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In the 1890 map one can see the original layout before the railway line, Belgravia to the east and other surrounding areas like City & Suburban and Wolhunter. Commissioner Street is still called Natal road and there is a little stream and lake called Natal Spruit.
The 1896 map shows the growth that took place in just 6 years.
St. Mary’s-the-less 1889
This is considered the oldest original (mostly) surviving building in Johannesburg not counting the various farmhouses that pre-date Johannesburg.
Its competition was a shop in Doornfontein with 1887 above the door, but the shop has no building plans or early ownership records to prove its case. It has since also been greatly modified.
Bettelheim Mansion in Beit Street Doornfontein is another contender. Although built a year earlier in 1888, the house has been modified over the years and only a portion of the original exists.
A recent contender that came via an ‘oldest buildings in JHB list’ on Heritage Portal was the Bree Street Police Station evidently from around 1887. Doing some digging I found that early maps pointed to the police station being a customs house located near to the Railway yards. In later life it appears to have been the first headquarters for the traffic department. Regardless, the original building has been demolished and St. Mary-the-Less has retained its status.
From the centenary booklet dated 1989: ‘St. Mary’s was the first Anglican church to be built in Johannesburg. It is the oldest surviving building in the city as far as we know and certainly the oldest church still in use’ It was designed by Arthur and Walter Reid and can seat about 120 people.
The foundation stone was laid on the 10th of September 1899 by Mrs. John Darragh (Wife of the famous Reverend) immediately after their wedding. There is no record of services being held before Holy Week 1891.
The organ was commissioned from the British firm Morgan & Smith in August 1908 at a cost of 525 Pounds. It was overhauled in 1979 at a cost of R7000 and is considered one of the finest in Johannesburg.
Walls were buttressed in 1896 and additions done in 1904 (porch and vestry) and 1908 (organ chamber).
The first church bell lies at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean after the ship (Alnwick Castle) it was returning on from being recast was sunk by a German torpedo during WW1. On the inside of the new bell is inscribed, ‘St Mary’s Jeppestown, Recast 1917, Sunk on Alnwick Castle 19 March 1917, Replaced by insurance January 1918’
Initially know as St Mary’s Church Jeppe, it bowed and took the lower status (the-less) after St. Mary’s Cathedral was built in 1929.
There is another church in Johannesburg know as St. Mary’s on the Limpopo. It changed its name in 1982 from the Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin in recognition of the Braamfontein spruit which runs under the church on its way to the Limpopo. It’s a little church tucked away between a block of flats and Brenthurst Clinic on the corner of Empire Road and Clarendon Place. More on churches in Johannesburg HERE and HERE.
Although not religious myself, I couldn’t help but feel humbled by the grace, ambiance, and history of this little old church. It has seen most of Johannesburg’s history and still stands despite all the changes and progress.
The arrow shows the church-top hidden behind buildings and warehouses. The picture was taken from the rooftop of one of the Maboneng buildings during a Sunday afternoon DJ set in 2012.
The open park opposite the church was originally known as Jeppe Park. It was re-named Gilfillan Square on 19 December 1939 and named after Douglas Flemmer Gilfillan, a well-known solicitor who once lived in Belgravia and the corner of Mars and Robinson Streets.
Some early buildings near the park where the first Jeppe Library which opened on 17 August 1896 that stood on the corner of Jules and Janie Streets. The library, sponsored by the Ford & Jeppe Estate Company, was the only suburban library in Johannesburg prior to 1939.
On the northern section of the library block on the corner of Gus and Janie Street was Carl Jeppe’s house (Julius’ brother) and at 13 Janie Street on the corner of Hanau Street, two blocks to the south of the library, was the first Roedean School premises before it moved to present-day Houghton. All have been demolished but the park still stands.
The Masonic Temple Jeppestown in Hans Street dates back to 1896 and was designed by Franke Goode for the Jeppestown Lodge No.2481. The Ford & Jeppestown Estate company donated the stand for the building. The site back then, still mostly rural, was full of blue gum trees that had to be cleared prior to construction. Many of the early members lived nearby. In 1978, it was the oldest Masonic temple of the English Constitution still operating in the district. It was sold around the same time for R19 000 to the District Grand Mark Lodge of South Africa.
It appears to have stopped functioning as a Masonic temple in the 1990s, presumably as the area went into decline. Today, it appears to be the oldest surviving building with Masonic connections in Johannesburg, although the building has been altered over the years. On further research and confirmation, I will submit the information to the heritage community to ensure the building is recognised.
A little further up the road on Main Street is an unassuming Art Deco block of flats with a small concrete plinth. By chance, I came across the story behind this.
The building was once the head office of V. H. Matterson & Son Ltd, importers of beer, spirits, and wine who started out in 1851 in Pietermaritzburg. Charles, the son of John, came to the Rand in 1886 to expand the business. He was also one of the early members of the Rand Club.
The Foster Gang famously broke into their Boksburg premises to access the bank next door.
The Main Street building looks to be 1920s in design with the addition of a second floor in the late 1930s. Note the barrel resting on the plinth on the two early photos.
Johannesburg Historical Foundation, undated. Some Historic Drives & Walks of Johannesburg. Written and produced by the JHF
Smith, A, 1971. Johannesburg Street Names. Johannesburg: Juta & Company, LTD
Butterfield, P. H. 1978. Centenary – One hundred Years of English Freemasonry in the Transvaal 1878-1978. Johannesburg: Ernest Stanton Publishers
Stark, F, 1956. Seventy Golden Years. Johannesburg: City Council of Johannesburg & Johannesburg Publicity Association
St. Mary-the-Less Centenary booklet. 1989
Info on park and lost historic sites 2 September 2018
Jeppe library and Masonic Hall info 17 December 2018, Matterson’s info on 31 December 2018