Port Elizabeth of Yore: In the Era of the 1837 Royal Engineer’s Map

What can be learned from examining a map in detail? Plenty. But in this case not so much. Being a military map, it does not include all the non-military buildings. This does have an advantage as it eliminates all the clutter. Hence it provides an overall perspective

Main picture: The complete 1837 military map of Port Elizabeth as drawn by the Royal Engineers

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Quarries for Development

Large quantities of rock and stone are only required for extensive civil engineering projects. The first project to require such quantities was the construction of the abortive breakwater in the 1860s. Even greater quantities were required for the new breakwater and quays in the 1920s and 1930s.

With the second and third wave of buildings on the southern side of Main Street, copious quantities of rock were generated. As this construction did not coincide with harbour construction and an alternative use could not be found for this material, it was merely dumped into the Baakens Lagoon, converting the lagoon into a narrow canalised stream.

Main picture: Thomas Bowler’s painting the railway line ferrying stone from the quarry in St. Mary’s cemetery to the breakwater being constructed south of the Baakens River. Interestingly, the painting shows the rail link running through the graveyard.

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The 1908 Flood per the EP Herald

The Eastern Province Herald of Friday 21st November 1908 carried a report on the Great Flood of the 16th November 1908.

Following a cloudburst in the Hunters Retreat area, the Baakens River came down in Flood, causing tremendous damage in the valley and around the mouth and then subsiding again very quickly. Previous river floods had caused little damage because there were then no buildings on the flood plain, but after the lagoon was filled in the reclaimed land had been built upon. Some of those affected by flood damage brought an action against the Council and the Commissioner of Public Works in September 1909. Some of the downpour flowed down the other side of the watershed, and the Cradock Place area also suffered.

Main picture: The Great Flood of 1908 – Inside the Harbour Board Yard

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Human Dimension of the 1908 Flood

Port Elizabeth was renowned for its severe floods having experienced periodic flooding with the most notable being in 1867 and  1897. Previous river floods had caused little damage in the valley and around the mouth of the Baaken’s Valley as there were no buildings on the flood plain. But this time it was different. In the period subsequent to the previous floods, the lagoon had been systematically reclaimed and buildings had been injudiciously built on the flood plains. This was to exacerbate the effect of the flood waters.

The moniker for this catastrophe would forever be The Great Flood.

Main picture: Debris accumulated against the main bridge across the Baaken’s River forcing the water down Commerce Road to the Harbour Board building

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Woolwasheries, the First Industry Emerges

Prior to the establishment of woolwasheries in Port Elizabeth, there were no industries in the town. The salient feature of economic activities was a focus on merchanting and activities related to the harbour. Activities such as house construction, shoe and bootmaking were prevalent but they were not undertaken on an “industrial scale.” Instead they were all undertaken on a “made to order” basis on the owner’s property rather than for stock in a factory.  

With the burgeoning wool trade, various entrepreneurs sensed a business opportunity. Thus commenced the woolwashing industry for which Port Elizabeth is still renowned.

 Main picture: Woolwashing in Humewood 

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Baakens from Pristine Lagoon to Industrial Epicentre

From a pristine lagoon in 1820 to an industtrial area in forty years, is how long it took to destroy this once virgin wilderness. Unlike the Settlers, the previous inhabitants of this area, the Khoisan, without any discernible desire at building permanent structures, left no detectable evidence of their presence in the area over eons.

As my blog entitled “Port Elizabeth of Yore: What Happened to the Baakens Lagoon? deals with the why and how the lagoon was reclaimed, instead this blog will focus on the conversion of this normally placid waterway and bush covered hill into the epicentre of industrial development within the restricted confines of the valley floor.

Main picture: The bridge across the Baakens in 1866 before the flood showing the lagoon [Redgrave]

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Birth of South End

South End has experienced a tumultuous past. From devastating floods in 1867 to the destruction of a culturally diverse community through forced removals in terms of the Group Areas Act  in the 1960s, South End has experienced it all. 

The focus of this blog is the early beginnings when the Baakens River isolated South End from Port Elizabeth and its subsequent transformation from a huge farm into a residential area. 

Main picture: Port Elizabeth from an agrarian South End in 1830

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: What Happened to the Baakens Lagoon?

Like many of the rivers in the Eastern Cape, the Baakens River also originally possessed an impressive lagoon. Old photographs and paintings show it being used for leisure activities such as boating. 

What eventually happened to this splendid lagoon? 

Main picture: Baaken’s River looking up from the mouth in 1860 with Fort Frederick atop of the ridge. This expanse of water to the north of Union Bridge does not form part of the lagoon as it is a shallow expanse of water subject to the vagaries of tides and the strength of the river flow.

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Swimming Practices and Locations

Swimming in the 19th century must be understood against the backdrop of the conservative mores of that era. This resulted in a flurry of rules to prevent men and women swimming together. By the end of the century, attitudes towards “mixed swimming” were more relaxed.

This blog chronicles the saga of sea swimming in Port Elizabeth from its first attempt at the breakwater in 1866, the construction of the first swimming pool in Port Elizabeth and finally to swimming at Humewood.

Main picture: Swimming facilities just north of the mouth of the Baakens River

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