Port Elizabeth of Yore: Harbour Construction Controversy

Amongst the grievances of the residents of the Eastern Cape from the 1850s onwards was the question of building a harbour at Port Elizabeth. Keenly aware that the needs and interests of Cape Town were favoured above those of Port Elizabeth, the Separatist Movement was formed. To satisfy their movements’ grievances in the wake of the adoption of the Responsible Government Bill in 1872 in which their complaints were not addressed, they then proposed either the creation of a Federal Structure or alternatively complete separation from the west.

Inasmuch as the Eastern Cape was more entrepreneurial than the Western Cape, their needs differed from those of their Dutch speaking residents in the west. Beset by difficulties such as the lack of roads, irrigation schemes and a harbour through which to export their prime product – wool, they were understandably reluctant to subsidise the western Cape.

This blog covers the endeavours of John Geard to obtain funding for a new harbour and to expediate the issue.

Main picture: The ill-fated breakwater which had to be demolished after being silted up almost immediately after the completion of construction

First jetty
Unlike most countries, southern Africa did not possess natural harbours as none of its rivers were navigable. Moreover, there was a dearth of inlets and protected bays which could serve as harbours. Instead, one had to construct a breakwater in order to provide an area protected from rough seas and gales. As the colonial government could not afford to provide either, the local residents constructed a wooden jetty anchored to the carcass of a wretched ship The Feejee at the bottom of Jetty Street. Construction commenced in 1840 but in 1842 during a stormy south easter, three vessels broke their anchors and were driven through the jetty, irreparably destroying it.    

Landing Place 1840 by HW Piers

Ill-fated breakwater
The timeline of the life of the first of the first breakwater constructed at Port Elizabeth.

This timeline clearly indicates that the life of this breakwater from conception to commencing demolition was 12 years. How did this situation arise? The failure can be attributed to a number of factors, but I contend that the overarching factor was poor design. Instead of the Baakens River flowing directly into the sea it flowed into the harbour thereby silting up the harbour. Secondly the insidious effect of the current flow from Cape Recife was not taken into account. This is illustrated by the indecision about whether to fill in between the piles with rocks.

Having blighted the career of many a bureaucrat and harbour engineer, most proponents of a harbour would not raise their heads over the proverbial parapet to support the proposal of a new harbour. It would take a new generation of leaders to take up the cudgels on behalf of the cause.

Amongst those who did so was a successful businessman, philanthropist and devout Christian, John Geard

Geard in Legislative Council
On all the Councils and Boards on which Geard served, he provided excellent service, yet it was the ten years from 1872 to 1882 on the Legislative Council, the forerunner of the Cape Parliament, that he arguably did his best work. On this body he was a member of the Separatist Movement whose main purpose was to shine a light on the grievances of the residents of the eastern Cape. As this area generated more revenue for the Cape fiscus than the western half, the members felt aggrieved in not being allocated a fair share of such income. Instead of the westerners ensuring that their needs were catered for, the east lacked infrastructure such as proper roads, bridges, and irrigation schemes. For the major industry, wool, it was the lack of a harbour which aggrieved them.

Geard’s energies were channelled in this direction. To make himself au fait with all its aspects, he demanded copies of all correspondence, minutes, and plans, thereby not endearing himself to the Colonial Secretary and his office.

This was a thankless task in that no senior official in the bureaucracy would accept responsibility due to having career limiting possibilities after two failed attempts at harbour construction. Instead, they delegated authority to Sir John Coode, an eminent harbour engineer based in England. This came with two grave consequences; firstly, being based overseas, it delayed decision making and secondly the vast scale of the design led to it being placed on the back burner until after WW1. In the interim all that Port Elizabeth would be allowed was a jetty protruding into the sea, the North Jetty.

From the Memoir of Geard
This section is a lighted redacted portion of the book Memoir of the Hon. John Geard by his son-in-law Rev. A Hanesworth. It only covers some of the work performed by Geard as a member of the Council.

The Port Elizabeth Harbour Works commanded his earnest support. We find him moving “for copies of all reports and correspondence between Government and the late Harbour Board of Port Elizabeth, relative to the carrying out of Sir J. Coode’s plan, dated 19th February, 1870, particularly that regarding the construction of the retaining bank,’ south of the  works, [this is probably a reference to Victoria Quay] also any  minutes which may have been placed on record by the Secretary since the visit of the Minister for Public Works in 1874, bearing on the subject of said works, together with copies of all correspondence between the Government and Sir J. Coode on the subject of the Port Elizabeth Harbour Works, especially the last reference to that gentleman relative to the “sea wall.” The hon. member said his reason for moving in this matter was that no one who was acquainted with the Harbour Works of Port Elizabeth, and their past history could be satisfied with the answer he (Mr. Geard) received with regard to them the other day.  He had not got that answer now, but it was to the effect that there had been a further reference to Sir John Coode, and that no action could be taken until his reply was received. This was a repetition of the answer which was made last year to a similar question Since that time things had not remained in status quo but had been getting worse.

Entitled Port Elizabeth from the Donkin Reserve, 1840 painted by HW Piers-The First Jetty

He could not see that there was any necessity for a further reference to Sir John Coode. He did not know whether the Government had lost sight of the fact that during the last session the Council passed a resolution recommending the appointment by Sir John Coode of a competent engineer to take charge of the works at Port Elizabeth, and to supervise those at Port Alfred and East London.  The mischief which had been caused by these delays constituted a heavy tax upon the public generally. Some people went so far as to say they were strongly of opinion the Government was determined to do all the harm it could to the Port Elizabeth Harbour Works. He (Mr. Geard) should not like to entertain such an opinion of the Government, or to think it could be influenced by feelings of envy or malice. In consequence of this neglect, he had taken some pains to ascertain the tonnage landed and shipped at Port Elizabeth. After a careful enquiry, he had ascertained the quantity was about 200,000 tons a year, the average of which was 7/6 per ton. Now, if Sir John Coode’s plans had been carried out as recommended in 1870, as they ought to have been carried out by the Government, the cost of these landing charges would have been reduced to 5/- a ton. In this way a direct tax of 2/6 a ton had been imposed upon all goods landed and shipped at Port Elizabeth, yielding not less than £25,000 per annum. In addition to this the neglect of the Government had entailed additional taxation upon the country. Sir John Goode, in his first report had recommended that an immediate commencement should be made with the construction of the sea wall, in conjunction with the opening up of the jetty. Nothing could be plainer than the language in which these instructions had been conveyed, and the effect of opening up the jetty without making the retaining wall had been that the sand had accumulated in a most alarming manner. All these matters were brought to the notice of the Government last year, and he thought the Government was chargeable with culpable neglect in not having attended to them.  This neglect had not only entailed additional taxation upon the public but would largely increase the cost of carrying out the work. He (Mr. Geard) must say he could not understand that a delay was necessary for any further reference to Sir John Coode. The works were not being carried out according to his plans, and it seemed as if the Government was only anxious to be let off from following them. He trusted, therefore, the House, would agree to the motion.

Port Elizabeth landing place, 1840 by HW Piers#2

In a later debate on the same subject Mr. Geard said he was glad to find the Government was waking up to a sense of its duty. When he (Mr. Geard) moved for the production of the papers containing the correspondence with Sir John Coode, the Treasurer-General had said there would be no objection to the production of them, and the same hon. member now attempted to shield himself by arguing that the mischief was done prior to the present Government taking office. This was partly true, but it was also true that the mischief had been very much increased since then. It was the duty of the Government to have taken this matter in hand immediately upon coming into office, and he charged them with culpable neglect in not having done so. When this charge was made, he was accused of having made it without making any enquiries. He decidedly repudiated the charge, for he had taken the pains of consulting the various documents which had been laid before Parliament upon the subject. He had brought to the notice of the Council the fact that long ago Mr. Bissett complained that the plans of Sir John Coode were not being carried out, and showed that, owing to this neglect, the trade of Port Elizabeth was taxed to the extent of £25,000 a year by the additional charges which were imposed upon the landing and shipment of goods there. Since the time at which he made this statement, he had received a letter from one of the boating companies at Port Elizabeth, showing that his estimate of the loss thus incurred was under the mark. He also stated that the cost of doing the work ultimately would be increased by these delays, and in support of this assertion he need only refer to the report of Sir John Coode. He (Mr. Geard) could not understand what the Treasurer-General meant when he said that the instructions of Sir John Coode were not definite, seeing that Sir John Coode distinctly said he was not responsible for the delay which had taken place, and that in consequence of this delay there would be increased expense, and the waste of load worth from one hundred to a hundred and fifty thousand pounds.  Sir John Coode had expressed his opinion that the two descriptions of work should be commenced simultaneously, and in consequence of this not having been done the sand was allowed to accumulate, and the effect would be that instead of building upon the dry land they would have to excavate the sands to a considerable depth.

Close-up view of the original breakwater with South End in the background [Transnet Heritage Library]

There was no excuse for this culpable neglect on the part of the Government, for Sir John Coode recommended in February 1870, that this work should be done. He repeated that recommendation in 1872, again in 1873, and again in his last report. He (Mr. Geard) was very glad to see that the Government was waking up to a sense of its duties and was disposed to take the advice which had been so long urged upon it by the Harbour Board, the Chamber of Commerce and others who were acquainted with the circumstances, and to appoint a competent Resident Engineer.  If that had been done years ago all the money which had been spent upon the works unprofitably might have been saved. The making of one man responsible for the works was one of the first things to be done. He had only one point more to refer to. The other day, in reply to some remarks made by the hon. member at the head of the table (Mr. Wood), the Treasurer-General said that if that were the right time to do it, he should be able to prove that nearly as much money had been expended upon harbours, roads, and bridges in the Eastern Districts as in the West. Now he (Mr. Geard) challenged the Treasurer­ General to prove any part of this statement; and if he could do so, he (Mr. Geard) would not move for the printing of certain documents which were now before the Council. He did not hesitate to say there was no ground for any part of this statement, but he would now confine himself to harbour works. He had been at considerable pains to master this subject and to arrive at a satisfactory result. From a paper which had been laid upon the table dated 1875, he had ascertained that the total expenditure on the Table Bay Harbour works up to the end of 1874 was £439,854, in addition to the convict labour estimated at £125,000. These figures did not include interest upon debentures or the cost of maintenance, which he estimated at £200,000, thus making a total expenditure upon the Table Bay Harbour Works of about £750,000.  Of this sum £300,000 had been raised upon loans, £250,000 by means of harbour and dock dues, leaving £200,000 to be provided for in no other way than out of the general revenue. The same paper also gave the expenditure upon the Port Elizabeth Harbour Works.  As to the expenditure between 1853 and 1856, there was nothing to show what it amounted to, but he might say that a about half of what had been put down was in dispute between the Harbour Works in Port Elizabeth and the Government, it having been expended in the construction of a sea-wall which had been taken over by the Railway Department, and for which they ought to allow the value of the work. The expenditure up to a certain time was, therefore, unknown to him, but the total amount which had been expended by the old Harbour Board from the time at which it took over the works in 1856 up to 1871, when the work was taken out of their hands, was £188,958. The subsequent expenditure brought up the total to about £190,000, which had to be put against the expenditure of £750,000 upon the Harbour Works in Table Bay. How, then, could the Treasurer General say that as much money had been spent upon harbour works in the Eastern Districts as in the West?

The Treasurer-General: I did not confine my remarks to harbour works alone. Mr. Geard said he thought the Treasurer-General had forgotten what he had said. He (Mr. Geard) had taken down the Treasurer-General’s words, and found they were so reported in the Argus. He was willing, however, to accept the statement of the Treasurer-General. although he certainly thought his hon. friend had stated to the House that the expenditure upon the Eastern harbours was equal to that in the West.

Dr. Christie said he had a perfect recollection that the Treasurer-General said the expenditure upon harbour works, roads and bridges in the East, was equal to that in the West. The Acting-President remarked that when an hon. member was charged by another with having used certain words which the former denied the denial was taken as conclusive.

Mr. Geard continued that remarks had been made that the money which had been expended upon the Port Elizabeth harbour had been thrown away, and he very much regretted it was so. It had been urged upon the Government of former days that a competent engineer should be appointed to superintend the works, but it was not done. The same thing was afterwards urged upon the present Ministry without success, and if the money which had been spent had been thrown away, he trusted that in future the work would be carried on with spirit, and that the Government would take care there was no further waste of public money.

Over the next 40 years, the North Jetty would be extended and widened. It would provide noteworthy service over that life. The shambolic state of financial record keeping was thrown into sharp relief by the authority’s inability to account for the fact that the P.E. harbour costs should have been diligently apportioned between the dismantling of the unusable breakwater, the construction of the seawall – the Victoria quay – and the North Jetty.  

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