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The ship that saved East London

Updated: Jun 24, 2020

In 1949, the city of East London found itself in the grip of a crippling drought. Such was the severity of the region's water shortage that all residents in the city were restricted to a total consumption of just 15 litres per day.

This prompted the city to take the unusual step of sourcing water donations from other parts of the country.

The City of Durban responded with a donation of 12.5 million litres of water. But how to get it to East London?

Enter the 11,000-ton tanker, Athelcrown, which was then in the Mediterranean on its maiden voyage.

The ship was commissioned by the East London City Council on 24 June 1949 to augment the city's water supply, which had been decimated by what the Daily Dispatch called the worst in history.

"To bring home the alarming position at the Umzoniana and the Amalinda reservoirs, pictures of them are to be screened at local cinemas," the newspaper reported on 25 June 1949.

The ship was routed to Durban to receive the water, and then duly set off down the coast on its emergency mission - a process would take 37 days in total.

Athelcrown finally arrived in the city on 31 July 1949.

"The ship saved the city from a dirty thirsty future," the Daily Dispatch read on the day of its arrival. 

In East London, the water was pumped into specially-built tankers before being pumped directly into the City's water supply. Surplus water was pumped into the Umzoniana reservoir which only had enough water stored for two months. 

Surprisingly, the city did not allow any public celebration to mark the Athelcrown's eagerly-awaited arrival.

"There will be no functions or celebrations when the Athelcrown arrives on Sunday," Deputy Mayor R. de Lange told the Daily Dispatch. "The tanker is on charter to the city and her arrival and the discharge of her water is purely a routine affair,"

The tanker was policed throughout her stay and nobody was allowed within the area without a permit issued by the System Manager of the South African Railways and Harbours.

On 2 November 1949, following days of heavy rain in East London, the City Council lifted all restrictions on water usage by 12 votes against six.

And on 12 October 1971, at the tender age of only 22 years, the Athelcrown arrived in Burriana, Spain where she was broken down. 

Source: Business Insider, assisted by Glenn Hartwig, Assistant Reference Librarian at Buffalo City Municipal Library Service. Original article here.

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