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.