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Jo'Burg Days: Remembering Joburg In The Old Days

Barbara Durlacher conjures up a host of memories of the old days in that great South African city, Johannesburg.

Houses with red corrugated roofs,
Alternately boiling and freezing as the seasons changed.
Coal stoves and donkey boilers to heat the water.
Icy winters hunched in front of tiny Victorian fireplaces
Where a few coals glowed sulkily in the gloom.

Kitchen dressers with cup hooks,
Metal ‘zincs’ with thick china washbowls.
Linoleum covered floors;
Dusty carpet runners in passages
Coir or feather mattresses before innersprings,
Black iron bedsteads, sagging in the middle.
Wardrobes with centre panel mirrors
Bentwood chairs; fly-screens on doors and windows.
Washstands with jugs, bowls and soap dishes
‘Judge’-brand saucepans and enamel coffee pots.
Long-drop toilets, torn newspapers on a nail
Mule-drawn carts; the furtive ‘bucket-brigade’
That removed the ‘night-soil’.

Coal sacks in grimy backyard sheds
Stables; there were very few cars
Fresh eggs and poultry cackling in backyard hoks
Fruit-trees in the back garden,
Fresh veggies dusted with soil

The butcher and the grocer calling for orders,
NelsRust Dairies and the daily delivery
Rinse the bottles and the cardboard milk caps
For tomorrow’s delivery
There’s the tinkle of the ice-cream man riding the suburbs
How the kids loved the two-pence ice-lollies!

Fast, noisy auctions at Newtown Market
Fruit, veggies, poultry and colourful flowers sold every day
Over-loaded wagons drawn by tired horses
Interrupted as they snatched a mid-day mouthful of dusty hay
To creak and sway down to the suburbs, along
The traffic free roads of 1940s Johannesburg

The long distances between the Reef towns
Before the motorways
A train’s lonely whistle on a freezing winter’s night
A homesick migrant worker seeking comfort in his music
Produced from a gourd-strung mouth harp

The silences and huge emptiness of the countryside;
Miles of golden grasslands between Jo’burg and Pretoria
And Sandown’s gentle country life with its dogs, stables and horses;
It was the original ‘mink and manure’ suburb.
Quiet walks in Illovo along sandy tree-lined roads,
‘George’s’ riding stables where an international hotel stands today.

Radiograms and wind-up gramophones; crystal sets with earphones
Terrible radio reception before FM and shortwave,
Listen to the crackles during a Highveld thunderstorm.
Incredible, roaring hailstorms and
Stately cumulus galleons sailing
Downwind to the eastern escarpment

Eric Egan and jumping to 7am ‘physical jerks’,
Lourenço Marques ‘pirate’ radio.
The wonderful ‘English Radio’ serials;
Anyone remember “The Man in Black?”
The ‘Three Wise Men’ and their fund of general knowledge
First-class afternoon radio plays.
The charm of Paddy O’Byrne; but this was years later.

Chanting gangs of African labourers digging trenches
As they laid pipes and cables to
Give the suburbs water, gas and sanitation
‘PUTCO’ buses and workers from ‘Alex’
Cycling to Joburg in the cold dawn light.

Hand-cranked phones and the farm ‘party-line’
A three-hour wait for a trunk-call
Plug-in switchboards and the Tannie’s
Irritated voice with the ritual “Nommer asseblief”

Stinkwood and Imbuia ‘ball-and-claw’ furniture.
Shepherd & Barker, who only sold
The best Chippendale and Sheraton styles
Not antique. Everyone wanted ‘new’ when Joburg was young
Thelma Brodé, who photographed everyone
Who was “someone” in Johannesburg society.

Magical Japanese origami that underwater
Unfurled petals of wondrous blooms.
Incense and the gleam of fabrics from the
Dim interior of an Indian bridal shop.
Fine suits hand-tailored by skilled Europeans,
Made refugee by Hitler’s persecution.
Cosmopolitan Hillbrow and crowded Café Kranzler
Where foreign figures lingered to read the foreign papers on sticks
While others talked in growling European tones
Discussing news of defeated homelands,
Drowning their fears in Austrian coffee crowned with whipped cream

The daily crush of hatted and gloved workers
Hurrying down Twist Street when the trams were full
The designs and colours of Basuto blankets worn by
Homebound mineworkers walking
To Park Station led by an Induna.
They marched with heads high, singing a song of home.
Sewing machines, paraffin lamps and Primus stoves
Found their way to the rural kraals,
Together with other, more secret, gifts.

The Italianate beauty of the central court at
Park Station and the Edwardian beauty of
The ‘Blue Room’ restaurant.

The excitement of the long steam train journeys to the coast
Daily appeals for aluminium saucepans ‘for the War Effort’
Digging “Anderson Shelters” in the back garden.
General and Isie Smuts and the “Little Man” lapel pin
Knitting socks, balaclavas and scarves for the troops

The frightening arrival of polio, and dying
Children imprisoned in “iron-lungs” where they struggled for breath
The majestic white ‘Institute’ on Hospital Hill where
World famous scientists and doctors discovered
The secrets of the viruses that killed so many
And manufactured serum for snakebite. It was used all over Africa.
The redbrick Victorian buildings of the old Johannesburg hospital
Where blue and red caped nurses scampered to the wards
Late in beginning their morning duties

The original Wanderers near Park Station
Where many school teams competed for glory
Old model American petrol pumps
At the side of the road, hand-cranked with
Two one-gallon glass tanks in the metal casing
That filled and emptied as the petrol siphons off.
War shortages and cars converted to run on paraffin
No white flour; making butter from ‘top-o’-the-milk,’
And other unlisted shortages, “There’s a War on you know,”
Was supposed to explain it all away

Trams and double-decked buses
With overhead electric connections
Cream and red were the city’s municipal colours.
Delays while he hooked the electric unit onto the lines
With a long bamboo pole hidden under the bus
Agile conductor in navy uniform and cap,
With his silver coin holder
Tight bundle of tickets and hand-punch.
Pull the cord once to stop.
“Ting, ting” and we’re off again,
The noise of seats reversing as he slapped them
Into position when the end of the line was reached.

Springbok-head logo on SAR train windows;
Shiny green leather bolsters bumping
Varnished mahogany woodwork,
Smeared black and white photos of old
Cape-Dutch manor houses. “Alle kaartjies, asseblief”
As we click-clack over the points, and
The five-note gong signals it’s time for another feast

Dreary mine towns, coal dust and smuts in your eye

Lisle stockings, crepe de chine; the first nylons
Max Factor, Pancake make-up and Tangee lipstick
A whiff of Mom’s “Evening in Paris” perfume
At your first dance
How grown-up you felt in your long evening dress!

Cape-to-Cairo cigarettes at 1/1d for 30
A penny, a tickey, a shilling, a florin, a half-crown and a guinea
Parity between Sterling and the South African pound
Pineapples for 3d, and early Transvaal peaches at 1/- (one shilling) a bucket.

The “Rand Daily Mail” and ‘Angela Day’ household hints
That never failed to solve your domestic difficulties.

Britannia on the pink penny stamps;
Half-a-penny if the envelope was open,
And telegrams at a penny a word

Tea-room ‘bios’ with their continuous performances;
Pay and take your seat at any time.
American Milk Bars, all chromium and fizz;
The Dolls House at midnight, and double-thick chocolate malteds.
Banana-splits, Coke-specials and hotdogs with lots of mustard.

Deanna Durban, Judy Garland, Nelson Eddy, Jeannette Macdonald.
Vivienne Leigh and Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind,
The Wizard of Oz, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The Chocolate Soldier; Mrs Miniver, Blossoms in the Dust and Casablanca,
Swashbuckling Erroll Flynn and darkly handsome Tyrone Power,
Leslie Howard’s delicate blond profile and Mario Lanza’s fine tenor;
Legendary Marlené Dietrich. Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford. Anne Ziegler, Webster Booth and Ivan Novello,
Annie Get Your Gun, Oklahoma! and the high-kicking ‘Tiller Girls,’

Wednesday and Saturday matinees, 6d for kids, adults 1/1d
The Lone Ranger, his trusty horse Tonto and exotic Zorro,
That was when cinema was new; a real ‘dream factory’

Eloff Street trams and elegant shops packed
With imported clothes, handbags and shoes.
Saturday shopping at John Orrs. White-gloved lift-girls “Going Up!”
Stuttafords’ hats that flowered like meringues,
Where Lower Houghton society ladies lunched in the tearoom
While the mannequins twirled and postured,
Showing off the new season’s fashions.

OK Bazaars’ Christmas windows, when ‘switching on the lights’
Was eagerly awaited and Dad and Mom
Took the kids on the bus after supper to see the display
Along Eloff Street, and little Tommy wet his pants

The yellow haze of mine dust that hung over everything
And winter’s evening coal-smoke turned the sunsets purple.
The old Olympia ice-rink and next-door greyhound track.
The Top-Star cinema drive-in on top of a mine-dump.
MacPhails filthy coal yard where emaciated horses
Pulled rickety carts heavily loaded with bags of coal

Ansteys Art-Deco building, Markhams corner with the clock,
Escom House on Marshall and New Street, once the
Tallest building in the southern hemisphere
It’s Gandhi Square today.

Charles Manning and his theatrical sweep of white hair
“Ag, pleeze Deddy,” sang Jeremy Taylor in his musical
“Wait a Minim.” Leon Gluckman’s “King Kong” and
“Ipi Tombi” by Bertha Egnos
“Back o’ the Moon, Boys,” and “Mama Temba’s Wedding”
Songs that caught the spirit of the townships

‘Second-show’ at the Metro, being shown to your seat
By a uniformed usherette shining her torch while
John Massey played the cinema organ and
Everyone sang to the ‘bouncing-ball’
Rustling chocolate papers; lacquered hair, tight shoes,
Corsets and fur coats in the Grand Circle and
The curtain of cigarette smoke hung thick by interval
When the usherette wore a tray and sold ice-creams and lollies

The East African Pavilion and their delicious curries

A street-corner watchman huddled over a glowing brazier.
Remember how the city was always ‘Under construction’?
And urchins tootled “Penny-Whistle Boogie” on hand-made pipes
On a frosty night for pennies

Bothner’s and Gallo’s music shops,
Filled with pianos and shiny brass instruments
The wonderland of the twinkling stars and
Moorish castles at the Coliseum cinema
‘His Majesty’s Cellars’ and their Crayfish Newburg
The Phoenix Beer-hall, a stein of draft,
Free German rye bread; ‘thumb soup’ and
A plate-sized schnitzel for only one shilling and sixpence

The old Carlton Hotel, focus of every big occasion –
Marlene Dietrich stayed there
As well as the young Aly Khan
High Society’s “Spring Ball” where double rows of elegant
White-gowned debutantes and their escorts
Were presented to the Governor-General at the big ball of the “Season’,
Elegance and luxury at the Langham Hotel,
The Criterion, known to everyone as “The Cri:”
For years the hangout of reporters,
Who crowded there at midday to get the latest news

City Hall flower sellers and
Saturday mornings spent exploring
The treasures of the Johannesburg Public Library
Where the serried ranks of books stood proudly in
Their red leather covers with gold lettered titles

The original Thrupps in Eloff Street, and
Their huge range of imported food
Shops closed half-days Wednesdays and on
Saturdays shut their doors at three

The Lutyens-designed Art Gallery in Joubert Park
With its fine collection of paintings and sculpture;
The Edwardian fountain and splendid hothouse;
And brilliant flower beds arrayed in spring colour
That delighted the eye after the bleak highveld winter.

Picnics at the Zoo; excited children crowding the
Mounting blocks for rides on elephants and camels,

Fund raising fairs at the Zoo Lake “For the War Effort”

Soggot’s Corner, Publix and Stuttafords in Rosebank
Gallaghers Baker’s in Orange Grove filled with
Mouth-watering cakes and pastries. It’s the Hospice Charity Shop today.

Narrow roads choked with peak hour traffic
As the city emptied when shops and offices closed
Louis Botha Avenue the only connection between Pretoria and Joeys
Before they built the Ben Schoeman highway
The eleven-hour drive to Durban until the tolls came along

Aaaah … those really were the days!

If you remember all of these
Then you must be as old as I am, and
Cherish our city’s colourful heritage
In the same way as I do.


With thanks to Olive Jew and Mike Alfred whose evocative phrase “thumb soup” immediately recalled the tastes and sounds of the old Phoenix Beerhall. Thanks also to all the wonderful citizens of ‘Joeys’ who have made this great city what it is.


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