The 1931/32 Air Survey

By Allan Jackson - 2003

In the early 1930s Durban ended at Ridge Road in the West, at the Umbilo River in the South and the Umgeni River in the North but it was growing at a great pace. It was decided by the council to incorporate the surrounding areas of Mayville, Overport, Sydenham, Greenwood Park, Redhill, Rossburg and Clairwood into the borough.

The necessary first step was to develop an accurate map of the whole area and so the council commissioned the newly formed Aircraft Operating Company (AOC) to complete an aerial survey. The survey was begun by the company in December 1931 using a De Havilland Puss Moth aircraft and was mostly complete by January.

Aerial pictures taken for mapping purposes are taken from directly overhead but these are often quite difficult for the layman to interpret whereas pictures taken from an oblique angle are much easier. It seems that the pilot must have had some film left when finished the overhead shots in January 1932 because he set his camera to photograph at an oblique angle and flew over the town on 1 & 8 January while firing off at least three rolls of film.

He apparently didn't mention to the council what he'd done and the rolls of film with their precious pictures of Durban were filed in the AOC archives and forgotten. They might never have been found if it hadn't been for the fact that someone had used them to make a print of Howard College at the University of Natal and for the fact that it was seen by eThekwini Municipality Photogrammetry Section Manager Lenn Mostert when he attended the university in 1973.

Picture courtesy Director: Survey, eThekwini Municipality.


The picture which gave the game away that obliques had been taken during 1931/32 air survey.


<== Click picture to view enlargement.

Lenn realised that the picture had to have been taken during the 1931/32 survey because it had been taken by the same camera. Inquiries led to the discovery that at least three rolls of oblique aerial photographs had been shot in January 1932.

It wasn't until 1991 that the AOC archives gave up part of their secret, at least, and two rolls of negatives were found. The missing roll [or rolls] of film have never been located but the two we have are a treasure trove providing an incredibly detailed view of much of Durban in 1932.

A further roll of negatives with oblique aerial pictures of Durban on it was discovered by AOC in 1991 and was first thought to be the missing roll from 1932 but it turned out that the pictures had been taken in 1947 or 1948. They also form a very valuable record of the Durban of those times even though nobody now knows exactly when or for whom they were taken.

I was shown the photo-mosaics which were produced by AOC from the overhead aerial shots which they took and they are a very high standard especially when you consider that they were pieced together manually from many negatives. Lenn told me that all the work of processing the film and making prints was done by AOC in the basement of the City Hall.

The oblique pictures and a selection of other historic Durban photographs are available to all at bargain basement prices. You just need to visit the eThekwini Municipality Survey Department which is located on the 4th floor of the Engineering Unit in Old Fort Road and they'll let you browse through their albums and order prints.

Picture courtesy Director: Survey, eThekwini Municipality.


This oblique from 1932 gives a very good idea of the bayshore at Gardiner Street with the Marine Hotel on the righthand corner and Twines Hotel opposite it. The Gardiner Street Jetty in the foreground was later often used to land flying boat passengers.


<== Click picture to view enlargement.

The third roll of film is hopefully still out there somewhere and you'll recognise it because the negatives will have the AOC logo on them and they'll be numbered from 7867-7954. You could become a hero overnight by e-mailing me or dropping the Survey Department a line if you know anything about the present whereabouts of the negatives.

More Pictures from 1932

Picture courtesy Director: Survey, eThekwini Municipality.

<== Click to view a wallpaper-sized enlargement (1024x768px).

This excellent picture shows the Point area from above the bay looking out to sea. The ends of the north and south piers at the entrance to the bay are visible in the top right-hand corner of the picture.
The ship in the foreground is the Dunbar Castle and is berthed at C Berth where passengers from the weekly mail ships embarked and disembarked.
The Dunbar Castle had the sad distinction of being the first ship lost by the Union Castle Shipping Line in WWII when she was sunk by a mine on 9 January 1940. Her captain was mortally wounded during the sinking when the ship's mast broke off and fell onto the bridge where he was standing.


Picture courtesy Director: Survey, eThekwini Municipality.

<== Click picture to view enlargement.


This picture ishows a section of West Street and Smith Street with the City Hall on the right and the Post Office to its left.



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