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Baker's Wells

East London's first water supply

Keith Tankard
Knowledge4Africa.com
Updated: 14 October 2009
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Baker's Wells was a small reservoir dug in 1847 by Captain William Baker and a team of soldiers from the 73rd Regiment to supply the village of East London with water. It was the port's first reliable source of drinking water.

Baker was Commanding Officer at Fort Glamorgan in 1847 and 1848.

As East London on the west bank of the Buffalo River grew from a small army barracks into a village, so the need to find a reliable source of water became more urgent.

Baker noted that there was a regular supply of water seeping from a marshy slope, about a kilometre to the west of the village, close to the shore-line. He therefore supervised the digging of a well close to the rocks near the sea, and so allowed the water to pool up into a small reservoir.

In August 1878, the colonial hydraulic engineer, John Gamble, visited East London to report on the water supply. He again referred to Baker's Wells which gave, he said, about 3,000 gallons per day and the residents had placed 13 casks there to collect the water.

Their total capacity, however, did not exceed 6,000 gallons, a quantity "quite insufficient" for the wants of the now rapidly expanding East London.

The area nevertheless did have prospects and Gamble suggested that, if there was no other suitable place available, then two small reservoirs could be built, and these could be connected by a catch-water drain filled with dry rubble.

Both would be lower than 60 feet above sea-level, however, and so neither would be able to serve the town by gravitation.

There were, nevertheless, serious doubts about the quality of the water. It was "hard", Gamble stated, and perhaps contained "hurtful matter" such as salts of magnesia.

His strongest objection, however, was the fact that the West Bank cemetery had by then been situated a short distance above the seepage area.

He feared therefore that the water would be contaminated by "putrefying organic matter" which often contained "the poison of specific diseases" such as cholera and typhoid. Such water was not necessarily purified after it had percolated even through a considerable distance of ground.

Nevertheless, that source would remain the main supply for the West Bank for decades to come. Indeed, at the turn of the century, the municipality ignored the problem of the nearby cemetery to build new reservoirs there.

Baker's Wells is often confused with these reservoirs which are higher up the slope of that same hill, immediately below the golf course. These latter reservoirs were in fact built by the municipality between 1898 and 1901, and therefore had nothing to do with the original Baker's Wells.

Local residents, however, came to use the term "Baker's Wells" for the new reservoirs, thereby creating two historical water sources with the same name: the original well near the shore-line which was scooped out in 1847, and the much later municipal reservoirs.

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