Go to the Labyrinth of East London Lore

The West Bank

The original East London

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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On 2 April 1847 military wagons under the command of Lieutenant-General Berkeley trundled onto the western bank of the Buffalo River.

Their purpose was to create a port for the new Colony of British Kaffraria -- and hot on their heels came a handful of merchants, intent on making a living by selling to the soldiers.

For about eight months the place was called simply "the Camp at the Mouth of the Buffalo River". And then Sir Harry Smith arrived just before Christmas and he named it "London".

But confusion set in. A Cape Town newspaper reported that a ship had taken only three days to sail from London. "Perhaps the aerial machine has been invented," the columnist quipped. Early in January, therefore, Sir Harry changed the name to "East London".

The problem, though, was that British Kaffraria was ruled by the army which had no authority to collect customs -- and so merchants in the neighbouring territories quickly began to smuggle through East London.

To stop this illicit trade, Sir Harry annexed the port to the Cape Colony -- something that would last for more than a decade. It was a disaster! Everyone knew that East London would eventually go back to British Kaffraria and so no-one was prepared to invest their money here.

During this period, therefore, East London stagnated. There was no harbour development for next 25 years. Merchants hesitated to come here. No civic body was formed to take care of those essential things like water, sanitation and street construction.

What was it like to live here during those early years? Probably very difficult. First, no proper streets were made and there were stories of ox-wagons becoming so hopelessly stuck in holes that they had to be completely unloaded to be pulled loose.

The only street to be named was Toby Street -- after Captain Toby of the Frederick Huth, a small coaster that often crossed the bar into the river. Then the local merchants objected. No self-respecting community, they argued, could have its main street with the name of Toby Street. And so it was renamed "High Street".

Without a proper harbour, only very small ships could enter the river -- which they did when the high tide made the sandbar passable. They left with the receding tide when they could rush out on the flood. At low tide one could even walk across the river mouth.

Sanitation was dreadful. Toilet buckets in the houses were simply emptied into the bush -- until the Magistrate insisted the contents be dumped on the seashore below the high water mark. The stench apparently was dreadful.

Water was obtained in three ways. There was a seepage area along the coast (below today's West Bank golf course) and Captain Baker of Fort Glamorgan dug a little reservoir just above the rocks on the sea shore. This became known as Baker's Well.

This water supply, however, was too far away for the average household which couldn't afford a wagon. They therefore collected rainwater from their roofs, or dug wells in their back yards.

Much later -- during the critical drought of the 1890s -- a couple of larger dams were excavated above Baker's Well, and the name was then transferred to these reservoirs. Only then was water piped into the village -- with seven taps in the streets.

The Wesleyans were the first to establish a church and a school at East London but somehow their community didn't last. It was only when Bishop Cotterill founded St Peter's Church in 1857 that a fully fledged parish was created, and soon thereafter came the first lasting school -- what is today the West Bank High School.

It was only in 1873 that a municipality was at last formed which enabled the community to start doing the many things that were necessary for a town. By that stage, however, the German village of Panmure had been established on the East Bank and it too formed part of the municipality.

When a railway was built to Queenstown that same year, its terminus was established at Panmure and then businesses quickly relocated to the east side of the river. With no bridge to span the river, the West Bank was doomed to stagnate.

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