Durban Pot-Pourri Three

The Bathing Enclosure 1905.

The first picture that came up for Pot Pourri 3 was the Bathing Enclosure  that existed on the beach front in the early 1900s being constructed.  This enclosure was built near Dairy Beach for the use of the bathing public following a decision to close off the Bay Beach.

The Bathing Enclosure under construction. Looks like a steam driven bogey set on rails.

The Bay had developed into Durban’s beach, safe from sharks, ideal for getting your feet wet and easily accessible.  I did not know enough about the enclosure to do an informative write up so set about finding out the back story to it. The person who thought up the idea of the Enclosure was John Fletcher, the then Borough Engineer.  Reading about his career as Borough Engineer revealed the many projects he tackled and completed during the time he held that post. He must have had a full but difficult and gratifying life in all he accomplished for the City he shaped.  Probably not many have heard of him and he is only remembered in an obscure road, Fletcher Road in the Congella area. I thought to give him his due I would devote Pot Pourri 3 to him.  As he is described in a book “his breadth of vision and his genius for planning established the high standard of development which characterised the old Borough”.   Click on pictures to expand.


John Fletcher a Yorkshireman, an engineer, had some experience of Borough Engineering in England when he applied for the vacant post in Durban.  On his credentials he was appointed Borough Engineer, left England and took up his post in Durban in May 1889.  He would remain in this post till he retired in 1918. Assuming the post, Fletcher had to confront many issues needing serious attention in a growing Durban amongst them Water Supply, Drainage, Sewerage and Electric Lighting.

In tackling Durban’s water supply he initiated the Umlaas and Umbilo Rivers Water Scheme in 1890 where water was pumped to the Neck Reservoir situated in present day Lamontville (south of Durban) and then gravity fed to the Florida Road Reservoir from where it was distributed to Durban households. (One has to remember that Durban was not the sprawling city it is today but that area within the boundaries of what was known as the Townlands.)  On 31st July 1891 the Mayor, Sir Benjamin Greenacre turned on a tap at the corner of Berea and Lancers Road to initiate the first water supply from this project.  By 1895 the Umlaas Umbilo Project was completed and Durban had ample water supply for its then population of 28000.

In 1891 Fletcher also recommended to Council that Electricity Supply should be a municipal function. Using a steam plant at the Point that operated the sewerage pump station, it was possible to generate electricity. In 1897 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the Mayoress, Mrs G Payne switched on the city lights from the vestibule of the Town Hall (now the Post Office) for the first time and a Borough Electrical Engineer was appointed.  Electricity supply was now removed from the Borough Engineer’s portfolio and has remained so ever since.  (The Durban Corporation Electricity Department has always prided itself on how well Durban’s electricity network was managed and efficiently run).

During the period addressing the water supply, Fletcher worked on and suggested a water borne sewerage system whereby sewage would be discharged into the sea through an Outfall Main on the North Pier. This would be emptied into the channel during the hours of an ebb tide.  (Anyone who has fished from the North Pier in the 1950s/60s will remember when the two huge pipes would open once the tide had turned and the delightful contents emptied into the channel.)  With ample water now at hand, the water borne sewerage system was first introduced in the central Durban area in 1897, Greyville 1899 and the Berea 1904. The success of this project resulted in the Durban Corporation Sanitary Dept. taking over and terminating the services of the night pail contractors.

(I wonder how many were observant enough to remember the many narrow lanes in lower Umbilo and Glenwood areas with outside toilets bordering them. These narrow lanes gave the night pail team access to the back of the properties.  The toilets had openings and hinged flaps facing the road which allowed the night pail collectors to remove and replace the pail.)

In 1893, Fletcher turned his attention to water drainage, an area that was badly neglected. Storm water from the Berea virtually flooded the lower lying areas known as Vleis. Two in particular need attention. The Western Vlei from Greyville Racecourse to Congella and the Eastern Vlei from the present King’s Park sports complex to Ordnance Road.

The Greyville Vlei which stretched to Congella.  Years later the Greyville Racecourse and

Royal Durban Golf Club was built within this area of reclaimed land.

In the 1850s, Milner’s Drain had been built in an attempt to drain the Western Vlei into the Bay at Cato Creek. In 1905 Durban suffered a serious outbreak of malaria due to mosquitoes which exacerbated the need to drain these waterlogged areas.  Roads had started to be hardened by this time and without proper drainage the run off badly affected the low lying areas.  By 1907 Fletcher had reclaimed much of Stamford and Congella and the mosquito problem significantly reduced.

The Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 saw much activity around Durban and its population virtually doubled.  This was due to an extent by the influx of refugees from the Transvaal. Water supply was put under pressure and relief measures Fletcher under took was the construction of a large reservoir off the Umlaas River completed in 1903.  In 1901 as a further precaution Fletcher started the construction of the Camperdown Dam as a temporary measure. This concrete and earthen dam 420 feet wide and 40 feet high was built in a record time of 5 months and created a 500 million gallon reservoir.  Supposedly temporary it remained in place till 1943 when abnormal floods destroyed the wall.


In 1905 one of the severest hailstorms hit Natal with 15 inches of rain in 15 hours. Damage was massive with the Umbilo and Umhlatuzana Rivers flooding the Bay’s flatland.   At the Umlaas Works three main pipes weighing a ton each were washed away leaving Durban with no water.  Fletcher personally joined his Indian labourers in restoring the damage. The Umbilo Section of the waterworks was then abandoned and water was pumped directly from the Umlaas River to the higher levels of the Berea.

After much hassling between the Durban Town Council and the Government Harbour Board, the Bay boundaries were finally decided in 1894.  Fletcher was allowed to put into operation his proposal for the Bay Foreshore. By this time shipping had become big business and the development of the harbour was necessary. The harbour was a Natal Government concern and was responsible for its development. By 1904 the problem of the sandbar across the Durban Harbour entrance had finally been overcome with the construction of the North and South Piers and considerable dredging.

Construction of the North Pier.

In 1904 the Armadale Castle was the first ocean liner to enter Durban harbour. The Bay, over the years had developed into Durban’s Beach as the beach we know today was merely mountainous sand dunes known as the Back Beach.  The Bay Shore being particularly flat suited the people of the time, was easily accessible and safe from shark attacks.  Apart from bathing, the Bay was also the domain of the sailing enthusiasts and old photos show houses with paths leading to the bay waters.

The Bay foreshore prior to commencement of the embankment project circa 1896.

Fletcher started work on the Bay Foreshore in 1896 whilst further down the Bay the construction of Maydon Wharf had also commenced. The work between Cato Creek and Albert Park was completed by 1902 and had been named the Victoria Embankment in 1897.  Albert Park was also laid out in conjunction with this project.  Once completed it became a highly sought after residential area.

Part of the recently completed Victoria Embankment circa 1902.

A very old photo taken in Albert Park.

A rickshaw puller and member of the City’s Native Police Force.

Victoria Embankment circa 1902

By this time another neglected area was given some attention and that was the Back Beach.  Up until the 1900s the Back Beach or ocean foreshore consisted of a wide belt of sloping sea sand backed up by mountainous rough dunes. In 1905 the City Council received an application to develop the Durban beaches but the Council turned this down and instructed Fletcher to come up with a proposal

The Back Beach 1905.  Note the sand dunes and formal dress.

The Back Beach. The Beach Hotel in situ with the opening into West Street. Circa 1906.

Mountainous sand dunes on the right hand side.

In 1906 Fletcher proposed a high level esplanade stretching from Bell St (Point) through to a point near the Umgeni mouth (now Marine and Snell Parades), secondly a 1500 foot lower marine promenade, reclamation of the beaches and provision of bathing areas and public gardens. His plan included four enclosed bathing options, of which only one was adopted.  This was a semi-circular steel netted enclosure combining a promenade and a safe bathing area. The enclosure was a safe guard against shark attacks and dangerous currents.   As an interim measure public access to the beach was made by clearing an opening at the bottom of West St. The Ocean Beach project was commenced in 1907. The bathing enclosure had a radius of 300 feet and its depth was 6 to 8 feet at low spring tide. The project commenced with the installation of the bathing enclosure and levelling and developing that part of the lower esplanade roughly from the Model Dairy (now demolished) to South Beach. Paddling ponds and retaining walls and rockeries were also put in.

The completed Bathing Enclosure showing the Promenade Deck. No doubt a charge to walk on the promenade.

The Enclosure probably at low tide. Note the rope in the water as an assist. Elaborate Light poles.

The Back Beach was renamed as Ocean Beach. Picture shows lower Marine Parade and initial improvements. The fountain was originally situated where the City Hall now stands.  It was erected in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.                                        Having to be moved it was erected at the Ocean Beach but eventually deteriorated and was scrapped.

Further Ocean Beach development pre 1928.  In 1928 a very bad storm and rough seas caused considerable

irreparable damage to the enclosure.  It was abandoned and eventually removed.

In 1908 a heavy storm scoured out the enclosure to a depth of 14 feet.  It became apparent that since the dredging of the harbour entrance began in 1894 and intensified from 1897 onward, the removal of the sand barrier resulted in less sand being deposited onto the beaches.  Fletcher and the Harbour Engineer, Cathcart Methven worked closely on this problem. A sand pumping dredger used for the dredging of the harbour entrance was used to deposit sand back to where the beaches needed it.  Groynes were also built to contain sand loss.( A problem Durban still has to contend with today).  

   Modern day Beach Front

In 1902 a decision was taken to sell the Town Hall to the Natal Government as the accommodation was inadequate for the numerous Corporation Departments.

The old Town Hall sold to the Natal Government and recommissioned as the Durban Post Office.

The Queen Victoria Jubilee Fountain which was erected in the Town Square where the City Hall now stands. Was moved to the Beach Paddling Ponds where it deteriorated and was later scrapped.

 Fletcher was tasked to prepare a schedule of accommodation required and also to run a competition for designs of the new Town Hall.  The design proposed by Stanley Hudson was accepted. The new Town Hall completed in 1910.

The New Town Hall circa 1910.

Durban achieved City Status in 1935 and the name Town Hall was dropped and replaced with City Hall.

In December 1917 Fletcher was ill and granted 3 months sick leave.  At the end of the leave he returned to duty but due to his recurring illness was forced to resign in April 1918. He was due to retire in October 1918 so to preserve his pension the Council kept him as employed till his retirement date.  In his 29 years of service he had taken long leave only once and that was 21 years before resigning.

Despite fears for his health, on retiring he went farming in East Griqualand but later returned to Durban.  Fletcher lived in Hillcrest and  he died in 1938.

Extracted from:   They Built a City: Durban City Engineers Department 1882 – 1982 by Rory Lynsky.


Share this:

2 Responses

  1. Vikesh Singh
    | Reply

    Beautiful pictures and information of early Durban. A very interesting and insightful read.

  2. Bryan
    | Reply

    I did a little digging on the enclosures as i found out about the steel bolts on port edward beach that use to keep them in place and was very surprised and glad about the feedback i got including newspaper articles and images of the various enclosures down the south coast

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *