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East London harbour
in the 1850s & 1860s


When a port was established on the Buffalo River in April 1847, it had great promise and soon Sir Harry Smith established a Board of Commissioners to recommend projects to make it a resounding success.

Their recommendations were simple enough: the port must have a jetty and a surf-boat organisation which would be controlled by the merchants themselves. Sir Harry, however, chose to ignore the Board.

It would have to wait until 1856 before Woodford Pilkington -- Civil Engineer for British Kaffraria -- drafted more composite plans to use containing walls to scour out the sand bar. The project started in 1856 but was then put on hold till convict labour was transported to East London in 1859.

In the interim, the sand-bar completely closed the river mouth. "From this you will see," the Graham's Town Journal exclaimed in sarcasm, "that the works at the mouth are not progressing very favourably."

The action of the sea, moreover, had already started to erode what had been accomplished. Large rocks were dislodged from the containing walls and tumbled into the river mouth where they threatened to damage vessels attempting to enter the river.

This was still the situation in August 1866 when a report pointed out that only vessels with a very shallow draught could be brought into the harbour. By 1869, work had ceased altogether as it had become apparent that the money was being spent in vain.

Keith Tankard
14 October 2009



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