Port Elizabeth of Yore: Uitenhage enters the Industrial Age

By 1806, two years after the town of Uitenhage was founded, the districts of Uitenhage and Graaff Reinet possessed 72.9% of the sheep in South Africa. With only 19.2% of the Cape’s population, and 60.4 head of sheep per person in these districts, one has two wonder why this anomaly arose. It would take another 20 years after the establishment of Port Elizabeth in 1820 before the export of wool would make sheep breeding a profitable undertaking. It is these exports which would provide the impetus for the creation of wool processing industries in both Uitenhage and Port Elizabeth.

Main picture: Springfield – One of the first woolwasheries in Uitenhage

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Commercial Developments of the Richardson Family

Maybe not quite as prominent as the Mosenthal family in 19th century Port Elizabeth, but the Richardson’s were a close second. Similarities abound between the two families; both were Jewish immigrants who operated in the agricultural sector and both introduced innovations into their market segment and operated locally and internationally. Even their headquarters were contiguous to one another in Market Square. Mosenthals occupied the corner premises of Jetty and North Union Street whereas Richardson’s building was next door in North Union Street. 

At the risk of overstatement, these two Port Elizabeth entrepreneurs were in the top tier of those companies which were largely instrumental in Port Elizabeth’s rise as an economic force in the 19th and early 20th century.

Let me introduce the Richardson’s and some of their businesses.

Main picture: Richardson’s head office in Market Square

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Richardson’s Wool Washery & Carbonising Works

When I first saw the photograph with this prominent sign on the building in North End, presumably Queen Street, advertising “Richardson’s Wool Washery and Carbonising Works”, I was perplexed. How does the process of carbonising operate and why is it performed?

I sent my ever-willing technical editor scurrying off to answer another inane question and this is the result.

Main picture: Richardson’s works

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A Description of Port Elizabeth in 1874

In his book A Descriptive Handbook of the Cape Colony, John Noble provides a description of all the major towns in the Cape Colony in 1874. His narrative about Port Elizabeth itself is glowing. However he concludes by stating that the “country about Port Elizabeth is very uninviting.” Included in the blog are the census figures for 1874 as well as a detailed description of the wool washing process which had by this time become more mechanised.

This is a verbatim transcription from Noble’s tome.

Main picture: View of Port Elizabeth in 1873

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Woolwasheries, the First Industry

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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