Come a stranger, leave a friend



The Bluff channel provided one of the best anchorages within the fledgling harbour, with protection from the South Easterly winds afforded by the Bluff itself. Early photographs taken from the Bluff show various sailing vessels safely moored there: barques, brigantines and schooners. During the 19th century the Bluff beaches provided opportunities for the beaching of small sailing vessels where regular maintenance work could be carried out on their hulls; scraping barnacles and stopping up the holes drilled by the shipworm (Teredo navalis). In the 1870’s they again became sought after as places for the construction of small lighters and other craft. At one stage there was also a small slipway for raising boats as a relief to the overworked slipway at the Point.  The bayside environment also provided wonderful opportunities for recreation for locals and visitors alike: Marianne to William Churchill: August 5th 1857: ‘Another pleasant excursion was a picnic to the Bluff, quite a family party…… We went down in a wagon to the Point….and had a delightful sail to the opposite beach……There is a tram road runs round the Bluff for the purpose of conveying stones to the opposite side for the erection of the Pier. We walked on this for a little distance till we turned the Bluff and came upon the front view of the ocean…. ’


The growing demand for crossing the Bay to the Bluff either by signal and lighthouse staff; military and pleasure seekers or the residents of King’s Rest and Fynnlands, led to the development of a regular ferry service from the Point. Among the ferrymen were Samuel West, Toomey, the Benjamin brothers, Crew and Alexander Anderson. By 1881 the Natal Harbour Board regulated the ferry business by licensing ferrymen and their boats to prevent overloading and to control the fierce competition. Several generations of jetties served these small craft on both sides of the entrance channel.


The small railway halt on the Bluff rail line is called West’s after Samuel West. He had formally applied to the Natal Harbour Board in 1881 for land on which to erect a canteen. An application for a liquor licence followed in 1882 and he constructed his own jetty. While his original intentions are not clear the place became a social problem in the 1890’s when his tenants sold liquor on Sundays. As this was the only outlet for liquor in Durban on Sundays it became notorious by attracting undesirable and rowdy visitors who seriously disturbed the peaceful picnic outings of families. However by 1911 West’s was once again described as a favourite pleasure resort for Durbanites.


The Durban Public House Trust was probably a tea-totalling antidote to West’s canteen. The Trust had been established to promote abstinence. A charming timber structure called the Bluff Hotel was designed by architect William Street Wilson and, with the full co-operation of the Harbour Engineer, jarrah piles were sunk between the Bluff shore and the Harbour training wall. The remains of these piles may still be seen today at low tide. The hotel was two storied with terraces from which visitors could enjoy the view over the entrance channel and the ships arriving and departing the port. It was reached by ferry and a wooden boardwalk from the shore. Sadly some months after it was opened the entire building went up in flames after a painter had dropped a match in a can of turpentine. The Trust rebuilt the hotel some years later in 1906 on the shore and this structure stood against the backdrop of the Bluff until the early 1970′s, regularly frequented by students, curious visitors and railway shunters from the Bluff railyards.


The original shore of the Bluff followed a gentle curve which formed a sort of shallow bay. With growing pressure on the quays at the Point and a progressive expansion of the port towards Cato Creek it was inevitable that the Harbour authorities should also view the Bluff with its deep channel and rail lines as a natural place for extension. Major reclamation works were commenced about 1900 resulting in a large area of flat land. The reclamation process utilised some of the large fleet of dredgers which the port had acquired for harbour works and especially for dredging the entrance channel. Quay walls were constructed of jarrah piling and pre-cast concrete blocks and teams of divers worked the blocks into position under water. Then the dredgers pumped the dredged sludge from the adjacent channel over the quay wall and built up the flat land.


The reclaimed land was initially used for the offloading of large quantities of timber. This was imported on sailing vessels from North America and Scandanavia for mine workings in the Transvaal. At first, steam ships were supplied with coal manually, togt labourers hauling baskets of coal on their shoulders up and into the bowels of the ships. However the growing demand for the rapid coaling of steamers together with the successful development of coal mines in Northern Natal soon led to the Bluff quays being used for mechanical coaling. Fulham & Co. supplied a mechanised system for the Port in 1906 which could lift and empty the complete rail truck and its coal. Together with a later belt-loading shiploader, erected in 1917, these impressive structures still dominate the shoreline of the Bluff side of the Bay.


The Dutch explorers of 1689 had left stone beacons around the Bay to aid navigation but it was not until the Republic of Natalia that proper navigational beacons were used. The prominence of the Bluff made it an easily recognised landmark by day but at night the signalman stationed there used a ship’s lantern in his window to guide shipping. Shipwrecks and navigational difficulties along the treacherous Natal coast, however, coerced the Colonial Government to provide a proper lighthouse and based on a sketch by Albert Robinson made in 1859, a cast iron lighthouse was ordered from England. It arrived in 1866 in 910 packages and was built on top of a substantial masonry base. A grand opening ceremony took place on January 1st 1867. The first light was a lenticular type which used colsa oil. Changes in technology in the 19th century led to the use of mineral oil and then parrafin, followed by petrol and then electrical incandescent lamps. By 1890 clockwork machinery had been installed and at this time became a regular and popular place to visit on weekends. In 1932 a strong earthtremor damaged the structure and various structural additions were made but its life was shortlived anyway as it was demolished during WW2 as it was found to be in the way of one of the guns from Bluff Battery !


The Port of Natal also used a flagstaff for shipping signals and an unusual signal system to announce the state of the sand bar at the entrance and the quarantine regulations to visiting mariners. The cone signal denoted with a full or half cone whether the bar was passable.


The Timeball had stood on a sand dune at the Point from 1883 and when the dune was flattened the Ball was shifted to the prominence of the Bluff in 1904. The ball fell at 1 o’clock each day to allow ship’s to set their time pieces. Problems arose since three Colonial departments were concerned with its functioning; primarily the Natal Astronomical Observatory on Currie Road who provided the accurate signal. It is interesting to note that until 1895 the Colony of Natal had a different time to the remainder of South Africa being 30 minutes ahead.


It is likely that the arrival of the telephone prompted the Colony to step into line. An experimental telephone line from the Point to the Bluff had been installed by George Ireland in 1882 and was the first in Durban. It proved to be very unpopular with shipping having a loose line dangling over the entrance channel. In 1905 the Marconi Wireless Telegraph system joined the growing set of communication systems installed on the Bluff.


The engineering works which dominated the development of the Port from the mid 19th century well into the 20th were the construction of the North Pier and the South (Innes) Breakwater. Each one of the many schemes for the creation of a safe entrance channel incorporated a southern arm stretching out into the sea and all were deliberate attempts to remove the sandbar at the entrance through the use of the outgoing (ebb) tide. First Milne in 1849 proposed a south breakwater, though he concentrated his attentions on the North Pier. Then Vetch and Abernethy (1859) proposed a curving arm to the south of their partially completed pier; then Coode and Innes. And it was the latter who really commenced work seriously on the project: using timber staging and stone from distant quarries; a 22 ton travelling crane; and materials and workers boated across the channel from the Point – all of this against the ferocity of the seas from the South-East. Innes contracted pneumonia and died on 16th of December 1887. The works were carried on by Cathcart Methven and Charles Crofts but not before a massive public and political controversy broke out over whether the North pier should be longer or shorter than the South Breakwater. Large amounts of stone, brought from the Umhlatazana quarry to the South of Durban by the Bluff branch rail line were assembled into pre-cast concrete blocks at the blockyard on the ocean beach and lifted into place with Titan cranes. Various extensions have been built in the 20th century and the unusual dollose are clearly visible at the end of the breakwater.


Shipwrecks took place with great regularity off the coast of Durban between 1840 and 1900. Two significant wrecks of the 19th century occurred on the Bluff rocks below the headland.


On the night of Thursday the 4th July 1850 the Minerva, with some 300 British settlers on board, broke her anchor cable and drifted from the outer anchorage without control onto the Bluff rocks. She fired a cannon shortly after midnight, but the rescue could only take place at daybreak. All the passengers were safely taken from the ship by the crew, assisted by locals and the crews of other vessels. One seaman drowned in the overturned ship’s boat. The next day the ship became a total wreck. The passengers lost all their clothing and personal belongings including the gricultural implements they had brought to commence farming in their new home.


The Fusilier had left Calcutta in March 1865 bound for Demarara in British Guiana crowded with some 491 Indian workers indentured to work in sugar plantations. Cholera broke out within the first two weeks and by the time they were off Natal, 130 had died. The doctor advised the captain to call in to Durban to take on fresh medicines and supplies. On the 23rd of May she anchored in the outer anchorage. On the night of the 25th she parted her cable and in the effort to turn her out to sea she ran too close to the Bluff where she was wrecked. Several Indians lost their lives, but the majority were rescued and placed in quarantine in the Lazaretto on the Bay. The Court of Enquiry found that the cause was accidental and that the shackle bolt on the anchor chain had worked loose and that the second anchor chain became fouled in the windlass.


As early as 1841 the Volksraad of the Republic of Natalia had legislated for the quarantining of passengers entering the Port, especially those from Mocambique. The fear was that passengers would introduce mysterious, infectious diseases from exotic lands. These fears were again expressed even before the arrival of the first groups of indentured Indian workers to the Colony when in 1858 the Colonial Secretary requested the first Harbour Board to find a site for a quarantine station or lazaretto. The first station was constructed in November 1860 on the Bluff shore facing towards the Bay. The building quickly fell into decay and was replaced during the 1870′s with another on the Ocean side of the Bluff. The first station later became desirable for recreational purposes though for a while it was used as a leper colony. Though quarantine had always been strictly administered by the Port authorities, by 1897 it became draconian and discriminatory as shown by the following extract from a petition by local Indian representatives to the Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain: ‘It is then because the Quarantine Bill is intended indirectly to prevent Indian immigration to Natal that your petitioners deem it necessary to enter their respectful protest against it. For, why should an Indian, trans-shipping into a German liner at Zanzibar bound for Natal, be prevented from landing there while other passengers may do so without difficulty? If an Indian is likely to bring an infectious disease into the Colony, so are the other passengers who have come into contact with him.’ The third station was constructed by the Indian Immigration Trust Board in 1890 on the same site and cost £4,152 7s 6d, inclusive of £200 paid for the extension of the rail line for access. The main wood and iron buildings were capable of accommodating some 600 adults and an isolation ward housed the sick. Large numbers of Indian immigrants and migrant African workers from East African countries were housed here for the first few weeks of their stay in the Colony.


During the first half of the 20th century large numbers of whales were caught in the southern oceans off Durban. These included humpback, blue, fin, sei and sperm. Before synthetic substitutes became available in the 1950′s a huge demand existed for the oil and a variety of whale by-products. Older residents of the Bluff remember distinctly the effects that this demand had on local smells. Two Scandanavians, Jacob Egeland and Johan Bryde formed the South African Whaling Company in 1907. They purchased two whale catchers and started hunting in July 1908 with whale processing at a plant on the Bluff shores inside the Bay. But the plant attracted too many sharks for the liking of swimmers and the pollution of the Bay led the Colonial Health Department to persuade the company to shift their operations to the other side of the Bluff. Initially 13 whaling sites were laid out along the entire shoreline though only two were taken up. Egeland then went into partnership with Larsen and started the Union Whaling Company in 1909. By 1910 they were bringing in 233 whales. In 1912 six companies were operating out of Durban. The whaling ships, being very sturdy craft, were requisitioned for military service during both world wars. The two companies – Union and Premier-shared a common whale slipway at the entrance channel (still visible today) from where whales were loaded onto special flat railway bogies and railed around the Bluff for processing. From 1931 the Union Company operated both factories until 1953 when the Premier plant was closed. Production had reached its peak in 1929 with 70 804 barrels of oil processed. The plant continued in use into the early years of the 1970′s.


After a waterborne system was introduced in 1893, the cities’ sewers were led to the plant at Bamboo Square at the Point from where the effluent was piped to the end of the North pier for ocean disposal. By 1955 the increase in quantities of effluent required a larger treatment plant and in 1958 a sub-aqueous tunnel was constructed under the entrance channel and from a pumping station in Point Road the pipe was taken around the Bluff to a the new plant (1959) which stands where the Quarantine Station, the Blockyard and the old Premier Whaling Stations had been located. Initially the plant was designed to handle 30 million gallons per day with an ocean disposal pipe for effluent reaching 3000 meters into 60 meters of water.

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