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It is said that Johannesburg has been rebuilt three times in its first 100 years of existence.
Initially, it was a haphazard town akin to the wild west with lots of tents, wood and iron, reed and clay or ‘wattle and daub’ structures. Before the first stands at Randjeslaagte were auctioned off and the town started becoming permanent, fortune seekers of all different creeds, nations and social statuses that came to the area set up in one of 3 established mining camps from July 1886: Ferriera’s Camp, Natal Camp or Paarl Camp.
Situated near the south-western point of Randjeslaagte on the farm Turffontein and established in June 1886, Ferreira’s Camp took in diggers mainly coming up from the Kimberly and the Cape. Today, the area is known as Ferreira’s Town or Dorp, named after its founder Colonel Ignatius Phillip Ferriera, who was the founder and unofficial leader of the camp and later appointed Justice of the Peace by F. C. Eloff. The camp became the centre of all activities in the area. The first hotel (Edgson’s Hotel) was opened by A. B. Edgson who also acted as a post agent. The first bank in Johannesburg, Standard Bank, set up a branch in a marquee in October 1886. Many licensed (and unlicensed) bars sprang up which was a good income for the government but not ideal for the camp in general who evidently drank a lot.
This camp lay near the south-eastern point of Randjeslaagte on the southern part of Doornfontein where City & Suburban is today and catered for miners coming mainly from Natal. Veldcornet Johannes Petrus Meyer, who had his home on an adjoining farm near the camp was a representative of the Government and also held power of attorney from F. J. Bezhuidenhout to transact business on the southern part of his farm Doornfontein and the farm Turffontein. The camp was originally known as Meyer’s Camp, but as it filled up with diggers from Natal, its name changed. The spruit (small river) also became known as Natal Spruit. By September 1886 there were roughly 500 people living in the camp.
Paarl Camp was mainly an Afrikaner camp and was near the site of an early mining operation formed by a syndicate in Paarl in the Cape Colony. The syndicate purchased a portion of the farm Langlaagte from G. C. Oosthuizen. The population was around 100 people in September 1886 and it had a bakery, butchery, trading store and smith’s shop. Most people lived in wagons or tents and it had an overall good reputation as being orderly with church services held on Sundays. The camp is where Paarlshoop is today. I’ve not found any photographs of Paarl Camp.
It was soon realised that crushing machinery was needed to successfully exploit the claims. This was too expensive for individual claim holders and prompted the amalgamation of claims into syndicates to be able to raise money for the equipment. When deeper mining operations started replacing the basic surface mining, the area now known as downtown Johannesburg, which was originally laid out on triangular Randjeslaagte in November 1886, started taking shape. Plots were sold and semi and permanent buildings started going up.
Ferreira’s Camp was at a disadvantage when Johannesburg was set up as businesses would have to obtain new stands or give up or move their current businesses. Ferriera’s Camp and adjacent Marshall’s Township were officially incorporated into Johannesburg on 26th November 1887
There was still prospecting on 36 claims that ran through the middle of the triangular area roughly a few blocks below Bree Street up to Joubert Park. Plots were laid out and sold at the bottom (southern) part of Randjeslaagte first, and later, extended higher up due to the influx of people and demand. As this second phase was not initially planned, these newly laid out streets did not match up perfectly with the original stands and streets. That is why there is a kink in all north-south streets where they cross Bree Street (now Lilian Ngoyi Street).
The above map is a fascinating look back into the start of Johannesburg just four years in and also the early establishment of suburbs like Hillbrow, Yeoville, Bertrams, Braamfontein, Jeppe, and Doornfontein.
Back then, everyone lived on top of each other, but socially, areas started to develop. Wealthier folk and mine managers lived in simple houses around Eloff and Noord Streets, but they were not happy with the small stands and close proximity to the rowdy town. Some miners lived in camps or shacks and tents close to the mines and rivers. There was no electricity, water supply or sanitation. It was noisy and dusty with everything exposed to the elements.
The ZAR government of the time was reluctant to provide basic services or develop local government as the feeling was that the town would disappear as quickly as it started after the gold dried up like it had in many other gold rushes before.
Of course, it didn’t.
Foreigners and fortune seekers came from all over the world in search of riches. Big mining companies with capital to invest in the expensive machinery needed to mine and process gold established themselves in Johannesburg. What was there soon became inadequate and the first wave of rebuilding started. The connection of Johannesburg via railway to Durban and Cape Town helped get much-needed building material to the town.
The tents and tin shacks lasted two years. After the first ten years, some early brick buildings were already being demolished to make way for bigger and better versions. The Rissik Street Post Office, Rand Club and Corner House are all documented examples of this, all having been rebuilt and extended several times.
Below are some sweeping views of early Johannesburg. Doing a comparison today is difficult because modern development and tall buildings block any view.
The block showing Wanderers was the position of the original stadium until it moved to Illovo in the 1940s. Johannesburg Station is now in its place.
The spire in the distance belongs to the tallest building at the time – the newly erected Palace Building circa 1889.
The building density is marked when comparing the above two pictures considering they were only taken a year apart.
It’s hard to imagine that houses once stood in what we know as the centre of town today.
These two pictures show Market street just a year apart.
The pictures below show panoramic views of old Johannesburg circa 1889
Gray, J & Gray, E, 1937. Payable Gold. Johannesburg: Central News Agency, Limited.
Smith, A. 1976. Johannesburg Firsts. Africana Museum Johannesburg
General text, photo sources 9 September 2018
Addition of early mining Camps 8 July 2018