Below is a short write-up on the architectural style of our house

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Some ordinary and extraordinary events from Johannesburg in 1904

Reproduced from an article in The Heratage Portal by Article by James Ball

A while back we spent a few hours paging through the 1904 Minutes of the Johannesburg Town Council (still a town at that stage). It was a remarkable experience travelling back in time and imagining what life was like for people from all walks of life when Joburg was still a teenager. Below is a short selection of some ordinary and extraordinary events from 1904.

A Smallpox Scare
In mid 1904 a man named Mtumbela died of smallpox in Charlestown. This caused some panic among council officials as he was employed by a company based in Anderson Street. Urgent instructions were sent to disinfect the company’s premises and to ensure that all employees were vaccinated.

As more information emerged the chances of an outbreak seemed minimal. Mtumbela had been out of town for some time and no cases had been reported in the interim. Nevertheless, with outbreaks in the Orange River Colony and Natal happening at the time, the Council put stringent measures in place to increase the vaccination rate across the town.

Norwood Petition
Postcard of the Tram above the Orange Grove Waterfall 
The year 1904 brought good news for the residents of Orange Grove and those wishing to travel to the suburb’s famous Hotel: the Council had approved funding for the construction of a tramline. The proposed extension of the line from the Hotel to the southern boundary of Norwood was, however, rejected. Residents of Norwood were incensed and sent a petition with 80 signatures to the Council. The Council’s response to this petition and others was minuted as follows:

After careful consideration of these petitions, we are not prepared at present to recommend the Council to approve of an extension along either of the proposed routes. We think that in the first instance the line should be laid to the point about 600 yards beyond the Orange Grove Hotel, where the two alternative routes diverge and that any decision as to an extension beyond this point should be deferred. When the development of the district beyond is further advanced, the Council will be in a better position to judge as to the best route to adopt.

Death of President Kruger
1904 was the year when Paul Kruger passed away. The following statement by the Mayor William St John Carr relating to his death was adopted unanimously by the Town Council on 20 July 1904:

Paul Kruger - Seventy Golden Years
I would like to make, and I think it is the desire of every member of the Council that I should make, some allusion to an occurrence which has taken place since the last meeting of Council. I refer to the death of the late President Kruger, whose name will live in history as that of one who worked strenuously for an ideal, who ended his days away from the scene of the many stirring episodes in which he had taken so prominent a part, and whose last wish was that he should be buried on the soil he loved so well. One cannot pass in review before the mind’s eye the long succession of recent historical events in South Africa, which are so familiar to all here present, without being impressed by the fact that the two great representatives of the human forces who have been engaged in endeavouring to shape the destinies of South Africa, have both already ceased from their labours. Our sympathies must be and are certainly with the friends of the late President Kruger, and also with all those that looked to him as their trusted leader, and one who had their interests at heart. I move: That this Council desires to place on record, and to convey to the friends and relatives of the late President Kruger, its deep sympathy with them in the loss they have sustained.

The Spread of Billiard Rooms
In 1904 31 Billiard Room licenses were granted in Johannesburg. The only building still standing from this list as far as we can gather is the Cosmopolitan Hotel.

Cosmopolitan Hotel
Electrocution in Fordsburg
Another noticeable event that happened during 1904 was the electrocution of a young man in Fordsburg. The Acting Manager of the Light and Power Department reported that he was killed on a high tension line (10 000 volts) running from The Rand Central main line to the Braamfontein Railway Station. Very little detail of how the accident occurred is given but the Council decided to ask the Rand Central Electric Company ‘to consider the advisability of having a few feet of barbed wire fixed around each pole belonging to the Company which carries a high tension cable, about 7 or 8 feet above the ground in such a manner as to prevent climbing.’

Early Litigation
In 1904 there were a number of claims against the Council for damage caused by municipal vehicles. One example was the settlement the Council reached with Dr J W Matthews after a Sanitary Cart collided with his carriage. Another was the payment of £9 to Mr G L MacGregor after he was knocked off his bicycle by horses from the Tramway Department. The payment covered damage to the bicycle, time away from work and medical expenses.

Fire at the Salisbury Mine
In July of 1904, the General Manager of the Salisbury Mine conveyed his sincere thanks to the Fire Brigade for the excellent work done to extinguish a potentially devastating fire at the mine. The following description of the courageous death of a miner appeared in the Chief Officer’s report and is worth repeating:

A native named Jim was suffocated in the Salisbury Mine. [He] went through the whole of the workings at No. 6 level and warned all the miners of their danger, and after doing so was overcome by smoke and suffocated. His body was found halfway between the Salisbury and Wemmer shafts.

Outbreak of Plague and the Opening of Klipspruit Camp
Cover of the Plague Report
One of the most significant events of 1904 was the outbreak of plague in Johannesburg (around present day Newtown). Africans and Indians in the area were removed to the farm Klipspruit twelve miles south west of the central area. This settlement became Johannesburg’s first municipal location and was renamed Pimville in 1934. Below is an excerpt from the Report of the Rand Plague Committee providing reasons (still controversial) for the opening of the Klipspruit Camp:

When on the 19th March it was obvious that there was in the Coolie Location an unknown number of centres of infection the first thing to be done was to prevent the spread of disease from any of these centres, and the area was therefore cordoned.
Every known centre was thoroughly disinfected but the danger of the unknown centres was so great both to the Indians themselves as well as to the community that it was at once decided that the inhabitants of the Location should be removed to an Accommodation Camp, and the Location burned.
Natives and Asiatics who were found living in overcrowded or insanitary parts of the town were from time to time removed to the camp.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The Birth of the Union Buildings

Article Author: Claus Schutte

The Anglo-Boer (1900-1902) Vereeniging Peace Agreement document ending the war between the Boers and the British was signed at Pretoria’s gracious Melrose House on 31 May 1902 and formally announced on 2 June 1902 in front of the Raadzaal, Pretoria. This again put the whole country under the British rule. Alfred Milner, the High Commissioner for South Africa and Governor of Transvaal and Orange River Colony was responsible for the design and execution of the policy of South Africa until 1905.

After a long process the Transvaal (December 1906) and Orange River Colony (June 1907) were awarded responsible government. Jan Smuts had negotiated the deal in Britain in December 1905. But there was a greater goal in the minds of Generals Louis Botha and Jan Smuts: unification of the whole country. “I have the fullest faith that I shall be able …. to make those two great races of South Africa one solid, united and strong race,” Botha said at the 1907 Colonial Conference in London. Between October 1908 and May 1909 the National Convention was charged with the unification of the four provinces. (There was no Black, Coloured and Indian representation). Three years later Louis Botha became South Africa’s first Prime Minister and Herbert Gladstone the Governor General.

On the 31st May 1910 South Africa was united and the Union of South Africa was born.

To keep most people happy, Cape Town became the Seat of Parliament, Pretoria the Administrative Capital and Bloemfontein the Judicial Capital. By that time, due to the opening up of the gold fields on the Rand, Pretoria already had a number of prominent government department buildings e.g. the Raadzaal, the Palace of Justice, the Central Government Offices and the Post Office on Church Square. Other buildings of that time were the Artillery Barracks, the old Museum as well as many commercial buildings.

Cecil John Rhodes and Herbert Baker
Cecil John Rhodes
Herbert Baker
In 1890 Cecil John Rhodes became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and in 1891 Herbert Baker became Associate Member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Baker came to South Africa in 1892 and the following year was commissioned by Rhodes to restore and remodel Groote Schuur, Rhodes' house on the slopes of Table Mountain. This was the start of a deep friendship that lasted until Rhodes’ death in 1902 aged 49, and resulted in Baker getting significant appointments from him.. Rhodes sponsored Baker's further education in Greece, Italy and Egypt, after which he returned to South Africa and stayed the next 20 years.

Baker also had the patronage of Lord Milner, and was invited to the Transvaal to design and build residences for the British colonials.

Baker also designed and built his own home Stonehouse in Parktown 

Sir Herbert Baker’s Commissions in Pretoria
At Bryntirion (1902-3) Baker was commissioned to design houses for Judges and Ministers of State, culminating in the appointment for the design in 1905 of Government House.

In 1909 Baker received his first large commission for a secular public building in the Transvaal, being the Railway Station in Pretoria.
Railway Station in Pretoria

Choosing the Site for the Union Buildings
Also during 1909 Herbert Baker was commissioned by the Transvaal Government to design the Government Building of the Union of South Africa. In choosing the site, Baker recounts in an article in the Pretoria News of 7 November 1941: “I was given a free hand in suggesting sites in and around the city. I was shown the blocks the Government had bought on Market (Paul Kruger) Street leading from Church Square to the new station” (which he was then building). “But with the high ideals we all had at the time, I thought this site unworthy of the capital buildings of the now united South Africa. So I explored the surrounding kopjes, and selected two sites overlooking the city”. “(The) One on the kopje to the south had the advantage of flat land on the top for the building and for extensions and gardens; and also of sunlit front (northern) facades. The other was opposite to it on the northern Meintjes Kop, which rises on the east of the city like an acropolis, and terminates in Government House at the other end. (Bryntirion). The only possible site on it near the city was a narrow platform halfway up, so that without the expense of colossal retaining walls it had to be a narrow building with its front fa├žade almost always in shadow. But there was in the rock platform a depression such as the Greeks might have chosen for an amphitheatre”…… “So the vision came to me of two great blocks built around an amphitheatre“. When visiting the sites with Lady Selbourne, “she stressed the importance of nearness to Government House (in Bryntirion) as well as the heart of Pretoria”. ”These factors, and the charm of the site, determined my recommendation. Making some rough sketches and visiting the site with General Smuts” ….. “he with his quick insight and imagination, at once visualised the idea with the power to give dignity and beauty to the instrument and symbol of the Union”.

There was some criticism of the site. The Earl of Selborne had no sympathy with the critics and said “that people who chose this site have chosen one of the finest sites in the world “ “people will come from all over the world to wonder at the beauty of the site, and to admire the forethought and courage of the men who selected it.”
Union Buildings and Gardens 1920

The Scheme
Baker made exquisite use of the chosen site. In considering the site he realised the design by placing the two blocks on the natural terraces on either side of a depression or gorge down to the valley, which he chose to place the colonnaded semi-circular amphitheatre block with two tall domed towers, standing as sentinels and joining the flanking blocks and framing the central amphitheatre.

The two blocks each have, at either end, strong columned porticos and a central entrance porch leading into a finely colonnaded courtyard of pink sandstone.

When the plans were made public the chief criticism was concentrated around the Amphitheatre - “what was the use of such a thing”? The value however was proven by many political gatherings held there and is still used today for important occasions. (Botha’s triumphant return from the conquest of South West Africa, Smuts’ victorious return from the East African Campaign, Verwoerd’s Funeral, and now the presidential inaugurations of our Presidents).
Early Sketch of the Union Buildings

The Building
General Jan Smuts gave the go-ahead for the planning. The Meintjies Kopje was surveyed; Baker further developed plans and estimates and submitted them for approval to the Minister of Public Works and the Cabinet. After a speedy approval General Louis Botha expressed the urgency for the work to proceed.

Two firms of contractors were appointed on the Building. Meischke, a Hollander to build the two blocks, and Messrs Prentice and Mackie for the central Amphitheatre Block. On the 26th November 1910 the cornerstone of the Union Building was laid by the Duke of Connaught.

Union Buildings - Corner stone being laid
Union Buildings - Hoisting Atlas Statue

According to communication from the Department of Works to the City Treasurer the building was completed in October 1913. Nearly three years from start to finish.
The Significance of the Union Buildings
Statement of Significance as formulated in the CONSERVATION MANAGEMENT PLAN by UBAC. The Union Buildings as a place or site of significance enriches people’s lives, providing a deep and inspirational sense of connection to community and city landscape, to the past (history) and memories. It is a tangible expression of a proudly South African identity and experience.
Mandela Statue Union Buildings
As a place of significance it reflects the diversity of the South African society, telling us who we are, the past that has formed us as well as the South African landscape. The site is therefore irreplaceable, precious and indeed of national importance; hence it must be conserved for present and future generations”.

(Information as gathered for the Conservation Management Plan by UBAC Consortium 2007)
Published in The Arcadian and an older version of The Heritage Portal in 2013

Memories of Grand Prix Racing in Johannesburg in the 1930s

Prosser Roberts with his Bugatti 

I have noticed that many people are trying to establish the location of the Lord Howe Race Track in Kelvin. It is possible that the borehole is still there so if one can find it the rest may fall into line (see sketch below). Another clue that could assist the heritage enthusiast is that the main straight was at the top of a hill and finished in a dip. I can recall these details as I spent quite a bit of time in the pits and in the grandstand as a child as my dad, Prosser Roberts, was a fearsome racer during the 1930s. He raced the Bugatti pictured above.

Memories of the Lord Howe Circuit
Sketch of the Lord Howe Race Track in Kelvin, Sandton
The borehole was a godsend in the summer months as the track got stinking hot. I can remember walking from the grandstand to the borehole for a drink of that cold clear water but by the time I got back to the grandstand I was thirsty again! It had an old reciprocating pump driven by a Villiers two stroke motor with no silencer. The crack of the motor’s exhaust hurt my ears. The drive was a flat belt which was looked after by a kind hearted old man who was liked by everybody. When you arrived for water he would give the belt a pull to start the motor and when you were done he would short the plug with a screwdriver.
My dad would often take my brother and I for a run to warm up the engine but once, just before the pits were cleared for the big race, he took me on a test run which was clocked on a stop watch by one of the other drivers. We exited the pit lane and made our way gently around the track towards the main straight. My dad hit the accelerator and we passed 120 MPH! I remember I was told to close my eyes at top speed to protect them (I was jammed between my dad and the side of the cockpit at the side of the windscreen so there was no protection). I tried to open them a crack to see the speed but I could not open them at all! These runs were common place in order to ensure the car was performing normally. When we got back a member of the pit team asked how I liked the speed. My reply was, "It is better than standing around doing nothing". The laughter this brought about lasted a long time. It became a bit of a hit phrase from that point on.
Aunt Clo racing a Bugatti
At the end of a racing day there was the ladies race which always had two ladies: my aunt Clo in my dad's Bugatti and our friend Bruce’s wife driving his Teraplane. Almost every time my aunt came around the hairpin bend she would accelerate too hard and spin out. I can still hear the groan from the grandstand. Bruce’s wife who always trailed would then nip past and win the race. Incidentally the main races were run anticlockwise but the ladies races were run clockwise.

Bruce racing in a Teraplane
Engines overheating was quite a problem in those days. The reader may notice that my dad’s Bugatti has an oversize radiator. If you come across pictures of the Auto Unions with no covers around the engines that would be at the Lord Howe Circuit. For half my life I thought that was how they were made until I came across a picture of them with their bonnets on.
The Germans must have been very disappointed racing at Lord Howe as Hitler ordered them to use only tyres made with rubber made from coal. With the heat of the track and the fact that the track design allowed the cars to come around the last bend before the main straight at seventy to eighty MPH they were up to 120MPH by the time they were a quarter of the way down the main straight. That was where they shed the treads on their tyres, rubber flying in all directions. What a disaster! 

Dealing with Mr Bugatti
Two seater Bugatti
The picture below is of a two seater Bugatti which I think is the second Bugatti my dad bought. It had an eight cylinder engine. He was disappointed in this car because its top speed was the same as the super charged four cylinder he owned. My mother was French so we had no difficulty dealing with Mr Bugatti. The Bugatti crank shaft was a compo design made up of a series of discs and pins. My dad tried to buy a conrod pin and rollers but Bugatti claimed the factory was the only one that could do crankshafts. This racing lot were very capable mechanics, probably the best in the country. I don’t think there was anything they could not do. They were all highly insulted, the cost of shipping the crank to France and back was as much as the car was worth. This was over 300 pounds which was half the price of a small three bedroom house in those days!

Reproduced from an article by Maurice Prosser Roberts in the Heritage Portal 24 March 2016.