Category Archives: History

The Bluff multicultural History includes a French historical background

Soyez les bien-venus ! Welcome !
The beautiful Bluff’s multicultural history includes a French historical background:

The French Missionary Order of The Oblates of Mary Immaculate” from Aix-en-Provence & Marseilles, France, first camped on the Bluff when they arrived in the early 1852. The catholic parish church in Sarmony Rd is still run by these Fathers

The French Holy Family Sisters from Bordeaux. The Sisters were responsible for the development of St Francis Xavier mission school from 1878. This was the first school for Africans in Natal. The pupilswere not only taught the 3 Rs, but also how to raise vegetables and care for the garden. Unfortunately, the school had to close in the 1960s because of the Group Areas Act. A Convent school still functions on the original site, but it was taken over by the Dominican Sisters. 

The Bluff has ties with Réunion Island, a French Overseas Department, through the horse racing world

The Bluff shares a whaling history with French ports: Bordeaux, Nantes amongst others…. 

The Bluff is home to many Francophones: poor car guards from Francophone Africa, people associated with the “Alliance Française DBN”, retired teachers and tourist guides…..

Credit: Glenn Flanagan
 Alliance Française, PMB Project Leader: French Presence in KwaZulu-Natal: La Route du Prince Impérial, Louis Napoléon

History of the Bluff

The Bluff is rich in history with the first ship being built on the harbour side of the Bluff in 1685 by stranded Portuguese and British sailors.

They lived in a wooden shack on the shores of the Bluff. Of course there was no actual harbour then but it was a natural, unspoilt harbour.

Bluff History by Gerald Pigg

By 1900 there were nine families resident on or near the Bluff, the most prominent being the Armstrong’s and Wellingtons, both living at Fynnland.

The Bower family occupied a comfortable residence overlooking a beach which today is known as Treasure Beach, so named because of the belief that the Grosvenor was wrecked at that very spot.

Mr Grey was also an early settler in the district and established a farm on the seaward side of the Bluff which he called Brighton Beach, for sentimental reasons.

The Clarkson family were farmers who had a large farm called Wentworth on the landward ridge which adjoined the land settled by the Jacobs family.

The Clark and Garson families, living close to the Catholic Mission, were the other residents.

The OK Bazaars at the Bluff. Later became The Hub and is now the medical centre. Photo courtesy Gerald Pigg

Bluff History by Peter Whitaker

When my father first came to the Bluff in the 1940’s Bluff Rd was a sand track and lined with trees. Mr. Grey who owned Greys Inn, a hotel, roughly opposite Splash pools (and not the Harcourt hotel which came much later) used to take a team of oxen down what is now a footpath from Airley Rd to Brighton Beach to help pull the old 1920/30 cars up, so that people could have lunch at his Inn before the long drive back to Durban. Mr. Grey owned a large part of the Brighton Beach area, which is why Greys Inn Rd was named after his Inn, and he also left a large area of the valley in trust to the people of the Bluff, as a recreational area. I understand that this is mainly the section being used by Natures Haven and Harlequins.

The Bluff had many separate areas as it developed, each with its own problems and characteristics. The North had the Whaling Station smell, the South the Oil refinery smell (not pollution, just a smell), the centre had a swamp with mosquitoes and sometimes you got the benefit of all three in varying proportion. We were a mixed community then, we had Indian fisher folk in houses on stilts built out over the waters of the bay at Fynnlands (as well as some other areas), the Zanzibari’s at Kings Rest, and over at St Francis Xavier in Sormany Rd and down to where Moss Rd is today, a large Zulu community. A number of Bluff roads owe their names to the first farmers who subdivided to make the stands that we live on today. Some of the original farm houses still remain, you just have to know where to look. Then for many years we had Clover dairy (complete with cows) opposite the reservoir in Dunville road it eventually became a depot and then was sold off .

The Bluff had many uniquely named areas, such as Kings Rest, reputedly where Dick King rested after crossing the bay, and Kings View which later became more commonly known as Crossways after the Crossways Hotel. How the area ever was renamed Ocean View, I can never understand there was no discussion with the residents, and Ocean Views are found in just about every seaside town, but Kings View was unique. There were many more areas with similar names.

Do you remember how we got about in the 1950/60s? The bus service was in two parts, a Green line and a Red Line service. The Routes were Marine Garage to Town, or Crossways to Town with the buses turning around in Beach road, ever wondered why there is that extra wide piece of Beach Rd going up toward Netford Rd for about a bus length? It was so that a bus could pull in and turn around to go back to town. On the other side of the Bluff buses would go to Fynnland beach, which in those days was a beautiful beach inside the harbour, before the oil sites were built. In fact before 1948 the Government of the day was going to build an “oil harbour” down at the cuttings at Merebank, so the current idea is far from new. After enough homes had been built it was decided that the buses should travel up to a terminus at the military base and cross over as they do now. This journey through transport would not be complete however if I did not mention the tour bus of the day that was run by the Council – it was called the “Toast Rack” and was open with a sort of fence all round which looked for all the world like a toast rack.

My brother and sister started school at Brighton Beach Primary School, as it was known in those days, 5 class rooms on the first floor and the first headmistress (Mrs. Wife) had an office under the north stairs which I think is now used as a cleaner’s store. By the time I got there in 1957 the pillars on the ground floor had been bricked in to form another 5 classrooms, with the middle 2 having a sliding partition to make a “hall’. 1964 saw the building of the Hall, and later still the pool. Much later still came the splitting of schools into Junior and Senior Primary levels.

Brighton Beach early 1960s

The 1966 South African surf championships were held at Anstey’s beach, Bluff. Where only a few heats were held here and the rest in Durban, South Beach.

With a huge swell running Robbie MacWade from Durban went on to represent SA later that year at the first world championships in San Diego USA.

Keith Titmuss explains what it was like:

There was a level crossing at the old Fynnland railway station (where my dad worked – we lived in AIken Place when I was a kid). You went across the railway line heading for the causeway and after about 500 metres you turned right onto a sandy path that lead to the beach. There was nice white sand, shady trees, a jetty into quite deep water, changing huts, a playground with swings etc and even a park-keeper on duty.


This is an interesting one. It must have been taken in the 50’s – the Indian Fishing Village which was situated next to the Causeway leading to Salisbury Island.

Indian Seine Netters Houses Fynnlands


Indian Seine Netters Fynnlands

The seine netting community were based there as well as the shrimp fishermen who did a roaring trade with the fish market as well as providing bait for all the local anglers.

Mary Stainbank Memorial Gallery

Mary Agnes Stainbank was born in 1899 on the farm Coedmore in Bellair, Durban. She was educated at St. Anne’s DSG at Hilton.

Stainbank was an artist way ahead of her time. Though credited with introducing a modern school of sculpture to South Africa during her early career, she was often criticized for her use of avant-garde images

During her career, Stainbank produced many portraits of the people who lived on the Coedmore estate as well as architectural commissions that she received. These include decorations on buildings, in Durban, such as the Children’s Hospital at Addington Beach and the government offices in the CBD.

The Stainbank collection is generally regarded as the largest body of work by a single artist in South Africa to have remained intact. The collection is housed at the Mary Stainbank Memorial Gallery at Coedmore, the original Stainbank family estate, where the family settled in the 1880s.

Mary Agnes Stainbank died in 1996 in Durban.

Address: 14 Robin Road, Yellow Wood Park, Durban South, 4011, South Africa
Area: 625 acres
Phone: +27 31 469 2807
Times: Mon – Sat (6AM–6PM) bookings must be done in advance
Established: 1963

Adults Kids (U12)
Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve R30 R15
Mary Stainbank Memorial Gallery R20 R10 (kids & pensioners)
Coedmore Castle R30



The Bluff Ridge

The name “Bluff” is derived from the long bluff – two ancient sand dunes on which most of the suburbs lie. The traditional Zulu name for Bluff is isibubulungu, meaning a long, round-shaped ridge.

FIGURE 1: (a) Regional context of the locality of the study area. (b) Enlarged area of interest in the vicinity of Durban. The study area lies on the seaward margin of the Durban Bluff, central KwaZulu-Natal. The Bluff Ridge, Isipingo and the whaling station are indicated.
The Bluff Ridge, Isipingo and the whaling station.

The Bluff Ridge is a remnant of an extensive coastal dune system that formed along the shoreline of KZN between 2 to 5 million years ago. At that time the KZN shoreline was about 120m below its present level and the edge of the continental shelf about 15km seaward. At the end of the last ice age, some 10 000 to 18 000 years ago, the sea level rose to about its present position.



The Bluff Railway

As most Durbanites will know – the very first steam locomotive and train in South Africa steamed 155 years ago along a track between the Market Square, Durban and the Point on the 26th of June 1860. As the track lengthened to new horizons and branched-off to new locations, so new railway stations were built to service the traders and passengers who used the train for transport.

Near Rossburgh the rail line split into three. This junction was known as the ‘South Coast Junction’ or ‘Booth Junction’. The first branch running to Clairwood Railway Station where the rail line branched in 2 again, one track running down the South Coast of Natal and the other running along the edge of the Bay to the following stations, namely Jacobs Railway Station, Wentworth Railway Station, Bayhead Railway Station, King’s Rest Railway Station, Fynnlands Railway Station, Island View Railway Station and ending its commercial route at Wests Railway Station at the foot  and headland to the Bluff. At Fynnlands Railway Station the line branched with a line running to Salisbury Island Railway Station. The second branch from Rossburgh ran to Booth Railway Station and then inland, while the third line ran to Seaview Railway Station and on to the hinterland.

(below) Wests Railway Station.

Wests Railway Station, Bluff, Durban, 1903

(below) In this photograph the Station Master poses beside the Wests Railway Station. Note how the Bluff rising precipitously in the background.

Wests Railway Station aAt the end of the line, Wests Railway Station allowed Durbanites to take an excursion to the Bluff shoreline and patronise Wests Hotel and Bar.

Wests Hotel and Bar, below the bluff, Durban, 1915This line extended beyond Wests Railway Station to the breakwater at the headland of the Bluff. This line allowed port engineers to move large quantities of rock and concrete blocks via train to construct and maintain the breakwater.



Although the first railway is South Africa became operational in 1860 between the Point and village of Durban , John Milne, the first harbour engineer, like to claim that honor for his wooden rail track laid around the base of the Bluff headland in 1856.

The sandbar at the entrance to the bay posed as a hazard to shipping as all to often the depth of the water over the bar was insufficient to permit safe entry. With the arrival of settlers from 1849 and increased economic activity, the need to remedy access to the harbour became a critical issue.
Milne believed, correctly as it turned out, that by narrowing the entrance to the bay by construction of North and South piers, the natural ebb and flow of the tides would scour the sandbank and produce a deepened channel. To build the piers required, Milne needed suitable stone a large supply which existed at the base of the Bluff headland. 
Until 1854, stone was quarried where West’s railway station stands. Then a more accessible supply was blasted out of the top of the Bluff Headland. To convey the stones to a calm point within the bay from where they could be ferried across for the construction of the North pier, Milne decided to build a rail track. 
The rails were made from Milkwood trees which were common around the bay. After initial difficultly with those appointed to cut and saw the timber, Charles Gregory and William Hart got the job done and the track was laid. It was placed just two meters above the high water mark and measure just above 1.6km in length. 
Eight wagons were constructed to convey the stone which was cut into blocks roughly 20kgs each in weight. A “train” of four wagons was hauled along the track by a team of eight oxen. Once a week a fresh span of oxen was swum across the bay to relieve the others. (No mention is made of the fates of the previous teams of oxen). 
By the the end of 1856 construction of the north pier had reached 137 meters in length . Even in its infant form and without a corresponding south pier, the depth of the water over the bar had improved. But Milne’s efforts became frustrated by politics. The new Governor, John Scott, was critical of the quality of the Bluff stone and wanted further engineering opinion. Disagreement over expenditure saw Milne dismissed from his post in 1858.
Consequently, Milne’s wooden railway track around the Bluff headland fell into disuse. Early in the twentieth century the whaling company built railway over Milne’s track to transport whale carcasses to its factory on the seaward side of the Bluff. 
There is a photograph of Milne’s railway track in Killie Campbell Library. Hugging the base of the bush-covered Bluff just above the waters edge, that modest wooden railway track constituted the first settler footprint on the Bluff. 
(Information derived primarily from Terry Hutson’s 1997 article in the Natalia)
1898 – Opening of the Bluff Railway In June 1898 large posters advertised the opening of the latest Natal Government Railways (NGR) branch line extension from Durban station to West’s at the tip of Bluff headland. The inaugural trip was set down for 13 June. On that day 30 paying passengers along with David Hunter, the general manager of NGR, were aboard to mark the historical occasion. 
The following stations marked the route the Bluff train took: from Durban Station the first stop was Berea Station, then Congella, Umbilo, South Coast Junction (Rossburgh), Clairmont, Jacobs, Wentworth, King’s Rest, Fynnland, New Brighton (Mrs Shortts property) and finally Wests. The Mercury’s description of the journey published on June 14 provides an idea of the state of the environment at this time. “The route through mangrove, sugar cane and banana beside the lapping water of the Bay afforded new glimpses of the port and neighborhood.” (Sugar cane was grown in the Umhlatuzana River area). 
The historic, first train left Durban Station at 9:50am and returned just before noon. Although Sam West reportedly delighted that his name marked the terminus of the line, the occasion was without any fanfare. The railway had taken fourteen months to complete at a cost of £3,000 per mile. The final mile terminating at West’s had required 13,000 cubic yards of stone to secure and stabilize the embankment.The fare for a first class, single journey was one shilling and nine pence. Return was two shillings and three pence. Second class was one shilling and two pence with return just four pence more expensive. Third class was just seven pence with no figure mentioned on the advertising poster for return. Only two trips to the Bluff were scheduled daily: mid-morning and mid-afternoon with more frequent services over the weekends. 


On the very day of the opening of the new Bluff destinations, the mercury published a letter from the irate Bluff resident who signed himself “Wentworth”. The writer objected to the trip scheduling as being totally inconvenient for children attending schools in Durban or those with business interests. “In the absence of any road forth that name, the least the government can do is to provide a decent train service.” (One must remember that apart from the Catholic mission for Africans, there were no schools on the Bluff until Fynnland Primary School was opened in 1936).
Nonetheless, the railway was a huge boon to the Bluff residents and visitors as there was no established road which meant a difficult trek through bush to travel around the bay. Alternatively, there was a ferry service from the Point across to Wests and Salisbury Island. However, that was not how the Durban Chamber of Commerce saw it.
In a letter dated 13 June 1896 to Prime Minister John Robinson, without giving reasons the chamber said it was “disapproving of the Bluff railway scheme” and preferred to see the Government develop more wharfage along the town side of the Bay. In his reply, Robinson ignored the Chambers Bluff reviews and reassured it that his Government was already proceeding to extend the wharfage on the town side. 
Correspondence relating to the construction of the railway provides another insight on the Bluff line. Jane Shortt, widow of Portland Bentinck who died in 1885, claimed compensation from the NGR for encroaching on her property. In 1896, when the rail Route was being surveyed, Mrs Shortt noticed that it had passed through part of her new = Lot No. 27 which she stated had been bought by her late husband in 1857. The chief engineer of NGR promised that her claim would be dealt with in due course. 
Although the establishment of the Bluff railway was indicative of the growth of the Bluff as a residential node, there was also another reason for the lines construction: Harbour development and expansion envisaged the relocation of the messy coaling depot from the Point area to the Bluff headland. The railway was a crucial factor in that development which required reclamation and wharfage construction in order to establish the coating depot.

Bluff Military Base


Old bunkers with two feet thick concrete walls

The Bluff Headland is situated at the entrance of Durban Harbour, one of Africa’s busiest, and has served as a military vantage point during the Anglo Boer War, WW2 and WW2. Much of the Headland area is cordoned off as an active military base including modern and sensitive military technologies. The Headland is riddled with redundant military infrastructure including gun emplacements, bunkers and other artifacts of historic interest.

Perched high on the Bluff peninsular in Durban is the Millennium Tower. This landmark is occupied by the port control and signals staff and provides with a 360-degree view over the port, city and sea approaches to Durban.

Whaling Station

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Explore another side of Durban’s fascinating history on a whaling tour. The whaling history of Durban started in 1907 when the Norwegian Consol in Durban raised money to start an operation.
The operation began with a few steam driven whalers hunting migrating whales off the Natal coast and it went on to become the largest land based whaling operation in the world.

Part of the old Kings Battery on the Bluff, looking south, note the elaborate concrete camouflage built into all the coastal batteries on the Bluff.

Tours take place in the old whaling station on the Bluff Headlands as well as one of the largest collections of pictures, memorabilia, newspaper clippings and old footage of the whaling days.

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A whale eardrum is one of several interesting artifacts on display at the new whaling museum opened by Bluff local, Dave Nielsen, who has decided to share the memorabilia he has kept from his father’s heyday as a whaler.

The museum displays a vast range of pieces from whale teeth, whale ribs, a harpoon gun casing, old photos, newspaper clippings, a flensing knife and an old compass from a whaling boat.

The connection between Durban and whaling is a huge topic starting in 1909 and ending in 1975. Not only did it have an influence on Norwegian settlers, but also on the residents of the Bluff and Durban and on the maritime industry.

Many of the younger people living in Durban won’t know that it was once a busy centre of the whaling industry. Thousands of migrating whales were caught in the seas nearby and towed back here to be processed into a number of products which were highly prized by consumers, both local and overseas.





Cave Rock

Most Durbanites would not have heard of ‘Cave Rock’, and this is not surprising, for Cave Rock no longer exists.

Well – as a landmark, tourist attraction, natural wonder and picnic spot it no longer exists – but as a pile of rocks it does, for it was dynamited in the 1940’s by the South African War Department. Only in South Africa, and perhaps quite particular to Durban, where any feature of interest, any building of heritage or any name historic is dismantled. It is a wonder that the Bluff still exists.

For many hundreds of thousands of years this large sandstone formation stood proudly at the Bluff headland, witnessing the centuries rolling on like the ocean waves. It was there that Christmas Day in 1497 when Vasco da Gama sailed up the coast in his rickety wooden carrack the 178 ton Sao Gabriel, looking for his route to the East. It was standing like a sentinel in 1685 when the sailors of the ironically named ‘Good Hope’ were wrecked at Rio de Natal (Port Natal).


Naval Base Durban

Naval Base Durban in Durban harbour is a naval base of the South African Navy, situated on Salisbury Island, which is now joined to the mainland through land reclamation. It was formerly a full naval base until it was downgraded to a naval station in 2002. With the reduction in naval activities much of the island was taken over by the Army as a general support base, but they left after a few years resulting in the abandoned section becoming derelict. In 2012 a decision was made to renovate and expand the facilities back up to a full naval base to accommodate the South African Navy’s offshore patrol flotilla. In December 2015 it was officially redesignated Naval Base Durban.


fad bay mapSecond World War

The entry of Japan into the Second World War on the side of the Axis Powers and their ability to threaten the east coast of Africa prompted the construction of a new naval base on Salisbury Island. In the process of this construction the island was linked to the mainland by a causeway and the level of the land was raised three metres. Besides wharves the base facilities included barracks, workshops, a hospital as well as training facilities. A floating dry dock and crane were also installed. The construction was however only completed after the war had ended.

(Source: Port of Durban)




Sailsbury Island

fad bay mapSalisbury Island in the Port of Durban on the east coast of South Africa, was an island until the Second World War when construction of a naval base connected it to the mainland by a causeway. The island, then a mangrove covered sandbank, was named after HMS Salisbury, the Royal Navy ship that surveyed the future harbour area for the newly established Port Natal Colony in the 1820s.

Coriolanus 1950s

Second World War and after

Naval Base Durban was constructed for the Royal Navy during the Second World War in response to the threat of Japanese attacks on shipping along the east coast of Africa. It was during this construction that the island became a peninsula through the construction of a causeway. After the war the base was turned over to the South African Naval Service (SANS), which has since maintained a fluctuating and intermittent presence.

With the signing of the Simonstown Agreement in 1957, the Royal Navy gave up its control of the SANS in exchange for the use of the base at Simon’s Town. The SANS became the South African Navy (SAN) and Salisbury Island its main base. When the Simonstown Agreement ended the SAN moved most of its operations back to Simon’s Town and Durban became a secondary facility.

University College for Indians

In 1961 the University College for Indians was established on Salisbury Island – it closed down in 1971 when it was replaced by the University of Durban-Westville. Under apartheid the different population groups in South Africa had to have separate facilities, the college was the first fully fledged tertiary educational institution for Indian South Africans. Students used to commute to the college by ferry or boarded in hostels on the island. Alumni of the college include Pravin Gordhan the Minister of Finance, Roy Padayachie the former Minister of Public Service and Administration.

(Source: Port of Durban)