Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Postal Service – Humble Beginnings

Before the advent of the internet, the telephone and the telegraph, the state of the art method of communication was the Postal Service. The speed of this service was a function of the speed of the ship, the horse and the cart. History is replete with examples of orders issued being overtaken by events. Take the example of commands from England. They could take five months to reach the Cape. 

Main picture: A Post Cart crossing the drift at the bottom of Van Staden’s Pass


Prior to the establishment of a regular postal service in the Cape, the forwarding of letters was dependent upon the goodwill of strangers. The fact that such correspondence reached its ultimate destination, was more a function of society’s community spirit than any remuneration derived from these actions.

Officially postal services were instituted in South Africa by a “placaat” or proclamation in 1792. The first post office was set up in the Castle in Cape Town with Mr John Holland as Postmaster-General. The charge was one shilling a sheet – envelopes being as yet unknown – and four shillings a pound on books and newspapers. However, this twice-weekly service was not extensive as it extended only as far as Simon’s Bay in one direction and Stellenbosch in the other. Letters and packets were conveyed by wagon.

In order to remedy the untenable situation arising from the lack of communication between Cape Town and the interior, the recently- appointed Dutch Governor, Lt-Gen Jan Willem Janssens, instituted a postal service to the tiny settlement at Algoa Bay and Uitenhage commencing during June 1803.

Lt-Gen Jan Willem Janssens

By 1805 there was a regular inland mail service between Algoa Bay and False Bay in the Cape, using post riders, id est, farmers on horseback. A weekly mailbag service was instituted to Stellenbosch and Tulbagh but beyond that it operated to other drostdies whenever the Government wished to send despatches. In the latter case, farmers along the line were contracted to forward the mail bag from one station to another in relays. At the destination drostdy, the Landdrost would dispatch the papers and letters to the various Field Cornets with the first available conveyance.

In 1806, the commander of the British forces in the Cape, Lieutenant General Sir David Baird, ruled that the Khoi, the indigenous people of the Cape originally known as Hottentots, would be used to convey letters and small packages. These runners or “post boots” were employed in relays being stationed at farm houses along the route. In return for being paid twenty shillings a month, farmers were required to provide them with food and quarters. The penalty for failing to provide this service was levied at the rate of £10.

However, they were soon replaced by “post orderlies” mounted on horses. As the quantity of mail increased, even these “couriers” were found to be inadequate.

Use of Post Carts

The colonial government responded by offering a prize for the best design for a Post Cart. It is not known who won the prize but the winning design was a light, sprung cart which came into use in 1824. Later this mail cart service would be extended as far as Algoa Bay.

Post Horn

For many years the post from the Longkloof, as it was known to the Englishmen, was conveyed to Port Elizabeth in these post carts; a two-wheeled, two-horse carts with collapsible hoods. In addition to mail, these carts also carried up to six passengers. The trip took several days and horses were changed every thirty miles.

Three times a week, the post cart arrived in the town usually at about 10 a.m. The driver blew his bugle or horn as he came down Russell Road to warn people who had to meet friends arriving by post cart. In addition, the post horn alerted the Postmaster to be at his post. The passengers’ fares were paid at the end of the journey to the agent of the post cart contractor.

Changing horses

A mail boat service was introduced between England and the Cape in 1815. The Imperial Government established a mail packet service by employing fast sailing vessels leaving the Thames monthly. Interestingly, the charge for the speed service was fixed at three shillings and sixpence [3/6d] per quarter of an ounce whereas the cost of “slow mail” was one and six [1/2d]. The first mail packet that sailed down the Thames from London was the Eclipse on the 20th December 1815 captained by Burford. After a passage of 114 days, she arrived in Table Bay on the 13th April 1816 not much swifter than normal shipping.

The office of Postmaster

For the initial 13 years of this service, it must have operated on an informal basis as a Postmaster had not been formally appointed in Port Elizabeth; this was probably partly due to the paucity of residents in Port Elizabeth but more likely because mail was shipped initially only as far as Uitenhage, it then being the main centre. This service was not without its difficulties as it still probably relied upon the benevolence of the residents to ensure that the mail was distributed from the central post office to the intended recipient.

Post cart in 1890

In 1816, Lord Charles Somerset established the first Post Offices in the various districts under the control of official paid Post Masters. As Algoa Bay fell under the jurisdiction of Uitenhage, an official Post Office was established there. This served the small garrison under Captain Evatt at Fort Frederick together with the scattered farms in the vicinity and the Field Cornet, Stephanus Hartman, near the mouth of the kloof that would become Russell Road.

Gamtoos Ferry keepers house in 1875

During January 1822, the first rung of formality and bureaucracy was instituted with the appointment of the first Postmaster, William Dunn at a salary of £40 per annum. In the previous year, Dunn had already been appointed as Port Elizabeth’s first Customs Officer. The most important piece of equipment with which Dunn was issued was a circular brass metal stamp, in the centre of which was a crown and around it bearing the words “Post Office Port Elizabeth.” Letters could be handed in daily from 9am to 3pm except on Sundays and Public Holidays. The Post Master would then impress the letter stamp on the top right-hand corner whereas the recipient Post Master would impress it on the bottom left hand corner. The great disadvantage of this letter stamp was that it bore no date. Hence the recipient of the letter was unable to determine when it had been posted and how long it had been in transit.

This deficiency had a consequence. In 1822 Mr. George Smets of Port Elizabeth lost a lawsuit due to a document being undated. He advised the Governor about the adoption of the English method of postage whereby each letter was impressed with a stamp bearing the day, month and year that the letter was handed-in at the Post Office. This, Smets implored, would assist in detecting fraud as well as ascertaining where delays in the delivery of letters occurred. This letter was passed on by the Governor to the Postmaster-General, Robert Crozier, who had previously advocated that this method be adopted. The ironical result was that Port Elizabeth was issued with a replacement stamp bearing a dating device yet it was the only town to receive an updated stamp!

Being Post Master was only a side-line as the population was scanty and hence his duties were negligible. Hence William Dunn combined this role with that of clerk and Custom House officer. For this reason, it can be presumed that the tiny wood and iron shed close to the landing place on the beach at the foot of the present Jetty Street was the first Post Office as well as the first Custom’s House.

William Dunn’s tenure would come to an abrupt end in 1827 when he was dismissed for “malpractice”,  or corription in common modern parlance.


Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1994, E.H. Walton Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth)

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Postal Service – The Formalisation Phase

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Postal Service – Part 3

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Postal Service – Part 4




Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)


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