In 2010, while planning for a new room/story to be built on our house in Melville, I got to see the original hand drawn plans from 1912. The house looked very different back then. How cool would it be if I could find a picture of what the house looked like around the time it was built…?
Browsing through Bookdealers one day, I came across the big gold and brown Johannesburg centenary book from 1986. It was cheap and full of photos, so I bought it in the ambitious hope that there may be something there. Turns out there wasn’t, but what I read and saw in that book started this mild obsession of tracking down the last few remaining houses, buildings and other landmarks from old Johannesburg that still existed and showing a then & now comparison where possible. What’s turning out to be more intriguing is discovering and cataloging what has been lost.
There are of course several books on the subject and many others have already done what I’m doing in varying degrees (all of which I’ll credit as I go along as they have been great source of information) but I do believe I’ve perhaps found a few that others have missed or over looked. With all the construction around the world cup and Gautrain/Rea Via, I’m surprised some of the houses I’ve found are still standing.
The other reason for doing this is that while uncovering the history of Johannesburg through these books, I came up with the skeleton of a story which I’m busy assembling to eventually be turned into a graphic novel (type of long-form comic typically adult in theme and nature). These pictures additionally act as reference for various scenes and places where the story takes place.
Although the point is to show a then & now comparisons of the last remaining buildings and houses from Johannesburg’s early days (within the city) I thought it important to show the beacons that mark an area known as Raandjeslaagte. This is a triangular-shaped area running along Commissioner Street from End to Diagonal and up to the top of Boundary road near the fire station in Berea. From the map below one can see why Diagonal Street runs diagonally. It was originally called Jubilee Street (presumably derived from Queen Elizabeth’s jubilee in 1887) up to around 1909 according to printed maps.
This triangular piece of unclaimed land that sat between the farms belonged to the state. Farms were originally laid out by riding a horse or walking at a certain pace for a certain length of time and then turning at a right angle and doing it again. With all the hills and rivers, it was not the most accurate system. The adjacent farms were eventually sold for mining rights. After some low yield surface and trench mining and the realisation that the reef ran slightly south town planners laid out a township with streets which is now the centre of Johannesburg running up to the top end of Hillbrow. The adjacent farms eventually become suburbs that some of which have changed dramatically over the years (like Braamfontein).
It’s interesting to note that at the time of the discovery of gold, only 200 people were living on the 25 or so farms that now form part of Johannesburg. The area then fell under the jurisdiction of Heidelberg. Pretoria was the capital 58km away and the trip took two days by ox-wagon.
The city erected a monument at the Hillbrow end of the triangle. This was declared a national monument in 1965. It now has its own Heritage plaque.
Presumably for the world cup, another beacon and mural/mosaic was erected under the bridge at End Street although I have read that plaques did exist at some stage for the other two beacons.