Port Elizabeth of Yore: From Sailing Ships to Steamers & Landing Beaches to Jetties and then Quays

The transition from sailing ships to steamers and mail ships was a gradual process. The great storm of 1902 which resulted in the destruction of 21 sailing ships and 60 souls was the last hurrah of these magnificent vessels. Port Elizabeth also lagged in the construction of quays and a breakwater which only came into operation in the early 1930s.

These are the verbatim notes of C.G.H. Skead written in 1939.

Main picture:  Customs House as completed in 1891

Until the jetty at the foot of Jetty Street was extended sufficiently to allow them to be landed there, passengers and ships’ crews had to be brought ashore in surf boats and carried to the beach on the backs of ·the Mfengu surf labourers, but that was long before my time. Even when the jetty was available it was sometimes dangerous. Once my father, mother and brother Cuthbert were capsized and thrown into the water. Cuthbert was missing for a time till a sailor saw a foot sticking up and pulled him out.

Port goods staff – N45174_141

The passenger service, afterwards carried on by launches under the control of Schello, and more especially the Messinas, was· very efficiently run, and, to their credit, not a single life was lost, notwithstanding that the trips to and fro were often run at some peril.

A new jetty, the South Jetty, was built later as trade grew and was followed by the. Dom Pedro, now used as a base for the building of the new harbour wall. Steam power was first used, then hydraulic, and now electric.

Stevedoring was mostly done contractors owning sailing boats to take the Surf Labourers to and from the ships. Names of these that occur were Chiazzain, Olivier (Frenchy), the Messinas, Schello and Giri. The work was no child’s play, even in fine weather, but was very hazardous in rough ·weather with a heavy sea running, a strong tide, ships, rolling and lighters pitching – and tossing alongside like corks.

Once a month one of the sailing boats (usually Chiazzain’s) was chartered to take stores to the lightkeepers at Bird Island, and my father always went too, to inspect the lighthouse. They were often away for two or three days, and several times great anxiety was caused when the boat was away for a week because the landing stage at the island had been unapproachable in bad weather. Later, when the. first steam tug, the Koodoo”, carried on this service, we boys often accompanied my father on these trips. Once a pleasure trip to the island in the coaster “Melrose” was organised. Many ladies and men went on the voyage, but there were many “lame ducks” on board before she returned.

More and more tugs followed the “Koodoo”; among them were the “John Paterson”, “James Searle”, “Sir Frederick”, “H.B. Christian”, “Sir William Macintosh”, “John Dock” and “C. F. Kayser”. Also many privately owned passenger launches were run as trade began to develop, “Ulundi”, “Germania.”, “Colonist”, “Countess of Carnarvon”, (sunk in the river near ‘Lourenco Marques when gunrunning during the Boer War), “Alert”, “Garth” etc.

The landing work was gradually taken over from private contract by various boating companies. Several of these failed when times were bad, and eventually only two were left – the “Union” under James Searle, and the “Port Elizabeth”, under James Forbes. These two then amalgamated and operated as the “Associated Boating Company” until the Government took over. The work was very efficiently and economically carried out by the companies, but vested interests were being created and had to be done away with.

While still very young we boys often used to sit on the Donkin Reserve to watch for the · arrival of the Union S.S. Company’s mail steamers, which they had started to run once month as far as Algoa Bay. Afterwards the Castle Mail Packet Company’s steamers, under the control of Donald Currie & Co., also started running. Cargo for East London and Durban was discharged at Algoa Bay and transferred to small coasting steamers, such as “Tenton” (lost off Danger Point with great loss of life), “Melrose”, “Venice”, “Dunkeld”, and “Cornland, my brother Willie’s first boat as purser.

Demand for street sweepers must have declined with the introduction of electric trams as the amount of horse dug would have decreased

The mail service was accelerated first to a fortnightly, and then to a weekly service, run alternately by the Union and Castle steamers until eventually they were amalgamated into the Union-Castle S.S. Company. Names of earlier steamers I recall are – Union S.S. Company: The first was the “Norseman”, then the “American”, sunk at sea. (John Paterson was drowned while landing at Madeira from the steamer that had picked up the survivors), “Arab”, ”Athenian”, “Nubian, “Briton”, “Roman”, “Saxon”, “Norman”, “Dane”, “Tartar”, “Spartan”, “Moor”, and the “Soot”, a lovely yacht-built vessel, very fast, which held the record between Southampton and the Cape until a few years back). Castle Company: “Norham”, “Pembroke”, “Drummond” (lost off Ushant in 1896 with only two survivors, my brother Willie being lost in her), “Roslin”, Grantully”, “Warwick”, Dunvegan”, Dunottar,”, “Tantallon” (wrecked off Mouille Point)

With later developments came the intermediate steamers followed by the Clan, Bucknall, German and other lines. Union’s intermediate steamers were Gaul, Galician, Goth, Greek, Galeka, and Galway (Torpedoed in the Great War). Castle names were Tintagel, Dover, (struck Roman Rock), Berwick, Donne (lost afterwards on a Cocos Island treasure hunt), Duart, Raglan, Dunluce, Durham, Dunbar, Dromsee, Gloucester, Garth, Llanstephan, Llandover, (torpedoed as a hospital ship in the Great War), Llandaff; Llangibby.

The Advance in steamer tonnage can be gauged by the advertisement of the “new mail” steamer, “Pembroke Castle”, of some 3000 tons burthen with “all the latest improvements. No electric light yet and I can still see those candle lamps in the cabins, swinging ceaselessly in gimbals, to and fro, up and down, while one lay in a bunk, deadly sick and watching them; quite fascinated while the smell of grease and oil was everywhere.


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

Rate this post

Leave a Comment.