Following Britain’s annexation of the Cape at the turn of the nineteenth century, a number of measures were implemented, including the introduction of a new currency and the removal of all restraints on the trading of goods, which had the effect of stimulating trade and the economic life of the colony. In particular, the Cape’s integration into a more diversified global maritime trading network facilitated dramatic growth in both the importation of goods and the export of local staple products to the extent that, between 1806 and 1820, the import and export of goods increased sixfold.
However, by the early 1820s, the upward trajectory of the growth in maritime trade was being significantly hampered by the lack of proper harbour facilities, which, at that time, consisted of a single jetty that had been built by Jan van Riebeeck 150 years earlier. While Cape merchants had, since the turn of the nineteenth century, lobbied the colonial administration to construct more jetties and a breakwater that could transform Table Bay into a safer anchorage, it was only in 1826 that the authorities finally relented to such pleas and appointed an official engineer – the first commissioned in a government role in South Africa’s history – to investigate improvements that could be made to the bay.
The man chosen for the task was British-born civil engineer Henry Reveley. Although born in Reading, England, in 1788, Reveley was raised in Pisa, Italy, following the death of his father, Willey Reveley, in 1799. (An interesting, but unrelated, fact about Willey Reveley is that he was a fairly well-known architect of the Georgian era whose one claim to fame was his outlandish scheme to straighten a section of the River Thames between Wapping and Woolwich Reach, in east London.) Bucking the trend of the day, the young Reveley did not pursue his father’s career as an architect, opting to become a civil engineer. After graduating from the University of Pisa, Reveley returned to England, where he worked under the guidance of John Rennie, the engineer who designed London’s Waterloo bridge.
Why Reveley, who was 38 at the time, was chosen to be the Cape’s first colonial civil engineer is not entirely clear, although it is certain that he had many friends in London’s high society who influenced the appointment.
In a memorandum on the nature of his appointment, Reveley wrote: “I was to direct my attention principally to the improvements in Table Bay, as well as to the ports and harbours, in general, in addition to which I was to plan and put in execution, under the authority of the government, all new public buildings which might be deemed necessary, and at the same time to attend to the reports of all the old buildings already existing.”
Having accepted the appointment, Reveley and his wife sailed for the Cape, arriving on the shores of Table Bay in November 1826. He was given a month to settle in and started his duties on January 1, 1827.
While Reveley was supposed to devote his attention chiefly to the development of the bay, particularly the construction of a breakwater that could provide safe anchorage for the fleets of vessels sojourning at the Cape, he was far more active in designing buildings in the town, two of which were the iconic St George’s Cathedral and St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.
Six months into the appointment, Reveley was promoted to the post of surveyor-general and civil architect of the colony. He was then asked to take up the post of superintendent of the Cape Town waterworks but declined because he would receive no additional salary for the responsibility. No doubt, this irked the colonial administration and, shortly thereafter, trouble began to brew. He was charged with misdemeanours such as misappropriating government timber and then accused of having no practical knowledge of building or engineering.
Whether such accusations had any merit or not is not clear. What was true, though, was that Reveley was often impatient with the colonial bureaucracy and control procedures and often flouted regulations in order to get some movement on his projects. Such an attitude infuriated government officials, particularly then governor Richard Bourke, who was a stickler for colonial red tape, and Reveley’s services were dispensed with in May of the following year on the grounds that he was an incompetent engineer. Although he denied the charges and asked for an official enquiry into his dismissal, his pleas fell on deaf ears.
He stayed in the Cape for another year in the hope of regaining his position. In May 1829, he was fortunate enough to meet Captain James Stirling, founder and first governor of the Swan River Colony, in Western Australia, and his party of British settlers who had broken their journey to the Land Down Under at the Cape. The pair struck it off and Stirling invited Reveley to help establish the new colony, an offer that was gratefully accepted. Once in Perth, Reveley was appointed the official civil engineer and was responsible for all public works. Among the many buildings Reveley built were the first Government House, military barracks, the Fremantle prison and the old court house.
While Reveley certainly made a lasting impression in Western Australia, with his engineering legacy enduring to this day, so slight was his contribution to the Cape's built environment that his name is often overlooked in historical accounts. In fact, Reveley is not even generally recognised as being the first colonial civil engineer of the Cape, with that honour incorrectly awarded to Colonel Charles Michell.
Much to the frustration of the Cape merchants, little progress was made in developing Table Bay’s harbour facilities during Reveley’s short tenure. What was even more infuriating was that it would be another 30 years before government again took up the mantle of developing suitable harbour infrastructure.