Durban - The three old pictures published this week were sent by a reader and take in the construction of Durban’s bathing enclosure at what was then Ocean Beach in 1907 with the Bluff in the background. A fourth picture taken from a postcard shows the entire area after completion.
The enclosure ran from about where the Balmoral Hotel is today to the Holiday Inn Marine Parade, and includes parts of Wedge and Dairy Beaches.
The first picture shows the area from the south side of the enclosure, the second from the north, while the third was taken further north. The cranes on the enclosure were part of the construction work. This was later a paved promenade on which people could walk.
The person who thought up the idea of the Bathing Enclosure was John Fletcher, the then borough engineer. According to the book They Built a City: Durban City Engineers Department 1882-1982 by Rory Lynsky, Fletcher was an energetic and pioneering man whose career at the city from 1889 to 1918 tackled many of its early infrastructure problems, and his solutions have helped shape it today.
In 1891 he initiated Durban’s water supply. He was responsible for the city’s electrification and its water borne sewerage system, both in 1897, and was behind prestige projects like creating the Victoria Embankment (today Margaret Mncadi Road), and laying out Albert Park.
In 1905 he turned his attention to Back Beach, the beachfront as we know it today. Up until the 1900s, Back Beach was a wide belt of sloping sea sand backed by mountainous rough dunes. Initially all public bathing was in the bay, but the council decided to close Bay Beach in 1905 for harbour development.
In 1906 Fletcher proposed a high level esplanade stretching from Bell Street at the Point through to a point near the Mngeni mouth which now forms the Marine (OR Tambo) and Snell Parades. He also planned a second 500m-long lower marine promenade, reclamation of the beaches and provision of bathing areas and public gardens.
His plan included four enclosed bathing options, only one of which was adopted. This was a semi-circular, steel netted enclosure combining a promenade and a safe bathing area. The enclosure was a safeguard against shark attacks and dangerous currents. As an interim measure, public access to the beach was created by clearing an opening at the bottom of West Street.
The Ocean Beach project started in 1907. The bathing enclosure had a radius of 100m and its depth was 1.8 to 2.4m at low spring tide. The project started with the installation of the 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. Back Beach was then renamed as Ocean Beach.
In 1908 a heavy storm scoured out the enclosure to a depth of 4.2m. It became apparent that since the dredging of the harbour entrance began in 1894, the removal of the sand barrier resulted in less sand being deposited onto the beaches. Fletcher and harbour engineer Cathcart Methven solved this problem with a sand pumping dredger.
The bathing enclosure became the central focus of Durban’s emerging beachfront and the focus of its entertainment area. To avoid a crush, a charge for entry was instigated which was the cost of a tram ticket.
In 1928 a very bad storm and rough seas caused considerable and irreparable damage to the enclosure. It was abandoned and eventually removed.
After his retirement Fletcher went to farm in East Griqualand but later returned to Durban. He died in Hillcrest 1938.
The scene today, as sand graders were still cleaning up debris on our beaches, is a very different beachfront. Our photographer Shelley Kjonstad shot the scene using a panorama function taken from the pier between Wedge and Dairy beaches.
The Independent on Saturday