The Market Precinct

At the heart of the Market Precinct is the 1913 Market Building, which was once bustling with fruit and vegetable traders. The sprawling building with its massive steel framework shipped from Britain and constructed on site, is considered one of Johannesburg’s finest examples of Edwardian industrial architecture. It currently houses two cultural institutions, the Market Theatre and Museum Africa.

The precinct came to life at the beginning of the 20th century when the new British government under Lord Milner set out to transform Newtown from a slum into an industrial hub. In 1904, city officials used the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague as a pretext to burn down the so-called ‘Coolie Location’ and remove its diverse residents into racially segregated areas. Within months, they transformed the area into an industrial zone that offered a range of commercial opportunities.

he Fresh Produce Market relocated from the city centre to Newtown in 1913. In the early days, the Municipality provided free tram rides for the city’s housewives to the new market and a brass band entertained them on arrival. These ladies would hold hankies to their noses to avoid the fetid smells from the nearby abattoir and tannery.

In 1974, this colourful and energetic place fell silent when the market relocated to larger premises in City Deep. Newtown declined and the elegant Market Building was threatened with destruction. Preservation enthusiasts and councillors who were passionate about the city also fought hard for its protection.

A wide range of possibilities opened up for the redevelopment of the area. In the end, the idea of a cultural precinct prevailed. Amidst the bulldozers and rubble, old buildings found new functions and the face of Newtown slowly transformed. From the 1970s, the Market Precinct became an arts complex. Today, it continues to thrive as a space where local talent is nurtured and showcased on and off the stage.

"Life in early Newtown was busy and competitive. It was easy to start a business but difficult to stay afloat and make a profit. Newtown became a little sub-culture with its own jokes and special events." Sue Krige, historian, 2009

Did You Know?

Did you know that if you were a successful businessman operating in Newtown’s early days you would be awarded the fictional “University of Newtown Certificate” by fellow residents?