Port Elizabeth of Yore: When the Swartkops River almost became a Port

Far be it for me to impugn the motives of the Port Elizabeth Harbour Board for requesting an eminent harbour engineer,  Mr. C.W. Methven, to report on the practicability of building a harbour at the mouth of the Swartkops River. Accordingly I will not speculate as to their rationale but rather assume that the issue regarding silting would forever bedevil the construction of a breakwater at or in close proximity to the existing jetties and landing beaches.

Main picture: 1862 map of the Swartkops River

From a non-professional engineering armchair critic perspective, the construction of a harbour within the tidal compartment between the railway bridge and the sea, could face a huge obstacle viz the fact that as it was tidal resulting in a huge volume of water movement between the tidal highs and lows. Besides that physical impediment, progress brings forth not only fruits but often the blight. In this case, it would be the destruction of the pristine environment in that area. To buttress my argument consider what happened to the area around the mouth of the Baakens River. All traces of its original lagoon been obliterated such that future generations are blissfully unaware of its prior existence.

Cathcart William Methven

Cathcart William Methven

Born on the 24th September 1849 in Edinburgh, Scotland, he was Engineer-in-Chief at Greenock on the Clyde. In 1888, he was appointed as Harbour Engineer in Durban. Besides being an architect and able musician, he was, unusually, a gifted landscape artist and produced many fine paintings of Natal scenery. He founded the Durban Art Gallery in 1892.

Amsterdamhoek of yore

Report produced

Methven studied the position carefully and eventually submitted a scheme for the permanent opening of the mouth of the river and the development of the tidal compartment for harbour purposes.

Amersterdamhoek in

Immediately it became known, the scheme was strenuously opposed by vested interests in Port Elizabeth principally on the grounds of the inconvenience that would be caused by the diversion of shipping from Port Elizabeth to the Swartkops.

Methven’s Swartkops River Scheme and two others prepared by other harbour engineers, were then referred by the Cape Government to another commission of engineers in London. In its report, submitted in 1905, the Commission rejected Methven’s plan for several reasons, including the fact that it could not discern any manifest advantage in moving the centre of Port Elizabeth to a site 10 kms away.

Swartkops River estuary

Instead the Commission recommended a grandiose scheme by Coode, Son and Matthews of England. They too could not resist in meddling with this plan and they modified it in some important aspects. Hence the future of Port Elizabeth’s harbour in 1905 was still in a state of flux.


Port Elizabeth: From a Border Garrison Town to a Modern and Industrial City edited by Ramon Lewis Leigh (1966, Felstar Publishers, Johannesburg)

Wikipedia: Life of Cathcart William Methven


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