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Sir John Coode's Harbour
1870 to 1882

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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The discovery of diamonds in Griqualand West brought unexpected wealth to the Cape Colony, enabling major projects hitherto unthinkable. As a result, Civil Engineer Sir John Coode was asked to draw plans to improve the harbour at East London.

His main objective was similar to Pilkington's earlier project: to build training walls to guide the river current into deepening the channel. The great difference, however, lay in the fact that a total of £100,000 was set aside for the construction, to be spent in annual installments of £15,000 each.

The equipment arrived in 1872. Then shipments of rails were landed. By the end of 1873, the concrete machinery had been set up, a locomotive assembled and a platform levelled for the giant cranes. Then construction was started on the south breakwater.

By 1874, the work was already bearing fruit. A flood that year -- a "freshet"", as it was called -- cleared sand from the river and created a channel up to 36 feet in depth. Larger ships were at last able to enter the river and unload their cargoes at the jetties.

Severe gales, however, continually hampered efforts -- even causing several shipwrecks, leading in turn to loss of material and stores. Nevertheless, the south breakwater was soon constructed to a sufficient length as to allow for the dropping of concrete blocks directly into the sea.

At the same time, progress was being made on building the training walls along each bank of the river and, in 1875, two giant cranes -- the Hercules and Goliath -- had been landed and were at work laying the Titan blocks into the sea.

The most difficult work was the construction of the breakwater over the irregular and slippery "Blinders" rocks on the western side of the river, over which the sea dashed wildly. The work became safer, however, once deeper water had been reached.

The combination of training walls and a breakwater saw a marked improvement in the depth of the river. Even though the "freshet" of 1874 was followed by a decade of drought, the channel still remained open.

In 1879 two tugs arrived -- the Buffalo and London -- and they were able to tow lighters in and out of the river. The class of cargo vessel was also improving. Previously, ships entering the river had been able to carry only up to 40 tons of cargo at a time but now anything up to 90 tons was possible.

In 1881, Sir John Coode reported that, when he had last been there in 1870, the entrance to the river had been almost entirely blocked by massive sand-banks. Now there was very little sand in the river at all, despite the decade of drought.

Trade and shipping statistics attest to this remarkable improvement. The total value of imports had risen from £21,496 in 1869 to £2,115,930 in 1882 -- an increase of nearly 10,000 percent.

Indeed, trade was increasing so fast that the harbour facilities simply could not keep pace.

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