History of Braamfontein Pt.3 (Explosion, Cemetery & Early Rand Show)

This is part 3 of what will finally be a 4 part history on Braamfontein. Do go back and check the first two parts here and here as some of the original pictures have been updated with better quality shots. There are also some new additions that weren’t available when the posts were originally published.

Of particular note is a photo of Braamfontein in part.2  looking north toward Parktown where the Civic complex now stands. It’s hard to believe that virtually nothing in that photo exists today.

Dynamite explosion
On Wednesday 19th February 1896 at around 3pm, a train of trucks standing in the heat loaded with 55 tons of dynamite on a siding near Braamfontein station exploded after being shunted by a railway engine. The force was so massive that it destroyed every house in the vicinity (Approximately 1500 houses in Braamfontein, Malay Location, Fordsburg and Brickfields, many of them made from corrugated iron, wood or mud) as well as many windows in town. The day happened to be a half-holiday and shops closed up at 1pm leaving town mostly deserted.
There was a massive crater where the train trucks stood measuring 250 feet long, 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep. The noise of the explosion was heard 150kms away in Klerksdorp. Some said it was heard as far as Bloemfontein.

Aftermath of the explosion

Aftermath of the explosion

Bodies and limbs of people, horses and donkeys were strewn all around. A work gang of 100 convicts found 78 bodies and collected four boxes of limbs. The general hospital could not cope and the Wanderers was used as a temporary hospital for the overflow. The ice-rink used as a mortuary. President Paul Kruger visited the site and evidently wept openly at the carnage.

Illustrated events around the aftermath of the explsoion

Illustrated events around the aftermath of the explosion

Many of the homeless were placed in temporary dwellings on the agricultural show grounds.
Prominent mining magnates and houses donated money to the Relief committee, who along with Irish Baptist Rev. Mr W. Kelly, saw to the feeding of the multitudes.

This home was destroyed in the blast. These orphans and many other families were housed in the buildings on the show grounds

This children’s home was destroyed in the blast and the pictured orphans and other families were housed in the buildings on the show grounds

Braamfontein cemetery
Before the discovery of gold, the first cemeteries were of the small farm variety used by the farmers to bury their family and workers. More than 25 exist and have been largely preserved. Good examples can be found at Bezhuidenhout Park (Bezhuidenhout Family) and in Hill Road in Emmarentia (Geldenhuys Family). There are also a number of random single grave sites like the ones in Linksfield and Bryanston. Most of these date from the mid-to-late 1800s

When Johannesburg was originally planned, it was crammed with as many stands as possible to maximise income – especially from the corner stands. As a result, there was very little open space and no public park. In January 1887, only after the deaths of miner Thomas Gray  on 6 Nov 1886 and Charles Johnson, who fell down shaft No.2 reef Doornfontein in Dec 1886, 12 stands were allocated for a small cemetery between Bree, Harrison, Diagonal and De Villiers streets (roughly where the Traffic Dept. is today) but it was hopelessly inadequate.

1886 plan showing the position of the first cemetery on the left

1886 plan showing the position of the first cemetery on the left

There is no mention as to where these two men were finally buried. The first person evidently buried there was 45-year-old Mary Dearlove who died on the 29 March 1887. As the town quickly expanded beyond its original borders, the little cemetery became a thoroughfare and graves were continuously walked over and damaged by wagons.

Braamfontein cemetary late 1890

Braamfontein cemetery late 1890

Same spot in 2013

Same spot in 2013

In August 1887 the council allocated a piece of land in Braamfontein for a proper cemetery. The earliest recorded date in the Christian burial register is for four-month old HH Slabbert who was buried on 11 February 1888 in grave 26. Grave number 1 was allocated to John A van der Keck on the 9th April 1888 who was 1 year, 11 months and 10 days old when he died.

Entrance in the early days

Entrance in the early days

Entrance in 2013

Entrance in 2013

The first Jewish burial was for Albert F W Rosettenstein who was 39 when he died on 12 May 1887. It is recorded in pencil next to his entry that he was ‘exhumed from Plein Square 1888’. Grave number 1 in the Braamfontein Jewish burial records belongs to John Nathan who died on the 19th August 1887 and was buried on the 20th August 1887.

Jewish section 2013

Jewish section 2013

There was a special part of the Jewish section known as ‘the Hok’ which was set aside for those Jews of immoral standing or those involved with prostitution. They were buried in un-marked graves without the standard prayers. The site was leveled at some point but was said to contain about 100 graves.

Eventually, the remains from the original town cemetery were exhumed and re-buried at Braamfontein in the late 1890s.

Besides the Jewish section, there were also sections for non-whites as well as Dutch Reform, Catholic and English Church sections. Muslim and Chinese sections were added later. There is even a non-conformist section just north of the arch entrance.

Plan of the cemetary today

Plan of the cemetery today

Chow blah's memorial

Chow Kwai For’s memorial in the Chinese section

The cemetery started filling up quickly and additional land was allocated for an extension in 1894.

Many of the towns early pioneers are buried there: Thomas Cullinan, George Goch, Captain Von Brandis, Julius Jeppe, Woolf Joel and Max Langermann. It also features memorials for the 75 victims of the 1896 Braamfontein dynamite explosion whose inscription reads: ‘The number who met their sad death from this cause, both white and coloured was 75’. There is a memorial for the soldiers killed during the Anglo-Boer war and the victims of the English concentration camps as well as a mention of the Titanic disaster on one of the tombstones regarding a brother who drowned on the ill-fated ship.

Boer War memorial

Boer War memorial

There was a second smaller explosion during the war in Johannesburg at 5.30pm on 24th April 1900. Messrs. Thomas Begbie and Company’s engineering works which was on 141 Frederick Street in City & Suburban (Just below Jeppestown) blew up. At the time it was used for manufacturing Boer munitions for the war. There were several Italians and Catholics killed along with three unidentified bodies which were all buried in the Catholic section. There doesn’t appear to be a memorial (or mention) in the cemetery for this disaster.

As a side note, it was thought that the explosion was a result of British sabotage and all remaining British citizens were expelled from Johannesburg on 30th April 1900. Commandant Schutte was accused of negligence over the incident and replaced by Public Prosecutor F.E.T. Krause.

Begbie Foundry explosion aftermath

Begbie Foundry explosion aftermath

Enoch Sontongo’s (composer of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica) memorial is also there near the Chinese, Muslim and Jewish sections. Recently, pauper’s graves were found near one of the boundary walls that date back to the 1922 miner’s strike. Soldiers from both World Wars are buried in the cemetery as are the members of the Foster Gang.

Braamfontein’s stone crematorium was built in 1932. Cremation number 1 is listed as Wakeford, Calvert, J who died on 28th February 1932 in Johannesburg and was cremated on 1st March 1932.

Cremarorium from 2013

Crematorium from 2013

Braamfontein took 12 years to fill up and in 1908 Brixton cemetery was laid out on an 84-acre portion of land. The first Brixton burial took place on 1 October 1910.

Additional information for this piece was obtained from John McKibbin’s ‘Some notes on Braamfontein Cemetery’ published in Vol.10 of ‘Between the Chains’ Journal of the Johannesburg Historical Foundation 1989. An earlier version of this piece that included other Johannesburg cemeteries was originally featured on JHBlive in 2013

Witwatersrand Agricultural Society
Witwatersrand Agricultural Society (known as the Rand Show today) was founded in 1894 at the insistence of Carl Jeppe. It’s council (including Carl Jeppe) consisted of some notable pioneers like Julius Jeppe, Solly Joel, Edouard Lippert, H.B. Marshall (after whom Marshall Street is named), A. H. Reid (architect of many pre 1900 Johannesburg buildings including the Cosmopolitan Hotel) and E. H. V. Melvill (land surveyor and whom Melville is named after) amongst many others.

Original show ground position. Road next to pony club is now Jan Smuts Ave. Note also position of dynamite explosion

Original show ground position. Road next to pony club is now Jan Smuts Ave. Note also position of dynamite explosion

The government lent the society a piece of ground at the bottom of Braamfontein ridge (then overlooking a barren Parktown) roughly between where Helpmekaar and the Johannesburg School of the Arts stand today. The portion measured 26 morgen 58 square roods on the farm Braamfontein No.142 of the Heidelburg district. It was one of the few pieces of ground not pegged for claims and was a largely unsuitable site. Despite this, the first show took place on 13-15 March 1895. The early buildings were designed by Reid & Williams.

Show buildings and a view of The Fort from Hillbrow looking south east.

Original show buildings above  and a view of The Fort from Hillbrow looking south-east below with the show ground on the right.

By some accounts it was not a particularly successful show from an organizational and content point of view although it was well attended on day one (12000) probably on the account of it being opened by President Paul Kruger whose procession started at the centre of town and took an hour to reach the Braamfontein ridge.

Many of the animals on show were of poor example. Frank Fillis’s circus provided entertainment as well as a display of some of its wild animals. The general consensus was that the show was good for Johannesburg.

The second show as to take place on the 26-28 March 1896. Before this there was the failed Jameson Raid in early January 1896 which resulted in many committee members and influential business people (uitlanders, as they were known) to be thrown in to jail for attempting to overthrow the government. Then there was the explosion at Braamfontein in February which tied up the grounds for months as refugees and the homeless were cared for. It’s interesting to note that much of the financial aid came from the ‘uitlanders’ even though the victims were mostly of Dutch extraction.

Rinderpest, swarms of locusts and a drought seriously hampered farming and food production in the outlying areas.

In May, several jailed leaders from the raid were sentenced to death (but this was later commuted to a fine). The mood in Johannesburg was gloomy especially with its missing progressive leaders.

It was at this time that the jail or ‘The gaol’ as it was known, was fortified behind massive earthworks to become what we know today as ‘The Fort’ as can be seen in the previous photo.

A more ambitious show was now planned for 17-19 March 1897, but with the after effects of the rinderpest and drought and the fact that many people were leaving Johannesburg due to political tensions made the second show a worse failure than the first. There were less exhibitions and fewer visitors. It was opened reluctantly by Vice President Piet Joubert.

Cowd at the opening ceremony

Crowd at the 1897 opening ceremony

View of the show grounds in 1897 showing and under-developed Parktown in the background

View of the show grounds in 1897 showing and under-developed Parktown in the background

I suspect the house on the ridge in the distance of the above photo is Sir Lionel Phillip’s ‘Hohenheim’ which was built in 1894. The JHB General stands there today. To the right further down may be Sir Thomas Cullinan’s ‘The View’ which went up in 1897. Both were the earliest houses in Parktown along with “Sunnyside’. Parktown’s growth would accelerate in the early 1900s.

Johannesburg was still in a slump but gold production and the market started picking up in early 1899 giving the committee impetus to push ahead. Some members left and were replaced. Finances and loans were organized, buildings repaired and the general costs and forecast revenues re-looked and adjusted. As Johannesburg’s prospects increased due to the market conditions, the town was stimulated and suddenly the idea of another show to rival agricultural shows like those in Pietermaritzburg and Pretoria sounded like a good idea. Organisers arranged price drops for transport and customs for all exhibitors as well as price cuts for visitors to ensure more people would come to see a better show.

The dates for the show were 3-5 May 1899. Leading up to this date and despite the market surge, tensions between the uitlanders and the government were pointing towards war. As a result, Johannesburg started emptying out again at the rate of 200-500 people per week, but the show would go on. Kruger declined to open it again as he would be opening the Pretoria show on the 10th May. Joubert would again do the honours.

The show was marked as a financial success even though attendance was down and the agricultural aspect still lacking. The after effects of the rinderpest, drought, disease and the rising political tensions hampered exhibitor’s appetite and ability to display. Although many prominent Johannesburgers (John Dale Lace and his wife Josie with their collection of horses being one example) brought along their own pets and animals, there were major gaps. The rain didn’t help either.

On the 10th October 1899 the South African Republic declared was on Great Britain. Johannesburg was occupied by Boer commandos for several months and their horses were stabled at the shed at the show grounds. After the British took Johannesburg, they used the show ground as a barracks.

After the war the present grounds were unusable. A new committee was formed and the King of Johannesburg, Lionel Phillips, returned from London late in 1905 to take control of Corner House as well as the cause of the show. New grounds behind the Braamfontein cemetery called Milner Park were acquired from the new government and after some years of difficulty and set-backs, a new chapter of the Witwatersrand Agricultural Society was about to begin in 1907. More on this in the final part of the history of Braamfontein in the coming months.

New show grounds bottom left across from Braamfontein cemetary. This would eventually expand and be home to the Rand Show until the early 1980s

New show grounds bottom left across from Braamfontein cemetery. This would eventually expand and be home to the Rand Show until the early 1980s

Here is a video from 1967 showing the Milner Park Rand Show


Thelma Gutsche’s ‘A very smart medal’ on the detailed history of the show and events of the dynamite explosion were invaluable for this piece.

This entry was published on January 11, 2015 at 8:59 pm. It’s filed under Johannesburg and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

7 thoughts on “History of Braamfontein Pt.3 (Explosion, Cemetery & Early Rand Show)

  1. Pingback: Lost churches of early Johannesburg | Johannesburg 1912 - Suburb by suburb research

  2. Pingback: Hospital Hill (Old Suburb between Braamfontein & Hillbrow) | Johannesburg 1912 - Suburb by suburb research

  3. Jack on said:

    Looking forward to Part IV.


  4. hilt0nt on said:

    Pleas find below a link to an album of photographs which relate to the 1896 explosion:

    A Scene of Destruction resulting from the 1896 Dynamite Explosion in Braamfontein
  5. Sharon Hiebner on said:

    Thanks for a very interesting article on the Braamfontein explosion. My husbands great grandparents, a Mr and Mrs Wertheim, were killed in the explosion, their children were sent to orphanages.

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