Imvubu Newsletter

From 'Stuffed Goose' to 'White Elephant': A Short History of King's Water Supply

© Victor, S. Imvubu 16: 2, 1. 

I recently received an enquiry regarding the location and history of Dunbar Lake. Thinking it was located near East London, I was surprised to learn it is situated approximately 5km outside King William’s Town on the road to Stutterheim. It dams the Buffalo River a kilometre below the old Convent farm at Izeli. King William’s Town still draws water from the reservoir today. Wanting to know more about King’s water supply in general, I uncovered the following facts.

When the first Town Council was appointed in 1861 the only water available to King William’s Town was from the furrow originally made by the Rev. John Brownlee and subsequently appropriated by the military, probably in about 1846. Leading water out of the Buffalo River above where the SPCA is now situated, the furrow ran along Reserve Road between Holy Trinity Church and the Rectory. However, most town dwellers obtained their water from one of the drifts in the town. In 1862 a councillor complained that soldiers emptied their slop buckets and other disgusting filth into the river above where the townspeople drew their water. In defence of the military another councillor mentioned that the soldiers, regardless of their insanitary habits, were always the first to render assistance in the case of fire.

The situation was intolerable and the Council negotiated with the military for a fifty per cent share in the water from the furrow. The negotiations were bedevilled by the question of the annexation of British Kaffraria, the Governor’s attitude apparently being, ‘Agree to annexation and you will have water.’

The Borough Council felt that the town should have its own water supply and it eventually agreed to a scheme whereby a new dam and furrow were to be constructed virtually on the same route as the old, with pipes leading from the north end of the Military Reserve to town and along Cambridge Road. The military were to do the digging.

By 1869 a turbine was installed at the foot of Turbine Lane, and it was connected to a reservoir built behind the Diocesan Annexe in Amatola Row. When the Buffalo River was running strongly the scheme worked reasonably well, but not when the river was at low ebb. By 1880 the situation became so acute that a new scheme was envisaged. The Council planned to lay about eight miles of ten-inch piping from a weir just above Braunschweig to town, with a reservoir where the present water works is situated. The scheme was opened in February 1883, but the reservoir was omitted owing to high costs.

The Council finally realised that the reservoir was indeed necessary and this was undertaken departmentally by the Borough Engineer, Mr W. Dunbar. However, the workmanship was soon criticised. One councillor stated that the outside of the reservoir looked like ‘a stuffed goose’. The ‘stuffed goose’ was completed in September and provoked much discussion. It was plagued with polluted, muddy water and was eventually covered in 1970.

At the end of 1883 a new storage dam was suggested by the Water Works Superintendent, Mr Chester, and it was commenced two years later. Dunbar was so enthusiastic that he ambitiously proposed a series of locks on the Buffalo River so that boats could sail up to the forests and timber could be floated downstream.

However, trouble was just round the corner. At a public meeting in April 1887 Dunbar wanted an extra £1, 100 pounds to finish the dam. An independent report was called for and a fortnight later, the Government Engineer estimated that the dam would cost £ 4, 000 to complete. Disagreeable weather and trying circumstances caused Dunbar to miss the meeting. Perhaps, just as well, as there was talk of Dunbar’s blunders and estimates of costs rising faster than the dam wall itself.

The work was put out to tender and finally completed in May 1888. However, Dunbar again failed to attend the meeting. Consequently, in April the Council halved his annual salary and he subsequently resigned to become the first manager of the Johannesburg Water Works. Although Superintendent Chester had been fired for neglect of duty some two years previously, in 1896 he offered to clean the pipes on the basis of no improvement in pay. By 1903 he had become a local councillor, but he so criticised the Borough Engineer, Mr Brooks, who was busy laying a pipeline to Dunbar Lake, that he resigned.

However, Dunbar did provide the locals with a new form of leisure. After the completion of Dunbar Lake, a prosperous boating club was established there. It included a commodious boathouse, with a slipway running down to the river. The boathouse stored a great number of one-man canoes, made of canvas drawn over wooden struts, and painted yellow. Over weekends, Dunbar Lake became a popular boating spot for local ladies and gentlemen.

But the boathouse, too, was not to last. In the early 1890s the Buffalo River came down in flood with a volume of water so tremendous that the boathouse and all its contents were washed away.

King now had two separate, but defective water schemes. The 1883 pipeline had no storage dam, while the Dunbar scheme had no pressure and the water was usually muddy.

In 1900 it was stated that Dunbar Lake was a ‘white elephant’ unless its water was piped to town. Pipe laying commenced in 1903 and the pipeline was in use until about 1970, when it supplied King Tanning with water. A new Borough Engineer, Mr James Maden, finally improved King’s water supply by erecting an electrically driven pump in Turbine Lane to pump water from Dunbar Lake to the ‘stuffed goose’ reservoir.

Only with the opening of Maden Dam in 1910 did the town’s erratic water supply finally improve. In the absence of regular rains, however, Maden Dam’s capacity was not large enough to ensure a steady supply of water. Consequently, Rooikrantz Dam was constructed in 1969. King William’s Town is still largely dependant on Maden Dam for its water supply which, as one Borough Engineer remarked, is still the town’s most valuable asset.


(1.) Nelson, D. R. ‘Water for King.’ Unpublished paper read to the Kaffrarian Historical Society on 17.08.1978

(2.) Cape Mercury, 15.03.194,7 p.3.