Port Elizabeth of Yore: The First Tarred Roads

The renowned economist John Maynard Keynes once famously exclaimed that “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones”. Whilst that might have been true in most instances, it is doubtful whether anybody except the most curmudgeonly would have objected to this innovation. But who knows? Progress always has its naysayers. Perhaps others ignored it as being fatuous!

Main picture: Steam roller on the opening of Albany Road. The prominent building on the hill is the Erica School for Girls, designed by architect William White Cooper and opened on 4 November 1903.

Original roads of the Cape

Prior to the arrival of Baines and the British , the Cape Colony’s road network was in parlous state. For the Dutch, the Cape was merely a refreshment station for which they could ill-afford to construct an inland road network. Initially the British too would have a dismal track record in improving the road infrastructure. The Cape was a far cry from the extractive colonies of North America and the Caribbean where input materials were mined or produced for the mother country. In a large measure, British’s raison d’etre for occupying the Cape was similar to that of the Dutch who proceeded them: safeguard the trade routes to the East especially India.

Needless to say but the British initially too made no investment in the infrastructure. Main arterial roads were nothing more than well-worn wagon tracks which rapidly degenerated into quagmires when the rains came. Equally an impediment to the free flow of goods were the blockading ranges of mountains in the western Cape. Ragged saw-toothed mountains barred the way to the hinterland.

Typical old Divisional Council roads, narrow and rutted, with a drift below and ox wagons toiling up the hill

With the establishment of Divisional Councils in the mid-1850s, whose responsibility it was to maintain the main inter-town roads, road repair teams were created whose task it was to “maintain” these roads. In reality this meant that the potholes and washaways were merely filled in with broken rocks.

Macadam’s method of road construction

John McAdam was to be notable in the development of the modern road. When his hobby mutated into a passion, Macadam discovered that massive foundations of rock upon rock were unnecessary, and asserted that native soil alone would support the road and traffic upon it, as long as it was covered by a road crust that would protect the soil underneath from water and wear. Not only was McAdam’s method far simpler, yet it was more effective at protecting roadways.

First American macadamised road. Note the workers manually breaking the rocks before the invention of rock crushers

Moreover, McAdam laid his roads as level as possible. His 30-foot-wide (9.1 m) road required only a rise of 3 inches (7.6 cm) from the edges to the centre. Cambering and elevation of the road above the water table enabled rainwater to run off into ditches on either side. Size of stones was central to the McAdam’s road building theory. The lower 20-centimetre (7.9 in) road thickness was restricted to stones no larger than 7.5 centimetres (3.0 in). The upper 5-centimetre (2.0 in) layer of stones was limited to 2 centimetres (0.79 in) size and stones were checked by supervisors who carried scales. A workman could check the stone size himself by seeing if the stone would fit into his mouth. The importance of the 2 cm stone size was that the stones needed to be much smaller than the 4 inch width of the iron carriage tyres that travelled on the road.

McAdam believed that the “proper method” of breaking stones for utility and rapidity was accomplished by people sitting down and using small hammers, breaking the stones so that none of them was larger than six ounces in weight. He also wrote that the quality of the road would depend on how carefully the stones were spread on the surface over a sizeable space, one shovelful at a time.

McAdam directed that no substance that would absorb water and affect the road by frost should be incorporated into the road. Neither was anything to be laid on the clean stone to bind the road. The action of the road traffic would cause the broken stone to combine with its own angles, merging into a level, solid surface that would withstand weather or traffic.

Through his road-building experience, McAdam had learned that a layer of broken angular stones would act as a solid mass and would not require the large stone layer previously used to build roads. Keeping the surface stones smaller than the tyre width made a good running surface for traffic. The small surface stones also provided low stress on the road, so long as it could be kept reasonably dry.

Status in Port Elizabeth

On the 1st April 1879, Mr. Richard A. E. Wright, District Inspector of Roads attached to the Public Works Department at Uitenhage, sent a scathing yet true  report  on the  roads in the Port Elizabeth Division. The Council was responsible for the maintenance of about 10 miles of the Uitenhage Road. 5½ miles of the Grahamstown Road, and about 12 miles of the Cape Road, all of which he maintained were in a shocking state of repair. He concluded with the following comments: “The roads in this Division are naturally very easy to keep in repair and at a small expense. Large sums of money, however, are literally thrown away every day to no purpose. £25 per mile is more than sufficient to maintain these roads, and yet nearly some £200 is  spent in  some cases.   I understand that no Inspector is kept, but the work is done by a Committee of the Council who make periodical inspections. It is not to be expected, as is proved by the enormous waste of money and the deplorable state of the roads, that these gentlemen should understand anything of roadmaking. What is wanted is an Inspector to be constantly on the roads to keep the men always at their work. Till this is done and the amateur inspectorship done away with, the ratepayers must continue to see the public money thrown away. I should therefore advise in the interests of these ratepayers that the Council be desired to obtain a competent Engineer as Inspector, even at a high rate of pay, and so put a stop to the present system of expending enormous sums of money and of ruining the existing roads.

The criticism, however, was not quite correct, for in 1865, Thomas Middlecott had been appointed Road Inspector, followed later by Lennox Lloyd, but the post appears to have been abolished in the 1870s.

Modernity intrudes

Against the din of complaints regarding the state of the roads, the Council assuaged the businessmen’s displeasure by investing in its first mechanical item of road construction equipment. It was a steam stone-crusher which was purchased in England by Councillor H. H. Solomon. Said to be the very latest in road construction equipment, the mysterious contraption arrived on the “Edinburgh Castle” in 1875 and was lodged in the forage shed at the North End Jail. Joseph Lewis having been appointed to as­ assemble and test it, reported that the portable engine needed to work it was missing and without which it was useless. Shortly afterwards, it was sold to the Resident Engineer for £150 at a loss of £100, without ever having been used on a road. The next stone crusher was imported by Mr. Frames at a later date, but the best model was bought for the Council by Mr. Gloag. A further improvement was the purchase of a traction engine capable of hauling 24 tons and supplied by Mr. O’Flaherty at a cost of £25. It was despatched to the Zwartkops Convict Station where it was skilfully manned by a convict at 6d. a day along the Grahamstown road under the superintendence of W. J. Girven.

This picture gives some idea of road construction in the early days

The greatest triumph of all was the arrival in 1889 of the very latest invention, a 10-ton steam roller, costing £494. The exalted position of “engine driver” was proudly advertised in the local newspapers and there were 24 applications, the salary being £3 a week. These were reduced by ballot to three, each of which was invited to demonstrate his prowess in driving the noisy machine at various speeds up and down the street in the presence of the Councillors and the gaping crowd. The successful candidate was duly appointed, but after one day’s work he was found lying hopelessly drunk in a ditch close to the machine. Mr. Bradfield, his successor, took over on the following day, only to discover that the toolbox had been prized open and all the tools had been stolen.

In 1890, the Council decided to follow the advice of Mr. Wright of Uitenhage and appointed Mr. James Gibson as Chief Inspector of Roads in the Division of Port Elizabeth. His salary was fixed at £150 a year, together with a house for his family along the Cape Road, and a horse and saddle. He proved an excellent man and served the Council for over thirty years. In course of time, he abandoned the saddle horse for a buggy to do his rounds, and in 1903 the Council provided him with the first motor-car purchased at a cost of £230.

Tar-bound macadam

With the advent of motor vehicles, dust became a serious problem on macadam roads. The area of low air pressure created under fast-moving vehicles sucked dust from the road surface, creating dust clouds and a gradual unravelling of the road material. This problem was approached by spraying tar on the surface to create tar-bound macadam. On March 13, 1902 in Monaco, a Swiss doctor, Ernest Guglielminetti, came upon the idea of using tar from Monaco’s gasworks for binding the dust. Later a mixture of coal tar and ironworks slag, patented by Edgar Purnell Hooley as tarmacc, was introduced.

A more durable road surface (modern mixed asphalt pavement) sometimes referred to in the US as blacktopp, was introduced in the 1920s. This pavement method mixed the aggregates into the asphalt with the binding material before they were laid. The macadam surface method laid the stone and sand aggregates on the road and then sprayed it with the binding material.

Antique rock crusher

Introduction of tar to PE

Even before the introduction of motor vehicles which sucked up the dust from the road surface, Port Elizabeth experienced dust problems in hot dry and windy conditions which are admittedly prevalent all year round. In an attempt to resolve this problem, on Guy Fawkes Day 1874, the Town Council’s newly imported equipment for watering the streets was successfully tested. The problem of untarred streets in hot, dry, windy weather was often discussed but the only solution at the time being watering. Furthermore, sea water had been tried, but it formed unpleasant mud.

By 1894, the Town Council must already have employed the macadam method to construct roads within the municipal boundaries as the 1894 edition of “The Guide to Port Elizabeth” has the following terse comment on the state of the town’s roads: “The sandy beach [it must be referring to Strand Street] has been replaced by warehouses, macadamized roads and broad pavements.” Note that it does not state tarred macadamized.

As an experiment, in November 1904, the Town Council laid tarred macadam on the south side of the Market Square. It was found to wear very well indeed and to reduce noise. In 1905 and 1906 it was laid in Baakens and Main Streets. On the 2nd May 1906, at a Town Council meeting, it was decided to begin watering the streets with fresh water instead of salt.

A great improvement to the roads finally came in 1907 to the inter-city roads when the Divisional Council agreed to sacrifice £500 on the “hazardous purchase” of a certain “tar macadam” said “to greatly increase the life of roads”. It was tried out successfully on the portion of the Target Kloof road between the Baaken’s River Drift and the Walmer Outspan in Clarendon Park.

It would take until November 1914 before the Divisional Council decided that the Cape Town and Grahamstown roads within the Municipal area should be tarred. In effect the original road was merely replaced with a tarred macadam road instead of changing gradients and sharp bends in these roads. But given the constrained finances of the Divisional Council, this is all that could be afforded but it was a marked improvement over the original roads.


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

A Century of Progress. The Story of the Divisional Council of Port Elizabeth. 1856 – 1956 by J.J. Redgrave M.A. (1956, Nasionale Koerante Beperk, Port Elizabeth)

Guide to Port Elizabeth (1894, Dennis Edwards & Co, 19 Long Street, Cape Town)


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