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Entertainment in the mining town
29 April 2008

There was plenty of fun to be had in early Joburg, with theatres and sports meetings a favourite way for the diggers to work off the stresses of the day.

Neil FraserAN early history of Johannesburg records that "its inhabitants were men consumed with one idea, the finding of gold and the making of money". Well, nothing much has changed except that gold isn't so easily obtainable by the man in the street, but certainly the "making of money" largely still dominates the character of the city.

Earlier Citichats recorded the huge influence of liquor and sex in the city's formative years; the third issue is entertainment.

In the very early days of the mining camp, life for the "diggers" was evidently enlivened by "rough and ready socials of the 'smoking concert' variety, held usually in the almost countless bars that sprang up" or, if you were lucky, an invitation to dances at outlying farms - "Boer beauties were renowned for their figures and their giggles." The more resourceful of them improvised all sorts of games and recreational activities - "Bars, horse races, cricket games and athletics meetings were so well patronised that these activities became an integral part of general camp life."

There were no permanent facilities for these activities although some temporary seating and grandstands were erected in various parts of the city. Yet, within four years of the establishment of the mining camp, Johannesburg boasted 312 bars and hotels, four theatres, three social clubs and a host of sports clubs.

Social clubs such as the Rand Club (1890), the Johannesburg Club, the New Club (1897) in Loveday Street, and the Athenaeum Club (1903/4) in Smit Street flourished. The location of the Rand Club was evidently decided by Cecil John Rhodes and Hans Sauer. They had identified a site on the corner of Commissioner and Loveday streets owned by a Jewish financier, Ikey Sonnenberg, and a Scot called Marshall. Sonnenberg, liking the idea behind the club, gave his portion of the ground over as a gift; the Scot, however, insisted on full payment for his portion - £75.

Rand Club
The aim of the club was originally published as "a residential club and exchange, both of which are much needed". The first Rand Club was not the impressive building of today but a "thatched shanty designed in a somewhat mixed style said to be renaissance but with an otherwise massive aspect relieved by turrets of wood and iron. It comprised a dining room, billiard room, reading room and three bedrooms while the ground floor included premises for shops."

Sports clubs included the Gold Fields Club, the Doornfontein Club (1889/90) and the Wanderers Club (1889). Boxing had a huge following, with a particularly famous match held on 26 July 1889 between one Bendoff, "a giant of a fellow", and James Couper, described as "of frail appearance". Most of the money was bet on Bendoff. So important was the match that the day was declared a public holiday (clearly our leaning towards public holidays for any excuse comes from the "old days") and so many people tried to get into the temporary corrugated iron enclosure that it collapsed, creating a number of subsidiary private fights between those trying to gain access.

The fight ended when a bloodied Bendoff threw in the towel in the seventeenth round.

Horse racing was also popular, with the first race recorded in 1887 with 3 000 filling a temporary stand built of sods near the camp. Not long after, horse racing moved to a permanent track at Turffontein. As there were no railways at that stage, the race horses were walked from Kimberley to Johannesburg every month and, after racing, were promptly walked back to Kimberley for their next appearance before returning to Johannesburg a month later.

Golf started in 1890 but the main recreation ground of the city was a stretch of land known as "The Wanderers" ground, presented to the town by the republican government and covering some thirty acres.

JB Taylor in his autobiography Lucky Jim reveals that the motivation for the Wanderers Sports Ground was not for sport per se. He and Herman Eckstein had bought sites and built houses for themselves on the northern boundary of the town - "we wanted to make doubly sure that there would never be any buildings in front of us to spoil our view ... we conceived the idea of working up a demand for a large playground for the town which would be in front of our houses".

Self-interest ruled just as much then as it does now! Following receipt of their "demand", President Paul Kruger sent the minister of mines, Christiaan Joubert, to investigate the issue and, having satisfied himself, he declared that "it was necessary for the youth of the town that there should be a recreation ground".

The ground in front of Taylor's and Eckstein's houses was, therefore, reserved for that purpose and "the ground" made available to a properly constituted body at a "peppercorn rental". The Wanderer's Club was formed but one can imagine the great dismay when, half a century later, its "sacred soil was excavated for the building of the new railway station".

But it was the theatre that really was the focus of attention for entertainment. Symptomatically in the "mining camp" atmosphere of the emerging "Golden City", theatre buildings played a more important role than church buildings.

The first attempt at organised entertainment came from one Luscombe Serrealle, Johannesburg's first theatrical impresario. He arrived in the mining town in June 1887 complete with a demountable, portable corrugated iron theatre, the "Theatre Royal" and its own players, mostly Australian opera singers. This was erected in Market Street East.

For the rough and ready miners, grand opera was a diversion and the theatre played to packed houses. The Theatre Royal was quickly followed by Frank Fillis' Circus, which "was set up in a vast amphitheatre of wood-and-iron and rapidly established itself as a semi-permanent favourite".

The circus was erected in 1889 in Jeppe Street, between Harrison and Loveday streets, and was "a conical tent-shaped structure of wood and corrugated iron 15 metres high and 47,23 metres in diameter" that provided seating for 2 000. Fillis liked to provide grand spectacles such as a reproduction of the Niagara Falls using an immense tank filled with thousands of gallons of water.

He also held Grand Fashionable Nights that were attended by the town's so-called "elite", who paid "10 guineas a box" for the privilege.

The Globe
The first permanent theatre was the Globe, built in 1889 at 47/49 Fox Street, "in the classicist style to accentuate the classic origins of the art form it portrayed". It was devoted to "old-fashioned melodrama and classic tragedy" and also used for concerts and recitals.

A local newspaper described it as "this new Thespian temple, handsomely furnished, the stalls being of dark blue leather with white and gold backs", while "in the circle a very elegant foyer has been arranged for the ladies" and adjoining this "is an excellently appointed lavatory". On the other side was "a pretty little promenade where the men will be able to enjoy a cigarette and a glass of water between the acts".

Glasses of water apparently didn't help when the theatre caught fire only a few months after its opening and it only re-opened again in June 1892. Eventually, "the Globe degenerated into a second-rate music hall and went into liquidation". But, like the inhabitants of the town, it was hardy and re-opened yet again, in 1894, as the Empire Palace of Varieties.

Here it was the bar that became the centre of interest for the mostly male audience - "bookies turned it into an informal Tattersalls" while financiers set up their own informal stock exchange at which "thousands of pounds of stock changed hands nightly".

The Standard Theatre was opened on 12 October 1891 in Joubert Street, behind where the Rissik Street Post Office now stands, and the Gaiety Theatre opened in 1893 at 3/5 Kort Street.

The Standard introduced one Arturo Bonamici, with an operatic company of some 60 artistes "acquired at considerable expense". It drew "great crowds" - including all the "young bloods" of the town who "clamoured for admission", particularly to see the leading lady, Agnes Delaporte, who was described as "a creature of singular charm and beauty".

Drama unfolded not only on stage at the Standard on a night in 1913, but also in the streets of the town. The Quinlan Opera Company was presenting a season of "great music dramas" brought to Johannesburg by impresario Leonard Rayne, who had chartered a whole ship to bring it to South Africa with its orchestra of 60 musicians and three conductors.

On this particular night the company was presenting Madame Butterfly. The cream of Johannesburg society was there "in boiled shirts and backless dresses" (everyone wore evening dress, even for going to cinemas).

"The audiences in those days were never sure whether they liked or understood ‘highbrow shows' but it was considered the thing to do". But this night they were so absorbed in the show that they didn't hear the increasingly loud noises coming from outside the theatre - "a mingling of angry shouts and cries with the sudden startling spatter of gunfire" (so what's new?).

An usher went to see what was happening and stumbled on the bloodied body of a man at the entrance to the theatre - the crowd wanted to rush out but were stopped and told "Better stay inside, it's dangerous out there. They're shooting up the whole town by the sound of it" - the Miners' Strike of 1913 had started.

Empire Palace
The second Empire Palace of Varieties,1905/6, built at 135/7 Commissioner Street, was described as "a spectacle of Edwardian luxury with 18 boxes, plush upholstery and drapes in green and gold - the handsomest theatre in the subcontinent".

Following the South African War, the Empire imported world-famous artistes such as Ada Reeve, Marie Lloyd, Harry Lauder, George Robey, Little Tich, Makeleyne and Pavlova. I am loath to admit it, but I recognise most of those names.

The Standard had become the mecca of all who loved Victorian drama but who would also appreciate Shakespeare and Sheridan. The Johannesburg theatre-goer was described as "easygoing" and "joyfully accepted whatever he was offered responding with packed houses and vociferous applause. Individual players were feted and honoured, the impresarios themselves were treated like kings and money flowed in a golden flood into the box-offices."

Quite a number of conversions from commercial buildings to theatres also took place in the early 1900s. In 1903 the Goldreich Building, used as a post office until the Rissik Street Post Office was completed, was converted to the first His Majesty's Theatre with seating for 1 100.

It presented a long series of variety shows, also importing London stars. The YMCA building at 71 Pritchard Street was converted in 1912 into the Vaudette Theatre and the Exchange Building into the Palladium Theatre in 1912.

Gerhard-Mark van der Waal comments: "The theatres were a popular form of relaxation where residents sought respite from the tensions brought on by feverish business activities. The fact that the theatres were located so close to the financial and business districts would seem to indicate that the former were regarded as a perfect foil for the latter. Compared with the hierarchical and insulated formalism of the banking and office buildings, the theatres represented a democratic and integrated approach to architecture." Democratic? Integrated? Hmmmm!

From the 1920s to 1940s, the interest and taste in entertainment shifted to new and experimental social activities, including spectacular shows. The first talking pictures were shown in the city in 1929. Theatres and cinemas were clustered in Jeppe and Bree streets and then in Commissioner Street. The Bijou was rebuilt in 1931 and the Plaza Cinema in 1930/1, both in Jeppe Street, and the Metro in 1932 in Bree Street. The Colosseum (1932/4) was built in Commissioner Street, the Twentieth Century (1939/40) in President Street and His Majesty's (1937/41), Broadcast House (1935/7) and the Colosseum were built in Commissioner Street, as was the second His Majesty's.

The Colosseum was demolished in the 1980s to make way for a block of offices (whereby hangs a number of tales) while His Majesty's still exists but has been refurbished into offices and retail. I did hear last week that part of the original theatre still exists.

Country Club
So how else did the population entertain itself? Well, the Country Club in Auckland Park dates back to 1906, where businessmen came "to be reminded of the sweet peacefulness of an English landscape ... a scene which will vividly recall teeming memories of the homeland"!

The zoo was established on land donated to the city in 1903; Zoo Lake was built in 1908 and the Auckland Park Racecourse was a popular venue. The Johannesburg Art Gallery was built (1910/14) and the fascinating history leading up to its establishment is brilliantly told in Jillian Carman's book Uplifting the Colonial Philistine, published in 2006.

The Johannesburg Art Gallery and the zoo, according to Addington Symonds, were "probably the most significant examples of how the prosperous mining magnates channelled part of their fortunes back to the city which permitted them to make those fortunes".

One other commentator wryly comments, "one cannot help wondering whether this largesse was a token of their sense of social responsibility and an acknowledgement of the worth of community values or whether it was merely a twinge of conscience at their exploitation of the black workers".

This then is a taste of the white entertainment history of the early mining camp and mining town. Enjoy the next long weekend.

Ciao, Neil


Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust tour
Sunday, 18 May: "Maraisburg, Florida and Roodepoort" - West Rand bus tour

Visit the historical towns of Maraisburg, Florida and Roodepoort. Once important mining towns, these areas have interesting histories and buildings.

The tour will visit a real little treasure - The Roodepoort Museum - which has remained a well-kept secret up until now. There will also be a visit to the Confidence Reef Mine, the site mined by the Struben brothers.

Bring a packed lunch or purchase one along the way. The cost is R285, and includes transport, entry fee and guides. Booking is at Computicket. Park at the Sunnyside Hotel, 2 York Road, Parktown at 8.45am.

For information, telephone Eira Bond on weekdays between 9am and 1pm on 011 482 3349.

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Last Updated on 29 April 2008