History of Newtown Pt.1

The area known as Newtown was originally a marshy piece of land outside of the triangle known as Raandjeslaagte which was laid out as Johannesburg. It stood 0.9 kms northwest of the original market square and just south of the railway/Rand Tram. The Boer government granted plots for brick-making with adjoining residential stands soon after Johannesburg was established. A small population of poor Afrikaaners settled in the area predominantly as brick makers, hence the descriptive early name of Brickfields. Other impoverished farmers soon joined the ranks after arriving in Johannesburg.

Brickfields 1897 (Source: Grocott & Sherry)

The singular Brickfields photo was originally taken from Cowen’s ‘Johannesburg the golden centre of South Africa’ published in 1889.

Brickfields 1889 (Source: JHB Golden Centre of SA)

The marshy ground, fed by an uprising of a stream, was high in clay content and the ‘green’ bricks made there were used in some of Johannesburg’s early structures. They were known as ‘green’ bricks because they were dried in the sun as opposed to baked. This resulted in a poor quality material that didn’t last, hence there being no examples of anything built with these bricks still standing. The stream, which was canalised in the early 1900’s rose in the vicinity of Gerard Sekota Street (previously Becker St) between Gwigwi Mrwebi (Previously Pim St) and Carr Streets. Today it is a built-up area consisting of modern flats and accommodation.

Brickfields was also known as Johannesburg’s first slum area. It was one of the most undesirable and disease-ridden quarters of the town. Its inhabitants didn’t venture out at night on account of the numerous holes (wells and drop toilets in close proximity to each other) that were always half-filled with ‘water’.

In Tompkins 1890 map, the name Brickfields appears south of the railway. To the west was the ‘Coolie Location’ and just above it, the African Location. It must be noted that the ‘Coolie Location’ was established in 1887 and stands were sold on 99-year leases subject to licenses. The Gas Works and a compound was situated on President street just north of Ferreira’s Dorp. It took up roughly 3 x 2 blocks.

The area became part of Johannesburg in 1893 and was surveyed in 1895. With the growth in Johannesburg’s population, the area had become in demand, so when the survey was done, the streets where laid out roughly between the existing wood and iron houses. The name Brickfields/Burghersdorp appears on the Grocott & Sherry 1897 map. This may be as a result of the small dam which was fenced in, trees panted and a borehole sunk that became known as Burghersdorp Park.

The name Burghersdorp dates back to 1891, and freehold was established to help indigent burghers between 1893-96. In 1897, according to Johannesburg Weekly Times, the area known as ‘Jaggersvlei’ between Fordsburg and Vrededorp was christened Burghersdorp. It appears that by then, many brickmakers had been relocated and Rand Brick & Tile had purchased a large tract of land on which to build a factory.

The relocation may have had something to do with the Braamfontein dynamite explosion on 19th February 1896. It destroyed many of the makeshift houses (approximately 1500) in the immediate vicinity which would have included the locations, Burgerdorp and park of Brickfields. Many homeless moved into the undamaged area of the slums creating more intermingling of races and exacerbating the overcrowding. It was noted in the Standard & Diggers news of 25 November 1898, that many house numbers and street names were still missing in Burghersdorp as a result of the explosion.

Dynamite explosion crater
Crater left behind after the dynamite explosion (Source: Museum Africa)

Burghersdorp is still listed as a suburb. It’s just north of Fordsburg nestled between Newtown and Pageview in the vicinity of the railway lines and subway. It has reduced in size since the 1960s when it included part of Oriental Plaza between Malherbe and Du Toit Streets and Bree and Carr Streets.

An area of 27 acres known as Aaron’s Ground sat in the middle of Brickfields/Burghersdorp and was land leased by Barend Voster. It was noted that part of the ground was tended to by Chinese men who grew vegetables for the market. Mary Fitzgerald Square is situated on part of the section today.

Pritchard’s stand Map 1896

Between 1898 and 1902 and after the 2nd Boer War, the area still attracted many more poor people of all races who settled in the suburb, worsening the slum conditions. In late 1902, the new Milner government investigated and drew up the ‘Report of the Johannesburg Insanitary Area Improvement Scheme Commission 1902-1903’

JHB Insanitary Area Improvement Scheme Commission 1903

As a result of this report, the old Brickfields/Burghersdorp and nearby locations were demolished and laid out in the order still vaguely recognisable today.

Insanitary map showing the old layout 1903
Insanitary map showing proposed new layout 1903
Holmden’s street map 1929
Holmden’s street map c1960

Below is a summary and interesting points from that report which will highlight some of the issues and how the process was carried out.

Meetings started on 7th of November 1902 to hear objections, evidence and hear from the objectors and experts. The main issues were:

  1. Whether the area or parts of it were insanitary or dangerous to public heath.
  2. Whether it was necessary to extend Bree, Jeppe, Kerk and Pritchard Street through the area or spend money on improving existing streets and/or constructing new ones.
  3. Whether powers should be given to the Town Council to expropriate land and buildings in the area for points 1 & 2.
  4. Determine costs and what (if any) provisions were to be made to re-house people expelled form the area.

There were 234 objectors who owned 563 stands of the 1350 total. They objected to every point including that some stands were included by mistake.

The affected insanitary areas were Brickfields, Burghersdorp, the Coolie Location, Aaron’s Ground and a small section of Fordsburg south of Colban and Avenue Road.

The instigator of this scheme was Major O’Meara (famously known for living in and naming all the ‘Irish’ streets in Parkview) who was acting Burgomaster after British occupation in June 1900. Bubonic plague was raging in Cape Town, and he feared it would reach Johannesburg. The area was primed to become a hotspot due to the poor conditions. It was only a year later that the Public Health Committee was formed, presided over by Mr Quinn. Dr Porter, Johannesburg’s Medical Officer for Health drew up the report along with five other experts. The worst of the areas were:

  1. North-East portion of the Cold Storage companies
  2. Ground immediately west and north of the gas works
  3. Triangle formed by Main Road and Colban Street connection to stands 625 and 645.
  4. Coolie Location

The report showed evidence of the poor buildings and squalid conditions, polluted wells from which people extracted their water, lack of sanitation, exposed raw sewage, lack of ventilation, overcrowding, and continuous flooding during storms. The rate of infectious diseases was also higher in this area than in the rest of Johannesburg.

A manual tabulation of the stands (excluding the locations) showed that out of 1136 stands, 55% were passable, 28% condemned and 2% in ruins. The remaining 15% were insanitary but able to be rectified.

The council also proposed extending Bree, Jeppe, Kerk and Pritchard Streets. Reasons were for overall traffic diversion and that it would increase values of the land between them and, of course, the overall increase in rateable revenue for this land that would come with future improvements. It would also be easier and more convenient to connect the town to Fordsburg and other western suburbs via tram (the electric tram would come into existence in 1906 with the tram workshops and power station all based in Newtown). The alternative was to spend money on the existing streets. Due to the existing streets being in poor condition and defective relating to gradient, width, position and drainage, it was generally accepted that new streets would be the answer. A massive undertaking would be to fix the underlying drainage issues, before levelling out the land and laying out the new streets. The maps above show the original stands with the new street plan over-laid.

Questions arose over how the land would be expropriated and how the owners would be compensated. Re-housing was also tabled that included the ‘coolie’ and African locations. It appears as though initially at least, people would be re-housed ‘nearby’. The land on the ‘coolie location’ belonged to the owners with Indians having been given freehold land rights in certain parts. The council suggested they could keep these original rights but on new land.

The result of the report was ‘Draft Ordinance annexed to Government Notice No.463 of 1902’ giving the council the right to expropriate land in any area mentioned within 6 months. The freehold of the land would become vested in the council and they would then have the right to close the streets within the area. Compensation for stands should not exceed whatever the land vale was on 19th February 1902 unless there were costs related to moving an existing building, machinery or plant.

Finally, the council had the right to remove buildings, carry out drainage work, construct roads and subdivide the land in any way it saw fit in the improvement of the area and then dispose of the freehold rights by auction or erect municipal buildings.

In effect, the new British administration was able to move an eyesore that included poor Afrikaaner and non-white races that resided close to the city centre and turn it into a viable rent and rateable area.

In September 1903 the council became the owner of the property in the area, but by 1904, nothing had been resolved regarding what to do with the people still living in it. The whites were meant to be re-housed in the western suburbs near Watervall Farm. Coloured people were to go to the ‘Malay Location’ below Vrededorp. African were to be moved west of Vrededorp roughly where Brixton cemetery is today. Indians and Asiatics were still problematic due to their ‘preferent rights to stands on 99-year leases’ although only in the coolie location which was set aside for them. Vrededorp strongly opposed a location of Africans next to it and other white suburbs voiced their opposition to Indians moving in near them. Things were at an impasse.

Gandhi represented the Indian community who were informed by a government notice in 1899 that they were to be moved from the inner-city to locations for the ‘purposes of sanitation’. The site was the ‘coolie location’ next to Brickfields which was established in 1887. Gandhi argued that this site was already insanitary and overcrowded. After the war, Gandhi attributed criminal negligence to the municipal authorities who had done little to provide services and look after the welfare of the residents. The municipality ‘used the insanitation, caused by their own neglect, as a pretext for destroying the location.’

On the 18th of March, Gandhi received information from Madanjit Vyavaharik, publisher of Indian Opinion, that Indians were dying in the location. Gandhi, along with Dr Willian Godfrey and others moved the sick to a makeshift hospital that stood in Carr Street on the later site of Premier Millings. 112 people contracted the plague and 82 died from it.

Emergency hospital Carr Street (Source: Gandhi’s JHB)
Site of the temporary plague hospital (Source: Google Earth)

On the night of 19 March 1904, the feared bubonic plague broke out in the ‘coolie’ location. On the same night (some accounts say the next day), troops surrounded the location and evacuated all the residents and burnt it down. More sick we removed to a temporary hospital near the gasworks. Two weeks later on 3 April, the fire brigade was ordered to burn down the rest of the area. They erected a corrugated iron fence around the area and six street blocks were drenched with paraffin and set alight. 1600 structures included a temple were burnt to the ground. The make-up of the population at the time of the evacuation was 1642 Indians, 1420 Africans and 146 Cape Coloureds. Leyds’ recalled that the corrugated fence was erected to keep the rats from escaping and that the site burnt for several days. One rat emerged from the ordeal and was promptly shot.

Burning of the ‘coolie location’ 1904
Site of Indian location and churches (Source: Google Earth)

The residents of the location were taken to Klipspruit which was 16km southwest from the town centre and housed on a piece of land next to a proposed sewage site. They were housed in corrugated iron tents, the same that were used for the Afrikaaner woman and children in the British concentration camps in Turffontein, and supplemented with large water tanks that were cut in half.

Klipspruit site (Source: JHB Images & Continuities)
Klipspruit temporary accommodation c1907 (Source: JHB Images & Continuities)

This Klipspruit became associated with Pimville and Nancefield and is not the Klipspruit of Soweto today. It was, however, the beginnings of what would later be known as the South-Western Townships or Soweto. The Klipspruit removal is thus the first forced removal in Johannesburg and would be the first of many.

Legally, only the Africans could be forced to stay. The Indian and coloureds who were moved to Klipspruit eventually drifted back to Johannesburg and settled mainly in the Malay location (Pageview of ‘Fietas’ between Fordsburg and Vrededorp)

An oddity uncovered during the research of this piece was a ‘murder outbreak’ in Brickfields. The year in not mentioned (probably 1888/9), but Frederick Bailey Deeming, otherwise known as the ‘Rainfall Murderer’, occasionally went into the area and was responsible for a number of deaths. A coloured resident of Brickfields reported to the police how he was almost attacked by a white man with a knife. Brickfields had no street lighting and was a hazardous area, especially after dark. Deeming left Johannesburg for Klerksdorp and later the coast after presumably posting his own death notice in the ‘Klerksdorp Record’. He then headed to England and after murdering his wife and family, took a girl to Australia and killed her too. He was arrested on the Southern Cross Goldfields and executed on 23 May 1892. Deeming was considered a suspect in the Jack the Ripper case and is still listed as a reasonable suspect given his time back in the UK coincides with the murders.

The remainder of the slums were cleared soon after and the area renamed Newtown by October 1904.

Stands went on sale in March 1906. The first sales brought in GBP43 000 and the second in July 1906 GBP33 000


Hamadia Mosque or Hamadia Masjid Newtown (2 Jennings Street) is the only surviving religious building in the area. The Muslim organisation called the Hamadia Islamic society was established in Johannesburg in July 1906 for the social welfare of Muslims. It was named after Sultan Abdul Hamid of the Ottoman Empire. By 1907 it had several hundred members and held meetings on the grounds of the Newtown Mosque. The society used passive resistance tactics against racial discrimination and injustice. Gandhi often spoke to society although could not take a leadership position as he wasn’t Muslim.

Hamadia Mosque c1907 (Source: Gandhi’s JHB)

In 1908 Mahatma Gandhi addressed numerous meetings and on 10 January 1908 presided over a gathering at which passive resisters burnt their passes in protest against new discriminatory legislation known as the Asiatic Laws. The Star reported: “The meeting was held in the Mosque grounds, Newtown, at 11 o’clock, and despite the short notice of the meeting there was a large gathering. For the purpose of such meeting [a] platform had been erected in the grounds and seating accommodation was provided by means of the serviceable paraffin tins which were strewn about in thousands. On the platform were Essop Ismail Mia, Chairman of the British Indian Association, an Indian priest in artistic Oriental garb, and Mr Gandhi.” This meeting signalled the resumption of the passive resistance campaign. On 16 and 23 August 1908, at public ceremonies at the mosque, more passes were burnt. [from Elsabe Brink’s heritage survey of Fordsburg]. 1200 passes or registration certificates were burnt and another 500 after Gandhi’s speech. Ironically, they were doused with paraffin and set alight.

Meeting outside the mosque 1908 (Source: Gandhi’s JHB)
Plaque outside Hamadia Mosque (Source: Marc Latilla)

The exact building date of the original mosque is still to be determined (estimated between 1907 and 1908), but it has been modified and extended over the years. The minaret and copper dome was added in the 1950s. According to Artefacts, additional work was done on the building by Margoles, Dukes and Smith in 1958. The original mosque building with the smaller minaret appears to stand behind the street facade at an angle facing Mecca.

Hamdia Mosque 2021 (Source: Marc Latilla)
Hamdia Mosque 2021 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Central Tabernacle Bree Street

Just a few blocks east of the Hamadia mosque stood the Central Tabernacle at 88 Bree Street. The only information I can find is that the Apostolic Faith Mission moved there in 1908 for some time.

Bree Street Central Tabernacle c1895 (Source: Museum Africa)
The site today looking east up Bree Street towards Newtown

Ebenezer Independent Church Newtown

This church, which was part of the Ebeneezer congregation, was designed by Kallenbach & Kennedy in 1904. It stood on the corner of Jeppe & Becker Streets where the turbine hall is today. There were several Ebeneezer churches throughout Johannesburg, notably in Ferreirasdorp and Doornfontein. It catered to a mostly non-white congregation.

1905 map showing the position of the church

The Google Earth map further up showing the site of the Indian location also shows the position of these three churches.

Market Buildings

Johannesburg’s original market square was where City Hall and Library Gardens stand today. It was the commercial hub of the new town, but by 1910, it had outgrown its needs. The municipality decided to move the market to Newtown.

Plans were prepared by the City Engineers Department draftsmen headed by G. S. Burt Andrews (previously Johannesburgs’s first building inspector) for a large market hall with frontage to Wolhunter, Bree and Goch Streets. Behind the building on the north side was the new railway siding which separated the market building from the new market square and served both. Bree Street is known as Lilian Ngoyi Street today.

G. S. Burt Andrews (Source: From Mining Camp to Metropolis)
Architects drawing (Source: From Mining Camp to Metropolis)

The building (foundation stone laid 1911, completed in 1913 opened March 1913) was 209,8m long and 37m wide with a curved three-hinge type roof. The skeleton of the structure was built out of steel and walls of masonry. In addition to the large hall, there was also an octagonal building at the western end which was used as a fish and poultry market. The design style of the market buildings is closest to the Beau Arts mode.

Market building under construction 1913 (Source: Museum Africa)

The structure also took into account the levels of the railway and road landing sidings and platforms, so goods could be easily on and off-loaded. The building was the largest in SA at the time and considered convenient and well arranged. Of the six domes that decorated the three facades, two along with the western entrance were demolished in the 1965 for the M1 Motorway (Goch Street North section started in April 1965 and completed in April 1968) that runs right next to the building.

Loading docks 1914 (Source: Museum Africa)

Initially, market patrons complained that it was too far out of town, so the council authorised that all tram rides from the old square to the new buildings would be free.

Market building c1914 (Source: Museum Africa)
Bree Street side of Market Buildings c1930s (Source: The Golden City)
Bree Street (Lilian Ngoyi Street) side c2012 (Source: Marc Latilla)
Market buildings c1970s (Source: GL Architects)
Market Buildings 2021 (Source Marc Latilla)

The market sold all manner of food and related goods like dairy, tobacco, dried food, grain, groceries as well as meat, poultry, and fish.

Interior of market buildings (Source: Museum Africa)
Interior market buildings (Source: Museum Africa)

Behind the market buildings were the Municipal abattoir and livestock market (opened in 1910). This was as a result of seventeen privately owned slaughterhouses in town that were closed down and the operation moved. According to Councillor W. H. Port in 1930, 20 million animals had passed through the livestock market in the previous 20 years and 10 million were slaughtered in the abattoir. The sidings could accommodate 500 trucks per day.

Markets and abattoirs of Johannesburg (Source: Museum Africa)
Newtown markets and abattoir c1910 (Source: Royal Presentation)
Abattoir entrance c1930s (Source: The Golden City)

The Edwardian men’s public lavatories built in 1913 at the same time the market buildings have been saved and incorporated into Newtown Junction. They received a makeover in 2015 and were turned into a venue.

Lavatories 2012 (source: Marc Latilla)
Lavatories in 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

A replica of the toilets was built in 1987 a few hundred metres away near the Market Theatre entrance after permission was denied to use the original toilets. It became Kippies, the jazz club, named after Kippie Moeketsi. The club, which could initially only hold 80 people, was extended in 1992.

Kippies 2021 (Source: Marc Latilla)

In the early 1970s, the market activities moved to the new city Deep Produce Market on Heidelberg Road.

More in this era of Newtown, the Market Theatre and Museum Africa history in Part 2.

Gas and electricity Works

Johannesburg had no lighting for its first two years. In 1888 the concern Dawson & Hamilton, the forerunner to Johannesburg Lighting Company, secured a government concession to deliver gas for lighting and heating. Plans for a small gas plant were drawn up. Dawson & Hamilton gas company was dissolved in 1891 and the affair was taken over by Johannesburg Lighting Co. Two gas-driven generators of 30hp each were shipped and installed at the lower end of President Street and were in operation on 23 June 1893. The following year a steam-driven 120 hp engine was added that drove a 80 hp dynamo. Accounts describe the service as being very expensive so were mainly used by some hotels and businesses. In 1895 due to financial difficulties, the plant was taken over by the Sanitary Board. In 1895, 117 houses were connected to the mains. By 1897, the number had risen to 370. The plant was used with a few additions until 23 December 1928 when it closed down and was replaced by the Cottesloe plant near Auckland Park, which still supplies gas today via pipeline. The plant was located behind the Sci-Bono buildings (its entrance today) between the workers compound.

President Street gas works c1910s (Source: JHB Gasworks)
Gas holders c1910s (Source: JHB Gasworks )

In addition to the gas plant, electricity was supplied to Johannesburg via the mines in Brakpan (1400kw) and Robinson Deep (250kw) in addition to a few privately owned lighting plants. The largest of these was the Betrams and Parktown Lighting Company which were both taken over by the municipality. Betrams was overhauled and remained in service until 1910.

1910 Goads map over Google Earth (Source: Fiona O’Connor)

On 1 Dec 1903, the single-phase plant in President street was mostly destroyed by fire. Three of the damaged generators were fixed and installed at Bertrams and Burghersdorp, with extra power supplied via the mines while the plant was being rebuilt.

Electricity Offices in President Street (Helen Joseph Street today) were built in 1903-4 in Art Nouveau style and similar to the original market buildings but remodelling classicist elements in the facade. It remains one of the few surviving examples in the city. The ground floor was let as shops to bring in extra revenue.

Electricity offices c1905 (Source: Pictorial history of JHB)
Electricity office 2021 (Source: Marc Latilla)

The first President Street power station was completed behind the Electricity offices in 1906 and fitted with gas engines that drove dynamos. This proved a costly decision as the technology was considered experimental, and frequent breakdowns occurred which severely disrupted the service. Fortunately, the mines and private lighting companies filled the gaps. In 1906 when electric trams started running, the gas power outages caused major problems. An explosion damaged the building 18 months after it opened. Known as the ‘electric workshop’ for many years, it is now home to Sci-Bono Centre.

Original power station buildings behind electricity offices 2021 (Source: Marc Latilla)

The new 2nd President street plant next to the original plant was fitted with steam turbines was opened in 1908 and was later enlarged to keep up with demand. By 1913, three additional 3000kw turbo-alternator were in operation and capacity was equal to demand. Johannesburg had 6446 street lamps and 14655 customers on the grid. It remained in use until 1927.

Interior of the 2nd power station c1910 (Source: Royal Presentation)

Jeppe Street Power Station

Built in 1927/8 on Jeppe Street next to the existing installations at President Street. Smokestacks were visible from anywhere in the city. Three cylindrical cooling towers of 37,7m added next to the old 15m wooden cooling towers in the early 1930s. In 1931/2 much of President Street’s load was taken on by Jeppe Street Power Station with President Street acting as a standby.

Jeppe Street Power Station c1930 looking west (Source: Museum Africa)
Early concrete cooling towers (Source: Building Heritage)

In 1933, the plant was increased with three further plant extensions to the end of 1935 that included extending the turbine hall. Four more concrete cooling towers were built in 1937, two were 56m and two 62,9m. They towered above their environment and competed with nearby skyscrapers and mine dumps.

Cooling tower under construction c1936 (Source: Museum Africa)
Aerial view of power precinct c1956 looking east (Source: Museum Africa)
1937 Goad’s map over Google Earth (Source: Fiona O’Connor)

This was around the time of the final extension the now renamed ‘City Generating Station’. By May 1939, the plant was generating 131,500kW. Substations and rotary convertors were installed in Hurst Hill, Kensington, Cleveland, Vrededorp, Rosebank and John Ware Park and other locations. By the late-1940s, Orlando Power Station would be adding to the grid and Kelvin A in the late-1950s.

Increased maintenance costs were becoming problematic at the old City Generating Station. The wooden cooling towers were demolished n 1958 due to corrosion and their machinery became old and obsolete. The old station was shut down at 10:17am on the 5th October 1961 with its staff moved to the still under construction new Kelvin B power station which would come online in 1964.

However, in 1967, two gas aero-jet turbines were installed at the old plant as backup to deal with load increases. The building was revitalised in 2008 as Ashanti Gold offices and the old turbine hall turned into a venue. (more on this in part 2)

Jeppe power station looking east 2021 (Source: Marc Latilla)
Jeppe Street Power Station c1940s (Source: JHB One Hundred Years)
Turbine Hall 2018 looking west (Source: Yeshiel Panchia)

The original but short-lived President Street gas turbine power station closed in 1907 after the explosion and became a sub-station and then a workshop, hence the name ‘Electric workshop’. It’s the Sci-Bono Centre today. The original 1903 offices on the southern side facing President Street have also survived as have part of the second power station buildings.

The 2nd President Street Power station from 1908-1927 stood where the SAB World of Beer is today. Part of those buildings made up the beer museum which closed in 2019.

The first two buildings were part of the 2nd power station (Source: Marc Latilla)

The 2nd Reserve Bank building took the place of the car sheds in 1996.

The four 1937 towers were imploded on 6 June 1985. More on this in part 2.

Power precinct compound buildings

A number of workers buildings on the northern boundary of the precinct still remain. This cluster of buildings on Jeppe Street (Rahima Moosa Street today) were declared a national monument in 1995 and refurbished by architects Alan Lipman and Henry Paine.

Jeppe Street compound cluster 2021 (Source: Marc Latilla)

The black workers compound is a U-shaped building that could house 312 workers. Living conditions were cramped with concrete double bunks in each wing and the length with shared ablutions at each end. The building is now a workers museum.

Workers compound 2012 (Source: Marc Latilla)
Worker’s Museum 2012 (Source: Marc Latilla)

White shift managers lived in three semi-detached houses in Jeppe Street (Rahima Moosa Street today). The stables next door were demolished in 1928 and a double-storey house was built for the ‘power station superintendent’ and his assistant. The workers compound belonged to the municipal sanitary department prior to this and dates to around 1913.

Jeppe Street semis 2021 (Source: Marc Latilla)
Manager’s house 2021 (Source: Marc Latilla)
No.48 Jeppe Street 2021 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Mary Fitzgerald Square

The square outside the market buildings was also used as a meeting place for workers and the site of the 1911 Tramway strikes and the 1918 Wage Campaign.

The square outside the market buildings c1913 (Source: Museum Africa)

It was named Mary Fitzgerald Square on 19 December 1939 after the first woman Councillor on the Rand who served from 10 November 1915 – 26 October 1921. She was born Mary Sinnott in Co. Wexford, Ireland on 4 August 1883 and arrived in South Africa in 1902. Pickhandle Mary, who she was also known as (see below), was a militant labour activist and a campaigner for woman’s rights. After the death of her first husband, she married Labour leader Archie Crawford. She died on 26 September 1960.

Pickhandle Mary and the 1911 Tramway Workers Strike (from http://www.newtown.co.za)

In May 1911 the municipal tramway men of Johannesburg, organised by the militant Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W), went out on strike. The strike was called when the tramway sheds, situated near Newtown, were surrounded by armed policemen after the tramway workers refused to take part in what they believed to be a biased inquiry into the grievances of tramway workers.

Although some scabs managed to take a few tram cars out of the tram sheds, the wives and daughters of the striking workers lay down on the tracks and refused to let the trams pass. By that afternoon, the transport system of Johannesburg had been brought to a halt. The next day the police, who had taken note of public criticism concerning the use of armed police to control the strike, decided to replace their rifles with pick handles. This did not prevent the police from clashing with strikers and their supporters and a number of women and children were injured in the fight. Some police dropped their pick handles and these were quickly retrieved by the strikers and used in self-defence. It is in this way that the ‘pick handle brigade’ came into existence.

The strike lasted a few days. It was estimated that as many as 4 000 policemen were used to stop the strike and many strikers were arrested. While the strike ended, the activities of the ‘pick handle brigade’ did not. A few months after the annual local elections, the ‘pick handle brigade’ disrupted the meetings of those candidates who had expressed hostility towards the tramway strike. Mary Fitzgerald, who was dedicated to the socialist cause, played a prominent role in defending the tramway strike and was one of the leading members of the ‘pick handle brigade’. Afterwards, Mary Fitzgerald addressed every protest meeting with a pick handle and soon became known as ‘Pickhandle Mary’. The pick handle symbolised the brutal methods used by the police against strikers and Mary Fitzgerald said that she carried the pick handle to meetings to ‘show how far the authorities had gone.’

The 1918 Wage Campaign: black and white activists stand trial together for the first time. (From http://www.newtown.co.za)

In 1918 an unprecedented wave of strikes by black and white workers engulfed the Witwatersrand. Inspired by the strikes by other municipal workers, night soil workers went out on strike demanding an increase in their wages. These were the days before water-borne sewerage became general and few of Johannesburg’s residents could ignore the growing stench that resulted from the failure to collect sewerage buckets. The 152 strikers were arrested and sentenced to two months imprisonment.

A series of meetings, organised by the Transvaal National Congress (TNC), was held to protest the sentencing of the night soil workers. Members of the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA) called for a general strike. The IWA, modelled on the militant Industrial Workers of the World, was the first trade union to organise African workers, and adopted the slogan ‘Sifunda Zonke’ (we want everything) to sum up their basic demands. A week later a committee which had been elected to take the general strike forward, reported back to a mass meeting of one thousand workers. They demanded the release of all the jailed workers and called for all African workers to go on strike and demand a minimum wage of one shilling a day.

The lack of effective organisation led the committee to call off the general strike at the last moment. Several thousand mine workers, who did not receive news of the cancellation, went ahead and struck at three mines. These miners were met with armed police and soldiers and fought back with pick-handles, iron bars, axes and pipes. The first general strike movement by African workers was stopped in its tracks and the miners were forced back to work. Seven activists, drawn from the Internationalist Socialist League, the IWA and the TNC, were charged with ‘incitement to public violence’. This was the first time that black and white activists had been jointly charged for their political activities and their trial was a forerunner of the treason trials of the 1950s.


There are two links between the first electric trams and Newtown. The electricity to power the trams came from the city’s first power station in President Street and the tram sheds and workshop were situated on the perimeter of the station.

In 1902, a British firm of consulting engineers Messrs. Mordey and Dawbarn of London was appointed to devise a project for combined lighting, power and electric tramways system.

Gas was chosen over steam which was considered risky as gas was untested for this function. Electrical machinery was supplied by D. Stewart and Co. The President Street power station plant was started in April 1904 and was to completed 45 weeks later on August 6 1906.

The machinery installed consisted of 8 retorts, capable of gasifying 6 tons of Transvaal coal per day. There were 8 gas engines between 1000 and 2000 hp driving 8 generators. Four were 2 phase alternators that supplied alternating current at 3000v to substations which were stepped down to 600v for use on the tramways. The other 4 engines produced direct current for general use.

Tram tracks being laid at Depot No.2 (Source: )

The electric trams started operating on 14 February 1906. The power for the fledgling service likely came from the small lighting plant the council had inherited as the main power station was still under construction with the first gas turbine only coming online on 1 May 1906. As the routes increased, the new power source was plugged in at various stages. The last horse tram rode on 16 July 1906.

First electric tram 14 February 1906 (Source: Museum Africa)

Gas power seemed never to work properly and trams continually stopped or never reached their destination. These power failures also affected businesses and homes. There were stories of tram drivers sleeping in their trams overnight where they had stopped due to the outages. Torrential rains in late in 1906 caused breakdowns in addition to the engines causing trouble. In December 1906, there were 25 complete system stoppages. By March 1907 they had reached 79 and in April there were 312.

In March 1907 a backfiring engine destroyed 2 of the 8 gas engines. White workers complained about the deteriorating conditions at the station with its continuous gas leaks. Those who complained were fired and replaced by black workers. One of them, a greaser, was killed in the same month in an on-site accident. The contractor who was fast running out of money to pay wages abandoned the plant at 6pm on 15 May 1907. The small lighting plant was used again to power the key Belgravia-Fordsburg route only. All other services were closed and 150 workers were laid off on half-pay with the rest dismissed.

The council had already ordered new steam engines and these new stream turbines replaced the gas machines by 15 June 1907. There is no mention of the second President Street explosion and switch over to the new power station affecting the service. By all accounts, it pushed with new routes, substations and termini into the suburbs likely serviced by temporary private suppliers and the mines.

Newtown Trams c1910 (Source: Royal Presentation)

Trams were the only municipal transport until 1926 when the city council bought 20 buses. Double-decker buses were put into service in 1931 and trolleybuses a few years later. The last tram ride was in 1961 (See History of Trams HERE)

Plan showing depot and workshop positions c1930 (Source: JHB Tramways)

Tram depot No.1 was on the corner of West and President Street.

Tram Depot No.2 on the corner of President and George Goch Street was originally known as No. 2 shed and built in 1926. It was used as a bus repair garage until 1931. It was extended in 1935 to house trolleybuses and after 1938, it also housed surplus cars.
In the 1970s the building was converted into a garage for the double-decker buses that replaced the tram system after the tram network was dismantled in 1961. It remained in operation as a garage until the 1990s.

The building was then renovated and part of it turned into offices for the Johannesburg Development Agency in the late 2000s. The JDA facilitate inner city development and renewal projects. Along with the JDA offices, the complex is also home to various theatre, art and photographic organisations, with the space regularly used for various cultural exhibitions.

Tram depot No.2 (Source: Museum Africa)
Bus factory 2021 (Source: Marc Latilla)

The tram main works were in George Goch Street diagonally opposite Depot.2 (Henry Nxumalo Street today)

It became the site of Transport House (or Johannesburg Municipal Transport ‘JMT’ building) in 1938. The building was designed in Ahistorical style by city engineer E. J Hamlin. Hamlin succeeded Waugh as city engineer in July 1932.

JMT building c1940 (Source: From Mining Camp to Metropolis)
JMT building 2021 (Source: Marc Latilla)
JMT building showing the works section at the back (Source: Marc Latilla)
Municipal garage and workshops layout c1927 (Source: Goad’s 1937 Map)
Entrance of JMT Building 2012 (Source: Marc Latilla)

The building is a similar civic design to the old Melville swimming pool and the extant foundry in Fordsburg.

JMT building foundation stone 2021 (Source: Marc Latilla)

The bus works were continued behind the JMT building. Today, the building is derelict, stripped to its shell and has been used in various films and music videos, notably by Die Antwoord. Much of the graffiti is still visible.

Back of JMT building 2021 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Destructor buildings

The ‘destructor buildings’ which were originally part of the municipal cleansing department still stand. They later became the second Bassline Music Venue in 2003 after it moved from Melville having started in 1994. Bassline closed in 2016.

Back of the old destructor buildings 2021 (Source: Marc Latilla)

History of the mills and surrounding areas, as well as the new Brickfields developments and the shopping centre will be covered in the next part. Newtown has been the subject of many revitalisation plans and has been through many phases of neglect and improvement since the 1970s. I will attempt to cover these in Part 2.

Thanks to Fiona O’Connor for piecing together the Goad’s maps and overlaying them on top of Google Earth views.


Report of the Johannesburg Insanitary Area Improvement Scheme Commission 1902-1903 with minutes of proceedings, minutes of evidence and annexures. Presented to His Excellency the Governor of the Transvaal March, 1903.

Beirne, L. J. 1910. Johannesburg Royal Presentation. The Transvaal Leader. Johannesburg

Beavon, K, 2004. Johannesburg: The Making and Shaping of a City. University of South Africa Press. Pretoria

Van Rensburg, C, 1986. Johannesburg – One Hundred Years. Johannesburg: Chris Van Rensburg Publications

Neame, L. E. c1959. City built on gold. Central New Agency South Africa

Grant, G & Flinn, T, 1992. Watershed Town-History of the Johannesburg city engineers department. Johannesburg: Johannesburg City Council

Macmillan, A, c1932. The Golden City. London: W. H. & L. Collingridge LTD.

Itzkin, E, 2000. Gandhi’s Johannesburg. Witwatersrand University Press. Johannesburg

Shorten, J, R, 1970. The Johannesburg Saga. Johannesburg: Johannesburg City Council.

Le Roux & Mavunganidza, 2015. The Johannesburg Gas works. Fourthwall Books. Johannesburg

Spit, T. 1976. Johannesburg Tramways. London: The Light Railway Transport League


Hackney, M. (2018) Building the Grid: The Electrification of South Africa, 1882-2000. Master of Arts. [Unpublished]: University of Johannesburg. Retrieved from: https://ujcontent.uj.ac.za/ (Accessed: 23 Sep 21).





This entry was published on September 26, 2021 at 7:52 pm. It’s filed under Johannesburg and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

9 thoughts on “History of Newtown Pt.1

  1. Thank you very much for this update! We really appreciate and emjoy your work here in New Zealand.Kind regardsEdward

  2. Frans Roestoff on said:

    Very interesting information thanks
    Regards Frans
    Sent from my iPad

  3. Very interesting read on what must have been a mammoth task in researching the Newtown area. Thank you and well done.

  4. Thank you so much for the insightful information. As someone he doesn’t live too far from Newton, it is interesting to know it’s history. Great research!

  5. bewilderbeast on said:

    Thank you again, Sherlock! Loved the tour.

  6. Danny Huang on said:

    Dear Marc:

    Thank you again for the update. Learnt a lot.


  7. Pingback: History of Newtown Pt.2 | Johannesburg 1912 - Suburb by suburb research

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