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In the early 1900s – 1920s various yards emerged in the Jeppe area and adjacent in what was termed ‘New Doornfontein’. A yard (or slum yard) was an area that housed workers from around the city (mostly black domestic servants like ‘house boys’, ‘kitchen boys’, coachmen and cooks). There was a communal area or courtyard surrounded by small rooms that were rented out, often with 2-10 people per room. The yard was also acted as a social hub and its tenants and nightly and weekend visitors played music, danced, brewed and drank beer and played cards. It is said that Marabi culture started in these yards and is often referred to as the home of MarabiI. They had names like Molefe, Makapan and Brown yard. One called Rooi Yard was the subject of a master thesis in the 1940s.
Another called Mvuyana Yard was not a slum yard and had no part of the Marabi culture. This yard housed legally married couples in eight rooms at the back of the property. The property, as I’ve recently discovered more than two years after writing this post, was No. 24 Lower Ross Street which was the African Congregational Church.
Pastor Mvuyana, who the yard is named after, took over the church from 1917. It was originally a wood and iron structure from 1910 and the new building above was designed by W. Paynter and erected in 1924. The first pastor was Rev. MS Dube. Pastor Mvuyana then took over in 1917. The foundation stone reads: To the glory of God, The African Congregational Church (I BANDHLA LAMA AFRIKA) in the memory of the founding of the above church Sep 3 1917. This foundation stone was laid by Rev Gardiner Mvuyana President Jan 20 1924. It was used as a church up to the 1960s and still stands today.
By the 1930s, Doornfontein was a slum area. The tenants of the yards were eventually evicted and the yards were flattened and replaced by warehouses – many of which still stand today. It appears that these yards were centred around Staib, Angle and Van Beek streets. Info on these yards came from the Journal of Johannesburg Historical Foundation and a chapter written by Alkis Doucakis on the history of Doornfontein with contributions and recollections in the article by Modikwe Dikobe (born in 1913) who grew up in the yards. Nothing of the yards exists today except for the church in Lower Ross Street.
A little know yard and an important one for Jewish history was on Buxton Street and was known as Shamus’ Yard. Shamus is a Yiddish word that means beadle. A shamus performs the same function in a synagogue that a beadle performs in a church (ceremonial officer of a church).
The yard was started in 1905 by the shamus of the old Fox Street synagogue who felt he was being underpaid and decided to cash in on the influx of new Jewish immigrants arriving in Johannesburg. His first yard before moving to Doornfontein in 1905 was in Marshall Street. 80 traders moved with him.
Shamus’s Yard was also once the headquarters of Jewish peddlers. It operated on the premises for 64 years before being demolished in 1969 to make way for a modern building. In its last days there were only two traders left: Mr H. Eliason and Mr I. Schneider.
The now demolished Anton Van Wouw house in Sivewright Avenue dated back to 1902. The famous Dutch sculptor lived and worked there for over 30 years from 1907 to 1937. The house appears to have originally been owned by Swiss architect Theophile Schaerer who submitted plans for a wood and iron studio presumably for Van Wouw around 1910 (Schaerer worked on the Lutheran Church in Hillbrow and the Great synagogue and later had a house in Willie Street near the Hillbrow Fire Station). In 1913 further additions were added including replacing the wood and iron structure with a brick structure. Architect Gordon Leith later extended this structure which eventually became 7 metres high.
Artefacts claim the house was built in 1913 and designed by Schaerer and then demolished and replaced by a Gordon Leith designed house in 1927. Other sources seem to disagree. After Van Wouw moved to Pretoria in 1937 it changed hands a few times and eventually fell into a state of disrepair. It was restored (losing much of its original charm and character) and became the Anton Van Wouw Restaurant which opened in November 1983 (and closed in the 1990s as the area declined).
The house was demolished around 2013 apparently abandoned and falling apart. The studio appears to have survived. The picture below is taken from the car park next to the Lions Shul behind the original stand. It’s the building behind the bus which can also be seen from the front on the picture above.
The Alhambra Theatre was built between 1919 and 1921 and designed by Samuel Victor Mann (who also designed the Poswohl Synagogue in Mooi Street).
The building below on the corner of Rockey and Davies Street may be oldest remaining in Johannesburg. Above the door on the facade it shows 1887. Unfortunately there are no plans or documents to back it up. As of 2015, the front of the building has been altered and the last of the evidence lost.
Marlborough House was built in 1905 and designed by Sydney Percival Hill Mitchelson. It was a Beit Street landmark and one of Johannesburg’s first apartment blocks. It appears to have been demolished in the early 1970s after the Harrow Road flyover construction.
Further up Beit Street toward Height Street on the right is the building that housed Crystal Confectionary. It was founded by Mr Morris Zwi who came to South Africa via Lithuania in 1930. His first bakery business started across the road from the mentioned site and didn’t fair well. He decided to switch to the production of specialised Jewish foods and quality bread and cakes. His fortunes changed and in 1934 he bought the bakery across the road. Branches opened in Highlands North, Kensington, Hillbrow, Rosebank as well as Joubert Street, Commissioner Street and Plein Street. In 1955 he acquired the Fotheringham group of companies that included a yeast factory.
The Edwardian building on Beit Street has been greatly modified over the years.
Crystal building today. Next to it is the old Apollo Cinema building dating back to 1930s designed by Wayburne & Wayburne.
The curve in Beit Street was due to a Mr Lange, who built his house on the wrong stand but also encroaching onto the road. He refused to sell his property, so engineers had to realign the street around his house creating the curve we know today
Original police station in Doornfontein was on corner of Beit and Van Beek Street. The intersection no longer exists as Van Beek Street only runs up to Railway line. Beyond that, the street was swallowed up by the technikon and other developments.
The Doornfontein Primary School was in Staib Street just north of the new Ellis Park Stadium. It was started between 1906-8. The school was demolished in the mid to late late 1980s and the area is now part of the technikon. The photo below is the back of the school taken from Van Beek Street a few years before demolition.
The Jewish Workers Club or Yiddishe Arbeiter Club was formed in 1929 as a Yiddish organisation committed to the development of Yiddish culture. It served the predominantly eastern European and socialist leaning working class community of Doornfontein, Bertrams and Jeppe. Hebrew, on the other hand, was perceived to be the language of the Jewish bourgeoisie and the political philosophy of Zionism.
Former members of the club suggested the early origins began from informal meetings in a flat in Gordon Road in Bertrams. The elements that attracted them to the flat were everyone who went there were from the area and spoke Yiddish. The flat owner, a ‘Yiddishe mama’ named Mrs. Saloner, always had a cup of tea and a sandwich ready. Also, one of the few young eligible Jewish girls lived in the flat.
An early iteration of the club was at 44 Von Brandis Street but a new club was established at 15 Upper Ross Street in New Doornfontein just off Beit Street (date unknown). The organisation peaked in the mid-1930s with around 300 members, but numbers dwindled toward the late 1940s as members moved out of the area and generally moved up the economic ladder. The Yiddish language was also undermined by the community learning English and Afrikaans as well as the influence of Anglo-American culture in the form of movies and theatre. The club premises burnt down in 1948 destroying all the records. No photo of the club has been found yet.
Today Doornfontein is largely industrial with the University of Johannesburg and all its converted student accommodation around it. Ellis Park stadium and sport complex is a destination when sport or some other event is on. The houses I’ve posted here and the other parts are pretty much all that is left. I’ve not done every leftover house as the others are either similar examples to what I already have or have been altered beyond recognition. There were also a few areas that were inaccessible or too dangerous to photograph at the time – mostly on either side of the train tracks that run through the area.
The next post will focus on the other short-lived early wealthy areas just south of Doornfontein known as Jeppestown and Belgravia.
Doucakis, A, 1991. Southern New Doornfontein & environs-An historical survey part II. Between the Chains, Vol.12
Stark, F, 1956. Seventy Golden Years. Johannesburg: City Council of Johannesburg & Johannesburg Publicity Association
Johannesburg Historical Foundation, undated. Some Historic Drives & Walks of Johannesburg. Written and produced by the JHF
—. 1986. The Mervyn King Ridge Trail. Johannesburg: Johannesburg City Council
Martinson, Paine, Bruwer, Bruwer & Manning. 2005. Crystal Confectionery Heritage Resources surveying Form. JDA
Adler, T, 1973. History of the Jewish Workers Club. African Studies Seminar paper. University of Witwatersrand.
Info on Crystal Bakery 26 August 2018
Beit Street curve 6 September 2018
General text and correction 29 September 2018