Port Elizabeth of Yore: The 1908 Flood per the EP Herald

The Eastern Province Herald of Friday 21st November 1908 carried a report on the Great Flood of the 16th November 1908.

Following a cloudburst in the Hunters Retreat area, the Baakens River came down in Flood, causing tremendous damage in the valley and around the mouth and then subsiding again very quickly. Previous river floods had caused little damage because there were then no buildings on the flood plain, but after the lagoon was filled in the reclaimed land had been built upon. Some of those affected by flood damage brought an action against the Council and the Commissioner of Public Works in September 1909. Some of the downpour flowed down the other side of the watershed, and the Cradock Place area also suffered.

Main picture: The Great Flood of 1908 – Inside the Harbour Board Yard

Massive flood hits Port Elizabeth after storm brings heavy rains

Week ending November 21,1908.

Port Elizabeth yesterday was visited by the most terrible flood in its history. After a succession of cloud bursts accompanied by a tremendous thunderstorm, the Baakens River came down like a solid wall of water, and within ·a short space of two hours rose to a height of 20 feet.

Cart from municipal stables washed onto the roof

Just as the water topped the main road bridge, the Model Dairy collapsed and being swept up against the bridge, effectively dammed  half  the river. Just at this time the river rose to its fullest height, rising to an additional six feet in as many minutes.

The flood partially dammed back, rushed through the produce section of the town, carrying destruction in all directions. The main stream flowed down Commerce Street, isolating the Customs House, which is 250 yards from the river.

Flood damage in the Baakens River Valley


Enormous damage has been done to property in the vicinity, whole stores being demolished, their contents, consisting of produce and general merchandise, scattered for miles along the North End Beach. The Harbour Board plant and the Port Elizabeth Electric Tramway power station have been seriously damaged, and altogether the loss is estimated at over a quarter of a million sterling.

When  Bayonians retired to rest on Sunday night, the atmosphere was calm and still, the sky clear and cloudless, the stars shone brightly, and every indication pointed to a fine day for the morrow. A shower of rain, much less a positive deluge resulting in a flood unsurpassed in magnitude in the history of the town, was probably the last thought which entered anybody’s  head.

These conditions prevailed until about 4am, when heavy thunder clouds rolled over from the sea in dark and lowering masses. As the storm approached, the lightning flashed with unceasing brightness and the thunder growled ominously in the distance.

Nearer and nearer came the storm, until, with a flash of lightning which illuminated the whole town, immediately followed by a terrific thunderclap  which  rattled all-round the horizon and gradually died rumbling away in the distance, the first cloud burst in an almost solid sheet of water.

This process was repeated over and over again for nearly six hours as cloud after cloud followed each other in rapid succession.                                                                                                                                            The flash of lightning, the thunder clap, the deluge, again and again until it seemed as though the stalwart City on the Hill must literally be washed away into the waters of the Bay over which it had stood sentinel for so many years.

The thunder ceased about 9.30, but the rain continued to fall in steady torrents right up to lunch hour.

Next to the Tramway Building

During the morning, the railway bridge at the Creek was washed away with a considerable portion of the line, disorganising the service between Zwartkops and town. No trains were run after 9.30am but gangs were speedily at work, and a system of running trains to each side of the break, the passengers transferring, was established between five and six o’clock.

Damage reported from Walmer. included a wash-out in Church Road, some 20 feet across and 10 feet deep, a wash away of the railway line at  9th Ave, and the bursting of a dam at Bog Farm.

Agonising destruction in the neighbourhood of Cradockstown had to be faced by the few residents there. In the early hours of the morning the torrents of rain commenced to fall lasting for four hours almost without intermission, and  fair  agricultural lands were  laid  waste. At  the Manor House and surrounding cultivated fields and gardens enormous damage was done. Portion of the historic home of the Chase family was damaged, while the other residences were more or less flooded. The garden was completely washed out, not a vestige of vegetables and flowers which grew in profusion there are now to be seen.

Many thousands of bundles of forage and wood which had been cut during the past fortnight were carried away by the enormous force of the water as it swept across the land. One can imagine the feelings of the lessee, Mr. J A Hughes, while contemplating all this, to note the destruction of a double power motor to irrigate the land which is now bereft of soil.      ·


Oaks which have stood on the property for many years were knocked down and carried a great distance away. Iron gates, 12 feet high, could not withstand the terrific onslaught, and several hundreds of yards of fencing have been demolished.

One of the lessee’s employees went out at 5am with a horse and cart and negotiated the drift at Baviaan’s Kloof, but an hour or so later when he returned with the horse having left the vehicle for repair, the animal and rider had to swim across, the water rising rapidly to about 20feet.

When the seriousness of the position was appreciated the live stock was placed in safety. A fine Kerry bull was missed and was found drowned in the lands. Where usually two feet of water ran down towards the property, it was found the depth was 20  feet.  Altogether Mr.  Hughes computes his loss at £1,000, the forage and wood destroyed being valued at close on £600.

(November 18, J908)


Massive flood hits Port Elizabeth after storm brings heavy rains, EP Herald, 21st November 1908

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

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