Port Elizabeth of Yore: Securing the Town’s Water Supply

The accepted norm when establishing a new town, is to locate it on a perennial water source. By non-adherence to this immutable law, the residents of the town were to suffer for 50 years. The first attempt to supply the residents of Port Elizabeth with water was not hugely successful. As the water was delivered by means of gravity feed from the Frames Reservoir on the Shark River, only the residents not residing on the hill could be serviced. Furthermore, the quality of the water was questionable. Far-sighted residents and officials agitated for a more reliable source of potable water. This is their story.

This blog has largely been based upon David Raymer’s excellent book entitled The Streams of Life: The Water Supply of Port Elizabeth and UItenhage.

Main picture: Weir on the Van Stadens River

Severe drought
It was a severe drought suffered by the whole of the Cape during 1865-1866 that brought the lack of piped water to a head. As wells on the Hill failed, water had to be carried or carted up the hill by horse drawn carts. The price of water from the Shark’s River increased exorbitantly to 3 or 4 pence per quarter or half a crown per barrel. Some rogues even sold muddy Baaken’s River water as clean Frame’s Dam water. The initial suggestion was that the Colonial Government introduce a levy on wool in the Eastern Cape and that the proceeds be allocated to all towns in the Province. Vociferous opposition was evoked by this proposal from the sector most affected by the drought: the wool farmers. Needless to say, the parsimonious Cape Government’s short-sighted response was to reject the proposal on the grounds that adequate rains had fallen subsequent to the receipt of the petition. What a flimsy, illogical pretext to reject the proposal.

Less myopic that the Cape officials, Robert Pinchin, who had established himself in 1849 as a land surveyor and civil engineer and who was responsible for the surveying of a large part of the town, constructed a weir on the Stadens Rivier in the vicinity of the Nali Waterfall. Note that at this time, the name was spelt Van Staadens but the future name is used throughout. In order to plan a possible route for a water pipeline, Messrs. Robert Archibald, the Town Engineer, and Wormald made a survey of the gorge area. 

As a matter of course, Pinchin would gauge the flow of the stream by installing the prescribed measuring apparatus at the weir. The resultant daytime measurement was 343,000 gallons per diem and at night it rose to 255,000 gallons due to the reduced evaporation. This was cutting it fine as Pinchin had determined that the town would require a continuous supply of 350,000 per diem to meet the town’s potable water requirement but rationalised that the yield would be sufficient after soaking rains had fallen.

At a meeting of the Town Council held in February 1866, George Reed suggested that to assess the minimum quantity of water likely to be supplied by the Van Stadens River, the current dry season would be an excellent time to gauge the stream’s flow rate. The Council mandated that a committee consisting of the Town Engineer, Robert Archibald, Robert Pinchin and the Railway Engineer, Heaford proceed to van Stadens to conduct investigations in situ.

On the early hours of a Saturday, morning the committee joined by a local journalist, assembled at the residence of the Mayor, Mr. John Miller. From there they proceeded in a wagonette along Cape Road to Greenbushes where they a break at Murray’s Hotel and the party was met by John Geard and Russell Hallack. Now enlarged, the party travelled across the Brakwater Flats to the van Stadens River valley in the Witteklip Mountains going straight to the Nali Waterfall. It was immediately evident that in spite of the drought, the river was flowing in a gentle stream. Having completed their tasks, the proceeded to Mrs. Hannah Cadles eponymous Cadle’s Hotel for a protracted lunch.

Nali waterfall below the weir on the Van Stadens River

At the subsequent Council meeting, the Committee presented their technical findings and the estimates costs for the proposed Van Stadens Water Supply Scheme. Moreover it was proposed that the required 30 miles of pipes could be manufactured from clay at the Maitland Mines. Without dissension, the report was accepted by the Council and proposed to present it to the Colonial Parliament for ratification. 

A False Dawn
The report of the Water Supply Committee was to languish in bureaucratic limbo from 1866 to 1877. At a Council Meeting of that year the Mayor, Henry William Pearson, instructed the Town Clerk, Thomas Wormald, to advertise the fact that during the ensuing session of Parliament, a Bill would be introduced to permit and enable Port Elizabeth to draw water from the van Stadens River.  In essence this Bill would comprise two parts viz “to take and to hold such lands as may be necessary for purpose of the said Act” and “Also to enable the said Council to issue Debentures for all or a portion of the capital required therefore and to levy and collect a rate or rates for the payment of interest on such Debentures.”

The Port Elizabeth Water Supply Act, Act No. 31 of 1877, was passed by Parliament. Before preparing the specifications for the Van Stadens River Works in 1877, Gamble obtained permission from the Town Council to send to England for a Resident Engineer. John Hamilton Wicksteed was selected for the position, arriving in Algoa Bay on the 29th December 1877 aboard the vessel Edinburgh Castle. On embarkation, Wicksteed proceeded to the Town Hall where his first port of call was the office of the Town Clerk, Wormald and then to meet the Mayor, HW Pearson. After a few brief hours, Wicksteed was in the saddle for a hot ride across the Brak Vlakte on the treeless Cape Road en route to the Nali Waterfall in the van Stadens River Valley. No mention is made whether they stopped to the Greenbushes or Cadles Hotel for lunch as the record is silent on that fact. Wicksteed, without prompting, diligently set to work performing surveys to determine the most suitable pipe track. Subsequently he drafted, and in consultation with Gamble, prepared the specifications for seven contracts under which the work was to be performed.

John Hamilton Wicksteed


Per the schedule of contracts, the majority of the work especially that requiring engineering skill as opposed to just sheer brawn was awarded to British companies with the laying of distribution pipes in the town as well as installation of domestic services was performed by local companies.

The first contract represented all the large bore piping used to transport the water from Wicksteed’s Weir to the Fort Nottingham service reservoir in Glendinningvale. All of the piping was manufactured from cast iron unlike modern piping which rolled from a steel coil and the OD [outside diameter] was 12 inches or 300 millimetres. As there were no docks in Port Elizabeth for another 30 years, these pipes were offloaded from the ships at the roadstead into surfboats and lighters. These lighters were operated by various Boating Companies based on the sea shore between the future Jetty Street and the mouth of the Baakens River. The Town Council was responsible to pay for the Customs Duty, wharfage dues as well as undertaking to pay all charges over eight shillings and six pence per ton.

On offloading these pipes, it was discovered that they had been badly stowed on board without the customary wooden dunnage used to separate the pipes and to prevent damage. As a consequence, many were found to have cracks. Using Council staff, many of these pipes had to be cut. The expenses related to the cutting as well the value of the iron removed was deducted from the payment certificates.

After attempting to cut several pipes using a lathe or a machine, it soon became apparent that the hard Cleveland metal from which the pipes had been cast, would defeat the accepted method of cutting such pipes. As can be imagined, a sigh of protest arose when the cutting reverted to the hammer and chisel method. Subsequently, all the pipes were tested, then stacked on gantries ready to be transported by ox-wagon to site. The Council’s testing yard was situated near the beach in the vicinity of the Algoa Bay Boating Company’s stores and the land occupied by the boat builders, Messrs Grabbe and Lucas. The Baakens River formed the southern boundary of the Testing Yard and access to the site was gained from either Customs Street or the Boating Company’s road.

The second contract was awarded to Messrs. John Mackay and FW North of Swansea, represented in the Cape Colony by the engineer and son of the contractor, Mr. JC Mackay. In essence their contract included constructing the masonry intake weir above the Nali Waterfall in the Van Stadens River Valley, transporting the pipes and fittings from the testing yard to site, excavating the trenches for the 47 km long pipeline, laying and jointing pipes, constructing the necessary valve chambers and break pressure tanks, and backfilling trench excavations. The first pipes were removed from the testing yard by the contractor in June 1879.

The third contract for the manufacture and testing of all the valves and special fittings such as air relief valves, pressure regulating valves and fire hydrants, used both for the supply pipeline and for the distribution watermains constructed in town, was awarded to Messrs. Glenfield Company of Kilmarnock. They were also responsible for the supply of all fittings required for the installationof domestic services to houses and other premises in town.

In his book, Streams of Life, David Raymer states that “With the contracts awarded, work on the Van Stadens River Waterworks Scheme commenced in 1879 under the personal supervision of Mr Wicksteed, who was meticulous in his supervision of work, the strictness of which sometimes proved trying to the men. But he had an easy, good humoured way of securing loyalty 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 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’. He was answered 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 mulling on these words for five minutes the man set to work again and accomplished more than any of the other workmen that day.

Mr Wicksteed spent much of his time at the intake weir in the Van Stadens River Valley and stayed at Lukin’s Camp, during the three-year contract period. The camp was 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 mentions that he often rode over to a fruit farm some six miles across the hills owned by a London market gardener. This was almost certainly the farm Mountain View near Elands River.

Mr Wicksteed had many discomforts to endure. Once, after two damp nights, fifty loaves of bread in a bag went mouldy and 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! In an account dated September 1880, Mr Wicksteed mentions that the most difficult portion of the practical execution of the work fell under the second contract. This was tendered for in England without the tenderer having visited the Colony. It was however carried out in a businesslike and determined manner worthy of special praise. It was necessary in the execution of the contract to conduct the main line of pipes for the first three miles below the dam, down the gorge of the Van Stadens River, along a rugged and difficult track. In some places it was necessary to cut deeply into the rock, in others to fly from point to point on pillars or brackets. At three points, crossings under the bed of the river were needed and in some places the pipes were laid on slopes where it was impossible to walk upright. Nearly the whole of this portion of the pipeline route was naturally difficult to access and various methods had to be adopted to get the pipes to their positions.

Where it was found practical 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 incline of about 300 feet into the gorge, by way of a narrow path which cut diagonally down the side of the gorge.

For the descent the pipes were lashed to sledges and manoeuvred down by labourers, at some places at considerable speed. The path being narrow and the gorge precipitous, it was first feared that many of the pipes might “come to grief’ in the descent and various schemes were suggested to ensure their safety. Amongst these was one of attaching the workers to the ropes by which they manoeuvred the sledges at speed down the slope, with a view to giving them a feeling of personal

involvement in the fate of the pipes (it appeared, however, that the “boys’ had a prejudice against the plan and it was not put into practice!). The work was nevertheless carried out with remarkably few casualties. Mr. Wicksteed further mentions that special precautions had to be taken to ensure the safety of the work on completion, as there was the danger that large masses of rock would fall upper portions of the cliffs onto the exposed pipeline. To avoid such disasters where the pipes could not be laid in naturally sheltered positions, they were deeply recessed into the rocks to protect them from “avalanches’, but where the pipes were necessarily exposed, all overhanging rocks and loose stones, up to great heights above the pipeline route, were dislodged with dynamite or by mechanical means and brought down before the pipes were placed into position. In this manner hundreds of tons of stone (to say nothing of assortments of snakes and scorpions) were sent down into the gorge. Large gangs of labourers were kept employed on the work for weeks on end. At times the noise was deafening.

Above: Nali Waterfall below Wicksteed’s Weir

‘Testing pipes in town is rather a tedious operation on account of the precaution necessary to avoid flooding property by the bursts which always occur at first with new pipes, no matter what precautions have been taken to test them before laying. In this case we shall have twenty miles of pipes to test in town before the works are brought into operation. The ‘opening day’ will, therefore, certainly not be for a couple of months and very possibly not until towards the end of the year. I am introducing a new system of testing our pipes the usual plan is to turn the water on very gently so as not to strain the pipes in the first instance and try and get the works started with as few casualties as possible, the result of which care is that weak pipes keep bursting and bad joints keep failing, often for years after new works get started.” … “Our Mayor, Mr. Pearson, has recently been returned to Parliament to occupy the seat of John Paterson who was drowned after the sinking of the American.”

At an 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 Herald.

The jet was double the height of the Post Office and vanished in a shower of spray. At the official opening which took place during June 1881, one of the visitors, General Vaughan, special correspondent to the Times in Natal, got soaked by the spray of water when the wind changed.

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.

A tragedy marred the completion of the Van Stadens River Waterworks Scheme. When Wicksteed wrote his last letter to his mother on 11 August 1881 from Humansdorp, he complained of feeling ill and told her that he had resigned from his new appointment as Town Engineer due to overwork. He­ kept his appointment as Waterworks Engineer and it was evident from the letter that he was suffering from extreme depression.

On 16 August 1881 he was working in his office at the Town Hall and sent a messenger up to lodgings in Cora Terrace to fetch his gladstone bag and overcoat. The lodgings were probably No. 4 with the widow Tibetts, described in the 1881 directory as a boarding housekeeper. When the messenger returned, Mr. Wicksteed left the building and was never seen alive again.

After he had been missing for three days, search parties scoured the district and it was not until 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. It was later established that he must have died on 16 August. Out of respect for the late Mr. Wicksteed the Council did not hold its weekly meeting on the day of the funeral. The Town Hall flag flew at half-mast and among the pall bearers were the Mayor, Mr. Pearson, the Town Clerk, Mr FO Hutchinson and several Councillors. He was buried in the cemetery at St George’s Park. In writing 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.”

Rocks were brought down specially from the Van Stadens River gorge and laid on his grave. family in England sent a marble tablet suitably inscribed, but the date of death was given as 23 August 1881. In 1883 Wicksteed’s sister published a book which contained all the letters he wrote to his family.

Above: The Lower Van Stadens dam today

The Van Stadens River Waterworks Scheme had taken 20 years to materialise after Mr Robert Pinchin, the surveyor, had submitted his Treatise “Oude Van Staaden” to the Town Council in 1861. The water scheme was probably the first significant interbasin water transfer scheme in South Africa.

Streams of Life: The Water Supply of Port Elizbeth and Uitenhage by David Raymer (2008, Express Litho Printers)

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