Port Elizabeth of Yore: Living Conditions during the First Decades

Initially there were 4000 Settlers camped in tents amongst the sand dunes without running water or ablution facilities. Upon their departure, those who, for whatever reason remained, would have faced the nightmarish twin plights of erecting a shelter and eking out a living. Both were daunting. Nothing was uncomplicated. Everything was a challenge. Nothing could have prepared them for what they had to face.

At best the living conditions in this undeveloped land must have been primitive and at worst squalid. JJ Redgrave in this book, Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days, provides a peak into this unknown world.

Main picture: Examples of Settlers’ Homes

Most of those remaining in Port Elizabeth after the settlers had departed for Albany would have wondered whether they had made the correct decision to leave home permanently for a land without even the barest necessities. Today, many casting their eyes on photographs of Port Elizabeth in the late 1800s with its elegant town hall and marvellous buildings enclosing the market square would be forgiven for imagining that this reflected life for the early settlers.  How wrong could they be? Compounding the complication in attempting to understand Port Elizabeth’s early history, is a lack of records. Apart from a Fort with soldiers and a sprinkling of other dwellings, it was vacant. Unoccupied. Deserted.

Wagon and tent by Thomas Baine

Roof over their heads

Maslow, an American psychologist, once insightfully opined that the most basic of human needs related to security and one of the components at the base of this pyramid of needs, was shelter. It is unclear how this issue was resolved. That begs the question of how the inhabitants progressed from tents, with which they were issued, to elegant permanent dwellings. No where in the literature on Port Elizabeth has this aspect of the early residents been addressed. One can make some intelligent  assumptions. It is safe to assume that most would initially have used the tents with which they were issued. But what is unclear is whether they made the transition directly from tents to properly constructed houses. My contention is that even though many possessed the skills vital to construct a house as they were stone masons or other skill, they lacked one vital resource, the local branch of the Builders Warehouse. Even if it had miraculously appeared, in many cases they would have lacked another vital ingredient: money. It was a classic catch 22 situation.

Against this background, I assume that most cottages initially produced would have been rudimentary with wattle and daub walls protected by a thatch roof.

Many would have been constructed in Main Street; High Street in those days. In the second phase, double storey buildings would have been built. In the typical manner of the time, the ground floor would have been reserved for a shop or a workshop. All the great entrepreneurs of that era such as Geard operated on that basis. It was only 30 years later that the rising elite would escape to the Hill, as it was then known.

The only reference that I am able to uncover relating to the period immediately after the settlers left for the eastern frontier, is this one in JJ Redgrave’s book, a rather sombre, pessimistic view of the village in 1822 by a certain Mr. S. Hudson who wrote as follows: .”Scarcely one house can be called decent. Miserable little huts run up without taste or convenience,  for  every  man  who has built a pigsty in England considers himself capable  of erecting a house in Port Elizabeth.” Perhaps it was unfair given the lack of any form of resources in the town. Nevertheless, it reflected the reality of the situation.

This unsavoury reputation would persist for many years to come. Similar comments were made by sailors aboard the Dutch vessel, the Zeepaard, which in 1823 had been wrecked off the coast at Bushy Park.

Theunissen, one of the crew lamented that “the population is poor. A tailor, who charged me three times his [normal] rate, admitted that poverty forced him to take the opportunity to do so. These and other similar observations made me lament the fate of these unfortunates.”

Sanitation and Hygiene

During the early 1820s, Port Elizabeth was not a separate municipal area but rather part of Uitenhage, the region’s administrative centre. Inasmuch as the officials were cognisant of the lack of hygiene, they did raise the alarm. As early as  1824  the local  Magistrate made a strong representation to the Governor “for  the  better regulation of the  Police  at  the  rising  town  of  P.E. where  an English (and  not  a  very orderly) population is fast  increasing”.

In the following  year  the  limits  of  the  township  of  Algoa  Bay were  defined as “An imaginary line  drawn  from  the place  of Michael Cordie and McCullock  situated  at   the south-west   point of Algoa  Bay,  up  to  the  place  of   Jacobus  Theodorus   Botha, thence to  the  place  of   Gert  H. Halzhuizen,   thence  to the  place of  the  widow Pieter  Schouw,  now  Newcomb’s.  then down the Little Zwartkops  River  whose  source  is  at  the  last-mentioned place, following the same down to where it  empties  itself into the Great Zwartkops  River  and   thence  down   the   same  to its  mouth at the  coast,  including  all  the  inhabitants   residing  at  the  places and  within the  limits   before-mentioned,  shall  form the  Township of  Algoa  Bay. And   be   it   forthwith enacted that the town at Algoa Bay shall  be  designated  in  all  public  acts  as  Port Elizabeth “.

Redgrave critically states that “The dwellings springing up at all angles,  regardless  of  any future thought for a well-planned town, were damp, dirty and ill-ventilated.”

Situation in the 1850s

In many respects Port Elizabeth was not unlike the towns back in the mother country. At that time, no formal sewerage system had yet been developed. Backyards, alleyways and gutters became the recipients of the slops and dirty water of all forms.

Apart from the water supply, what to do with the town’s sewerage was the most serious problem that faced the municipality over the years. After abandoning the very early arrangement of depositing it on the beach below the high-water mark, the bucket system was introduced, with variations in the manner of organisation as time passed. The service lanes which still exist in the older parts of the City are a reminder of the outside toilet and its bucket. This situation would be perpetuated until after 1916 when the town’s first sewerage pipes were laid in Russell Street after being stalled for 14 years.

Redgrave lamented that “Unfortunately. even in the early ‘fifties.  there  had  been  but little improvement in the order and cleanliness  of the  town. The thoroughfares called streets were rough stony tracks where ox wagons, horsemen and the boisterous  winds  raised  clouds  of dust in dry weather. and were converted into pools and slush at every downpour. For light, these streets  depended  at  night  on  the  moon and   stars, and  when   these   were  absent, pedestrians guided  their steps by the  light of a swinging  lantern”.

Frames Reservoir on Shark’s River in Gomery [Mark Finnigan’s Collection]

Water supply had been problematic in the early days, but the creation of public wells had been dug to meet the demand. In the ongoing quest to provide water to the town, a dam was built on the Shark River in Humewood. A solitary iron pipe was laid from Gomery [Humewood] to the town, supplied brackish water  to the lower end of Main Street. As it turned out the piped water was just as inconvenient in that, like with the wells, a receptacle with water had to be carted to one’s home. This restricted the number of “luxury” uses of the water such as bathing.

With no refuse removal service, household refuse was thrown into the streets or on any convenient vacant plot of which there were still many, whilst “round the corner”, the cattle were  being slaughtered and the carcasses left to rot or to be devoured by  stray cats and dogs which were the curse of the town, frequent rounding-up parties being organised among the townsfolk to destroy  them.

From a waste generation perspective, this was an era a century prior to the throw-away society where single use products became the norm. Bottles and even egg boxes were re-used. Fruit and vegetables were home grown, and if not, purchased fresh and not in a tin or frozen. Likewise with meat, chicken and eggs. Clothes were homemade. The volume of waste generated was a fraction of today’s refuse. Nonetheless, at the very least, waste was produced but there was no discernable method of its sanitary disposal. That begs the question of what happened to it.

Opening the value at Frames Dam in 1863

During the 1920s,the Council introduced refuse removal trucks. My brother, Blaine, pointed out that as these small vehicles could only carry one cubic metre of waste, it could only carry the equivalent of five wheelie bins of waste. This is indicative of the meagre volumes of waste produced during this era. Nevertheless, it does not detract from the need to provide a hygienic method of waste disposal.  

Perhaps the people of this era were inured to the rancid odour of rotting carcasses or the nauseating small of waste water but the issue was more intrusive than that. Germane to this discussion, is the volume of animal droppings in the streets. This applied not only the problem of horse droppings but also that of the oxen. Imagine 50 ox wagons each drawn by 8 oxen parking in Main Street to attend the market.

For the most part, it would only be the introduction of technology which would resolve these problems, not merely locally but internationally. With few exceptions, most cities are established along the banks of a large river. Like London, its river served as its sewer as well as its water source.

Port Elizabeth did not have this luxury.


Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)

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