Go to the Labyrinth of East London Lore

What was it like
to live at East London?

A survey of the period 1847 to 1873

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
(Contact the Project Coordinator)

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In its early years, East London was just a very small frontier hamlet, isolated from the world. Since King William's Town was the capital of British Kaffraria, any "civilized" life would have taken place there.

In 1849 the Collector of Customs described the port as in a sorry state. "Nothing but quarrelling and bankruptcy," he wrote, "little less than a mud-hole."

At first, hard-nosed traders had moved in -- bachelors like Edward Syfret and George Reeler who recognised the potential of the port and could smell a good profit. Soon, however, political and economic obstacles eroded this confidence.

Indeed, the legal confusion and recession which followed the port's annexation to the Cape Colony caused the traders to leave. By 1857 -- a full decade on -- East London's non-civilian population was still less than 153.

The village had remained completely in the hands of magistrates whose task was solely to maintain order, not to promote the town. As a result, streets were never properly formed and no attention was given to their repair.

There is at least one recorded case of a laden wagon becoming stuck in a donga in High Street -- one so deep that the wagon had first to be completely unloaded before it could be extricated.

Sanitation was another thing. Without a municipality, there could be no sanitary service. The rule was therefore a simple one: every household was responsible for emptying its own toilet pails and throwing the contents onto the rocks along the seashore below the high water mark.

This was supposed to happen only after dark but the vision of men stumbling blindly to the seashore with their reeking buckets boggles the imagination. Most people therefore emptied the contents into the bush. The stench . . . !

The slaughtering of animals was similar. The rule was that the slaughtering had to happen on the rocks below the high water mark but in reality this too seldom happened.

It is known, for instance, that Heinrich Meise and Conrad Selzer -- German military settlers who became butchers -- corralled their animals within the old cemetery on the seashore, often slaughtering them there.

Conditions were worse at Panmure -- founded in 1857 as a home for the German military settlers and the later German agriculturists. Sheer poverty kept the people in a state of servitude. There was certainly no supervision in their village and no demarcated area for sanitary waste.

Water was also a serious problem. The West Bank had the stream at Baker's Wells but it was too far out for anyone other than the military to fetch the water. The rest made do with rainwater tanks, or dug wells in their gardens.

This well water, however, proved to be of questionable quality because many householders had also dug pit toilets, and the contents of these had the tendency to seep slowly into the wells . . .

The people of Panmure, on the other hand, mostly could not afford rainwater tanks but depended on a wetland at Waterloo Square. This was also the place for watering animals, resulting in unwholesome competition as well as occasional decaying carcasses.

Early East London therefore did not win any prizes as a prime destination in which to settle.

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