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Pilkington's Harbour

A first attempt at giving East London a harbour

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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East London was founded in 1847. All surveys pointed to the fact that the lagoon at the mouth of the Buffalo River could provide a more than adequate harbour. Nevertheless all attempted improvements of the harbour facilities were unsuccessful right up until 1870.

The first real attempt to improve the depth of the Buffalo River was undertaken in 1856, when Woodford Pilkington -- Civil Engineer for British Kaffraria -- surveyed the river mouth and then drew up plans to build containing walls which would use the force of the river itself to scour out the sand bar.

Pilkington calculated that the entire project would cost about £110,974 but it could, he said, be carried out in stages.

Stage one of this project was begun in 1856 under Pilkington's supervision, at first with labour supplied by the 89th Regiment. In 1858, however, when the transportation of convicts from British Kaffraria to Robben Island was halted, it was decided to assign them to work on the harbour.

Nevertheless, this plan could not be put into operation immediately because the Civil Works barracks had first to be converted into a convict barracks. This task was completed only in January 1859.

In the interim period, the build-up of the sand-bar completely closed off the river mouth, which made a mockery of the attempt to deepen the river

"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 all progress so far accomplished. Large rocks were dislodged from the containing walls and a considerable number of these settled in the river mouth where they threatened to damage vessels which attempted to enter the river.

This was still the situation in August 1866, and a report that year claimed 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.

In November 1867, Harbour Master George Walker summed up the effects of Pilkington's plans. In a report on the condition of the harbour works, Walker stated that no improvement had taken place but, on the contrary, "injury had occurred".

Many stones, he said, had fallen into the channel during the construction and more had been washed in later by the sea. The wall often wanted repairs and was so undermined as to be dangerous. If it fell, Walker said, the whole wall would collapse and the channel would then be completely blocked.

Walker believed that the centre training wall had been built from the wrong side of the river because, instead of causing a scouring effect on the channel, it had actually led to the silting up of the river mouth.

Pilkington's scheme was eventually abandoned because of the cost. In any case, Pilkington's successors were dubious about the proposal to curve the breakwater across the mouth of the river in order to prevent the sand of the scour from being washed back into the river.

This, they argued, would force ships to enter the river broadside to the surf and prevailing winds. Sailing vessels would, it was believed, be then driven onto the rocky shore.

It would take until 1872 for serious construction work to be re-started but this was on yet another harbour scheme. This would be Sir John Coode's plan which would be immediately successful.

Even so, it would be only when a suction dredger -- the Lucy -- went to work in 1886 that a channel would be made deep enough for large ships to start entering the river mouth.

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