Durban in the early Seventies (the 1870s)

By Mrs M Woods,  transcription of a radio broadcast called, “Old Natal” Talk, date unknown.


Life in Durban in the early seventies was certainly a little difficult – the water supply for instance. Our only source of water was from the rain, which ran down from the roof into tanks. Naturally there was very little, if any, waste. One year we had a very bad drought and many tanks ran dry. Some enterprising person took trolleys to the Umgeni River and fetched water, which he sold at 3d a bucket in Durban. This made a lasting impression on my mind, so much so, that even now I cannot bear to see tap-water running to waste.

We had a bench in the kitchen, on which stood two water-buckets filled for culinary purposes. One day my younger brother aged about five, and as full of mischief as a child could be, tried to climb on the water bench and grabbed hold of a bucket to help himself up. Result:- over went the bucket spilling all its precious contents. For a moment he ruefully gazed at the mess; the next, a bright grin lit up his mischievous face and he scampered away to our mother. “Come”, he panted, tugging her skirt, “come and see something in the kitchen. It is running without legs.” His mother, thinking it was a snake, snatched up a stick and hurried to the kitchen, to despatch the reptile. Relief and amazement struggled for the mastery. The little culprit noticed this, and took the opportunity to escape while the going was good.

The pumps which later, made their appearance and were fed by “Curry’s Fountain” – above the racecourse, were a boon to waterless Durban. I can still see our coachman, a big fat man named George, hurrying along, a bucket in each hand, on his way to the nearest pump. Two geese at his heels, with their hoarse screeches and flapping wings adding to the din created by the buckets. The buckets filled, they returned in the same order – or disorder as before. These pumps are the same as used in the Cemetery and Ocean Beach today.

We were very elated when we actually had water laid on to the kitchen and bathroom, by pipes fed from the Umbilo Water Works, near Sarnia. What a joy it was to turn on a tap and pull up a plug, instead of carrying every drop of water. Paradise Valley is the remnant of the beautiful spot known as Umbilo Water Works. The picturesque river was dammed at the foot of the wooded cliffe, and on the opposite edge was a shady walk, leading to the river below the dam. Graceful swans glided on the water and there were boats for the amusement of visitors. On lawns beneath shady trees, rough tables were erected with rude benches round, for the benefit of picnic parties. Here they could spread the contents of their hampers away from grasshoppers, beetles and ants.

It was Mr. Curry, the curator, who was responsible for turning one of nature’s beauty spots into a veritable paradise with its lawn, flower beds and winding paths. Unfortunately this delightful spot was destroyed in 1906 by the flood. The dam burst and washed away the bridge, and filter beds. Before the filter beds were completed we were the guests at a picnic at this place. A band was provided and we danced on the concrete foundation of a large filter bed.

As the Umlaas water had already been brought to Durban, it was considered unnecessary to rebuild the Umbilo Waterworks. The increasing population, however, meant increasing demand for water, so the Shongweni water was requisitioned. Now after a comparatively short time, we have Umgeni water as well.

Durban in the tank days, was very badly lit by paraffin lamps on posts about a hundred or more yards apart. At about dust the lamplighters would trundle along carrying a ladder and light each lamp as he passed along the road.

The present Post Office was our Town Hall and was the first place in Durban to have electric light – it was however a very unreliable quantity. Sometimes in the middle of the proceedings, there would be an unexpected “black out”. I remember dancing there once when suddenly the lights went out and we were left in complete darkness. After this experience there were street lamps placed under the platform in case of emergency.

Not long afterwards, during another dance, the lights again went out and we were dancing in the twilight of the street lamps, when suddenly the waltz tune changed to “God save the Queen” (Queen Victoria was still on the throne). We all stopped dancing and turned to see the reason. The Governor and his Lady and party had arrived and were crossing the hall in semi-darkness.

I wonder how many people remember Natal’s first railway station? It was in Durban, of course, and was a very primitive affair. The buildings were of corrugated iron and were raised from the sand. One had to mount several wooden steps to reach the platform. Some of the buildings on Platform 5 today, are very like the original sheds. In those days, the train only ran between the Umgeni and the Point. The passengers on the first train between Durban and Pietermaritzburg were the guests of the Railway Department. My father was unable to attend the opening of the line, so my sister and I were allowed to travel on his ticket. We were the only children on the train.

I have since travelled in a break-down van, in open trucks, on a contractor’s train, and even twice by the hand-pushed railway trolleys, as well as by ox-wagon post and Cape-cart.

The original mail railway line started from the present starting point and ran between Pine Street and Commercial Road, cutting through the late Borough Market, Telephone Exchange, Fire Station, through West Street, Alexandra Street and joined the present line near the Albert Park. At the corner of Alexandra Street and West Street there was the “West End” railway station. The present Berea Road Station took its place when the present line was built. That part of Durban between Maydon Wharf and the railway line, was an immense sandy flat, dotted with mangroves. At high tide, the Bay flooded this flat and ran through culverts under the raised railway lines, covering the land where the present Abattoir and all the buildings in a line with it, and along to the Congella entrance. With the out-going spring tide the water rushed through these culverts to rejoin the Bay. This occurrence was the great delight of the small boys, who would gather to watch the disgorgement.

The West End Station was still in existence when my sister drove a dog-cart up West Street one day. She had not noticed when mounting, that the horse had worked the bit between his teeth. The result was that he bolted up the street toward the West End Gates, which were closing for an oncoming train. The Indian gate-keeper, saw the bolting horse, cart and passenger approaching at a mad pace and quickly flung back the half-closed gates and they dashed through quite safely.


Transcribed as closely to the original as possible, including spelling and grammar errors.

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