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Road Bridge over the Buffalo River
Qonce (King William's Town), Eastern Cape

Joseph NEWEY: Supervising Engineer
Abraham Daniel DE SMIDT: Inspector of Roads

Style:Late Victorian : Industrial Archaeology
Status:Demolished 1917

Buffalo River Bridge

At the conclusion of the 8th War of Dispossession (War of Mlanjeni) in 1853, the military garrison of King William's Town became the commercial centre for British Kaffraria. In 1866 British Kaffraria was incorporated into the Cape Colony and the road to Grahamstown and Fort Beaufort became more significant and accommodated large volumes of wagon traffic.

King William's Town was situated on the banks of the Buffalo River and the natural drift crossings used by the wagons were often flooded during the rainy season. By 1871 the Colonial Government had agreed to the erection of the Buffalo River Bridge.

Tenders were invited for the construction of a timber bridge and the lowest tender received was in the amount of £5 100. This was considered not much less than the anticipated cost of an iron bridge and the Crown Agents for the Colonies were therefore tasked with erecting an iron bridge.

Henry Wakefield of London, as inspecting Engineer for construction works to the Crown Agents, was duly appointed. The iron wagon bridge he designed comprised a single lane lattice girder bridge with two 90 ft spans supported on dressed stone abutments and a single dressed stone pier in the middle of the river.

The eastern approach to the bridge was complicated by the presence of a secondary roadway which crossed the road obliquely at a lower level to the road deck. This underpass was bridged with a pair of stone abutments which in turn supported a series of steel girders which formed a small scale bridge and allowed the secondary roadway to remain in-situ.

The Buffalo River Iron bridge was fabricated by Walter William of the Wednesbury Oak Ironworks of Tipton, Staffordshire. The fabrication cost of the ironwork was £2 365 and the various component parts were transported on canal boats to the Liverpool docks and then by steamship to the Cape. It is assumed that the component parts would have been offloaded either in East London or Algoa Bay. They would have been transported to the site by ox-wagon.

Walter Williams appointed Joseph NEWEY as the bridge erector on 15 October 1872, which appointment was for a period of two years 'to superintend the erection of iron bridges in the colony.' Newey had already acquired significant experience in bridge construction and this iron bridge was to be the start of a noteworthy career in South Africa as a civil engineer and constructor of bridges.

Newey arrived in King William's Town on 15 January 1873 and took up residence in one of the Officer's Quarters in the nearby Military Reserve. He took over the bridge site from the Inspector of Roads for the DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WORKS of the CAPE COLONY, Abraham Gabriel DE SMIDT, who had already superintended the construction of the hammer dressed stone abutments and the central stone pier.

Newey immediately set about requisitioning the equipment necessary to assemble the two 90 ft spans, using the east bank approach for this purpose. Once assembled the girders were in due course incrementally launched from the east bank abutment using ratchet rollers, commencing on 10 June 1873.

The construction of the bridge was complete by August 1874 when the bridge was opened for wagons. Newey departed from King William's Town for the construction of his next bridge at Committee's Drift.

Pedestrian safety on the bridge deck and prevention of falling through the lattice girders was originally provided with a steel lattice work balustrade mounted hard up against the inner face of each lattice girder. At some point after the bridge had opened there was clearly a need to separate pedestrian traffic from the roadway. Separate cantilevered walkways for pedestrians were then added on the external face of each of the lattice girders. The two existing lattice balustrades were retained in situ and a simpler balustrade was installed on the outer face of each walkway.

Substantial flooding occurred in the Eastern Cape in 1917 and it is likely that the steel lattice girders were either displaced or badly damaged by the flooded Buffalo River, following which they were replaced with a concrete bridge. The two original stone abutments were however retained and adaptively re-used.

William A. Martinson, Osmond Lange Architects, July 2020.

Writings about this entry

Walters, Dennis. 2014. Bridging the Eastern Cape : the life and work of Joseph Newey. East London: Coral Tree Press. pg 40-45, 120 B10