Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Slipway in Humewood

Most residents of Port Elizabeth are unaware what the purpose of the concrete pillars jutting out of the sand between Hobie and Humewood Beach represent. It was a slipway built in 1903. By the 1850s Algoa Bay was attracting swarms of vessels of all shapes and sizes. Many used the Bay as the location to effect minor repairs before proceeding on their voyage.

It took an entrepreneur by the name of John Centlivres Chase to envisage constructing a slipway in Port Elizabeth to provide this vital service.

Main picture: Humewood 1910 with what appears to be a fishing boat being hauled up for maintenance

Proposed slipway of 1860

Chase was an original 1820 Settler arriving at the unnamed hamlet then referred eponymously as Algoa Bay. The 24-year-old Chase set foot on the shore together with his 20-year-old wife but without their Infant daughter, Louisa, who had passed away while sailing across the Bay of Biscay.

After landing, the couple clambered over a  line of sand dunes towards their temporary accommodation, a line of tents arraying along High Street. Some two decades later, this street would become known as Main Street. Little would this intrepid band of settlers be aware that this sandy track, flanked by sand dunes, would morph into the vibrant business  centre of Port Elizabeth.

John Centlivres Chase

It was a 54-year-old Chase who would, whilst in Simon’s Bay, as it was then called, be impressed by the recently constructed slipway. Chase took the opportunity to approach the marine engineer involved, Robert Mair, about the feasibility of a similar project in Port Elizabeth. Chase believed that “the Fishery Point [co-incidentally where the later slipway would be constructed] , the old whaling establishment, belonging to my family, which I now regret has been sold, would afford a position equally favourable as Simon’s Bay, for the construction of a Patent Slip.” Muir promptly replied that “I have no doubt that a very superior article could be put down at Port Elizabeth for considerably less than has been expended here”. As a consequence of this favourable response, the Harbour Board was induced to Mair to visit Algoa Bay. Even before Mair’s in loco inspection was performed, local  residents opined about its practicability.

Mair arrived towards the end of October 1860. After three weeks of investigation and “mature deliberations” with the aid of a Harbour Board sub-committee, Mair submitted a “most favourable report”. Their findings, together with a small model of the proposed scheme, were placed in the library for public inspection. In 1860, the library was located in the Town Hall. The investigation had been simplified by the fact that William Fleming (junior) [my first cousin twice removed] had kept a daily record of the shipping since 1856 “which alone {gave) .. nearly all the information required”.

In light of their inspection and the shipping information provided by William Fleming, Muir was of the opinion that a 244-meter slipway costing £19,000, capable to taking vessels up to 2000 tons, would be fully justified. According to Jon Inggs, “From the records, it had been ascertained that from 1856 to 1860, 52 vessels had put into Algoa Bay for repairs. Of these 37 called during the winter months – May to August – with 21 during June alone. Although 34 had been repaired, the other 13, with an average of 763 tons each, had been condemned. During 18558-59 alone, 42 vessels had run past this port, after endeavouring in vain to weather the Cape, and made for Mauritius, all requiring repairs. In addition, regular traders of 350 tons constituted 42% of Port  Elizabeth’s shipping traffic”.

In the words of Jon Inggs, “it was estimated that ships would be able to be put of the proposed slipway during 150 days of the year or on 3 out of every 7 days”. The site that was selected was the known as the Fishery in those days as represented the area between north of the Shark River and Hobie Beach. Two sites at the Fisheries were found to be equally eligible. Hence soundings were taken at both. Mair’s preference was for the area just north of Shark River based upon the fact that the rock formation there could form a natural foundation for the slipway. Furthermore, a quarry could be opened on the adjacent hill.

The Swartkops River was rejected because the expense related to the removal of the bar would exceed the cost of the slipway itself. A site inside the breakwater was also rejected. Apart from the problem of shifting sand, a slipway located there would interfere with the intended loading facilities.

What ultimately scuttled the scheme was a report by another Simon’s Bay slipway engineer, G.W. Onions. In his report he stated that it “is confined chiefly to the question of ‘swell’. ‘lift’, ‘current’ and prevailing winds”. However what Onions lamented was the lack of comment on an issue “of the most vital importance”, viz the nature of the bottom of the Bay. “That the bottom of the Bay at the Fishery is rocky and unsuitable, I have no other means of determining but by the reported evidence”. Onions concluded that “the selected site at the Fishery is in every sense unsuitable for the reception of a Patent Slip”. As if to emphasise the unsuitability, he finished by stating “that such an undertaking would be of necessity a decided failure”.

As a consequence, the scheme was quietly forgotten. Curiously this scheme was resuscitated about forty years later and eventually brought into operation in 1903.

Current slipway

This slipway was constructed by the Port Elizabeth Harbour Board at the mouth of the Shark River. The intention was to create a ship repair facility for vessels of up to 400 tonnes. Construction commenced in 1899.

Building next the Slipway is not yet been completed as it is still under construction - early 1900's
Building next the Slipway is not yet been completed as it is still under construction – early 1900’s. Note that there are no buildings at all past the Shark River.

Finally on 30 July 1903 it was opened for operations with the steam lighter, the Loch Gair, being drawn up for repairs that day. On 10th August the “James Searle” was also brought onto land and two new iron lighters were being built.

Tug on the Humewood Slipway
Tug on the Humewood Slipway

A boat was steadied between six masonry piers and a cradle was lowered underneath. Steam driven hauling gear then pulled the cradle and boat onto dry land.

Slipway with a boat right at the top next to the shed
Slipway with a boat right at the top next to the shed

The slipway was taken out of use in 1939 and much of the structure has subsequently been removed.

A boat being winched up the slipway
A boat being winched up the slipway
Aerial view of Humewood and the slipwaay
Aerial view of Humewood and the slipway

Some of the shipwrights working at the slipway stayed in the slipway cottages, located where the Beach Manager’s office is situated now.

The original car park with slipway extending into it
The original car park with slipway extending into it
A ship is being pulled up onto the slipway in the background
A ship is being pulled up onto the slipway in the background
The Harbour Board Tug Repair Yard Humewood (1910s)
The Harbour Board Tug Repair Yard Humewood (1910s)

Recent photographs

s04hmwd slipway

Related blogs on Port Elizabeth:

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Russell Road

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Sand dunes, Inhabitants and Animals

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Horse Memorial

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Target Kloof

The Parsonage House at Number 7 Castle Hill Port Elizabeth

What happened to the Shark River in Port Elizabeth?

A Pictorial History of the Campanile in Port Elizabeth

A Sunday Drive to Schoenmakerskop in 1922

The Three Eras of the Historic Port Elizabeth Harbour

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Railway Station

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Great Flood of 1st September 1968

http:// http://thecasualobserver.co.za/the-friendly-city-port-elizabeth-my-home-town/


For this information, I owe a debt of gratitude to the following:

Thesis of Jon Inggs, “Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth Harbour Development 1820-70“, MA thesis, Rhodes University, 1986

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

Recent photographs: Jonker Fourie


  1. Fascinating stories about PE where I grew up. Now living in the USA I like to browse through your histories and revisit many of the places you write about. My grandfather settled in PE in 1897 and established W. Playdon and Co in North End. The building was later bought by the CNA. He bought much of Jutland Crescent and divided it among his children. Our very large house overlooking Baakens Valley was gutted by fire a few years ago. Like you, our bicycle rides to Humewood and home again were mostly remembered by the climb to get home. I would love to correspond with you if you have the interest. I am trying to chronicle our family’s connection with PE and have a good picture of the factoy building.

  2. What a treasure I discovered! Will need much more time to read all this wonderful history of my absolute favourite city in the country. Even tried my luck to move and live there 30 years ago. Sadly did not make it and returned tail between the legs to Jhb. of all places. Holidayed and visited family in PE many times over the years.


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