Port Elizabeth of Yore: First proposed slipway

Whatever else could be said about the British Settlers, one could not denigrate them for lack of initiative, determination and drive. By nature John Centlivres Chase, an original 1820 Settler, was an entrepreneur who explored all opportunities of advancement. On a recent trip to Cape Town, he had paid a visit to the recently completed Simon’s Town patent slipway. Being impressed by it, he had taken the opportunity in 1860 to approach the marine engineer involved, Robert Mair, with a view to replicating this slipway in Port Elizabeth.  

Main picture: The original short-lived breakwater

The Patent Slipway Scheme of 1860

Given the fact that his father-in-law, Frederick Korsten, used to own the old whaling station at Fishery Point [now Hobie Beach], Chase was aware that it “would afford a position equally favourable as Simon’s Bay, for the construction of a Patent Slip“. Mair had affirmed Chase’s opinion by replying that “I have no doubt that a very superior article could be put down at Port Elizabeth for considerably less than has been expended here.” As neither Chase nor Mair ever recorded why they considered this site particularly suitable for the erection of a slipway, one can safely assume that it was one of two reasons or possibly both. Firstly, it was certainly the fact that the rocks covered the area but equally important was that there was a steep embankment on the shore onto which the vessels could be drawn.  

As a consequence, the Harbour Board was induced to invite Mair to Algoa Bay. However, local opinion was much divided on the practicability of the scheme as only some saw the potential of this scheme. Mair arrived towards the end of October 1860. After spending three weeks investigating the proposal and after some “mature deliberation” with the aid of a harbour board sub-committee, Mair submitted a “most favourable report“.

I must note that assisting him greatly in arriving at this conclusion was the eldest son of my second great aunt, Adelaide Fleming [nee McCleland], William Fleming junior who had kept a daily record of shipping since 1856, “which alone (gave)…nearly all the information required.” Per Jon Inggs, his records revealed “that from 1856 to 1860, 52 vessels had put into Algoa Bay for repairs. Of these 37 called during the winter months – May to August – 21 during June alone. Although 34 had been repaired, the other 13, with an average of 763 tons each, had been condemned. During 1858-59 alone, “42 vessels ran past this port, after endeavouring in vain to weather the Cape, and made for Mauritius, all requiring repairs.” In addition, regular traders of 350 tons apiece made up 42% of Port Elizabeth’s shipping traffic”.

These findings, together with a small model of the proposed scheme, were placed in the library which was then located in the Commercial Hall in Market Square for public inspection.

Based upon the expected usage of the slipway as derived from Fleming’s recordings, Mair was confident that a 244-metre slipway costing £19 000, capable of taking ships of up to 2 000 tons, would be fully justified. He estimated that ships would be able to be put on the proposed slipway during 150 days of the year or on three out of every seven days.

Possible sites

Two sites at the Fishery were found to be equally eligible and soundings had been taken at both. Mair preferred the one a little to the north of the Shark River. The rock formation there would form a natural foundation and a quarry could be opened in the nearby hill. The Swartkops River was considered as an option but was rejected because the removal of the bar there would exceed the cost of the slipway itself. A site inside the breakwater was also rejected. Apart from the problem of shifting sand, a slipway there would interfere with the intended landing facilities.

Onions scuttles slipway

It was another Simon’s Town engineer who scuttled the scheme; G.W. Onions. it was this opinion, and not Mair, which decided the matter. Onions noted that “I have…been permitted to peruse the evidence…[but it] is confined chiefly to the question of ‘swell,’ ‘lift,’ ‘current,’ and prevailing winds. Upon the question of the most vital importance (the nature of the bottom of the Bay…) so little evidence was elicited, and that of such an indefinite kind, as to have appeared quite an unnecessary ingredient… That the bottom of the Bay at the Fishery is rocky and unsuitable I have no other means of determining but by the reported evidence… From this testimony [and additional reports from the harbour master and resident engineer], I can have no hesitation in concluding that the selected site at the Fishery is in every sense unsuitable for the reception of a Patent Slip, and that such an undertaking would be of necessity a decided failure. Thus “the commissioners regretted that they were not now in a position to entertain the subject of a Slip.”

With that, the scheme was quietly forgotten. Today very few people are aware of this initial attempt at erecting a slipway in Port Elizabeth. Notwithstanding that rejection, the need never did disappear. A similar scheme was ultimately resuscitated It was constructed and eventually brought into operation in 1903 on the site favoured by JC Chase at Fishery Point south of the mouth of the Shark River.


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