Doc­u­ment­ing a city’s de­vel­op­ment


IN 1886, fol­low­ing Ge­orge Har­ri­son’s dis­cov­ery of gold on the farm, Langlaagte, a to­tal of nine farms ly­ing along the main gold reef of the Wit­wa­ter­srand were de­clared pub­lic dig­ging fields. Prospec­tors flock­ing to the area es­tab­lished them­selves in rough camps, which, by 1900, had de­vel­oped into the small min­ing town that was soon to meta­mor­phose into the city of Johannesburg. Ow­ing to the syn­chro­nous de­vel­op­ment of the cam­era

— the Ko­dak in 1888 and the Box Brownie in 1900 — Johannesburg’s de­vel­op­ment was well-doc­u­mented from the start.

Marc Latilla has sourced archival ma­te­rial, dat­ing from the 1880s to the for­ties, which he jux­ta­poses with con­tem­po­rary colour pho­to­graphs taken by Yeshiel Panchia, to il­lus­trate the de­vel­op­ment of the city from camp site to me­trop­o­lis.

High­light­ing sig­nif­i­cant build­ings in cen­tral Johannesburg and sub­se­quently in the im­me­di­ate suburbs, Latilla re­veals how some have en­dured, al­beit with con­sid­er­able restora­tion and even al­ter­ation; some, such as W.M. Cuth­bert & Co., con­structed on the cor­ner of Eloff and Pritchard streets in 1904, have been de­clared her­itage sites; some lie derelict, of­ten as a re­sult of their lo­ca­tion in the de­clin­ing cen­tral busi­ness area; and some have been de­mol­ished. Of­ten, build­ings erected for a par­tic­u­lar pur­pose now serve an­other.

The new so­ci­ety’s de­mands were quickly met and ed­i­fices pro­lif­er­ated — for gov­ern­ment, med­i­cal treat­ment, bank­ing, ed­u­ca­tion, shop­ping, en­ter- tain­ment, sport, wor­ship and in­car­cer­a­tion. In ad­di­tion, roads and bridges were con­structed and trans­port sys­tems de­vel­oped. For ex­am­ple, horse-drawn tram­cars, in­tro­duced in 1891, were re­placed by an elec­tric tram sys­tem by 1906.

Al­though the text ac­com­pa­ny­ing the images is nec­es­sar­ily suc­cinct, Latilla man­ages to in­clude a con­sid­er­able amount of in­for­ma­tion.

Among other things, he de­scribes the lay­out and spread of the suburbs be­tween 1887 and 1906, many of them es­tab­lished on parcels of land from the farms, Doorn­fontein and Braam­fontein; the es­tab­lish­ment of state, church and pri­vate schools (from 1888); and the com­mis­sion­ing of ar­chi­tects, such as Sir Her­bert Baker, at the be­gin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, to de­sign man­sions for the emerg­ing elite.

At­trac­tively pre­sented and in­for­ma­tive, Latilla’s book will be of in­ter­est to his­to­ri­ans and to res­i­dents of, and vis­i­tors to, the City of Gold.

• Moira Lovell is a re­tired English teacher and a pub­lished poet.

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