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The Harbour Board,
1894 to 1904

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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A Harbour Board was established at East London in May 1894.

It was a logical development if the port was to prosper because it placed management in local hands and was therefore more in tune with the regional pulse. Moreover, as a corporate body, it could raise loans and be independent of Government handouts with its political implications.

The Board was an instant success. It immediately undertook construction of additional services such as a slipway on the western bank, which allowed small vessels to be repaired locally instead of sailing to Cape Town.

It also made rapid improvements to the landing facilities. In 1896 a siding timber yard was constructed, as well as a passenger landing wharf near the First Creek. A paraffin shed was built and two more cranes purchased.

So rapid were the extensions that, within the first decade of the Board's existence, the facilities more than doubled those created during the previous twenty years.

Another factor was the rapidity with which the Board was able to act. Within a month of the Lucy's wreck, insurance had been claimed and a new dredger ordered. The Kate -- after Kate Rees, wife of Mayor David Rees -- arrived in July 1897, not two years after the Lucy's loss.

Constant work by the two dredgers meant that the depth of the channel was ever increasing. Whereas in 1896 the depth of water over the bar varied from between 9 and 13 feet, by 1903 vessels with a draught of over 21 feet were regularly entering the harbour.

This meant an ever increasing number of ships were able to enter: from 38 in 1887 to a staggering 374 in 1902. In 1899 only one vessel with a draught of over 20 feet was able to cross the bar, whereas in 1903 no less than 75 such ships did so. Over 80 percent of cargo was now being landed directly onto the wharfs.

Theoretically, there should have been no immediate limit to the port's expansion but the reality was that, no matter how efficiently the Board operated, the Wharfage Department and the railways remained in Government hands. Inefficiency in that department meant a permanent bottle-neck.

A further problem was the inadequate berthing facilities. There were no wharfs on the West Bank because there was no bridge across the Buffalo River. The harbour was therefore utilized to less than 50 percent of its capacity.

Moreover, facilities had still not been extended beyond First Creek, despite there being considerable frontage further up the river.

The Board brought the Government's urgent attention to these problems but it did not survive long enough to see its recommendations realised. Indeed, the Board's tenure was summarily ended in1908 when the harbour was transferred to the Cape Railways.

It was not a promising prospect. The Board had looked after East London well and greater development had taken place under its brief tenure than during any preceding period.

The Cape Railways, on the other hand, had never shown much concern for East London's rights or needs, and the harbour had suffered from its inefficient service.

The harbour's future therefore looked bleak indeed.

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