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Joburg's firsts Print E-mail

A little-known book by a former chief librarian of Johannesburg provides a fascinating chronicle of city oddities, reports LUCILLE DAVIE

 
Tents and wood and iron shacks in early Johannesburg
Tents and wood and iron shacks in early Johannesburg

JOHANNESBURG is a modern city in every sense - tall skyscrapers, a complex network of freeways, a bustling metropolis of industry and commerce, and a hub to which people are drawn. 

It was declared a city in 1928 but life for Johannesburg began 117 years ago, on 20 September 1886, when President Paul Kruger declared the area open for public digging, under the leadership of Carl von Brandis. The city grew quickly, from a tent town to wood and iron shacks, to brick buildings, within a decade or two.

The city kept pace with Paris and London in new developments towards the end of the 19th century - electric lighting, motor cars and telephones. In 1976, historian and former chief librarian of the city, Anna Smith, compiled a book called Johannesburg Firsts, for which she painstakingly researched many of the city's firsts. Here is a look at some of the examples recounted in that book:


 

Anna Smith (1976; out of print)
Anna Smith was appointed chief librarian of the city in 1960, and from then on she produced several excellent reference books on the city. This book is a fun way to absorb the history of Johannesburg through a series of short anecdotes. Like most of Smith's work, it is, unfortunately, out of print, but can be found in the reference section at the main City Library.

First brothel
The first brothel was run by an American Amazon called Montana Nell.

First banquet
The mining magnates attempted to placate their old foe, President Paul Kruger, by holding a banquet for him in February 1887, the first in the town. This was followed by an Irish banquet a month later, on St Patrick's Day.

First movie
The first moving picture shown in South Africa was at the Grand National Hotel in Johannesburg on 4 April 1895. Movies were also shown in Henwood's Arcade, between Pritchard and President streets. The Apollo Theatre in Pritchard Street showed moving pictures, and the first bio-cafes were opened in the city in 1912.

Electricity and machines

The first electric street lamp was erected on the corner of Rissik and President streets in October 1895. Wright & Graves advertised something called "K boots" in the first electric sign, around 1905. The first gas lamp was erected on 17 November 1892 by the Johannesburg Lighting Company. The first electric trams were introduced in March 1906, travelling from the town to Siemert Road in Doornfontein. These trams ran until March 1961 when they were discontinued.

The first car to be seen on the streets of the town a Benz Voiturette, used for advertising, and appearing in 1897. It was advertised in Standard & Diggers' News:

"Wanderers' Grounds, Wednesday, January 13, 1897, at 4pm sharp.
The rage and topic of all Europe
The MOTOR CAR, or noiseless carriage.
The first and only one in South Africa, will exhibit on the Wanderers' Track . . . One exhibition only
Hess & Co, Proprietors"

The first telephone system came into being in September 1894, with around 200 subscribers. The hardware was imported from Paris, and came with the following instructions:

"I have been requested to point out that subscribers to the Telephone System should not wait for a return-bell after they have rung up the Central Station, by means of the black button on the instrument. When the latter has been pressed, the receiver should be taken from the hook and upon an enquiry from the Central, the name and number of the subscriber with whom connection is required, should be given. On the reply 'Voorwaarts' being heard, the receiver should be replaced on the hook, the white knob pressed and the return-bell awaited before taking the receiver down again . . ."

The tracks for Johannesburg's first train were laid in 1888 and the line from Joburg to Boksburg was opened in March 1890. It was called the Rand Tram. This line was extended to Springs in October 1890, and to Roodepoort in November 1890. The line from Cape Town reached Joburg in September 1892. The line to Pretoria opened in January 1893, to Maputo in November 1894 and to Durban in December 1895.

Jozi's first road was created in 1889, from Ferreira's Camp to Jeppestown, down a road that everyone knows - Commissioner Street. It was made by getting an ox wagon laden with stones to move up and down, dropping stones and making the road.


 

 

The gold economy

 

The first gold weighing 350oz was sent to Pietermaritzburg on 12 April 1887. The first share transaction happened in a miner's tent in Ferreira's Camp. Smith doesn't give the date but the first shares to be quoted at a stock exchange occurred on June 1887. From the tent business moved to Johannesburg's first stock exchange: Donovans' livery stables on the corner of Sauer and Commissioner streets, and then on to a brick building on Commissioner Street, with stained glass windows, tiled lavatories, 20 columns, a bar, offices and a front porch.

Joburg's first slump occurred in 1891, as reported in the SA Mining Journal of 1912, brought about when all the alluvial gold had run dry, and serious capital was needed to mine below the surface.

The first bank to open in the town was the Standard Bank, opening on 11 October 1886, in a tent. From the tent it moved to a thatched cottage. The bank manager was DP Ross and the bank clerk was P Mynhardt. The building stood at the entrance to Ferreira and Worcester, at 185 Anderson Street.


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