Durban’s Toll Gate 1866 to 1901

A longstanding friend of mine, over 60 years now, knowing of my interest in Durban, has given me a very interesting book about Old Durban.   The book is called “Landmarks of Old Durban” and consists of a series of documentary programmes broadcast from the Durban Studios of the South African Broadcasting Corporation. The book was compiled by H. Edmund Dawes who gathered the factual material and then wove the facts into scripts which were broadcast from the Durban Studios in Aliwal Street starting July 4th 1944. The foreword of the book written by Franklin Rooke, City Librarian, is dated October 1945 and the book was printed in 1948 by E. P. & Commercial Printing Company of Smith Street, Durban. Included in the book are some very interesting photos of Old Durban which Mr Dawes put together. I would assume the book is long out of print.

The scripts are not long and the various parts of the people named in the scripts were played by local Durbanites.   I do not recognise the names of these people but in addition to them, well known Durban personalities who could make comment on the subject were also involved.

The book opens with an extract from the Natal Mercury of December 12 , 1882 and is a letter written to the Editor by Cato and titled “Old Durban as George Christopher Cato saw it in 1838”. George Christopher Cato was Durban’s first Mayor, elected to this position on the 5th August 1854.

Cato died on July 9th 1893 and is buried in the West Street Cemetery.

The subjects covered in the radio broadcasts are as follows and I will give the date when broadcast.

The Old Fort broadcast July 4th 1944.

The Old St Paul’s           September 5th 1944

The Theatre Royal         October 9th 1944

The Queen’s Bridge       November 6th 1944

The Old Court House     December 4th 1944

The Bluff Lighthouse     January 9th 1945

The Toll Gate                 February 20th 1945

The Durban Public Library and Reading Room     17th April 1945.

To transcribe all the scripts would be quite a task. I have selected one, the Toll Gate and will condense it into a very shortened form.

The Toll Gate.

The script starts with a terse statement.

The Toll Gate was erected in 1866 and demolished, together with the Toll House in 1901.

If you had travelled in Natal in the 1850’s you would have done so by road. There were no railways. It was still the age of the ox-wagon and distance was not measured in miles but by the pace of the tick infested oxen who pulled the overloaded wagons over nonexistent roads. At a meeting of the Durban County Council in March 1855, a committee of the Council recommended that toll bars be placed at the top of the Berea, on Field’s Hill and on Botha’s Hill towards Pietermaritzburg, at the Umbilo and the Umkomaas southward and at Umgeni northwards.

For the Pietermaritzburg road the following tolls were proposed:

One shilling for every wagon or other four wheeled vehicle.

Sixpence for a horse.

A half penny for cattle , led horses and mules.

A farthing for sheep, goats and pigs per head.

Half these charges were to apply to the Umkomaas road.

The toll was to cover the whole distance either way and was not to be levied more than once in 24 hours. The Town Corporation took a decided stance against the system of road tolls and this was also the opinion of the Victoria County Council. However the Durban County Council went counter to this on the 5th April 1855 and brought into effect the April proposals.

In August 1855, the Editor of the Natal Mercury felt it necessary to comment on the whole question of main roads in the Colony. He wrote:

“We are inclined to think that some improvement is required in the existing machinery for making and maintaining main roads. It is obvious that such roads, forming as they do arteries through which the commercial and social life blood of the Colony flows, ought to be under one uniform and comprehensive system of management. At present under the Local Council’s ordinance they are subject to the diverse views and systems which the Councils of the different Counties may introduce. Hence we find with one County the plan of tolls on passing traffic is established whilst in others it is strenuously repudiated. In another County a licence or registration fee on wagons is regarded favourably but elsewhere strongly denounced as a measure radically bad. But since we take it upon ourselves to object to the existing arrangement of this department it is fair that we should suggest a better system. And we do this by advocating a Central Road Board. We do not propose to interfere with the general and miscellaneous powers of the various County Councils. They are constituted for various important local purposes, beside the control and management of main roads; and it is only in this latter particular only that we would modify their powers. ”

In 1856 the present Berea Road came into being – with the extension of Smith Street to link up with the military road over the Berea Ridge. It was then called the New Pietermaritzburg Road and looked upon as a shorter and easier route to the capital. It was a soft road however and traffic had to contend with alternatively with sand and mud, according to the season of the year.

In 1859 under the Mayoralty of Mr William Hartley, he urged that a start should be made with the ballasting of Berea Road as it was considered the most important road for the development of commerce and agriculture. The Council decided that an application be made to the Lieutenant Governor for permission to lease or sell portion of the Market Square ( now called the Town Gardens) with the intention that the proceeds be used for the purchasing of the necessary plant to harden Berea Road. The Governor pointed out that the Council had no power to sell Market Square so the Council had to abandon this plan and postpone the improvement to Berea Road until funds were available from other sources.

In July 1862 the Council decided to go ahead with the hardening of Berea Road as suggested by Mr Hartley. Suitable stone was found on Mr George Cato’s property at Cato Manor and he generously offered the Council all the stone they needed for the sum of £75 provided work started within a year of the offer. In 1863 however it was decided that the stone would be obtained from his brother Joseph’s farm “Brickfields” which was more accessible than that found in Cato Manor.   To facilitate the transport of the stone it was decided to lay 3 miles of tramway and run the stone in trucks. An ingenious scheme was proposed for hauling the trucks which necessitated the purchase of wire rope at a cost of £261. This system of haulage was not a success and eventually discarded, the wire rope eventually being unstranded and used as wire fencing.

In 1864, a contract was entered into with Mr Isaac Fisher for making the Brea Road including the quarrying of the stone for metalling, forming the road, draining it and erecting side fencing.

Towards the end of 1866, the macadamising of Berea Road was completed and the hardened road opened to the public. The original estimates were vastly exceeded and the total cost amounted to nearly £32,000.

In 1866 with Berea Road now completed, the Town Council introduced the Toll Bill, under which transport riders were compelled to pay a toll when passing in or out of the Borough by way of Berea Road which formed the main artery between Durban and the interior of the Colony. It was called the Berea Road Toll Law and empowered the Council to collect tolls for a seven year period. Toll was levied at a cost of sixpence (5 cents) for the mounted traveller and half a crown (25 cents) for each ox drawn wagon. Mr Henry Bird was appointed as Toll Keeper. For the years 1866-1867, the sum of £446 18 shillings and 3 pence were collected for the 7 months the toll was charged.

In Professor A.F. Hattersley’s book, Later Annals of Natal he states:   “The toll was no more popular in Natal than it had been in the age of the great turnpikes in Great Britain. As foot passengers might pass freely, travellers resorted to unsaddling in order to lead their horses through the barrier and in a systematic campaign for the evasion of toll, the Durban Council found it necessary to close the old sand tracks which made a connection with the main highway. ” ( Nothing has changed !! Ed.)

In May 1869, three years after Henry Bird had been appointed Toll Keeper an incident occurred relating to the Toll Gate.   In that year, the Durban Town Council’s overdraft with the London and South African Bank had stood at £47,000. Prompted by a need to call in this debt and the fact that the Durban Council had delayed in getting the necessary security, the Bank obtained a writ of execution against the moveable property of the Durban Corporation. On June 23rd 1869, the writ was executed and the Sheriff was instructed to proceed from Pietermaritzburg to Durban to carry out the order.   On reaching the boundary, the first moveable property to be annexed was the cash box with the day’s takings at the Berea Toll. Henry Bird however acted swiftly and in cahoots with the Town Clerk, for as soon as the Sheriff approached the toll, the cashier, William Cooley placed all the ready cash into another container and slipped out a back door across the road to the offices of Messrs Grant and Fradd where he left it for safekeeping. In so doing Henry Bird frustrated the arm of the law, but also ensured that at least his salary and that of the Town Clerk was safe for another month!

In 1872, the Berea Road Toll Law of 1866 was repealed and replaced by the Durban Toll Law of 1880. This law authorised the Durban Corporation to erect addition toll bars on Umgeni and Umbilo Roads. Later another toll was erected at Sydenham Road.

By 1886, the Natal Central Railway had pushed the line up to Ladysmith. It was now the declining years of the ox-wagon, the stage coach and the post cart. Welch’s buses however still ploughed their dusty way between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

The script now centres on a Narrator who asks the audience to imagine him interviewing Henry Bird.

He describes the scene standing at the top of Berea Road, where Ridge Road makes the bend to meet it. From this point one looks at the town below, the Bay , the Bluff and the distant Indian Ocean.   To the right stands a wood and iron cottage about 50 yards above Chelmsford Road, a typical dwelling of the time, a plain hip roof wide verandah in front with a chimney stack poking up abruptly at the back. It is very close to the road, in fact one steps off the verandah onto the macadamised road. There is a front gate to the house.

Over the brow of the hill, a wagon drawn by some weary oxen and led by a voorloper draws up to the gate. A woman comes out to open the gate whilst on the verandah there is some movement of someone in a wheel chair. The gate is opened, the wagon passes through and another half crown is added to the takings. The narrator now approaches Mr Bird and greets him on the verandah and notices that he is incapacitated. He asks Mr Bird “An accident?” Bird replies “Yes” and then relays the background to it. He was a contractor working on the Natal Mercury building when a scaffolding plank he was on, broke in two and he fell 30 feet to the ground. He was senseless for two weeks and when he eventually came round found that he was unable to walk. His back had been injured and he was a cripple. That was twenty years ago. Bird adds that it could have been worse but says he still has his head, his hands and his job as toll keeper. He adds he also has his devoted wife who fetches and carries for him and is content to share his lot. Mrs Bird, Elizabeth, joins them and Henry confides that he does not know what he would do without her. He gives her all the credit for the smooth running of the toll gate. He looks after the money, the reports and the administration. He manages to get around on his wheel chair but some days he is flat on his back. The narrator turns to Mrs Bird and enquires whether she was born in Natal. Mrs Bird indicates that she came to the Colony in April 1856 on board the Portia. She recalls that on arrival a Mrs Johnson had a baby girl and she was named Portia after the ship. The captain of the ship, Captain Barnes had to add the baby to the passenger list.

The narrator then says that Henry Bird died five years later and is buried at the Central Cemetery . The inscription on his tombstone reads as follows:

“In loving remembrance of Henry Bird who from the result of an accident on 23rd May 1864 was for 27 years bedridden, living a life of resignation and cheerfulness in great suffering that endeared him to all, passing away quietly on 14th August 1891 aged 54 years.

This stone was erected by his sorrowing widow and his brother Forresters.”

Mrs Bird lived to be ninety eight and is buried beside him.

The Durban Toll Law of 1880 expired on 25th March 1901, and tolls within the Borough were abolished. With this action went the Toll Keepers and Durban was toll free at last.

At the end of the script the following is recorded:

Extract from the Mayor’s Minute for the year ended 31st July 1900.

” I should like to draw the attention of the new Council to the loss in revenue which the abolition of the Tolls in the Borough will involve; and though it is hoped legislation in the next session of Parliament will secure to us the Vehicle Licences, yet the Tolls represent a substantial sum though all too small for maintaining the roads affected by them which will have to provided for from some other source.

At meeting of the Durban Town Council on March 21st 1901, it was recommended by a Special Committee who had considered the claims of the Toll Keepers on the expiry of the Toll Laws, that the Umbilo Road collector (Mr Flood) be appointed Caretaker of the Congella Reservoirs and the new cemetery; that the Umgeni Road collector (Mr McIvor) be appointed caretaker of the reservoirs at Camperdown; that the Berea Road Collector (Mr Wiggins) be employed in the harness repairing department of the Tramways and that the Sydenham collector (Mrs Penfold) be allowed to occupy the Toll House rent free.

This was agreed to.”

Acknowledgements are made to Mrs D. A. Arundel, Mr. P. Wayne and W.P. M. Henderson’s Fifty Years of Municipal History.  

Finally as an addendum The Schedule or Table of Tolls is listed.

For every Coach, Chaise, Carriage, Wagon, Cart or other vehicle drawn by eight           horses, mules, or asses or twelve oxen and upward : Two shillings and Sixpence

Ditto if drawn by six horses, mules or asses or eight oxen and not exceeding ten animals Two Shillings

Ditto if drawn by four horses, mules or asses or six oxen   : One shilling and sixpence

Ditto if drawn by two horses or four oxen   :      One Shilling

Ditto if drawn by one horse or two oxen or any other two animals :  Sixpence

For each steam engine or any other vehicle drawn or propelled by other than animal power:          Ten shillings

For each cart, truck, or other vehicle attached to the aforementioned engine :                         Two Shillings

For each velocipede or other such like vehicle excepting children’s carriages :                         Two shillings and Sixpence

The above to be paid for every time the toll is passed save in the 5th, 6th, and 7th sections  mentioned above.

August 3rd 1866.


The name Toll Gate still remains in present Durbanites’s memories but with changing times the derivation of the name will probably recede into oblivion. My memories of the name Toll Gate will always be the original Toll Gate Bridge which was a plain grey concrete bridge which straddled Berea Road as does its modern replacement.   The old bridge I think was replaced when the dugout Berea Road ( known as Kinmont’s Canyon) necessitated a bigger span. The old Toll Gate Bridge was the outer limit that the trolley buses extended to in this part of Durban. The buses would come off Berea Road as such near the bridge and take a side road leading to Ridge Road. Here the trolley bus would take a right turn, go over the bridge, turn right again and then using another side road join Berea Road back into town via West Street. As far as I know the area was not officially known as Toll Gate but the buses’ destination boards were marked Toll Gate. At the side of the Toll Gate Bridge there was a plaque at one stage and originally a small waterfall if I remember correctly. I think the plaque referred to the original Toll Gate but appears to be no longer there. The only other reference to Toll Gate was the Durban Corporation Telephone Exchange built circa 1934 which served the area. The Tollgate exchange code was originally “4” so all numbers in the area stared with the number 4, later this was changed to 34 as the increase in demand for more lines in the CBD required an exchange to which was connected to all the satellite exchanges, such as Toll Gate. There was no Toll Gate Post Office that I can remember but the area was served by the Mayville Post Office which was in close vicinity.

I looked up Henry and Elizabeth Bird’s graves in the West Street Cemetery but they do not appear there. The note on Henry Bird’s headstone inscription refers to the Central Cemetery which I presume would have been the West Street Cemetery.

Here three interesting photos showing the original Toll Gate and House, Henry Bird, Durban’s first Toll Keeper and Elizabeth Bird his wife.

Click on pictures to enlarge

tollgate1tollgate2tollgate3Postscript: added 13/7/2015

In my post I mention that there used to be a plaque mounted on the left hand side of  the  Toll Gate just where the original bridge was. I have managed to get a picture from the internet which I think was the original plaque.  It alludes to the fact that Ridge Road and the Toll Gate Bridge mark the western boundary line of Durban originally.  I have mentioned before that Durban per se was bordered by Ridge Road (later split into North Ridge Road and South Ridge Road) , the Indian Ocean, The Umgeni River in the north and the Umbilo River (aka the Avon River in the very early days) in the south.

TollgateAll the areas outside Durban were known as Districts so just over the ridge you had Mayville as a district, across the Umgeni,  Durban North and Umgeni, across the Umbilo Rossburgh, Booth Junction, and so on designated districts.  In 1932 all the outlying districts were incorporated into the city boundaries and resulted in Durban expanding enormously. Likewise with the the introduction of the metros, Durban or would it be more correct to say the eThekwini Municipality extended the boundaries even further incorporating for example  Cato Ridge, Westville,  Pinetown and all the other areas now in the greater metro.

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4 Responses

  1. Amanda bird
    | Reply

    I am Amanda Bird my mother was Charmaine Matthew nee Wiggins and my husband is Henry Birds great great grandchild so both our great greats were toll keepers..interesting

  2. Gerald Buttigieg
    | Reply

    Hi Amanda,
    That is very interesting. Do you have any old photographs that you could share with FAD?

    • Faika Shah

      Hello where will i get more information on yhe bridge and its dimensions

  3. […] Images courtesy of, and […]

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