Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Paddle Steamer Phoenix-Transition from Sail to Steam

By any measure, sea travel in the age of sail was tedious being of long duration and of indeterminate time span. Furthermore it was dangerous. Relying on a variable sporadic factor such as wind would forever impede progress. For instance, the travelling time from Britain to the Cape by sailing ship varied between 65 and 85 days. The development of steam power in the early eighteenth century would take over a century before it was utilised for the propulsion of ships. Initially the propulsion was by means of side paddles and later on rear paddles and finally screw propulsion.

Ushering in the age of steam for Port Elizabeth would be the steamer named “Hope” which was not noted for its longevity. Two years after being commissioned, it was wrecked in heavy fog at Cape St. Francis. A replacement was urgently required. This would be the 240 ton paddle steamer, the “Phoenix”.  

Main picture: The paddle steamer Phoenix

Transition from Sail to Steam

With Port Elizabeth prospering due to the burgeoning wool trade, entrepreneurs sought to extract profit from the situation. In fact, the wool trade had been stimulated by the singular efforts of a German immigrant by the name of Adolph Mosenthal. The Dutch farmers of the eastern regions might well have been excellent farmers but with little innovative or marketing skills, they never selected the most productive wool-producing sheep nor did they possess the innate marketing ability to export their wool. Mosenthal stepped into the breach.

L-R: Adolph & Joseph Mosenthals
L-R: Adolph & Joseph Mosenthals

As wealth rapidly increased in the once forlorn backwater of Port Elizabeth, the need for a “speedy and regular conveyance of goods and passengers between the Eastern and Western provinces” using “one or more steam vessels” was envisaged.

To this end, an appropriate ship was purchased. The paddle steamer Hope was launched on the Clyde early in 1838 and was in service by December 1838 under Captain Cox, with Baddeley succeeding him in 1839. However the Hope’s useful life was destined to be prematurely truncated. On 14th March 1840, about two years after the service became operational, the Hope was wrecked at Cape St. Francis in heavy fog whilst en route to Port Elizabeth. Her loss was sorely felt.

With the potential of the service proven, the owners of the Hope, The Cape of Good Hope Steam Navigation Company raised capital for another steamer. In due course, an order was placed for a 240-ton steamer, “Phoenix” to be manufactured in the shipyard of John Scott and Sons. It was launched on the 16th March 1842 and arrived at Port Elizabeth on the 29th December 1842 and immediately commenced operations.

Her captain was Emanuel Harrington. No stranger to this stretch of coast – previously he had been in command of a schooner, the Briton – Harrington spent a decade with the Phoenix, giving her the best years of his life.

A schooner
A schooner – predecessor of the paddle steamer

The Phoenix was intended as a replacement for the Hope but struggled against fierce competition from the local schooners. Records of the Cape Colony track the history of her decline, the sale of the steamer by auction in 1845 and, true to her name, her subsequent rebirth under new ownership. Harrington retained command.

Perhaps he would have done well to recall that Phoenix had been an unlucky ship from the time she left the builders’ yard in May 1842 for her maiden voyage to the Cape. A contemporary account gives a clear picture of what could happen to a steamship:

Emanuel Harrington, master, bound from Greenock to the Cape of Good Hope, put into Porto Praia, St. Jago, in great distress, having touched upon a shoal at the N. E. point of the island, on the 24th ultimo [June], at half-past ten at night. Supposed distance from land 22 or 23 miles, and lat.16° 19′ north, and longitude 22° 26′ west. It is also supposed to be the Sunbeam Shoal, upon which the Charlotte was lost in April last year. The Phoenix, at the time of the accident, was under sail without steam, and drew eleven feet forward and twelve and a-half feet aft, and the place injured is at the after part of the keel; and there being little or no swell of the sea, these facts demonstrate that the shoal in question has more than eleven feet of water over it. The Phoenix came here from St. Jago for further repairs and a supply of coals … and now proceeds to England to make good the damage she has sustained. Had the Phoenix not been a steamer she must inevitably have been lost, as the water, before the steam was got up, nearly reached the furnaces. Some fuel, however, being thrown into the fires, quickened the action of the steam, and the pumps soon kept the vessel free.

Schooner in a storm
Schooner in a storm

Repairs were performed and the Phoenix set off again for Table Bay, arriving safely in December 1842. The little coastwise steamer became part of the town’s fibre as it shuttled between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth in a perpetual cycle. Cabin passengers were charged eight guineas for the trip which was an inordinately large amount at that time. The S.A. Commercial Advertiser on the 23rd April 1845 stated that “The Phoenix has made for a time Port Elizabeth and Cape Town like a town and its suburbs. They have become, to a much greater degree than could have been effected by any other means the points through which the activity of the whole Settlement, East and West, manifests itself. Port Elizabeth, indeed can scarcely be called the third town of the Colony. It is clearly the second port and may soon dispute precedence with Table Bay. While Table Bay without Port Elizabeth or Port Elizabeth without Table Bay would be like the impossible thing talked about by schoolboys – a stick with only one end.”

Between 1845 and 1847 the Phoenix was sent back to the Clyde for repairs and refitment. Opinion during this interlude speculated that the course of the War of the Ax had been altered by her absence. After her return to the southern waters, the Phoenix did a record run to Port Elizabeth from Cape Town and back, calling both times at Mossel Bay, in eight and a half days. What he especially marvelled at was its ability to complete the journey in an unbelievable time of 47 hours.

It was in 1847 that the Advertiser wrote of a new invention, one which would revolutionise the speed of steam vessels. By means of a screw propeller, a steamship using much less power could sail at double the speed of the contemporary sailing or steam packets. Despite the article, little did most readers understand the magnitude of this invention. Mariners and their ships were subject to external forces other than wind and weather and shoals. Despite several years of regular coasting at the Cape and giving a boost to smaller ports such as Plettenberg Bay and Mossel Bay, progress sounded the knell of doom for the Phoenix. In 1852, a contract for carrying the mails between the Cape and Natal was granted to the General Screw Steamship Company that had already captured the mail run from England to South Africa. The Phoenix was jettisoned. So, too, was Harrington. Presumably the latest method of propulsion viz. the screw propeller with its greater speed, had displaced the slower paddle ships.

On the 10th August 1852, the generous citizens of Port Elizabeth would give a public dinner to Captain Harrington of the Phoenix on the occasion of his leaving the colony. The steamer Phoenix was fortunate in that at the end of 1852, it was sold an Australian company, which also employed it for coasting operations. The Phoenix left the Cape bound for Australia, taking with her some optimistic South Africans responding to news of the gold rush Down Under. The Phoenix was ultimately to meet her fate shortly afterwards when she was wrecked in 1855 in the Torres Strait.

Sketch of the Phoenix when it was in Australian service
Sketch of the Phoenix when it was in Australian service

Harrington was not as fortunate. Memorials and other archived documents present a litany of his attempts to obtain other employment. In 1854, the people of Port Elizabeth requested that Harrington be given the position of Port Captain there; he applied for the post in 1855. Nothing was forthcoming from the Colonial Office and shortly afterwards Harrington, apparently unsuccessfully, made application for a post as Wharf Master at Algoa Bay, then for one as Port Captain at Port Nolloth, a tiny seaport on the north-western coast of Namaqualand, Northern Cape. He was, as they say, on the beach.

As second cousin, Anthony Beckley has pointed out to me, the Steam Ship Phoenix also has relevance for our family history. The Waspe family – maternal grand parents to my grandmother Elizabeth Daisy McCleland – arrived in Cape Town, South Africa from England aboard the Duchess of Northumberland on 3 May 1850 and then transferred to and travelled on the Steamship Phoenix to Port Elizabeth.


  • Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging Pty Ltd, Port Elizabeth)
  • One Titan at a Time by Pamela FFolliott & E.L.H. Croft (1960, Howard Timmins, Cape Town)
  • Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth’s Harbour Development by E.J. Inggs


Advert for Phoenix ship & hotel in Eastern Province Herald

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