Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Uitenhage Springs

Unlike Port Elizabeth in which no house had water on tap until the 1880s, Uitenhage never experienced this inconvenience. While Uitenhage was established with a secure water source, the inhabitants of Port Elizabeth had to struggle for an adequate water supply for many years.

This secure water source for the residents of Uitenhage was the Uitenhage Springs. Most of the information used in this blog has been extracted from the book Streams of Life  by David Raymer.

Main picture: Aerial view of the Uitenhage Springs

One of the main criteria used to determine where to establish a farm or a settlement has always been the availability of an abundant and perennial water supply. The first of the trekboers to establish himself in the Uitenhage area was Gerrit Scheepers, who obtained a quitrent farm, Rietvallei, in 1772. This farm was on the banks of the Swartkops River which obtained its water from the perennial springs 8kms outside Uitenhage eponymously known as the Uitenhage Springs. These Springs lie in pristine surroundings between the hills of sandstone at the foot of the Great Winterhoek Mountains and the artesian water flows from the ground at nine eyes.

As the closest Drostdy to this area were located at Graaff-Reinet and Swellendam, the Dutch Commissioner-General Uitenhage de Mist whilst on a visit to the frontier in 1804, proclaimed this area to a separate Drostdy (magistracy). The location at which he selected to build the Drostdy was the farm Rietvallei on which the widow Gerrit Scheepers still resided. She graciously sold the farm to the Colonial government for use as a Drostdy on condition that she be allowed to reside in her cottage. The area, then known as the Garden Town, was later formally proclaimed as Uitenhage, in honour of De Mist whose family name was Uitenhage. Interestingly the Municipality of Uitenhage was formed in June 1841, twenty years before Port Elizabeth.

A close up of artesian water rising to the surface

The first burgher to farm in the Springs area was a Mr C Viljoen, the brother-in-law of Gerri! Scheepers, who obtained a permit in September 1773 on the farm Sandfontein. Some for unknown reason, Viljoen dammed the water from the Springs which cut off the water to Scheepers’ farm resulting in a quarrel and ill-feeling between the two. This animosity was resolved when Viljoen sold his farm to Christoffel Kock, who was married to Scheepers’ daughter, Sara Johanna.

A few kilometres from the Uitenhage Springs are the Amanzi Springs, which are used for commercial irrigation. In 1835 Sir Benjamin D’Urban, Governor of the Cape, visited Uitenhage to thank the burghers for their participation in the Sixth Frontier War. The Governor arranged to exchange the farm Ongegund, owned by Kock, where the springs were located, with another farm in the Alexandria district. The Springs then became the property of the inhabitants of Uitenhage.

One of the nine eyes at the Uitenhage Springs

Schlemmer’s Mill

In 1839 Mr John G Schlemmer, owner of a plot in Caledon Street and proprietor of the farm Sandfontein, since he was a miller by trade, conceived the idea of building a flour mill, in Caledon Street at the top of High and Church Streets. He applied to the Town Commissioner to implement a water scheme, undertaking to dig an earth furrow with convict labour supplied by the government. In exchange he acquired an erf on which to build his mill and the use of free water to operate the mill. The water could then serve 170 erven in town. This scheme was approved in 1839 and was completed in the same year. Earth furrows were dug from the mill in Magennis Park, across Church Street, round Cannon Hill, down to the Drostdy, then along the back of the erven in Caledon Street, a total length of 11 000 yards. In time Schlemmer’s Mill became a landmark in Uitenhage (two of the original mill stones are displayed at the Drostdy Museum). Stringent regulations were passed by the Commissioners in dealing with pollution and water use.

Gauging the water flow

Official gauging of the water flow commenced in 1867 with a recorded 89 litres/second. In 1867 the Uitenhage Water Act (Act no 3 of 1867) was passed by the Cape parliament to allow for the storing and filtering of water in a reservoir near town, the leading of water through the streets for household purposes and the levying of a rate for water usage.

To improve the poor state of the water course and to reduce the heavy losses from seepage, cast  iron pipes were laid with valves, hydrants and fittings from the Springs to the town in 1874, after parliament had approved the Uitenhage Water Service Increased Loan Act. The first service reservoir was constructed in 1875 near to the original Muir School. In later years it was demolished.

The Springs Water Treatment Works. The only processes used are stabilisation and disinfection

In 1897 tenders were called for the construction of a 200 000-gallon (900 kl) reservoir and a 400 mm diameter pipeline from the Springs. Messrs. WF Malloch & Company were awarded the contract for the reservoir and the laying of the 7,5 km pipeline. The project was completed in 1899 and WF Malloch stayed on to become Town Engineer.

Improvements at the springs

Over time improvements were made at the Springs. Stone wall enclosures were constructed which prevented storm debris entering the pipeline. Gauging and pipes were upgraded. The yield was closely monitored and when boreholes at nearby Sandfontein and Balmoral were installed the yield declined. Disinfection of the water by chlorine gas was introduced in 1939.

Between 1914 and 1954 many more boreholes were drilled at Balmoral and Sandfontein with limited success. Many geological investigations and reports were undertaken over a long period by Prof Schwartz (February 1912), Dr Du Toit (September 1921), ED Mountain (October 1955), J Marais (1965) and LGA Maclear and AC Woodford (1995). Most of these reports recommended better control and were against further drilling at the Springs and in the artesian basin.

Current output

Today the output from the Springs is approximately 69 litres per second. The reduction is mainly due to abstraction by farmers within the artesian basin in the Coegakop and Motherwell areas and as a result of seismic changes. In 1957 the Uitenhage Subterranean Water Control Area was established to regulate and control abstraction.


eWISA Water History 1800 – 1899

Streams of Life: The Water Supply of Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage by David Raymer (October 2008, Express Litho Services, Port Elizabeth)

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