'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.