The Birth of Newtown

In the decade after the discovery of gold in 1886, the new mining town of Johannesburg expanded rapidly in the once bare veld. People of all races trekked to the new town. Those who were not miners became brickmakers, transport riders, cab drivers or labourers. Gold was never found in this area but the land was valuable because it was close to the City centre.

The rich clay on the banks of the Fordsburg Spruit enticed Transvaal burghers to set up cay mixers and drying kilns. They sold bricks in the neighbouring Johannesburg. Business was good. A brickmaker who employed three black workers could make 2 500 bricks per day. Soon brickmaking became the third largest industry in the Transvaal after mining and farming.

Immigrants who could not afford expensive accommodation also bought brickmakers’ licenses. They built small brick or corrugated iron shacks on the marshy ground next to the clay pits. Lavatories were holes in the ground.

Despite vehement protests by brickmakers, the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) gave away some of the Brickfields clay-rich land to a Dutch railway company to build Johannesburg’s first marshalling yard in 1893. This was convenient as goods could be loaded and distributed close to the centre of town. By 1896, the last brickmakers were forced out of the area.

In exchange for the land, white Afrikaner brickmakers could buy stands in the new township called Burghersdorp. His new ‘citizens’ town’ neighboured the Coolie Location which had been established in 1887 for Indian people. In reality, people of all races lived close together. There was severe overcrowding and shacks proliferated in the backyards of houses in Burghersdorp and the Coolie Location. There were few municipal services and the horses for transport riders and cab drivers were stabled amidst the houses.

The Council grew increasingly alarmed at the conditions and racial mixing in there areas. By the outbreak of the Anglo Boer War in 1899, Burghersdorp and the Coolie Location were overcrowded slums for the poor of all races.

On 24 May 1900, Johannesburg was captured by the British. Lord Milner became the new Governor of the Transvaal colony. This western part of the City soon caught his attention. He believed that land so close to the centre of town was too valuable to remain a slum. He set out to impose order along strict racial lines.

In 1902, a Commission of Enquiry was appointed to report on these ‘Insanitary Areas’. The Commission heard petitions from residents against claiming their land but sided with the Town Council. They confirmed that the ‘Fly in the Johannesburg Honey Pot’, as the area was called, should be redeveloped. Strong protests by landlords delayed the implementation of these plans.

In 1903, a disease rumoured to be bubonic plague broke out in the Coolie Location. Gandhi, who was a lawyer in Johannesburg at the time, helped to nurse the victims and described how the "sick lay uncared for" in shocking conditions. The Council used the situation as an excuse to clear the area. On 3 April 1904, the fire brigade set fire to the home and shacks in the Coolie Location. The flames burned for three days. The nearly 1 642 Indians, 1420 Africans and 146 ‘Cape coloured’ were moved to racially segregated areas. The black inhabitants were moved to a ‘temporary camp’ next to a sewerage farm called Klipspruit, which became part of Soweto.

Within five months, lord Milner had overseen the replanning of the area. It was renamed Newtown. Soon an abattoir and fruit and vegetable market were built. Newtown became a workplace for many people. Most were poor labourers but the lucky ones made fortunes in food merchandising.

"Thus began Johannesburg’s long history of ‘urban renewal’, whereby black residents were progressively pushed further to the west onto arid waste sites beyond the townlands and oldsites were erased both from the map and from human consciousness." Clive M. Chipkin, architect, 1993

Affordable housing has been built on this land and is called the Brickfields housing Development.

Did You Know?

Did you know that by 1936 the Electrical Precinct in Newtown contained three power stations, three different types of cooling towers and an incinerator, maintenance workshops, tram sheds and accommodation for workers?