Port Elizabeth of Yore: Biographies of the City  Engineers

This blog provides a skeletal biography of every City / Town Engineer that Port Elizabeth has ever employed except for three engineers viz Wicksteed, Butterworth and Clayton. In those cases, I have written a detailed blog on each one.

Main picture: John Hamilton Wicksteed

Engineers in the 1800s
Archibald, Robert, civil engineer and architect. Born on Prince Edward Island, Canada, Archibald trained as a civil engineer. In a court statement, Archibald claimed that he had worked under Isambard Kingdom Brunel and had mining experience in Scotland. He also stated that he had been superintendent of the Port Elizabeth and Namaqualand Mining Company. Appointed as the first Town Engineer of Port Elizabeth in 1859, he designed the Town Hall, the Grey Institute and the original hospital on Richmond Hill. He died from injuries after falling off a horse. * Price Edward Island 12.12.1812 † Port Elizabeth 24.12.1867

Smith, George William, was appointed Acting Town Engineer in 1867, after Archibald’s death from a horse fall. In 1868 he resigned to go to Australia. * 1838  † 1931

John Hamilton Wicksteed
Port Elizabeth, like so many South African towns, suffered severe water shortages as it developed during the 19th century. It was the duty of John Gamble, the Colonial Hydraulic Engineer, to sort out such problems, and for Port Elizabeth his solution was to build a weir on the Van Stadens River linked to the town by a 30-mile-long pipeline. John Hamilton Wicksteed, AMICE, was selected for the post of Resident Engineer and arrived in Algoa Bay on 29 December 1877 aboard the vessel Edinburgh Castle.

Wicksteed, born at Leeds on 21 January 1851, was the fifth son of the Reverend Charles Wicksteed. When he was fourteen he was sent to the University College School in London. Two years later he was articled to the engineer Edward Filliter, MICE, of Leeds, with whom he remained as a pupil and assistant for a period of ten years and by whom he was employed on several works of water supply and sewerage engineering.

It is interesting to read his comments on seeing Port Elizabeth for the first time: “Port Elizabeth, I am sorry to say is rather like a quarry in outward appearance. Nothing more uninviting could be conceived: ugly houses and warehouses, and broad, hot streets creeping up the side of the hill, and not a spot of green anywhere.”

On his arrival and full of enthusiasm, John Hamilton Wicksteed proceeded to the Town Hall, making himself known to the Town Clerk, whom he described as nice old gentleman with a white beard and to the Mayor, Pearson.

A few hours later Wicksteed was in the saddle for a rough ride, under a hot sun, to the Nali Waterfall in the Van Stadens River Valley, where soon afterwards he set to work on the necessary surveys for a complete determination of the pipe track. With the contracts awarded, work on the scheme commenced in 1879. He was meticulous in his supervision, the strictness of which proved often trying to the men. But Wicksteed had an easy, good-humoured way of securing adherence and industry among his motley gangs of labourers. An example of this once occurred when he himself, working in the unceasing rain to set out the pipe route, scrambling over slippery rocks and plodding through long grass and drenching bush, encountered one of the European workmen, lately arrived from the Bay, who announced his intention of going back as such work was not fit to turn a dog to. Wicksteed replied that he was quite right, that men were wanted and not dogs and that if the aggrieved person did not feel himself as good a man as the rest, he had better go home. After meditating for five minutes on these words, the man set to work again and accomplished more than any of the other workmen that day, also working well subsequently.

During the three year contract period Wicksteed stayed at Lukin’s Camp near the weir site. The weir was constructed across the bed of the river, damming up the water to a depth of seven feet. He had many discomforts to endure. Once after two damp nights fifty loaves of bread in a bag went mouldy; salt meat often rotted; a water cart broke a wheel and spilt all its contents when they were working on the pipeline some distance from the river. On another occasion, the cook fell asleep and burnt the bottoms out of a kettle and two saucepans! 

Access to the pipeline route was naturally difficult and various methods had to be adopted to get the pipes to their positions. Where it was found practicable to form a track of sufficient width amongst the rocks, oxen were employed to drag the pipes into position. About one-third of the pipes had to be brought down a steep decline of about 300 feet into the gorge, by way of a narrow path cut diagonally down the side of the gorge.

In the descent the pipes were lashed to sledges and manoeuvred down by labourers, at some places at considerable speed. The path was narrow and the gorge precipitous, and it was feared that many of the pipes and their handlers might come to grief, but the work was carried out with remarkably few casualties.

Off duty in Port Elizabeth, Wicksteed appears to have been a sociable young fellow. He became a member of the Port Elizabeth Club of which he wrote:- “Our Club is the best in South Africa. It is the only institution that makes the town liveable in for single men. Anybody who is anybody belongs to the Club. I dine there as a rule for company.”

There is a large common dining room table as well as small ones. Dinner costs me four shillings a time.” In one of his several letters, Wicksteed mentions that he had called on Miss Virginia Isett, Principal of Collegiate School. At weekends he went out to the River Club at Swartkops where he found a regular clubhouse with beds and private rooms and an excellent table. It is a favourite resort on Saturdays for local merchants. There is a little jetty in front from which you can take a dive before breakfast.

At length the contract was completed, and the first water was delivered to the Market Square in September 1880. For the unofficial opening, four fountains, playing at one time with a jet of 90 to 100 feet, watered dry and dusty Port Elizabeth. It must have been a proud day for Mr Wicksteed, wrote the Eastern Province Herald. For many of the residents, to have running water in their homes, after years of struggle to obtain clean water, must have brought much joy and wonder. Wicksteed took up permanent residence in Port Elizabeth and was appointed Town Engineer, which was surely a fitting reward for his diligent service. Sadly however, he did not enjoy his success. In a letter to his mother on 11 August 1881 from Humansdorp, he complained of feeling ill and told her that he had resigned as Town Engineer due to overwork and it was evident from the letter that he was suffering from extreme depression.

On 16 August 1881 he left his office at the Town Hall in the middle of the morning and was never seen alive again. After he had been missing for three days, search parties scoured the district and it was not until the following Tuesday, 23 August, that the search party found his body close to the bush in Happy Valley. He had shot himself and the revolver was still gripped in his right hand. He was buried in the cemetery at St George’s Park. Rocks were brought down specially from the Van Stadens River gorge and laid on his grave, and his family in England sent a marble tablet.

In his condolences to Mr Wicksteed’s father, the Mayor wrote: “By the death of your much-lamented son, this Corporation has sustained the loss of one of its ablest, most diligent, and most useful officers; one, moreover, whose name will for all time be associated with one of the greatest and most efficient enterprises ever yet undertaken by a Colonial Municipality.

It was a sad ending to a promising career.

This article was researched and written by Dave Raymer and edited by Tony Murray

Miles, Henry William, civil engineer and architect. After Wicksteed’s resignation, the town council appointed local engineer William Henry Miles (1857–1893) as municipal architect and engineer for the municipality. Miles continued in that position until 1886, when he resigned and returned to England. * England 1857  † England 1893

Carter, Charles Arthur, appointed by Port Elizabeth Municipality as Superintendent of Works from 1886 to July 1897. Thereafter he was promoted to municipal valuator. He reported to the Town Clerk.  He was a keen Freemason. After going into business, he returned to municipal service and worked under Mr A Butterworth. * 1852 † Graaff-Reinet 11.5.1926

J Laughton

Laughton, John, civil engineer and architect. Laughton was born in Victoria, Australia. He came to South Africa in 1890. Laughton was town engineer of King Williams Town in 1893–1897 and Port Elizabeth from August 1897 to March 1898. He fought in the Anglo-Boer War, taking part in relief of Mafeking. After the war, Laughton relocated to Rhodesia and became a town engineer of Bulawayo c. 1903. In the 1910s, he was also a member of the Bulawayo town council and chairman of a local mining company.

Engineers in the 1900s

Howells, Danial Peter. Howells was born in Neath, Wales in 1880. He received his education and scientific training at Neath British School and Swansea Technical College in 1886–1896. Howells had his pupillage under John Howell, contractor, during 1896–1898. In 1898–1901, he was working under DM Jenkins, borough surveyor of Neath. In 1901–1903, Howells was an assistant to J Patten Barber, borough surveyor of Islington. In 1903–1905, he was an assistant to John Cook, City Engineer of Cape Town. In 1905–1908, Howells was the assistant town engineer of Wynberg. During the period 1908 to 1911, he was municipal engineer for Kalk Bay-Muizenberg. In 1911–1925, Howells was town engineer of Benoni and of Port Elizabeth from 1926 to May 1928. In 1924–1925, he was the chairman of the African District of the Association of Municipal and County Engineers. Howells was working for Barclay’s Bank in 1929–1939. In 1938–1939, he was the president of the South African Society of Civil Engineers. In 1939–1943, Howells worked for the Electricity Supply Commission. He thereafter became a consultant. Together with RW Newman prepared the initial report on abstracting water from the Kromme River. *1880 † 1953

Begg, George, civil engineer. He worked for the Department of Irrigation. He was appointed City Engineer of Port Elizabeth from 1 July 1928 until his retirement in October 1945.  He was closely involved in the Churchill Water Scheme and chose the site for the Churchill Dam. During his tenure the city suffered many water shortages. Despite numerous engineering reports, negotiations with Uitenhage Municipality and the appointment of consultants to undertake investigations were performed while the Council delayed, prevaricated and postponed the decision to implement the Churchill Scheme. * Glasgow, Scotland 16.5.1886 † Durban 4.10.1971

Burt, John James Douglas, civil engineer. Employed in 1920 by PEM as Engineering Assistant. Promoted to City Engineer in 1946. Retired in 1949. * Devonshire, England 11.8.1889 † Port Elizabeth 2.5.1969. Burt Drive was named after him.

McCallam, Douglas Malcolm (Doug) (Dr), civil engineer. Went to school at Selbourne College, East London and studied civil engineering at Natal University, which he completed in 1949. He was appointed Engineering Assistant with Port Elizabeth Municipality in May 1950. Promoted to Resident Engineer of the Water Augmentation Scheme in 1958, he was appointed Engineer-in-Charge of the Loerie scheme. He was promoted to Deputy City Engineer in 1965 and City Engineer in April 1970. He obtained his doctorate on the water resources of the Eastern Cape in 1980.

Doug was very capable and determined and often clashed with Councillors. Doug was a pilot and would fly to the airstrip at Churchill water treatment works to undertake inspections of the construction works. He resigned in January 1982 to do consulting work. * King William’s Town 7.9.1928. †Mossel Bay 27.8.2012

Clayton, Arthur James, civil engineer. Clayton was born in Windhoek in 1935 and graduated from Cape Town University in 1957. Originally City Engineer of Windhoek, he was appointed City Engineer of Port Elizabeth from 1982 to 1989.  He negotiated with the Department of Water Affairs on the exchange volume between the Gamtoos River GWS and the Lower Sundays River GWS during the drought of 1989.  He resigned to become City Engineer of Cape Town.  Arthur received numerous awards for his contributions he made. He retired in 2001. * Windhoek 1935 †29.9.2012

Moffett, William Mee, civil engineer. Born in England, William received his school education in South Africa but returned to the UK to study further. In 1930 he commenced work with Bloemfontein Municipality and moved to Germiston Municipality in 1934. He commenced service with the Port Elizabeth Municipality in March 1935 as a first-grade engineering assistant. 

WM Moffat

He was promoted to Assistant Water Engineer in 1938 and Assistant City Engineer and Water Engineer in 1946. Promoted to City Engineer in 1949 until his death in 1969 just prior to retirement.  Designed the Moffett Dam which was named after him.  He was a foundation Member of the Institution of Municipal Engineers of South Africa and was the current President at the time of his death. The William Moffett Expressway was named in his honour. * England 1867  †1942

Engineers in the 2000s

Msiwa, Mzimkulu (known as MZ), civil engineer. Appointed City Engineer (Planning) of Port Elizabeth Municipality in January 1995. Later his designation was changed to City Engineer. MZ was the first black City Engineer of PE. Resigned in February 2001. He later became CEO at Umgeni Water, after which he retired. * 2.10.1950

Said, Ali Amir, civil engineer from Tanzania.  Ali was appointed Business Unit Manager of Infrastructure & Engineering in March 2004. He resigned in May 2011. * Tanzania 10.8.1951

Walter Shaidi Photo: Mike Holmes15/10/2013 © The Herald

Shaidi, Dr Walter, civil engineer. Appointed Executive Director: Infrastructure and Engineering between June 2011 to January 2022. Prior to that, Walter was Motherwell Urban Renewal Programme Manager. *Tanzania 10.4.1955. After Shaidi left in 2022 after being suspended, The department has had no Executive Director. This gap should have been closed a long time ago.

In an Editorial Comment in the HeraldLive dated 30 December 2014, they comment as follows: Residents of Nelson Mandela Bay should not have to foot a golden handshake for the city’s disgraced water boss as he wants out of his five-year contract. It is even more inexcusable that the National Treasury has to remind the municipality that infrastructure and engineering executive director Walter Shaidi should face a disciplinary hearing for his alleged involvement in the siphoning of Integrated Public Transport System (IPTS) funding.

Non engineers
Although not City Engineers, this father and son played major roles in the development of NMBM’s water schemes.
Shand, Ninham, civil engineer. He started his career with the Department of Irrigation on the construction of Kammanassie Irrigation Scheme and as a site engineer on grain elevators. He then went to USA where he worked for the Bureau of Water Reclamation, responsible for dams and irrigation. He returned to Cape Town where he opened a private practice. Appointed Waterworks Engineer in 1927 for the raising of Sand and Bulk Rivers dams and new pipelines and the construction of Van Stadens Gorge dam. While constructing the raising of the Sand and Bulk River dams, he formed a rugby team which he captained. It was known as the Bulk River Waterbabies. Ninham suffered a shoulder injury for which he needed surgery. He was promoted to Waterworks Engineer and Assistant City Engineer on 1 July 1931.  Resigned in April 1932 to become a consulting engineer.  He reported on the Churchill Scheme and the Gamtoos River Water Scheme. Ninham undertook the survey of the Churchill pipeline route. In the 1950’s he designed the Oxbow Scheme with Basutoland’s Director of Public Works. The project objective was to supply water to South Africa and generate electricity to Lesotho. The scheme was never implemented but was the forerunner of the future Lesotho Highlands Water Project. He was a founder member of the South African Committee on Large Dams (SANCOLD). In 1946 he became president of SAICE. His firm became well known and has had a long association with the Council on water matters. * Middelburg (Cape) 19.1.1899 † July 1969.

Shand, Michael John (Dr), civil engineer. He is the son of Ninham. He was involved with the planning, design and construction of Impofu Dam and the Elandsjagt Treatment Works. As part of Ninhan Shand he completed the Algoa Systems Stochastic Analysis and future water augmentation for the city. * Cape Town 1941

Ingham, William, civil engineer. Although not Town Engineer, Ingham constructed the Sand/Bulk River Scheme. William was born in Burnley, Lancashire, England in 1867, the son of an engineer. After studying for engineering he worked on various water schemes until he came to South Africa as the Hydraulic Engineer for the Sand, Palmiet & Bulk Rivers’ Water Scheme. He brought his wife, and four children with him. They lived at Sand River, Bulk River and Port Elizabeth. The scheme was completed in 1908. Swilliam opened a consulting practice thereafter. In 1911 he was appointed as Chief Engineer of the Rand Water Board. He designed the Vaal Barrage Water Scheme, which was completed in 1923. For this ambitious scheme he achieved international recognition. He consulted for most municipalities and was a recognised water and irrigation expert. He died unexpectedly after suffering from an embolism in 1924. The day before his death he was informed that Witwatersrand University was going to award him an honorary degree of Doctor of Science in engineering. The Rand Water Board was about to award him with a bonus in recognition of his achievement. The bonus was paid out to his widow.

Many of his assistants followed him from England to work on the Sand, Palmiet & Bulk River Water Scheme. Some of these included Jack Hawkins, his brother George Ingham and Messrs Garrit, Goodman, Surdinees and Jennings.  * December 1867 † Johannesburg 8.3.1924

Streets and Roads named after former City and Water Engineers
1. Wicksteed Lane, Walmer
2. Butterworth Road, Sydenham
3. Kelly Street, Mount Croix
4. Burt Drive, Cotswold
5. McCallam Avenue, Lovemore Heights
6. Scharmberg Street, Framesby
7. William Moffett Expressway, Overbaakens
8. MacAdam Street (Jack), Newton Park
9. Matlock Bridge, Humewood
10. Kelvin Jones Wastewater Treatment Works, Uitenhage

David Raymer provided all the details and photographs

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