Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Explosives Jetty at the Creek

At the risk of overstatement, dynamite was characterised as being extremely volatile in prior centuries. Just like Johannesburg, where the explosives factory was established at Modderfontein which was originally located far outside the municipal boundaries, so it was in the rest of South Africa. 

Main picture: Explosives jetty at the mouth of the Papenkuils River

Raison d’etre

Before 1836, there were privately owned magazines in the vicinity of St. Stephen’s Street on Richmond Hill dating back many years. As the town expanded, these magazines were eventually surrounded by residential areas. This situation was intolerable for the residents as dynamite was notoriously volatile in that age. It was, without a doubt, regarded as a danger both as a storage location and when it was transported through the streets of the town.

To remove this hazard, the authorities mandated that it was illegal for explosives to be transported through the town. In 1836, magazines were erected on the southern bank of Smelly Creek. This  was a wetland at the mouth of the Papenkuils River where rotting vegetation gave rise to offensive odours in bygone days. Renowned for its birdlife, especially its flamingoes, it has long since been filled in for use as a railway marshalling yard. From this magazine, a 1.6km aerial ropeway was strung to a landing-stage which transported the explosives from the ship to the shore.

Map of the original Powder Magazine

To prevent a catastrophe, on 30th September 1862, the Government made a grant of land at “Smelly Creek,” the mouth of the Papenkuils River, adjoining the large cemetery grant, to locate the powder magazines. For the next thirty years, the dynamite was still offloaded onto the North Jetty and then transported by ox-wagon to the Creek. This averted the danger of storing the dynamite in a residential area, but it still had to be conveyed through the town.

Steamer Queen Victoria

Explosives served multiple functions, one of which in a port town was clearing the hulks of wrecked vessels. An excellent example was that of the double-bottomed steamer Queen Victoria under the command of Capt. Edward James Heno which struck Thunderbolt Reef in April 1896. It was a calm and clear moonlit night when the lighthouse keeper sighted the distress flares and contacted the Port Office by telegraph. The James Searle (1) was despatched with the ship’s local agent, Capt. Palmer, aboard. He advised Heno to beach the sinking vessel in the “most sheltered part of the Bay” opposite the original Humewood Hotel, which was then located where the Elizabeth Hotel [now Garden Court Hotel] was later constructed. Over the next few weeks, her cargo was discharged, the holes patched and the sea water pumped out. Then she was refloated and towed to anchor off North End but attempts to salvage her proved to be futile. In August she parted her cables and landed on the beach near the wreck of the Jorawur. The hulk was auctioned off to Joe Martin for a mere £5. This rock bottom price was a result of a new regulation which imposed a fine of £70 per annum for any owner failing to remove a wreck from the beach. Despite this, the hulk lay high and dry in the bight for many years until she was ultimately blown up.

Men of the PAG Rocket Brigade pose for a photograph on the beach


The grant did not lie dormant or unused but the original idea of erecting a jetty on this site had probably been forgotten and not acted upon. The spark that ignited the renewed interest in constructing this jetty is unknown. It might have even been an unplanned explosion at one of the inland diamond or gold mines that raised awareness of the dangers of explosives*. Whatever it was, in 1896, the Harbour Board voted funds for the construction of an explosives jetty sited off Brighton Beach.

In 1898, further magazines were built on the opposite side of the creek along North End Beach together with a jetty and a light railway.

Hulk of the Jorawur

There was just one small consideration when building a jetty along this stretch of beach. Part of the reason why the Rocket Brigade was so unsuccessful in snaring ships with their rope might have been the appalling weather, but equally responsible was the fact that many vessels got stuck on a sandbar some 350 metres offshore. To bypass this obstacle, presumably the jetty would have to be longer than that.

Rescue in progress on the barque Clara-photo taken by Robert Harris

The equipment needed to construct an overhead tramway for the jetty was imported from England. Eventually the jetty was officially opened three years later in 1899. By 1906 it had fallen into disuse and was finally declared derelict and dismantled in 1918. Unlike the slipway at Humewood Beach, the sea was more efficient at the Creek and removed any remains within a few years.

The magazines were relocated close to the New Brighton Hotel. Their proximity to the hotel resulted in a decline in trade. Ultimately the hotel was closed and later converted into a TB hospital.

* Probably the famous explosion on 19 February 1896 of a train in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, which included 8 trucks carrying 60 tonnes of dynamite for the gold mines. It blew a crater 60m long x 50m wide x 8m deep and was heard up to 200 km away. 3000 houses were lost, over 70 people killed and more than 200 injured. That would get the Government’s attention for sure!

1900 07 13 Map of the Explosive’s Jetty at Smelly Creek


Algoa Bay in the Age of Sail 1488-1917A Maritime History by Colin Urquhart (2007, Bluecliff Publishing, Port Elizabeth)

Gazetteer of the Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage Divisions of the old Cape Colony, compiled by Bartle Logie and Margaret Harradine (2014, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

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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