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Wharves and dredgers
1875 to 1890

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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In 1875 the first wharf was constructed on the eastern bank, yet landing facilities remained hopelessly inadequate. Indeed, so many wagons were now outspanned alongside the single wharf that roads were blocked and goods strewn everywhere.

The system proved especially detrimental to the sailing ships. Stevedoring companies were so anxious not to offend owners of steamers that they gave them priority, leaving sailing ships unattended in the roadstead sometimes for months.

Complaints saw the construction of another wharf in 1876, and a third in 1877. Because this was situated alongside the railway lines, cargo could also be moved more rapidly. Two steam cranes and two warehouses were then constructed on the wharf. In 1882, another two wharves were built.

By far the most challenging problem now was the depth of the channel. The training walls depended on the natural flooding of the Buffalo River but the decade of drought had proved that a dredger was necessary.

The idea had been raised as early as 1879 and a small "crab" or floating grab dredger was ordered, but it was soon found to be inefficient. Within months, therefore, another call went out for a large "hopper" or suction dredger.

The moment, however, was not opportune. The Cape had fallen into a severe recession -- what contemporaries called the "Great Depression" -- which would last until gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand in 1886. Retrenchment was now the name of the game.

It was not therefore the ideal time for Government to lay before Parliament a vote of £35,000 for a "hopper" dredger.

Yet it was not just the recession which made the moment inopportune. There was also a power-struggle being waged in Parliament, and John X Merriman used the moment to humiliate the Government, expounding sarcastically at East London's expense.

The people there, he claimed, "were in favour of a Hopper dredger. They would be in favour of anything which would hop money out of the tax-payers' pockets."

Merriman had support in Parliament and the Prime Minister, fearing he might lose the vote and also lose power, lopped the dredger from the budget. East Londoners were incensed and burned an effigy of Merriman in public.

It was fortunate for East London that Prime Minister Upington soon managed to consolidate power and so, in 1886, a suction dredger was at last ordered. The Lucy arrived in July and began work immediately to deepen the channel.

Within just one year, the depth of water was already eleven feet even at low tide. Indeed, so successful was the Lucy that Sir John Coode suggested a second dredger be acquired. The Sir Gordon arrived in February 1891.

The work of the two dredgers was to have a marked effect on trade at East London as there was a constant increase in the tonnage of imports and exports. Although steamers were much larger than their predecessors, yet an ever larger proportion of cargo could now be shipped directly into the harbour itself.

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