to the Baakens River. There were some very good swimmers, notably Rowbotham and Gronan (who was afterwards killed by a lion in his hut at Umtali), who would in  fine weather swim right out and be away an hour or more. Danger from sharks was ·never thought of until many years later when Mr Rodwell, bathing from the end of the South Jetty, had a leg taken off by a shark which had been attracted by the throwing of fish offal from the end of the jetty.

Drawing by Blaine McCleland

The first really useful jetty was commenced in the 70s at the foot of Jetty Street, ·and ran out beyond the breakers only, until extended in later years. A sea wall ran northwards about a mile, built to protect the railway, then recently built to Uitenhage, which at that time was being carried on to Grahamstown. Cobb’s coach ran between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown, carrying passengers. Southwards from the Breakwater at the of Baakens River ran an unbroken sandy beach, except at low tide when a low flat rock was exposed. The. breakwater had banked up a short sandy beach on which several bathing machines were placed. Further on lay the wreck of the old slaving vessel “Dom Pedro “, just about where the jetty of that name now stands. The original line of beach had been the foot of South Beach Terrace, but the Harbour works had pushed the shore back seaward.

Surf boats

All the cargo to and from the port was carried by sailing vessels, taking about 90 days on the voyage from England. It was a fine sight to watch these ships enter and leave the harbour under sail. A full rigged ship in a spanking breeze was an unforgettable picture, and the departure of the man-of-war “Raleigh” under full sail was talked of for  many years after.

When there was a seasonable rush of shipping, there were times when the port equipment’ could not cope with the rush; and sometimes 20 up to 40 vessels were: riding at anchor at one time, a fine temptation for south-east gales. Cargo was discharged into flat-bottomed lighters carrying about 40 tons, which sailed to buoys floating beyond the breaking surf. They would pick up the buoy, which was fastened to an anchor· further out at sea. From the anchor a warp· was fixed well up the beach somewhere between the site or the North Jetty and the Baakens River mouth. The lighter picked up the warp which was then slung fore and aft on rollers, and the lighter then gradually worked shorewards with the scend* of the sea, until it grounded on the beach. From there Mfengu men carried the cargo on their heads to the stores built above the high-water mark. This process was reversed when shipping cargo.

Landing Place 1840 by HW Piers

The falling tide would often cause complications in the course of discharge, leaving the lighter almost high and dry before unloading was completed. Then pulley blocks were fixed to the boat and the warp, with a long rope wove through, and a large number of boys were set to haul on it. As a wave came in and lifted the lighter slightly, the natives put all their weight on, and usually the boat floated off by degrees. Sometimes the rope broke and the Mfengu men all dropped off into the sea, and then the band played! The overseeer, (particularly one – a. big man, an ex-sailor with a large golden beard), would swear at the men with all the language he could muster, knocking them about with lumps of coal or a billet of wood, if handy, and finishing up by cursing those of us who were looking on and enjoying his discomfiture.

This method of shipping and discharge was interesting ingenious and the speed with which the cargo was handled, both then and later, when jetties were ayailable, was astonishing.

As surf boats· were necessary to take crews to the lighters at anchor in the bay, a fine type of oarsman was developed, able to handle the boats in all weathers. It was magnificent to watch a boat in a S.E. gale or S. Westerly swell, with a strong tide running, The crew would lie on their oars just outside the breakers, waiting for word from the coxswain, who would. be using a long oar for steering.: They would give way together on getting word, bringing the boat in on the crest of the wave, right up on to the beach, where men would be waiting to assist. The boatmen would then tumble out smartly, sling the boat on long spars fore and aft, and carry her bodily out of reach of the waves.

The reverse process to get the boat off the beach, was equally interesting, and very difficult in bad weather. The boats might then drift down with the current and have to be hauled back southwards over and over again until a chance lull enabled one to get through the heavy surf. Capsizes happened at times, but I never saw one.

Note: A scend is a nautical term meaning to pitch into the trough of the sea


Early Days at the Harbour by C.G.H. Skead (Looking Back, Volume IV, Number 1, March 1964)

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