I’ve read that Johannesburg has been rebuilt three times.
Initially it was a haphazard town akin to the wild west with lots of tents, tin structures and bars (and some clay huts which were eventually prohibited after the 1891 building regulations). With early deeper mining operations having replaced the basic surface mining, the area now known as downtown Johannesburg started building up. Early street plans were drawn up in the area known as Randjeslaagte and plots sold.
*Click on the photos for a larger view*
As there was still digging in the middle of the triangular area (roughly a few blocks below Bree street up to Joubert park), plots were laid out at the bottom first and later at the top due to influx of people and demand. As this was not planned, they realised that the streets did not match up perfectly. That is why there is a kink in all north-south streets where they cross Bree Street.
The above map is a fascinating look back into the start of Johannesburg just four years in and also the early establishment of suburbs like Hillbrow, Yeoville, Bertrams, Braamfontein, Jeppe and Doornfontein.
Back then, everyone lived on top of each other, but socially, areas started to develop. Wealthier folk and mine managers lived in simple houses around Elloff & Noord Streets and surrounds but were not happy with the small stands. Some miners lived in camps or shacks and tents close to the mines and rivers. There was no electricity, proper water or sanitation. It was noisy, dusty and everything was exposed to the elements.
The government of the time was reluctant to provide services or develop local government as the feeling was that it would all disappear as quickly as it blossomed when the gold dried up (like in California and Australia years before) Of course it didn’t.
Foreigners and fortune seekers came from all over the world. Big mining companies with capital to invest in the expensive machinery to mine and process gold established themselves in Johannesburg. Suddenly what was there became inadequate and the first wave of rebuilding started. The connecting of Johannesburg via railway to Durban and Cape Town helped get much needed building material to the town.
It is said that the tents and tin shacks lasted merely two years. After the first ten years, some early buildings were already being demolished to make way for bigger and better structures. The Rissik Street Post Office and Rand Club are documented examples of this, both having being rebuilt and extended several times. Many other instances are lost forever.
Here are a couple of sweeping views of early Johannesburg. Doing a comparison today is difficult only because of all the tall buildings blocking any view.
The block showing Wanderers was the position of the original stadium until it moved to Illovo in the 1940s. Johannesburg Station is now in it’s place.
The spire in the distance belongs to the tallest buidling at the time – the newly erected Palace Building circa 1889.
The building density is marked when comapring the above two pictures considering they were only taken a year apart.
It’s hard to imagine houses once stood in what we know as the centre of town today.
These two pictures show Market street a mere year apart.
The pictures below show panoramic views of old Johannesburg circa 1889