The First Public Railway in South Africa

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This article is taken from the Natal Society’s Journal No. 40 dated December 2010.

The article is written by Michael Cottrell. Some paragraphs have been omitted .

The first public railway in South Africa: The Point to Durban railway of 1860

The world’s first public steam railway in Britain between Stockton and Darlington in 1825 was followed by the rapid development of this mode of transport in Britain, Europe and all continents. Egypt built Africa’s first railway which opened in 1856 between Alexandria and Cairo. This was followed by the Point to Durban railway which opened on 26th June 1860 and that between Cape Town and Wellington on November 4th, 1863.

The first railway in South Africa albeit not with steel rails and a steam locomotive was also in Durban – the 1856-1857 Bluff wooden railway. It was linked to the harbour development and is described in Natalia 26.

It is remarkable that in 1860 a small town like Durban had the distinction of operating the first public steam railway in South Africa. The population of Durban in 1863 was 4313 which included 1593 Africans and 153 Indians. Few Africans were urbanised and the first indentured Indian labourers for the sugar farms were only to arrive on 17 November 1860. While there were primary schools in Natal, there was not yet a secondary school, the first opening in Pietermaritzburg 1863 and in Durban 1866.

The economy was somewhat limited to service industries such as blacksmithing, carpentry, wagon building, transport riding and inn keeping. The sugar industry was still in its infancy but it was expanding with about 8000 tons produced in 1860. By 1862 sugar became Natal’ s principal export.

Transport by ox wagon was expensive and slow taking some three or more days from the port to Pietermaritzburg. The cost of haulage per ton from Durban to Pietermaritzburg was higher than the freightage from England to Durban. Roads were exceptionally poor and the streets of Durban sandy tracks making the railway an extremely desirable option for development.

The Natal Railway Company

In January 1859, the Natal Railway Company was formed to build a three kilometre railway from the harbour at the Point to the north of Durban Market Square where the old Durban Station is located. The Natal Legislative Council passed a private law which granted the Company the sole right to provide railway transport for 14 years.

Early in 1860 work started on the building of the 4 feet 8½ inch gauge railway with bull head rails mounted on “pot lid” sleepers. George Russell in his 1899 book mistakenly records that the gauge was 3 feet 6 inches. From Point Road it followed what is now Kearsney Road across Smith and West Streets and along the northern side of Pine Terrace. The Point Station was on the wharf built at a deeper part of the harbour where the present B and C Sheds are located.   This is not to be confused with the later Natal Government Railways station in Point Road which opened in 1891 as a single storey building and with a second storey added in 1911. Passenger services to it from the Durban Central Station ceased in 1927. It is currently used by the harbour authority.

George Russell gives details of the rolling stock which included apart from two jib cranes, six four wheeled freight trucks and one four wheeled passenger carriage. This had one carpeted First Class compartment which seated up to ten on cane seats and two Second Class compartments in varnished oak which together seated 20 passengers.

Robert Legg of London is credited as the builder of the of the “Natal” locomotive but H. Macdonald has evidence that it was manufactured by Carrett Marshall in Leeds. The 24 horse power locomotive with a 0-4-0 wheel arrangement was brought by the brig Cadiz on 13 May 1860 in broken down form and assembled by Henry Jacobs, the Locomotive Superintendant, fitter and driver in the engine shed at the Market Square Station. It was somewhat rustic with no covered cab for the protection of the driver who particularly felt the weather on the windy day of the opening ceremony. However locomotives of this type were common in Europe and Britain at the time, for example those built for the London to Chatham and Dover Railway from 1862 to 1869 and which lasted until 1906.

The plaque on the “Natal” locomotive displayed on the concourse of the present Durban Railway Station states : “The first train in South Africa operated between the Point and Durban on 23rd June 1860. This locomotive is a reconstruction of the original chassis and wheels which were recovered from the Umzimvubu River near Port St. Johns.”

This first journey as opposed to the official opening on 26th June was a test run which took place on Sunday 23rd June 1860. George Russell mentions that the train had five freight trucks containing 40 tons of sugar mill machinery , carried a few passengers and on the footplate were William Smerdon and Edmund Tatham, chairman and secretary respectively of the Natal Railway Company.

The first official steam train journey on 26th June 1860.      

A water colour painting by Robert Tatham, Manager of the Natal Railway Company of the original opening gives an interesting glimpse of this important occasion At the Market Square Station. On the left is the “Natal” locomotive described by George Russell as “blowing off steam in fretful impatience” waiting for the driver Jacobs to connect to the only passenger coach for the important guests and pictured on the right, a freight truck that Russell converted temporarily to provide additional passenger accommodation.

There is an interesting discrepancy in the way in which the “Natal” locomotive was orientated. Russell stated that it was assembled with its head to the Point and as there was no turntable or turning triangle it would have pulled this official train running forwards to the Point. Tatham’s painting shows the locomotive facing the other way which meant it would have hauled it backwards. George Russell as the Station Agent at Market Square Station would surely have known. Likewise one would expect Tatham as Manager of the Natal Railway Company to paint it correctly. Who was correct? Copies of the images in my possession indicate that the locomotive ran backwards toward the Point.

dbn station1Click on picture to enlarge.

In the background of the painting is the original St Paul’s Anglican Church with only one other building visible for this was the vast Market Square. There was no station building apart from a platform on which stood the official guests including the acting Lieutenant Governor Major Williamson,   members of the Natal Legislative Council, The Mayor of Durban Cllr W Hartley, the Mayor of Pietermaritzburg, Cllr J Ackerman, Bishop Colenso and clergy, the railway Directors and the Royal Durban Rangers. In the foreground on the left is the 85th Regiment and on the right a group of onlookers including intrigued African people. One is carrying firewood on his / her head.

George Russell was an avid commentator on life and happenings in Durban from 1850 to 1860 . He gave an account of the opening extracts of which follow:

” The inauguration took place at 11 o’clock by his Excellency Major Williamson, after the Rangers and the 85th Regt. presented arms, while the band played the national anthem. Bishop Colenso invoked the Divine blessing and the enterprise while the wind snapped flag poles and damaged decorations, blew off hats, and the all pervading sand made the scene both memorable and unpleasant. Everyone was thankful for the Chairman’s bow to His Excellency who headed for the First Class Compartment in the coach and the other guests seated themselves in the other compartments. They good-humouredly made the best of the circumstances. With a prolonged wailing shriek Jacobs turned on the steam and the first train moved off amid the deafening and prolonged cheers of the assembled spectators. Gathering speed as he cleared the engine house he ran smartly down to the Point which he reached in about 5 minutes.

Some 800 people were conveyed to the breezy Point on this occasion. The trippers disported themselves on the nearby sand dunes visiting the rudimentary structure called the Harbour Works and admiring the Waldensian which contributed a 21 gun Royal Salute from her anchorage in the Bluff Channel. The state of the weather prevented a visit to the harbour tug Pioneer and the abandonment of the planned cruise. Others preferred lingering in the vicinity of the Railway Station listening to the merry tunes of the band and the usual congratulatory and complimentary toasts which were offered following inaudible speeches amongst the rattling of the iron structure, the flapping of tarpaulins, the noise of the wind and waves and the arrival and departure of trains. A goodly number sought the shelter of Barker’s Anchor Tavern which was close to the Beach near the present Natal Govt. Railway Point Station building.”   

point station 1Click on picture to enlarge.

The detail of A.H. Barrett’s painting vividly captures the excitement of the event at The Point with the train arriving at the station. In the fore ground are interested guests and spectators and an ox wagon while in the harbour are the Waldensian and the steam tug, the Pioneer.

The guests all returned to town without accident though with eyes smarting from the windblown sand. The extemporized carriage awning, flags and decorations and one or two of the triumphal arches across the line were blown away.

Russell notes the comments made in Zulu by the African spectators: “Wow! (sic) but it is a strange beast. Its belly is full of fire and vapour; they feed it with water and wood logs. It is like a rhinoceros but it blows smoke and sparks through its horn. Truly it is stronger than the elephant for it pulls many wagon loads. And beyond doubt it is made by the witchcraft of the white men.”

The day was concluded with a ball in the Masonic Hotel . The locomotive needed servicing after all the sand and grit blown by the wind that day.

The Natal Mercury editorial after the opening prophetically stated: ” The march of the locomotive is the march of progress. Before the approach of the steam horse all retrogressive influences vanish and give way. Wherever the mighty engine secures a footing civilisation invariably follows and spreads.”

 South Africa’s first Royal Train.

In September 1860, HRH Prince Alfred, the 16 year old second son of Queen Victoria, and Sir George Grey, Governor of the Cape Colony arrived in Durban from the Free State and Pietermaritzburg. Russell highlights this visit in his memoirs. Early on 6th Sept. the Prince, Governor Grey, the Mayor A. MacArthur and other dignitaries departed on South Africa’s first Royal Train, which was no more than the Railway Company’s passenger coach. It achieved the distinction of travelling, in Russell’s words, “at a racing pace that became truly alarming “. It reached the Point in 2 minutes and 40 seconds a speed of 64 km / hour the fastest journey that South African soil had yet seen. The Natal Mercury boasted that whatever the festivities ” the Prince might get in Cape Town he would not get another railway trip. This a feature of his visit strictly Natalian. ”

The Extension to Umgeni.

Although the service ran for the next few years, by 1863 the Company was in financial difficulties despite conveying 20 000 tons of imports and 5 000 tons of export. In 1865 the Colonial Govt. decided to build and pay for a line to the Umgeni River Quarry for the conveyance of stone for the harbour works. The Natal Railway Co. had a lease to operate this line which also included transporting general freight and passengers. The 7 km extension to Umgeni opened on 25th January 1867 which brought the total length to the Point to 10 kms. In 1869 the Company was beginning to show a profit with increased exports including sugar and in 1872 declared its first dividend.

On 1st January 1877 The Natal Government Railways took over the assets of the Natal Railway Company. Thus the 17 year operation of South Africa’s first public steam railway by private enterprise became history.

From a small beginning to a large State enterprise.

The Natal Legislative Council passed the Natal Government Railways Act on 2 November 1875. This authorised the building of railways initially from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, Verulam and Isipingo. Because of the rugged nature of the interior, the Natal and Cape authorities opted for the 3 ft 6 in gauge which is generally known as the Cape gauge. This made the three Natal Railway Company locomotives redundant. The newest , the Perseverance became a stationary engine working machinery at the Durban railway Workshop and the “Natal” locomotive was shipped to Port St. Johns to work a sawmill upstream on the Umzimbuvu River. This sawmill prepared timber for shipping to Durban for the harbour construction. The locomotive was recovered from the Umzimbuvu River restored and plinthed on the old Durban Railway Station on 26th June 1944, 84 years after it had drawn the first public train in South Africa.

Construction started in January 1877 converting the Point to Umgeni railway to 3ft 6 in gauge . The line was continued up the North Coast to Verulam. The 4ft 8½in gauge was used for the last time on 11 May 1878. The route to the interior and the South Coast was located between Pine Street and Commercial Road and along what is now Davis Lane and Alexandra Street to the present line at Dalbridge.

The mainline inland reached Pietermaritzburg in 1880 and Ladysmith in 1886 , the year when gold was discovered in the Witwatersrand and Johannesburg was founded. This factor inspired the resolve to continue the line to this destination By 1890 it had linked to the coalfields in Northern Natal from which date much coal was railed to Durban for use and export.

In 1891 the railway line reached Charlestown on the border and once consent from the South African Republic was given, The Natal Government railways built the line as far as Heidelberg. The Nederlandsche Zuid Afrikaanse Spoorwegmaatschappj constructed the remaining section with the opening on 14 December 1895. The increased traffic generated resulted in the Natal Government Railways beginning to show a profit.

In 1893 the railway route to the interior and the South Coast located between Pine Street and Commercial Road was replaced with a deviation around the central city between Leopold and Alice Streets into then the new station complex at the old Market Square Station Site.

The first railway in South Africa from the Point to Durban lasted until 1936 when road traffic pressures at street crossings forced its closure. The last train ran on 2 May 1936 It was replaced with a new double track electric railway into the harbour along the Esplanade.

Michael Cottrell

Some personal observations.

Reading this article has highlighted several observances which came to mind. The first of which is the route the railway took from Durban Central to the Point. I know Kearsney Road quite well because on the corner of Kearsrney Road and West Street stood a shop known as Beach Fruiterers which has personal memories for me. Today it is a Surf Shop. It was here that the only trolley bus in the world tipped over. For those that do not know it, it is a short road between Pine and West Streets; at the Pine St. side close to where Beachway Motors is located. It was and still is a diagonal street. I often wondered why it was so. I have a vague recollection that in the early 1950s there were remnants of railway line in the empty area that adjoined Kearsney Road. It is logical that railway lines have to take a bend gradually so it was here that the route took a turn towards Point Road. I also recall there being a boom across what is now Walnut Street which was were the Old Central Gaol stood. This was in the mid 50s. The double storey (?) guard house and a section of the high wall is all that remains today of that building.

The fact that the railway line ran in Pine Street/ Commercial Road as we know it today is also interesting. When the Pine Street line was extend to head off towards Isipingo and the South Coast it went up Pine Street. If you visualise it, it was situated in that part of Pine Street that today is the location of the two parking garages, the telephone exchange building and end part of the Eilat Viaduct (the M3) where it meets Grey Street. Here the line took a curve through another of Durban’s diagonal streets, Davis Lane which still exists as a narrow diagonal lane virtually opposite where Russell St. meets West St. This diagonal then extended through what is now Alexandra Street which   meets up with Smith St. roughly near where Park St meets Smith St. This diagonal carries on behind what was the E.P and Commercial Printing Company at 567 Smith Street. Today this is a Tuition College with its adjacent car park in Smith St. The diagonal line then ends up at Dalbridge which is in the vicinty of the far end of Albert Park. From there the line headed south to Isipingo. If you know your Durban it all fits into place.

That area in 1893 reverted to empty space when the railway line up Pine Street was diverted away from there to the present one which runs along Soldier’s Way then curves and runs parallel to Alice St heading for Berea Road Station . This railway line is not too obvious as it runs in a cutting below Alice Street. From Berea Road station it runs under West and Smith Streets near the old Technical College and ends up at Dalbridge.

The empty area was then built on and housed up until 1938 at least, the City Market, the Municipal Telephone Exchange, the Central Fire Station, a tennis court and a parking ground. Of these only the Telkom Building exists today on the site of the Municipal Telephone Exchange Building. The Pine Parkade was built on the City Market site. The Pine Street Parking Garage was built on the tennis court site and the original parking area. Next time you are in the CBD give this a bit of thought as to what Durban was like way back then.

Regarding the quarry that is mentioned in the article I can only surmise that the quarry is the one, the remains of which can be seen in Quarry Road. There is a huge face of rock on the dugout hillside and the lower area now has located on it a major electrical substation.  Across the road there was a rock remnant in the shape of a big wide pillar at the base of which was a door which I assume lead to a chamber inside. My late father in law told me that that chamber was the dynamite store. I think it is still there but covered in bush now.If I recall the Bird Park in Riverside Road was built in an old quarry site as well so there was plenty of rock available for the harbour works.

If you do a SEARCH on this site there are links to other stories about this railway. I have not been able to link this directly to the other posts.

Gerald Buttigieg

Added 17/12/2014

In my post I mention Beach Fruiterers being on the corner of Kearsney Rd and West St.  I also mention that a Durban trolley bus toppled over in front of Beach Fruiterers. Some years ago I was in touch with Kevin Mardon who has made the Durban Trolley Buses his area of interest. He sent me this classic picture which I show below. Whereas it shows the bus and Beach Fruiterers note the railway lines in the background. These were the lines going to the Point. Kearsney Road is to the right where the car is parked. I have an idea this picture dates from the late 40s.

Beach FruiterersClick on picture to enlarge.

Gerald Buttigieg

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3 Responses

  1. mark Inman
    | Reply

    Silly question, when did the Natal Government Railway convert to coal from wood logs? Thank you

  2. Charmaine Cuff
    | Reply

    Do you know when the first railway houses were built in Kelso South Coast Natal for their employees.
    Many thanks. God Bless
    C S Cuff

  3. Khaleel Kazi
    | Reply

    Very interesting read. Just asking do you have recollections and any pics of Sea View Station on the Old Main Line.
    best rgds

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