Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Changing Face of Happy Valley and Humewood Beach

Ironically just over a century ago, the puny stream which flowed through Happy Valley was well-known whereas the area through which it flowed, Happy Valley, was unknown to the resident of Port Elizabeth. It was this non-descript trickle which supplied this nascent town with its first piped water albeit that it was only to the low-lying areas as the water was gravity fed. In September 1968, this stream barely a trickle, was transformed into a raging torrent probably about 1 metres deep and 70 metres wide.

From providing a vital commodity it now only serves as an entertainment area. This blog deals with the changing character and importance of this area from necessity to a luxury.

Main picture: Frames’ Reservoir on the Shark River

Bifurcated river

Today the fact that Shark River actually comprised a stream which split about 500m upstream into two rivers with two separate mouths is invisible to the naked eye. Interestingly each had its own name with the smaller or now non-existent one being called the Klein Shark River. Progress in the form of a bowling club was the death knell of this river. It does still exist on old maps and a photo of the Humewood Beach Hotel which was located on the site of the Elizabeth hotel.  

Aerial view of Frames Reservoir on the Shark River


The first mention of a river in the area arose in 1752 when a French sloop, Le Necessaire which, together with other ships from Mauritius, was examining the south-east coast of Africa. At this time, most of the features were, as yet, unnamed and the names Happy Valley and Shark River did not arise for another 100 and 50 years respectively. As they required water, the vessels anchored offshore and, on the 27th February, they despatched a rowing boat to obtain water for them. In the surf, the boat overturned in the Humewood / Happy Valley area. These men became marooned when a storm broke and the ships abandoned them ashore. Nonplussed, they set out to walk to Cape Town and fortunately were met en route by a party led by ensign August Friedrich Rentier.    

Robert Jacob Gordon

In January 1778, the Commander of the Dutch garrison at the Cape, Robert Jacob Gordon, visited Algoa Bay and made drawings. Friderici’s map of 1789/90 shows “Gordonsfonteyn” south of the Baakens River mouth. The maps of this period sometimes also give the bay the name Zwartkops River Bay. Sources indicate that there was also a third beacon at the mouth of the Shark River at this time. However this has never been confirmed.

Frederici’s map of 1789 / 1790

Original location

Maps of the general area in the early 1800s reflect the area which is today named South End to have a farm, Papenkuilsfontein, which had been granted as a quitrent farm by the Governor, Janssens, in 1803. In October 1820, an official quitrent grant was made to Gerhardus Oosthuizen. Old maps indicate that the “fontein” was located on the spot where the original Happy Valley was situated. This area is currently on the route of the Apple Express.

Unlikely site for a dam

For the first forty years of the town’s existence, the town’s people relied on two sources of water: wells as well as the streams in the various kloofs connecting the plateau on the hill with the seashore below. After due consideration, the Shark River was selected as the site for the construction of the town’s first dam. I term it an unlikely site for a dam based upon the steam’s flow rate and the distance from town. Surely a dam on the Baakens River, upstream of the woolwashery at the foot of Brickmakerskloof, would have been preferable?

Frames Reservoir today

This dam was the creation of Clement Wall Frames who leased the land and the river from his cousin, C.E. Frames. He formed the Shark River Water Company and provided the lower parts of the town with piped water as the pressure was not a problem there. Taps were placed at intervals along the length of the pipe which stretched to North End. “Frames’ Reservoir” on the Shark River was completed during January 1864 and the Governor, Sir Philip Wodehouse, was taken to see it during his visit in February. The scheme bankrupted Frames and he was compelled to return to working as a plumber and contractor. The Municipality then took over the water supply.


With the wool industry becoming the dominant industry in Port Elizabeth, entrepreneurs entered the industry and opened woolwashing businesses wherever plenty of water was available. Woolwasheries were opened in the Baakens River as well as in Uitenhage. Frames even tried his hand by opening a woolwashery on the banks of the Shark River before the sand dunes first encroached on the property and then overwhelmed it

Woolwashing in Humewood

Isolation hospital

 In the 1880s, the whole area which today encompasses Humewood and Summerstrand was undeveloped without even a direct road connecting these areas to Port Elizabeth. As such this was eminently suitable for the construction of a lazaretto, an isolation hospital for people with infectious diseases, especially leprosy or plague. Recognising its seclusion, the Council selected the banks as a ideal place to locate this facility. An outbreak of small-pox in the Colony led the Council to construct two wood-and-iron buildings on the south side of the Shark River as an isolation hospital. This facility was formally opened on the 9th September 1882. Perhaps the location was too secluded with difficult access because twelve years later, the Council selected the site of present Elizabeth Donkin Hospital as the location for the replacement hospital.

The Shark River taken from where the current Brooks Pavillion is situated. The building on the upper right is the Lazaretto Infectious Diseases Hospital

The slipway

This is one of the few artefacts of early Happy Valley which is still extant except that many residents of Port Elizabeth are unaware of what the six pillars still visible represent.

Construction of the slipway which could handle vessels of up to 400 tons, was commenced in 1899. A boat was steadied between the 6 masonry piers and a cradle was lowered underneath. Steam-driven hauling gear then pulled the cradle and boat onto dry land. Immediately after its opening on the 29th July 1903, it was brought into use. On the following day, the steam lighter Loch Gair was drawn up for repairs. On the 10th August the James Searle was also brought onto land while two new iron lighters were being built.

It was taken out of use in 1939, and much of the structure has since been removed.

Railway line

Of all the Branch Lines in Port Elizabeth, this one is the least known. Initially it was laid as part of the project to tame the supposedly deadly driftsands which would encroach and smother the site chosen for the harbour. To prevent this apocalypse, it was decided to cover this moving sea of sand with the garbage generated by the residents of Port Elizabeth. The garbage was required as fertiliser for the planting of the chosen species of grasses, bushes and trees, the sand being further stabilised by spreading tree branches and erecting wooden fences at intervals as required. The reason why garbage in those days was regarded as compost is because it was mainly comprised of organic material except for glass whereas refuse today is mainly generated by packaging.

Old Humewood showing Shark River, the railway line and the Slipway

This standard-gauge railway line was constructed in late 1892 or early 1893, and the use of the coastal section of this railway for passenger traffic followed the sale, on 30 May 1893, by the Harbour Board of 20 marine villa sites between the original Happy Valley (where the Apple Express railway line now runs) and Klein Shark River.

Shark River with boat on slipway
Tram at Humewood

This railway line would only operate for 10 years. On the 23rd October 1903, the Harbour Board’s passenger train service to Humewood was terminated. As the Driftsands project was drawing to a close, it was probably apparent to the Harbour Board that the passenger service which only ran once per week on a Sunday, could not cover the costs of the service. In the wake of the extension of the tram route to include Humewood in October 1902, it made little sense for the Harbour Board to offer a competing service. On 21st January 1903, the tram service to Humewood, operating at half hourly intervals and a trip cost 3 pence, commenced.

Passengers alighting from trams at Humewood

Developments come thick and fast

On the 23rd Mar. 1904, the first café was proposed by Mr. H. Lucas . A wood-and-iron building was erected at Humewood by arrangement with the Harbour Board which owned the land. Known at first as the Cafe Monaco, it was later taken over by R.M. Cells.

The Beach Cafe of Robert Cells

In time for the summer season, groynes were built on the Humewood beach on the 6th November 1907. The function of this low wall or sturdy barrier, built out into the sea from the beach, was to check erosion and to increase the extent of the sand. Ropes were hung to demarcate the bathing area and a bandstand was erected north of the mouth of the Shark River. The building of the Shark Rock pier has performed a similar function at Hobie Beach.

Above: Humewood before the Bathing House was built

During this period Port Elizabeth was experienced a commercial slump and many residents were out of work. To alleviate the plight of the unemployed a Distress Relief Committee was formed as well as a Labour Bureau. Amongst the relief works actioned, was the terracing the cliff at Humewood in July 1908 and in 1909 the widening of Humewood Road was commenced.

Crowds on the terrace stands at Humewood Beach

During the yearend holiday season, the “Olympic Fun Fair” with a Big Wheel, Helter Skelter, aeroplane and a Chamber of Horrors was set up in Humewood until the Easter holidays were over. The Olympia was held every year until 1920.

Above: Humewood Beach in the early 1900s before the developments

The era of entertainment

The current era of Happy Valley forming part of an entertainment mecca on the southern beach front was now conceived. This initiative was spearheaded by the Beach Improvement Committee, one of the multitude of municipal committees in existence. To this end, the BIC together with the Harbour Board Engineer and the Town Engineer inspected three sites on the 14th May 1906 to determine which was the most suitable for use as a camping ground. The site between the Little Shark River and the slipway was chosen and £500 was made available for bathing houses and  toilets on Humewood beach, a water supply and an artificial lake for children in Happy Valley.

Childrens’ Pool in Happy Valley

Further upgrades

In May 1909, Robert Cells, proprietor of the cafe at Humewood, was given permission to erect a helter-skelter there. Later he setup a roundabout as well.

With the resurgence of roller skating in 1909, numerous roller skating rinks were opened during that year with two being in Humewood. The first rink, the Humewood Rink, was established in the old tea garden adjoining the Humewood Beach Hotel and the second, the Beach Rink, was near the Shark River.  

Roller skating at the Humewood Beach Hotel

On the 6th October 1909, the Town Council decided to erect wooden frame huts with canvas sides at the Humewood camping ground.

Bungalows at Humewood – a wooden structure with canvas sides

Further developments arose. On the 12th April 1913, the Octagon Café on the promenade, designed by A.S. Butterworth and owned by the Municipality, was opened. The concrete foundation went down to rock. The forty-foot diameter cafe could seat 400 and consisted almost entirely of leaded light glazing. The substance of the Octagon was neither durable nor easy to maintain. By 1941 it was an “eye-sore” and was demolished in 1942.

The Octagon Cafe

The expansion of the recreation facilities at Humewood Beach gathered momentum when on the 4th July 1913, the foundation stone of the new bathing house at Humewood, designed by A.S. Butterworth, was laid by the Mayoress, Mrs. A.W. Guthrie. Built by Kohler and Sons, it had a reinforced concrete foundation based on rock. It was opened by the Mayor on 6 December. The existing ladies’ bathing house was removed. After the 1968 flood the building was demolished having been irreparably damaged.

1919 was a bumper year for improvements at Humewood. Firstly, on the 9th March 1919 the ratepayers approved the borrowing of £150,000 to build an hotel at Humewood, a tidal bath and other improvements.

This hotel was built to replace the Humewood Beach Hotel which had been burnt down and was ultimately called the Elizabeth Hotel, the mark 1 version. The second issue was the inviting of tenders for the erection of a model bungalow at Humewood. not to cost more than £300 on the 16th April.

Humewood Beach in 1912

Town Attractions Improvement Scheme

In terms of the Town Council’s Town Attractions Improvement Scheme, it was proposed that 150 more bungalows were to be built at Humewood. On the 7th May 1912, the Ratepayers agreed to the borrowing of money to carry out this scheme. One hundred and fifty more bungalows were proposed to be built at Humewood. In addition, an attractive wooden cafe was built just south of the Shark River mouth. Robert Cells’ old wood-and-iron Beach Cafe was demolished in September to allow for road widening and a pavilion was erected at the top of the completed terrace built on the hillside.

Camping ground at Humewood

The Promenade Dome or “Tin Hat”

During a short farewell visit to Port Elizabeth on the 6th November 1923, the Governor-General, Prince Arthur of Connaught, and Princess Alexandra, Prince Arthur opened the Campanile and amongst other functions, Princess Alexandra opened the “Princess Promenade” at Humewood. The promenade was built in sections over several years. The official opening took place under the Promenade Dome, designed by the Assistant City Engineer, J.J. Burt. Commonly known as the “Tin Hat” from its resemblance to a First World War helmet, there is a bronze plate, the work of J. Gardner, to commemorate the occasion.

Tin Hat

With the formal opening of the new Humewood Cafe next to Happy Valley on the 22nd December 1924, this entertainment area possessed most of the elements that have come to be regarded as Humewood Beach/Happy Valley. This was a Municipal project and the drawings were ready in 1923. The upper floor was designed for dancing and the first lessee was S. Kramer. Over the years the cafe was known by several names and was demolished after the 1968 flood.

Damage to the wooden bungalows with canvas sides


A final adornment would add the finishing touches to this area. On the Dec. 5th 1925 Humewood and Happy Valley were illuminated for the first time and bathing at night was allowed. The nature of the illuminations became more imaginative and elaborate with time. A year later during December 1926, the Council agreed to the lighting of Humewood, including the Octagon, during the summer season.

The final touches

Due to the serious housing shortage, the City Council decided on the 8th February 1928 to let the Humewood bungalows to local residents, and by 1st March 1929 all of them were let on a permanent basis. From January 1932, an Amusement Park was in operation at Humewood on the southern bank of the Shark River during the holiday season.

Happy Valley with the placid insouciant Shark River

The final death knell of the Klein Shark River which split from the main course of the river occurred with the building of the Humewood Bowling Club. By that stage the river’s path to the sea had already been effectively blocked due to the construction on 15th  December 1928 of Municipal bowling green which had been opened at Humewood on the filled-in valley next to the Hotel Elizabeth..

A private bowling club, Humewood Bowling Club, was opened on the 10th February 1932 by the Mayor H.J. Millard and Mr. D.M. Brown, President of the E.P. Bowling Association. When the new bowling club was formed it took over the care of the original municipal green

During March 1937, a life-savers’ tower at Humewood, begun in December 1936. was completed and on the 3rd September 1937, the Humewood Cafe re-opened as a “Cafe de Luxe and Cinema Lounge”.

1936 Art Deco lifesaving tower


This idyll was to be shattered when, on the 1st September 1968, Port Elizabeth was struck by a devastating flood in which the timid, inconsequential insouciant trickle gurgling through this valley was transformed into a raging turbulent hurtful river which swept all before it even managing to fill the river course from bank to bank to the height of half a metre over the road bridge.

Floods in 1968


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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