Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Era of the “Harbour” Jetties

Unlike normal harbours which would comprise breakwaters and quays, Port Elizabeth never possessed a harbour in the accepted sense until the 1930s but instead operated from a series of jetties jutting into the bay. Operations became a tedious and time-consuming series of loading and unloading activities as cargo was shuttled in lighters between the landing beaches and the vessels at anchor in the roadstead. Besides these unproductive activities, shipping operations were compelled to be suspended during periods of rough seas. In place of placid waters cloistered behind the enclosing breakwater, the jetties had to weather the storms. It was only in the 1930s that the jetties were replaced with the breakwater and quays.

This is a brief history of these vital cogs in the harbour operations.

Main picture: Transnet Heritage Society April-1901 showing the swimming pool in the harbour

The unlucky First Jetty [1840-1843]

On the 10th of April 1840, the twentieth anniversary of the landing of the 1820 Settlers was commemorated. This date was also notable for William Lloyd laying the foundation stone of the first jetty. After much discussion and pleading with the Colonial Government, The Port Elizabeth Jetty Company, was incorporated to construct this jetty with overzealous expectations. It was John Thornhill as engineer, who built the jetty at the bottom of Jetty Street using the wrecked ship “Feejee” as a base. It was completed in 1841 and then in August 1843, during a gale, 4 ships broke anchor and two crashed into the jetty, destroying it.

The first jetty in 1840

John Owen Smith’s Dwarf Jetty [1844 – 1850]

To move the cargo between the shore and ocean-going vessels and vice-versa, the so-called Boating Companies were established to fulfill that role. By mid-1840 there were three such boating establishments, owned by J.O. Smith, W.B. Frames, J.T. Mallors and T.L. Minter engaged in this type of work in the Bay. To overcome the worst effects of their modus operandi, J.O. Smith built a dwarf jetty from his stores at the landing beach to the sea during October 1844. It was located 150 metres south of the First Jetty. By 1850, it had to be abandoned due to periodic silting.

An exceptional entrepreneur, Smith left Port Elizabeth on 11 June 1861, leaving the firm in the hands of his son, George, and son-in-law, H.B. Christian. It was said of him “he identified with Port Elizabeth and all belonging to it – he may almost be termed its founder“.


The North Jetty [1870 – 1930]

This jetty was the premier jetty in Port Elizabeth for 60 years and it diligently served Port Elizabeth long past its natural “due by” date when at the date of its initial phase 1, it was an anachronism, yet it was forced to serve a major town with outmoded technology. 


During January 1870, the building of the North Jetty began. Various harbour schemes were being mooted at this time, but the Consulting Engineer, Sir John Coode, and the Inspecting Harbour Engineer, Charles Neate, agreed that a jetty was the top priority as a temporary measure. In February 1870, work commenced on the building of an abutment from the bottom of Jetty Street. The wooden structure was completed in April 1872 and widened in 1873 at which stage a report refers to it as “Barkly Jetty” after Sir Henry Barkly, the Governor at that time.

 In 1880 the building of a replacement iron pile jetty was begun. By April 1881, the new iron pile North Jetty was nearing completion, and the old woodwork had almost all been removed. The jetty was designed by Resident Engineer W. Shield based on Sir John Coode’s plans. The deck­ing was of creosoted Baltic pines and four steam cranes were provided – two of two tons, one of seven and one of ten. The wrought iron was made by Head, Wrighton & Co of Stockton-on-Tees. In 1894 further extensions were completed.

There were two landing places for passengers. Before the construction of the jetties, passengers as well as goods were brought to shore in the surfboats. The advent of the jetties meant that passengers could embark and disembark from launches via a gangway. By 1898 the famous basket had been introduced here, but it was only used when weather conditions made it necessary.

The North Jetty would serve until the early 1930s when the Charl Malan Quay was opened.

The South Jetty [1884 – 1930s]

This iron pile jetty was recommended in November 1879 and construction was begun in 1882. Sir John Coode was responsible for the designs. In July 1884 the South Jetty was completed and extended in 1894. The South Jetty ended its life in 1943 when it was converted into a slipway.

The Dom Pedro Jetty [1898 – 1930s]

In 1840 The “Dom Pedro”, a captured slaver, was damaged at sea and later beached close to current day Kings Beach. As this new jetty was located where the Dom Pedro had been beached, the jetty was named after her. Construction of the jetty was commenced in 1899 incorporating the remains of the Dom Pedro ship into it. Despite being completed in 1902 but 1903 the Dom Pedro Jetty was extended by a further 190 metres.


Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton (Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).

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  1. In my book about Dr Tancred due out on 28 July I have the family arriving from England and transferring to the shore by lighter. Seems I missed a trick there! Bernard

    • Hi Bernard
      It depends on which year you were referring to. In the early years, the passengers were transferred to shore by means of a suf boat / lighter.And then they were carried on the shoulders of the Khoikhoi. After the jetties were built, the passengers were offloaded onto smaller vessels such as lighters or tugs & then transferred to the jetty
      Dean McCleland
      082 801 5446


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