Disclaimer: Any views expressed by individuals and organisations are their own and do not in any way represent the views of The Heritage Portal. If you find any mistakes or historical inaccuracies, please contact the editor.

Monday, November 30, 2015 - 07:15

Here is an interesting photographic souvenir and important record of early Johannesburg. The title is "South African Goldfields Panoramic and Other Views of Johannesburg, 1889". This small booklet is a rare item as it was published just three years after the start of the town and its mining camp origins. It came to me together with a second little booklet, called  "Johannesburg, Golden Centre of South Africa ", also dated 1889, by Charles Cowen. This second little booklet is a series of 24 photographs together with 19 pages of text dated August 1889 and repeats some of the photos of the first booklet, but each picture is post card size.   



Booklet Covers


The second booklet identifies the photographer as D H Davies, photographer of Pritchard Street, Johannesburg and all are photographs of Johannesburg and the gold mines of the Witwatersrand. Davies was a photographer from Port Elizabeth who established his business in Johannesburg. I purchased these marvelous little treasures this week. I think Heritage Portal readers will enjoy the sense of what Johannesburg was like at the end of the 1880s. These photographs capture the romance of the Rand. Blanche Hughes, librarian and bibliographer of early Johannesburg makes the point that there is an extensive record of early Johannesburg because the establishment of the town coincided with the photographic age.

These small booklets are fascinating because they give a contemporary account of what Johannesburg looked like some three years after the discovery of gold in 1889. Charles Cowen opens with the  sentence: "The chief attraction of Southern Africa at this moment is Johannesburg".  Johannesburg is described as having an "extraordinary evolution from the camp of cotton tents of yesterday, into a substantial city of rising noble edifices and institutions today" and it was all due to the discovery of "earth bound metalliferous riches", ie gold. The writer predicted a grand future for the Transvaal anchored in gold, coal, new industries and commerce. Ironically while 1888 and early 1889 were boom years, in the latter months of 1889 the mining industry went into a slump as the gold bearing reef became pyrite and extraction of gold became impossible until the Scottish chemist McArthur and Forrest developed the cyanide process for extracting gold, in 1890. The picture was not quite a glowing as the gloss of these photographs and a promotional blurb gushed. 

The Johannesburg of 1889 was emerging as a town on the Highveld; 1000 feet above the altitude of Pretoria, which was just a few hours distant by coach, it was still rough, and raw but it was more than a mining camp. Some of the features and streets we recognize today had already appeared such as the Market Square and Commissioner Street. The Market square was the heart of the new town. This was where wagons outspaned, produce came In from the farms and the new town was provisioned. More permanent buildings were appearing and a building trade and specializations in masonry, carpentry, plasterwork, plumbing attracted skilled craftsmen. Bricks were being made locally in the Newtown area of Brickfields. The landscape still shows single storey, simple corrugated iron structures with hip roofs, but permanent double storey buildings, either commercial or residential are beginning to appear.  Johannesburg was on its way to city status.

Unfortunately the pictorial souvenirs do not include a map. However a year later there is this Andrews Map of Johannesburg in 1890 (see below). Indeed it can usefully be used today to navigate around the old inner city. Notice the location of the hospital and the parks (Kruger Park and Joubert Park). The Rand Tram was installed in 1890.  There is a gas works to the West and the Johannesburg Waterworks Company was there to solve the problems around a regular water supply.  


Andrews Map of Johannesburg in 1890


The first fold out photographic group (see images below) shows the Masonic Lodge (exterior and interior), a Dutch farmhouse (pre dating Johannesburg), mine headgear, the gold commissioners residence, the Market Square with the government building in the background. The perspectives show wide streets. Ox wagons out spanned. Horses and mules arrive pulling carts and canopied carriages, buggies. I am surprised at the early establishment of the Masonic lodge, but perhaps the importance of male camaraderie was due to predominance of males for the first few years.



The gold mines dominated the landscape. Remember how close they were to the early mining camps... Natal Camp, Meyer's Camp and Ferreira's camp. The mines shown in the vignette pictures are Salisbury, Langlaagte, Jumpers, Knights Gold Mining Company on the Main Reef, Roodepoort Central. The style of mining was changing rapidly from outcrop surface mining, with shallow incline shafts and the simple crushing of the ore to the deeper level mining, far more sophisticated capital intensive pit headgear in corrugated iron batteries. The stamp batteries, milling the seams of banket, moving up and down relentless, were pushing up production. Thousands of stamp batteries proliferated on the Rand. These were worked day and night and early memoirs talk of people not being able to sleep because of the sound of the dollies. All the early headgear and batteries were imported from engineering plants in Lincoln and Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester and were shipped to a port and then transported inland by wagon. 



The original farms of the Witwatersrand and their owners are listed as Doornfontein owned by Mr Bezuidenhout, Elandsfomtein (Viljoen ), Turfontein (a Mr Ras and others), Braamfontein (Lindigue (sic)), Langlaagte and so on: the farm owners were beguiled and cajoled by the adventurers, the prospectors and the financiers who made offers too good to be resisted. Entrepreneurs such as Meyer, Charlton, Knights, Ferreira, Marshall, the Struben brothers were the first to stake mining claims and were quickly followed by those with bigger bank accounts, men such as Rudd, Rhodes, J B Robinson, Dr Sauer. All these names drop into the Cowin 1889 account. The third component was law and order represented by the government surveyor, Johan Rissik. A magistrates court was an early institution. The earliest of townships were declared by 1889... Doornfontein, Fordsburg, Jeppe Township emerging around and beyond the camps, Ferreira's Camp and Natal Camp and Marshall's Town.

The Public offices erected on the eastern side of the central Market square were erected at a cost of £30 000. The Banks came to town along with the first settlers, Standard Bank, Natal Bank, the Bank of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope Bank and bank buildings in the style of London bank architecture stood for solidity profitability and early success. 

Substantial commercial and office buildings were erected at a surprisingly early date on stands in Commissioner St. Market St, Loveday, Simmonds... The Royal Chambers, Tollemache Chambers, City Chambers, the Transvaal Board of Executors, the Union buildings, Barberton Chambers were all regarded as stylish, modern and substantial. The First Stock Exchange was on Commissioner Street. There were two Land and Building Societies with the objective of encouraging savings by working men for the construction of houses.

Hotels were opulent from early days with marble columns, teak staircases and pavements using imported building materials and "retarded only by the absence of building materials and skilled workmen". Note too the Beaconsfield Hotel, taking its name from Kimberley and the Earl of Beaconsfield connection. Hotels were followed by restaurants and boarding houses. Accommodation was at a premium for single ambitious young men. Their thirst was quenched in bars such as Cafe Monaco, the Bodega, the Albany and Phillips bar. The bar was the working man's haven. 

Entertainment and leisure mattered. There is a view of an early lawn tennis court. 

Clubs too were at the centre of the social scene for the upper class. Rhodes and Sauer established the first Rand Club, or as called by Cowin, the Witwatersrand Club, with 450 members by 1889. Another club was the Johannesburg Gold Fields Club. Later came the Wanderers sports club. 

Beyond the bars, there were the early theaters. The Theatre Royal had a bar on the street frontage. The Globe theatre (completed in 1889) and Searelle's were the leading places of stage and musical entertainments. In 1889 the Standard theatre was in the design phase with a planned investment  of £38 000.



Shops and warehouses quickly filled the commercial core of the town... Malcomess and Co, Dreyfis and Co, Scott , Guthrie and Co, Henwood Son and Company, Harvey Greenacre and Co, T W Beckett, Burmester and Company were all there to provide a variety of household goods, furniture and furnishings. Some of these became household names; I remember shopping at Henwoods some 50 years ago.

By 1889 Johannesburg had two daily newspapers along with another three published tri weekly. The Diggers News and Witwatersrand Advertise first appeared in 1887 and is the earliest Johannesburg paper of which copies survive. It was a weekly paper. The tone and "manly independence " of these early newspapers earned the approval of Cowin. One of the photographs shows the presence of a bookbinder.  

Law, taxes and an orderly administration were quickly imposed by Kruger's Zuid Afrikaanse Republic government. That incipient sense of permanence and new affluence too is revealed in the views shown of the Masonic Lodge, the private residence in Jeppe's Township (whose house was this?), the Gold Commissioner's residence and the First Rand Club. There was already a fire station (with a horse drawn engine) in place.  

Churches were quickly part of the social fabric, with the construction of St Mary's in Jeppestown. Every possible denomination erected a place of workshop.   Johannesburg was never the godless town many critics made it out to be. A sizeable synagogue was under construction in 1889. As families came to town schools too were started. Our early Johannesburg pioneers were tough, hard drinking and a hard working, enjoyed their clubs and their pubs,  their musical entertainment and their cigars.



Within three years of its founding Johannesburg businesses ranged over cabinet makers, timber merchants, carpenters, jewellers, milliners, tailors, dressmakers, painters, photographers, music teachers, flour mills, lawyers , doctors. Professional men and skilled craftsmen found a ready demand for their services.  

Two pages of the foldout souvenir give views of Pretoria, a far more settled, well treed and established centre of government with many more public buildings and many churches.



Take a close look at the portrayal of African life and people circa 1889 with pictures of "bushmen" and "kaffir, South Africa" and a photo of "kaffir town " with the round traditionally built thatched roof mud walled kraal arrangement. The souvenir photographs give a sense of both Boer farm households and indigenous black man being exotic.  We would love to know where the photograph was taken.  Was this the start  of the Kafir location shown on the mid 1990's Melvill map?

What is discernible is that gold mining on the Main reef quickly combined a high level of skills (the immigrant geologists and experienced miners from Cornwall), intense capital investment in mining equipment needed to both extract the ore and then processes it, plus the high demand for unskilled local black labouring migrants employed by the thousand. 

Johannesburg and its mines was never the place for the lone prospector or single mine venture. Company formations and capital agglomeration in mammoth mining houses with oligopolistic capacity to organize a Diggers Committee and by 1889 the Witwatersrand Chamber of Mines and ultimately Labour recruitment system that depended on low cost migrant labour. 

These two souvenir booklets give a glimpse of the speedy emergence of Johannesburg as an orderly organized town, showing the extraordinary rapid shift from tented camp, to sod hut, to iron shanty to modern structures in brick stone and cement. It was a city built on gold (in 1888 the total production amounted to 243, 152 ounces of gold ). 

Of course there were questions about sustainability of the mining industry as the main reef dipped below ground to the south at a forty five degree angle, the grade of ore was low and the technology of processing still in its infancy. A key question for the far seeing was the absorptive capacity of an essentially agrarian independent Dutch republic now faced with a flow of urban fortune seekers many with sophisticated ideas about civic rights, city amenities, taxation and representation. It took another 7 years for all of that to erupt in the plots of the Uitlander reform committee and the abortive Jameson raid. 

Kathy Munro is an Honorary Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand. She enjoyed a long career as an academic and in management at Wits University. She trained as an economic historian. She is an enthusiastic book person and has built her own somewhat eclectic book collection over 40 years. Her interests cover Africana, Johannesburg history, history, art history, travel, business and banking histories.


  1. R F Kennedy : Africans Repository , chapter 11 Some Johannesburg Africana , Juta 1965 
  2. E B Nagelgast: Johannesburg Newspapers and Periodicals 1887 to 1899 , chapter in Anna H Smith ( editor) Africana Byways , AD Donker 1976 
  3. E B Hughes : Collecting Johannesburgiana chapter in Anna H Smith (editor) Africana Curioisites AD Donker , 1973 
  4. Charles Van Onselen: New Babylon New Nineveh, Everyday life on the Witwatersrand , 1886- 1914 , chapter 1 , Jonathan Ball 1982 
  5. Blanche Hughes : Personal reminiscences of early Johannesburg in printed books 1884 - 1895, a bibliography , type script for the University of the Witwatersrand, 1966 
  6. Anna H Smith : Johannesburg Firsts, typescript roneoed , Africana Museum 1976 

Comments will load below. If for any reason none appear click here for some troubleshooting tips. If you would like to post a comment and need instructions click here.