A view of Hillbrow from a flat in Ponte Towers, Johannesburg. Picture: THE TIMES
A view of Hillbrow from a flat in Ponte Towers, Johannesburg. Picture: THE TIMES

Hillbrow, or the Brow, once described as the healthiest and most fashionable suburb in Johannesburg, was part of Randjeslaagte, an unwanted and worthless piece of barren land.

It was residual land left over after the farms Braamfontein, Turffontein, Doornfontein and Langlaagte were surveyed before gold was discovered.

The early days and development of the suburb is captured in the fascinating book Hillbrow, by Paddi Clay and liberally illustrated with photographs by Glynn Griffiths. It is on offer per online auction at www.jellyfishtree.com. It gives a detailed account of the history of the suburb, its interesting people and its bohemian lifestyle.

Everything changed when gold was discovered in 1886. Randjeslaagte was in the centre of the gold diggings and in time became the site of the township which in turn became the city of Johannesburg, with Hillbrow at the northern apex.

There is a vast difference between the Hillbrow of 1895, when residential stands in the area were auctioned, and the Hillbrow of 1982, when the first edition of the book was published.

Present-day Hillbrow shows signs of what could be irreversible deterioration. Its future is not promising, but neither was it promising before gold was discovered.

In time, the more successful diggers and the merchants and other businessmen found it necessary to move away from the dust and grime of the diggings, the “coarse life of the diggers and the unsavoury environs of the grogshops”, to a more congenial environment.

A letter written by a young lady living in early Johannesburg to a friend in England, describing the unpleasant conditions in the township, was published in a Johannesburg newspaper at the time.

She writes that all that Johannesburg offered were “dust, dogs and men. But of the three, I find the men the most odious”.

The move northwards was inevitable and on Wednesday July 24 1895 auctioneer Richard Currie distributed leaflets advertising the Great Land Sale of residential stands in Hillbrow, “the healthiest and most fashionable suburb of Johannesburg”. Moreover, it was within walking distance from the Hospital Hill tram.

Other attractions included the banning of canteens, and only one hotel block was reserved. There was no reserve price and easy terms were offered.

It is said elsewhere that Randlord Barney Barnato was one of the first mining magnates to move away from the mining camp conditions of the town. He bought a large property off what is now known as Barnato Street in Hillbrow/Berea and planned to build a large mansion with landscaped gardens and an artificial lake.

He never lived in the mansion, leaving on a visit to England before it was completed. During the voyage it is said he jumped overboard and drowned. Some people at the time believed he was pushed over by a business rival.

His nephew Solly Joel completed the mansion and lived there until, at his bequest, the property was converted into a girls’ high school. While the house was being demolished, two of the wrought iron gates were stolen.

Incidentally, his grandson from the US visited Johannesburg in 1976.

Officially, Hillbrow covers the area between Clarendon Place in the west to Catherine Avenue in the east, Pretoria Street in the south and Louis Botha Drive in the north.

Over the years the residents unofficially extended the boundaries, which in time doubled Hillbrow’s size.

Though Berea and Hospital Hill are separate municipal wards, the residents nevertheless had to operate with “their far pushier dominant neighbour”. To the extent, says the author, that many people regarded Hospital Hill and Berea as dormitories for Hillbrow.

Clay believes that in later years the discotheques were the Brow’s lifeblood. They were plentiful ... their existence depended on liquor licence applications and the tolerance of the police. Some survived a year, some only a month.

There was the “grand old lady”, the Barbarella, which offered live resident bands. La Poupée only served “doubles” and stayed open longer and later. Other popular discos included the Copacabana, Peppermint Park and Boobs.

Admission had to be strictly controlled. The bouncer had to ensure that no firearms were brought into the disco because on occasion these were used to settle arguments.

“It was a volatile area, but it seldom ignited,” said a one-time disco owner.

There was more to Hillbrow at night than discos and clubs, and eating and drinking. There were pinball machines (until they were declared illegal), bridge and poker clubs and computerised gaming tables.

Also, there were continental-type cafés, cinemas, record bars and bookshops, which were all part of the “buzz”.

Many shops stayed open outside trading hours, even on Sundays, thus flouting the Sunday Observance Act and the strict licensing laws. But Hillbrow was a law unto itself, and “turned normal routine upside-down or at least confused it”. It could offer what was normally unobtainable elsewhere, such as Fontana, the supermarket/takeaway/bakery that never closed. When it was officially opened, the owner ostentatiously threw away the key, The Star reported at the time. There was no need for it.

The best way to see Hillbrow, says Clay, was to walk through it, avoiding “the urine-stenched lanes which, before flush toilets were introduced, were used by the night-soil carts”. And also to avoid tripping over a beggar sleeping off the effects of methylated spirits, and the glue sniffers.

The revellers marched to a different drum, as did the partakers of brandy and cough-mixture cocktails, who walked around the Brow completely ignoring pedestrian robots.

A former resident remembered that late-night diners at fast-food restaurants were not surprised if arguments broke out. On one occasion he observed two diners who came close to trading blows. Suddenly one of the belligerents grabbed a bottle of Worcestershire sauce and sprinkled it over his opponent’s head. He then picked up his takeaway order of fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, and casually sauntered out of the shop.

Unusual behaviour perhaps, but then Hillbrow was never a conventional suburb; it was more a type of life than a place.

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