Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Paddle Steamer Phoenix

The paddle steamer Phoenix had more than one connection with Port Elizabeth, apart from operating between Cape Town and Algoa Bay, but the other associations are more tenuous. However, it is perhaps for the nebulous reason that the name Phoenix will forever be remembered in Port Elizabeth albeit for the wrong reason. Finally there was even a family connection.

Main picture: The paddle steamer Phoenix

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 was 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.

However, 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.

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. 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.

Charlotte, Algoa Bay carrying the 27th Regiment driven ashore near Jetty Street Port Elizabeth 19 September 1854
Charlotte, Algoa Bay carrying the 27th Regiment driven ashore near Jetty Street Port Elizabeth 19 September 1854

Other connections between ship and town

In 1837, John Centlivres Chase constructed a house in the seaward side of Market Square but it was its subsequent owner, Edwin Henry Salmond who converted the house into an hotel. Like Chase, Salmond was also a man of many different talents. Initially a Master Mariner and ship owner, but later Salmond was a merchant, ship chandler and hotelier. Apart from starting the Phoenix, he also at some point owned the “Jim Crow”, the “Frontier” and the “Elephant and the Castle.”

Having an interest in nautical matters, Salmond was enamoured with the recently acquired paddle steamer, probably one of the first in operation in the Cape Colony. What he especially marvelled at was its ability to complete the journey in an unbelievable time of 47 hours. It is for this reason that he named this newly established hotel, The Phoenix. 

One of the main objectives in acquiring a steam paddle steamer was that it would operate from a proposed jetty in Port Elizabeth. Promoters of the jetty scheme formed the Port Elizabeth Jetty Company to facilitate this.

John Thornhill, an initiator of the jetty project, was also a Director of the Steam Navigation Company.  That made eminent sense as the viability of the one depended on the success of the other.

Phoenix Hotel
Phoenix Hotel in Market Square

The immediate stimulus for a jetty at Port Elizabeth came in the form of a shipwreck. On the 10th August 1837, the three-masted schooner, the Feejee, came aground at the exact spot recommended for a jetty by the deputy surveyor general. Ironically, the Feejee was wrecked for the very reason that a jetty was required. Bad weather had prevented the Port Elizabeth boatmen from unloading her immediately on her arrival.

Wooden Jetty in 1840
Wooden Jetty in 1840

Suffice to state that the wreck of the Feejee proved without a doubt that the proposed method of jetty construction was viable. As a result, jetty construction was fast tracked. The principle proved to be highly successful but on Friday night 25th August 1843, disaster struck. A heavy storm erupted, churning the sea. In quick succession, three ships broke anchor and had the misfortune of being driven straight through the structure, irreparably damaging it.

After offsetting these losses against income from the sale of the land, some shareholders lost as much as £150.

Ironically, John Thornhill, the initial promoter of the jetty scheme, was aboard the paddle steamer, Phoenix, when it arrived in Port Elizabeth a week later after this disastrous storm. When the jetty was nearly completion, John Thornhill had decided to dispose of his shares and relocate to Cape Town. His premises in Port Elizabeth had already been taken over by the Mosenthal brothers who had relocated from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth.

Specifications of the Phoenix#01

Hence, John Thornhill had suffered no loss on the collapse of the Port Elizabeth Jetty Company.

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 traveled 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)

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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