Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Maritime Natal: John Milne and the Harbour Works


'In 1856 the Harbour Works were progressing under the patient application of John Milne, C. E., who in the existing state of the Colonial Revenue was expected to make bricks without straw', says George Russell in his History of Old Durban.

First Milne had to construct a wooden tram-line round the Bluff to the Cave Rock to obtain the necessary stone and afterwards boat it across for his works. This was done by two contractors, William Campbell and Richard Godden, with African labour and they did it well for their skilled handiwork was later recognisable in the root of the North Pier, every stone hand-dressed and packed. 

Milne was constantly about the Bay with flags, buoys and labour, and gave plenty of exercise to the Port Captain, his boat and crew, in soundings

'The crests of the sea at high tides would break over in streamlets from the Back Beach ... to the Custom House Channel, and it was his aim ... to compel the forces of Nature to the success of his design. His main project was to carry out a North Pier to the Bar with a short South Pier opposite, gradually narrowing the entrance and facilitating scour. He employed the fragments of labour and funds doled out to him in wattling the sandhills from Captain Bell's house to the Point, with a series of rough fences divided into sheepfold-like paddocks, to divert and retain the drifting sands from entering the Bay. These sands were then secured by planting the Hottentot Fig or any green thing that would grow there.' 

Milne's heart was in his work and he was always on duty. He would be seen wearing a long Nankeen coat and broad Manila hat, walking-staff in hand.



The Bluff with the remains of Milne's North Pier in
foreground. There was no lighthouse until 1867.

John Milne was born in 1802 Kincardine, Scotland, a civil engineer who had worked on harbours such as Leith and Inverkeithing in his home country before emigrating to Natal on the Dreadnought in 1849. A widower, he was accompanied by his daughter Jessie. Jessie married a soldier, Captain Robertson, who was later wounded in India in 1857 and died in 1861. Subsequently, Jessie married Captain William Michael Tollner. Her 2nd husband Tollner’s Death Notice gives her maiden name as Robertson, which is misleading and emphasises the necessity for checking sources. 

Milne had his critics (including the influential George Cato) and by 1858 he was no longer harbour engineer at Durban. He died in 1877.


Acknowledgements: George Russell: History of Old Durban;
Delyse Brown, family information.


Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Maritime Adventures at Natal 5: more shipwrecks in Capt Bell's time


Records show that no less than 66 large ships were lost on Back Beach between December 1845 and December 1885 with the loss of thirty lives. One result of the number of wrecks up to 1863 was public anger over the lack of a lighthouse on the Bluff. This was fuelled by the loss of the Sebastian and the Earl of Hardwicke in a gale on 26 September 1863.
Among other shipwrecks during Bell’s tenure as Port Captain were:
Fusilier – British ship wrecked on the Bluff Rocks at the south entrance to the harbour on 25 May 1865 in a north-east wind while on a voyage from Calcutta to Demerara (British Guiana) with Indian workers. Loss of 20 souls.
Annabella – British barque wrecked on what became known as the Annabella Bank at Durban on 21 January 1856, carrying cargo. There was no loss of life, but a public enquiry was demanded. It was this wreck which, perhaps unfairly, led to the dismissal of harbour engineer John Milne.
Ariosto – American barque wrecked on Back Beach on 31 July 1854 while on a voyage from Sumatra to Boston with a cargo of pepper. No loss of life.
British Tar – only three months after the Minerva disaster another Byrne ship (282 tons)  wrecked on Back Beach on 29 September 1850 during an east-north-east gale with a general cargo. No loss of life but the settlers lost everything, like those on the Minerva.
Pioneer – wrecked on Back Beach near Annabella Bank on 23 Oct 1862 when her cables parted after a voyage from London with a cargo of timber for the harbour works. No loss of life. [Natal Mercury 24, 28 Oct, 1862]
Queen - British brig wrecked near Vetch’s Pier on 16 August 1863 when her cables parted in a north-east wind after voyage from London. No loss of life. She lies close to the Lord Geo Bentinck (wrecked 1861). [Natal Mercury 18 Aug 1863]

Sebastian - British wooden barque of 364 tons wrecked on Back Beach on 26 Sept 1863 during north-east gale after voyage from London with immigrants and general cargo. No lives lost.

When the American barque Ariosto 361 tons was wrecked on the Back Beach, Durban, on 31 July 1854 while on her way to Boston from Sumatra, carrying a cargo of pepper, a local Byrne settler, William Hartley, saw an opportunity. He knew that pepper did not deteriorate when wet and he dried out the peppercorns then sold them at a satisfactory profit.

The Captain (Balch) had mistakenly kept the ship on course believing their position to be some miles from the Bluff. The sound of breakers alerted the deck watch but it was too late. The vessel struck, bumping over the Bar, and ended up on the beach. The crew of 17 landed in their boat. The ship became a total wreck but no lives were lost. Durban's inhabitants rushed to the scene and William Hartley began to have ideas about the cargo.


Ariosto wreck 1854

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Souvenir Saturday: the mail steamers to Natal


Sister to the Armadale Castle, built on the Clyde, the Kenilworth Castle was built in Belfast. That yard had produced the Norman and her successors for the Union Company. In October 1900 the new Cape mail contract had come into force, the first to be performed by the Union Castle Line, It was the start of a great shipping era and thousands of our ancestors sailed to and from the Cape and Natal on these mail steamers. The arrival and departure of the mailship was a matter for public celebration then, with streamers being thrown between ship and dock and a festival air pervading the port.

In those days the mail steamers would leave Southampton on Saturday afternoons at 5 pm reaching Table Bay at dawn on Tuesday. After proceeding up the coast to Durban they were scheduled to leave Cape Town homeward bound on Wednesday afternoon at four o'clock. A new arrangement came into being in September 1913 when steamers would leave Cape Town for England at 1 pm on Saturday afternoons. The outbreak of war in 1914 upset all sailing schedules until the end of 1919 when Friday afternoon departures at both ends became the norm.

The earliest mail steamers hadn't proceeded farther than Cape Town. It was only in 1863 that the Union Line began sending its vessels as far as Algoa Bay. After 1876 East London was the terminal port then at last in August 1887 the ships were sent to Durban. Early in 1888 the Castle mail steamers which had before turned round at East London now made Durban their terminal port.

All was not plain sailing. A coastal journey was a nightmare especially for passengers going to Natal where the dreaded Bar made arrival or departure a matter of uncertainty and adventure.

'The method of crossing the Bar was by means of cargo lighters which were hauled along on runners on a stout hawser securely anchored outside the rollers. Passengers were battened down in the hold and most were seasick, Not the least exciting episode was transferring from steamer to lighter and when the rolling became pronounced it required all the agility of a trained acrobat to get from one to the other.'

The conquest of the Durban Bar is a story in itself. Victory was achieved in 1904 when the RMS Armadale Castle, Captain Robinson in command, despite battling a south-westerly gale, steamed proudly through the harbour entrance and was soon berthed alongside the wharf. From that time the crossing of the Bar held no terrors for passengers landing or embarking at Durban.


Saturday, July 7, 2018

Souvenir Saturday: Bill Gadsden in Durban High School Group 1880s


                                     From 'The Durban High School Record 1866-1906'

One evening my uncle arrived at our family home unexpectedly bearing a leather-bound volume entitled The Durban High School Record. The book was in poor condition but all the pages were there. He triumphantly pointed out a group photograph entitled The School in the Eighties and drew our attention to a name in the caption: 'Bill Gadsden'. My father was the only 'Bill Gadsden' I'd ever known or heard of - and he certainly wasn't around in the 1880s, having been born in 1910.

His father was Sydney Bartle Gadsden, born in 1880, and not a contender for the 'Bill' in the photo.

This was the beginning of a search for the unknown Bill Gadsden who had attended the Durban High School during the 1880s. For a start, the caption of the photo was not helpful in identifying which boy was meant to be Bill Gadsden - the rows are made up of inconsistent numbers of boys and masters and there are some missing names. However, it seems likely that Bill Gadsden is 4th from the right in the 3rd row - the 3rd row from the front, that is, ignoring the rows' numbering given in the caption.






This Bill Gadsden, as research was to prove, was my grandfather's brother, William Gadsden of whom my father had no prior knowledge. The brother had never been mentioned in the family and the only two of my grandfather's siblings of whom my father knew were his father's sisters, Faith and Hope.

After the loss of my grandfather's parents he and his sisters were farmed out to various families until the children reached adulthood. It's possible they never saw their brother William who on leaving school was employed as an apprentice on the Natal Harbour Works, later apparently moving to Verulam on the North Coast of Natal where he worked as a carpenter. He married and had one daughter. My father had had no idea this young man existed and was astonished to see the photograph and to hear the results of my research into our mystery family member. To begin with my father was sceptical and found it hard to believe my grandfather wouldn't have spoken of such a close relation. Still, the brothers must have grown apart with the break up of the family and growing up in different foster homes. Whether there were other causes of estrangement remains unknown.

We must also consider that William died in his early twenties - 24 - of enteric fever (a common cause of death in colonial Natal resulting from impure drinking water) on 22.12.1900 at Verulam, Natal. He was probably buried at Verulam cemetery; his grave has so far not been found. His death notice refers to him as Colonial Englishman. My father William Bell Gadsden was born ten years after his uncle's death and remained unaware that there was a widow and a daughter - a first cousin - living not far away from the rest of the Durban Gadsdens.

William attended the Durban Boys' High School from 1888-1892. His address during that time was 'The Point, Durban'. His father was then employed by the Natal Harbour Works.

The Natal Witness carried a brief announcement of William's birth thus:

Gadsden 18-July-1876 (date of event), 28-July-1876 (date of advert) at the Bluff the wife of Mr Thomas Gadsden of a son. 

Thomas Gadsden's wife was Eliza Ann Bell, daughter of Port Captain William Bell. The couple lost a son named Phillip born in 1879; there is a record of Phillip's baptism at St Paul's Church, Durban. 



Thursday, July 5, 2018

More Maritime Adventures: James Ramsay Caithness


James Ramsay Caithness was Captain William Bell's brother-in-law and was also a mariner. Not a very fortunate one as he seemed to go through a number of crises with the various ships he commanded. However, he was an interesting man and one whom we can track through news reports and other sources precisely because his ships were prone to disaster, references frequently being picked up in newspapers from much further afield. In this instance, the news concerns Caithness's schooner (also referred to as a brigantine*), the Prairie, stranded near Rocky Cape, Tasmania.

Rocky Cape, Tasmania: beautiful but dangerous

Although previously mentioned in this blog, the Prairie story bears repeating. It reveals some of the risks faced by the mariner during the days of sail. 

People's Advocate, Launceston, 15 June,1856

This vessel James Ramsay Caithness, master, sailed from the Cape of Good Hope for Melbourne on the 25th March. There were on board nine passengers and a crew of eleven. The lading consisted of wine, oats, flour, raisins and other Cape produce. During the voyage she encountered extremely stormy weather, during which the boats were staved, the bulwarks much damaged, the water-casks staved and displaced, and the head rail on one side entirely carried away. After repairing damages as efficiently as possible she proceeded on her voyage but again encountered a violent gale off Cape Ottway on the night of the 26th May when she was dismasted and in imminent danger. The weather still contrary and the dismantled state of the vessel rendered navigation perilous in the extreme. It was necessary in order to save life and property to run her on shore at Sisters' Creek - between Rocky Cape and Emu Bay - which was successfully effected on the 2nd June. She now lies on the beach where she ran on shore. The owner, captain and some of the crew, arrived here on Saturday night per the Titania.

It was reported that 'the ship was but little injured and might be got off after discharging the cargo', but this proved over-optimistic. James and some of the crew, who had had to resort to camping on the beach, were taken from the site of the wreck by the Titania and there would have been time to reflect bitterly on another lost ship and the costs thereof. The stranded cargo on the beach near Rocky Cape would be sold at public auction. The voyage had taken over three months. Meanwhile, back home at the Cape of Good Hope, Eliza Caithness was soldiering on, caring for five boys aged ten and under.






*the term brigantine now usually means a vessel with the foremast square rigged and the mainmast fore-and-aft rigged, without any square sails. Historically, this rig used to be called a schooner brig.


Monday, July 2, 2018

Maritime Adventures at Natal 4 : Luna and Theresina






At the port of Durban numerous lives were saved by means of the rocket apparatus, fired from the 'rocket house' on shore to vessels in distress. A case in point was that of the Luna, a British brig commanded by Captain Grube which was wrecked on the Back Beach on 2 September 1880. She had sailed from London. Her cables parted during a south east gale - the story of many a ship at this port.

The entire crew survived the wreck, being brought ashore after use of the rocket apparatus.

Another ship whose crew were rescued in this way was the Theresina, a British brigantine wrecked on the Back Beach on 9 April 1878 after a voyage from London. A similar incident occurred on 2 August 1878 when the American barque H.D. Storer parted her cables and ended up on the beach after a voyage from New York.

These unfortunate events were the direct result of ships lying in the roadstead as they were not able to enter the port because conditions over the bar were adverse at the time. Various harbour engineers attempted to solve the problem of the bar.

British harbour experts had to rewrite the text book on tidal scour. Massive breakwaters, exposed to the furies of the sea, had to be constructed. Tidal power is an untiring force of nature. But when there is a never-ending stream of sand passing a harbour entrance, tidal action becomes an engineering nightmare. There was only one solution: persistent dredging.






Saturday, June 30, 2018

Souvenir Saturday: West Street's early days




West Street without tarmac *







  • Tarmacadam, a mainly historical tar-based material for macadamising road surfaces, patented in 1902. Now superseded by asphalt.  
  • Tarmac, term used incorrectly by news media for any paved surface of an airport, regardless of material, e.g. the airport apronstaxiways, or runways


Friday, June 29, 2018

Maritime Adventures at Natal 3: 4 ships wrecked in 28 hours, 1872





This watercolour by Thomas Baines depicts a unique event in the history of Port Natal: the wreck of four wooden sailing vessels on Durban beach within 28 hours, in June 1872. It was another indication of the dangers of anchoring out in the roadstead where a gale could easily cause high seas resulting in a ship's anchor dragging or her cables parting, leaving her helpless. This problem would not be solved until the harbour entrance was dredged and guarded by breakwaters.

The ships were the Grace Piele, Trinculo, Breidablik and Princess Alice, caught in a north-east gale. The only casualties were two mules, part of a cargo from the Grace Piele, which can be seen being dragged ashore in the foreground. No lives were lost. A large crowd of sightseers gathered on the beach. The lighthouse can be seen at the seaward end of the Bluff.

The location of the wrecks was near the foot of what would later be named West Street.

Captain Bell was not at hand to assist: he had died in 1869. 




Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Maritime adventures at Natal 2: Earl of Hardwicke and Lord George Bentinck





Captain William Bell had his fair share of shipwrecks to cope with during his time as Port Captain at Durban. 

The 1860s were particularly busy, as the volume of sail visiting the port increased and the difficulties of the harbour entrance, with varying depths of water over the Bar, had yet to be overcome. This was also the decade which saw the beginning of immigration of Indian labour, with ships sailing from Madras and other Indian ports to Natal carrying large numbers of migrants. 

Each shipwreck which occurred in the environs of the port would be the subject of an enquiry by the Harbour Board and the findings published in the local press. Bell and George Cato as well as the Lieutenant Governor and the Surveyor General sat on this Board and were closely involved in the harbour works proposed by John Milne, Harbour Engineer. 

The Earl of Hardwicke was a British wooden ship of 903 tons commanded by Captain Maddison. She was wrecked on the Back Beach at Durban on 26 Sept 1863 during a north east gale after a voyage from Madras with a cargo of Indian Immigrants. Fortunately no lives were lost. [Natal Mercury 4 December 1863]

There had been a similar incident on 3 January 1861 when the Lord George Bentinck another British barque of 592 tons, commanded by Captain George Case, was wrecked on the Back Beach in a north-easterly wind. She was carrying Indian immigrants and had sailed from Madras. [Natal Mercury 10 January 1861] 

The Adelaide was wrecked during a strong easterly gale on 8 Feb 1866. This ship was also carrying Indian immigrants. Several men were drowned in the incident.
[Natal Mercury 8 February 1866]






Image result for sailing ship engraving
Scrimshaw: Sailing vessel on whale ivory.


Monday, June 25, 2018

Maritime adventures at Natal 1: the Princeza and Bell





This snippet from the Natal Mercury 21 July 1859 emphasises that once a ship reached its destination, Natal, there could still be any number of complications before a passenger actually set foot ashore. The Reliance dragged her anchors and nearly came to grief, but was eventually hauled to safety. The Jan Van Brakel lost both her anchors, spares being supplied from the shore. This incident led to a lawsuit. On board the Van Brakel were nearly fifty Dutch immigrants destined for New Guelderland on the Natal North Coast, part of Colenbrander's scheme. 

The Princeza mentioned in the above report was a schooner of Liverpool commanded by Captain W Lee. She was almost the cause of a disaster in September 1854 when the Port Boat - whose crew on that occasion included Captain William Bell and the harbour pilot/coxswain George Archer - coming ashore in the early hours from the schooner which lay outside at anchor, had a narrow escape from drowning. The night was very dark and the Port Boat filled with water in the heavy surf. Bell and his crew were immersed chest-deep before they abandoned her and slowly groped their way to land without a light. If the incident had taken place a yard or two nearer the deep water channel all the men would have been lost. 

[Source: The Natal Mercury Supplement 27 September 1854 ‘Boat Accidents’.]




Schooner