Book Review Type: 
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Johannesburg is well into its second century and at a time when it seems that the roots of Johannesburg’s past are being altered, the physical landscape shifting and the street names honouring the city’s pioneers reflecting new histories, it is timely to pull out a book published at the turn of the twentieth century and engage with some early history. “Men of the Times” must have been one of the earliest “who’s who” type of publications. It dates from 1905 and was one of those large format works, very “coffee table” in looks, it weighs in at over 5 pounds or 2.5 kgs, with 390 pages. When new it was handsomely bound in half leather with a green padded cloth front and back, and bright gilt edges. The book was printed in London by Eyre and Spottiswoode and must have been shipped back to South Africa. Today it is regarded as a rare work and this week a rather battered copy fell into my hands. I suppose if today you review a book that was published 110 years ago its appeal is likely to be rather different from a review written in 1905. Today the book has itself become history and totally different yardsticks are used by a modern reviewer. Every book tells a tale about author, period and subject matter and this  book is an archive of its period. It is a rich important and quirky historical source, but one has to remember to judge these men of action by the yardsticks, conventions and norms of their times.


Book Cover


I decided to explore further and to make a few connections. It is a book with no editor but only “the publishers”. This massive book documents the biographies of over 800 men who were the men who revitalised the Witwatersrand and the Transvaal in the Edwardian era. Only four women make their appearance in this book, as people in their own right (remember it was an era when women did not have the vote, though they might get a mention in a biographical entry as “the wife” or the mother of six children). With the exception of the Chinese Consul – General (a Taotai Lew Yuk Lin) they are all white men, and most were immigrants to South Africa from England or Scotland or Germany or perhaps even Lithuania. There was also an Australian and Canadian presence. Most of the biographies are accompanied by black and white head and shoulders photographs and mainly show men in their prime; they were a youthful crowd of pioneers; very few are older than fifty. These are the professional men, mainly of the city of Johannesburg but also of the Transvaal. They are a hirsute lot with many sporting moustaches which come in all shapes and sizes. Moustaches turn up or down extend beyond the lip or are neatly lined up with the  nose or are of the handle-bar variety. The photographs exude pomade. The men all wear three piece suits, wing collars and  neat small ties or bow ties. The photographs alone give an excellent glimpse of standard attire for the  professional successful sartorial male at the turn of the 20th century. There are a few photographs of men in hats and I spotted one gentleman wearing Scottish traditional dress of kilt and sporran. This is a book that captures the great and the good of Johannesburg. It is here you will perhaps find an ancestor or the family names still found in the Johannesburg phone book of today.   

This book is a rare collectors piece today and an essential, vital source of reference for anyone wanting to research Johannesburg history. The next task is to work out why this book was produced. Note the publication date – 1905. The challenge of the time was to establish an identity and a confident presence for the Transvaal. The objective was to emphasize the cosmopolitan character of the pacified Transvaal and so encourage investment and immigration. South Africa had emerged battered with the mines in disarray after the Boer War which ended in 1902, but peace prevailed. The Transvaal was a Crown colony administered by Milner but the politically connected were campaigning for self-government and the farsighted anticipated the prospect of a South African federation or union. One is struck by the relatively small coterie of men who rose to the top of Transvaal society. They were the social, economic and political leaders and an elite. They were responsible for shaping policies for economic recovery, getting the mines going, making decisions about bringing in indentured Chinese labour, started engineering works and professional practices. They made names for themselves as doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, financiers, authors, politicians. It is remarkable how quickly a town like Johannesburg attracted so many  with diverse expertise, skills, and a civic consciousness to rebuild the town after the Boer War.

The perspective of the book is clearly British colonial but with an emergent and anticipated South African national identity now taking shape under the benevolent umbrella of the British empire. Perhaps the three most revealing photographs are those group photographs of the clearly unrepentant members of the Reform Committee taken while they were in prison. Here are the images of 46 plotters against the Kruger government. These were the men who fomented the Jameson Raid in 1896. Conceding their guilt and their culpability may have been a court formality, but the photographs could be of three groups of friends embarking on a Sunday picnic. The photographs are a visual essay on men of action but disastrous judgement. In each group portrait perhaps only one or two men look at the camera lens, most are avoiding eye contact with the viewer. I am fascinating as to why these mute photographs were dropped into this book: for nostalgia, the provision of a documentary record, overbearing righteousness,  a desire to rewrite history? All are possibilities but here they are. In a sense this book is a walk through the corridors of the Rand club, lined with photographs of people who mattered in their time and who left their imprint on the city of Johannesburg.

In 1905 Lord Selborne succeeded Milner as High Commissioner for South Africa and his role in the preparatory work for Union via the document called the Selborne Memorandum of 1907 was significant. Selborne’s full length photograph appears as the frontispiece to this book. The book opens with the biographies of the legal leaders of the Transvaal; the chief justice was Sir James Rose Innes, and the key justices were William Solomon and Arthur Mason (whose residence was Bryntirion, Pretoria). Next in order of hierarchy were the Catholic  dignitaries – the Bishop William Miller and Father De Lacy. 

Geoffrey Lagden was a man of enormous intelligence. He was a civil servant and genuinely interested in South African people. In 1901, Lagden joined Lord Milner's administration in the Transvaal, as Commissioner for Native Affairs, and as a member of the Executive and Legislative Councils. Between 1903-1905, Lagden was chairman of the South African Native Affairs Commission. When self-government was granted to the Transvaal, in 1907, Lagden retired to England. He published a book on the history of Basutoland, The Basutos (1909), and occupied himself in Imperial service until his death in June 1934.

My conclusion is that this compendium of biographies was effectively produced to celebrate the establishment of the Rand Pioneers and to signal who were the Rand Pioneers. It was an economic sum to be assured of a sale of the tome to each person who featured in a biographical thumb nail. A good and a bad feature of the biographies  is that each is extensive and informative; there were no business failures in making good on the Rand; the text is verbose and flowery. The interest lies in the detailed descriptions of character, values and careers. 


A certificate of membership of the Rand Pioneers, dated 1917 (from the Artefacts website)


Who then were the Rand Pioneers? They were the pioneers of the Transvaal Goldfields. The Rand Pioneers was an association established in 1903 with the primary purpose of “keeping alive the spirit of good- fellowship existing among the pioneers of the Witwatersrand gold fields”, plus recording and preserving interesting data and documents. It was a social club too. Originally the membership was restricted to those who resided on the Witwatersrand prior to the end of 1889, but this was amended to the year 1890. Joining cost was one guinea and the annual subscription was also a guinea (remember that the guinea was the standard currency for professional men naming their fee). As early as 1905 the organization regarded itself as a public body of weight and influence. It was this body that made short shrift of the proposal to adopt a New York style of street numbers instead of names and chose rather to stick with honouring the pioneers of Johannesburg in its street names. But the organization being of its time, also took up as a cause the “prohibition of natives on foot paths” and “the regulation of natives travelling on railways” (no wonder Gandhi had such a hard time moving around the country). They also promoted the passing of by-laws for “the better regulation of street traffic in Johannesburg and cycle riding by natives” (an irony here is that today Johannesburg is trying to develop a system of cycle paths and eco mobility for all).

A further irony lay in the fact that the association sought to ameliorate “relations between the white and native populations” and addressed the Asiatic Question. The so called ‘Asiatic question” was the whole package of injustices and constraints placed on Indians living in South Africa and it was the question of pass laws, movement, marriage, settlement, work by Indians that Gandhi took up and fought with conviction and honed the political tactic and philosophy of satyagraha. A few more ironies. Gandhi, despite being a budding young lawyer, does not have his profile feature in this volume. His future political antagonist, General J C Smuts, did indeed feature as a Man of the Times. In 1905 Smuts was 35 years old, former State Attorney of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek, had achieved fame as a fighting Boer War general; he was an active politician aiming for the resumption of Transvaal independence via the “Het Volk” party and the comment that concludes his biographical entry is that Smuts “is known to be strenuous in the advocacy of the policy of moderation and racial reconciliation”. In 1905 read “racial reconciliation” not as we understand the term today but as improving relationships between English and Afrikaner segments of the population.

Sir George Farrar is prominently featured with an entire page of biography. He was one of the great mining magnates owing ERPM (East Rand Proprietary Mines); he was a leading figure in the Reform Committee that backed the abortive Jameson Raid, pleaded guilty to the charge of high treason and was sentenced to death. The sentence was immediately commuted and Farrar was released on the payment of a fine of 25 000 pounds. He went on to fight on the side of the British in the Boer War and was mentioned in dispatches and earned a DSO. The knighthood was an award from “a grateful Sovereign”.

Farrar is interesting as in 1903 he was elected the president of the Transvaal Chamber of Mines and the import of Chinese indentured labour was his solution. Bedfordview, took its name from his farm, Bedford Farm and his home Bedford Court was designed by Herbert Baker. Farrar served in World War I and was killed in a freak accident while on duty in South West Africa (now Namibia) in 1915. His home was later acquired by two pioneering women who established St Andrews School and his grave is a distinctive  lonely shrine behind wrought iron gates and quartz curtain walls on the koppie near the school. I visited the grave site just two weeks ago. It is very much a Johannesburg heritage site.  


Bedford Court (The Heritage Portal)


The Chinese labour issue is the “ghost in the room” of this book. Chinese unskilled labour signed up on a contract basis of four years was seen as a solution to restarting mining and the first cohort of 10 000 arrived in 1904 and by 1908 their number totally close to 100 000, this labour experiment was a political and social disaster as the presence of a large number of Chinese miners threatened white miners wage expectations and at the same time Chinese miners worked for pay levels lower than black mine workers. Chinese workers lived  in segregated compounds. The presence of low paid contract Chinese miners became a political issue in Britain and contributed to fall of the conservative- Unionist government and their replacement by the Liberals in the 1906 election. On the Rand contracts were completed and these workers were repatriated to China and all were gone by 1910. It is this labour experiment that explains why the Chinese Consul General featured in Men of the Times as sound diplomatic relationships between China and South Africa was an essential building block. The biographical entry for Taotai Lew Yuk Lin gives a fascinating glimpse of what life was like for a foreigner and his family given a cordial welcome to Johannesburg. The Chinese consulate in Johannesburg was to be found on Hospital Hill.


Postcard of Chinese Miners


Men of the Times is not only a biographical database as biographies are interspersed with chapters on Potchefstroom, Boksburg, Rand Pleasure Resorts, Pretoria and most useful of all is the chapter on the Story of Johannesburg in the early days. The chapter amuses as the anonymous author from the perspective of 1905 looks back on Johannesburg of 1887 and sketches the development of Johannesburg and the Rand Goldfields between 1886 and 1904. The sale of the first building sites of Randjeslaagte (Johannesburg) took place in December of 1886 and realised 13 000 pounds, with prices ranging from a few shillings to 200 pounds for a stand measuring 50 to 100 feet. A second sale followed in January 1887 and another in February of that year with Natal Camp being described as half an hour walk from town with some of the best properties. Here is a documentary source for prices realised and likely ground rentals that could be expected before 1890. The author concludes with a positive spin on the post war prospect of “unhampered and free growth of a free progressive and enterprising community” coloured with British influence of the best kind.

In 1905 the third Rand Club on Loveday Street was newly completed. Today it is a grand heritage treasure with an uncertain future. This book contains a rather bland and almost uninteresting photograph of the dining room of the Rand Club, but you then realize that it was just a few months ago that one dined in this very same room and that its appearance has not changed at all in over a century.  

Where are the Rand Pioneers commemorated today? In the streets of Johannesburg and if  one visits Pioneer Park at Wemmer Pan in La Rochelle, named for the Pioneers of Johannesburg, there is a Rand Pioneer memorial filled with granite plaques of the names of the early great and good. On the EGSA website Derek Walker contributed a comprehensive set of photographs of these plaques. The Foundation stone of the memorial building was laid by the Reverend James Gray on his 80th birthday in 1932. Gray was a Rand pioneer and passionate about Johannesburg history and with his wife Ethel was the author of Payable Gold (1937) and the sequel on the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand.  

The book becomes a superb source of information about the men whose names are commemorated in the street names, suburbs, libraries, museums or parks of Johannesburg. Here is a selection - Jeppe, Bompas, Attwell, Balfour, Bezuidenhout, Bleloch, Ellis, Esselen, Ford, Farrar, Juta, Osborn, Patterson, Pritchard, Rockey, Rosettenstein, Stewart, Stillwell, Stanley are all surnames familiar to us because there was a place, space or street named for these men.


Pritchard Street Sign with Markhams in the Background (The Heritage Portal)


There are many more besides. This is not unimportant when we currently see Johannesburg street names changed, as Sauer (named for Dr Hans Sauer) becomes Pixley ka Isaka Seme street, and Bree (ok, that one was about width) renamed Lilian Ngoyi and Jeppe (now named Rahima Moosa) and President Street named Helen Joseph Street. I guess after 130 years and a few changes of political dispensation and constitutions coming and going new heroes deserve commemoration and memory as much as old. The pity of course is that the sense that Johannesburg was a place which so self consciously promoted its arrival, sudden importance its history, and its pioneers. Of course it was also a fault of history that Johannesburg was never seen as black man’s city and the “natives” were given a lousy deal, so the rewriting of history that is inherent in the drive to rename streets and recognize struggle heroes is almost inevitable.

Despite this book being 110 years old it is a volume that makes for absorbing armchair travel back to another era to read about the careers, lives and dreams of the 800 plus pioneers of the city of Johannesburg. The combination of the photographs of people and the views of early country and city-scapes of the Transvaal makes this book a treasure and a unique research resource. 

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.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015 - 08:14
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