The Athelcrown: East London’s saviour

No rain for months. Dams almost empty. A municipality in crisis mode. Sounds like Cape Town during Day Zero, but in actual fact, this was East London back in 1949.

At the time, the Daily Dispatch called it the worst drought in 100 years (“Worst drought in 100 years extends from East Cape to Kenya”, Daily Dispatch, 26 July 1949) with the area having seen no rain for the last four months.

RELIEF EFFORT: An excerpt from the Daily Dispatch on July 28 1949 showing the Athelcrown and Captain AW Pegg
Picture: FILE

Dams were almost completely dried up and even a massive storm in March did little to alleviate the situation. To try and save water, strict restrictions were put in place by the council limiting citizens to just 2 gallons (9L) per person per day – and you thought restrictions today are bad!

To get an idea of just how desperate things were, the municipality was seriously considering dumping dry ice into clouds via aeroplane as an early form of cloud-seeding.

In the end, relief came from an unlikely source: a Mediterranean-bound tanker, called the Athelcrown, on her maiden voyage.

The Athelcrown was a 11,100 ton tanker ship owned by the Athel Line chartered under the Royal Dutch Shell Company and under the command of Captain AW Pegg. However, she was diverted from her original destination in the Mediterranean instead to Durban following an urgent plea from the East London city council in July.

The ship was hired to deliver almost 13 million litres of potable water over the course of two months.

Preparations for the ship’s arrival began in earnest with an entirely new pump system being installed under Oxford Street to get the water to the Umzoniana reservoir.

In the meantime, however, the city continued clamping down on water restrictions in a desperate bid to save what was left. Even industry was being affected with businesses being told that they could not exceed their monthly quotas while farmers panicked as livestock died en masse.

By July 28, the Athelcrown was loaded with its first shipment and on July 30, 1949, it docked in the East London harbour to deliver its life-saving cargo. The city council was so grateful to the crew that they waived all docking charges (‘SAR & H waives wharfage charges for Athelcrown’, Daily Dispatch, 11 August 1949).

While the drought would continue for some time, with strict water restrictions still being in place by November, there’s little doubt that the Athelcrown’s efforts bought East London some much-needed time.

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