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Johannesburg Fort
Hospital Hill, Johannesburg, Gauteng

Sytze Wopkes WIERDA: Design Architect

Street:Kotze Street


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26°11'23.72" S 28°02'34.50" E

A visit to the Old Fort, Johannesburg


[Lantern, December 1969 pp. 84-88]

It was a spring morning when I made my first sortie, but I first laid siege to, and was repulsed from, the Women's Prison (which I mistakenly supposed to be the Fort's executive office), and later I was directed to my objective, the main gate, which rises obliquely and impressively from the tremendous ramparts.

The Fort originated as a gaol and serves as a prison for all and sundry in the Johannesburg area. One has some qualms as one approaches the vast portal which might well be superinscribed with the traditional wording: 'Abandon hope all ye who enter here'.

'Klop net eenkeer asseblief' — 'Knock once only please' says the legend above the brass knocker: I clutched my identity card and knocked. A barred peephole slid open and I was subjected to the intense scrutiny of a pair of eyes. After stating my name and credentials, it was a relief to find that my visit was not unexpected: a small door in the huge gates opened and a visitors' book was produced, a further gate unlocked and, with smooth efficiency, I found myself in the orderly room taking coffee with the Chief Warder, Warrant Officer de Villiers.

Having paid my respects to the tall and dignified O.C., Colonel Germishuis, who assured me that inside or outside the terrain under his jurisdiction I would come to no harm, I was handed back to Mr de Villiers.


Walking back to the entrance, we explored the wide and towering hall.

This chamber is defended from outside by the great doors mentioned and against attack from within by a barred steel screen which gives light to the interior and debouches on to a wide roadway which circles the ramparts. The hall is further defended from its lateral walls by rifle slits pointing towards the gates and designed to be operated from guard rooms concealed on either side. On one wall, almost at ceiling level, is a curious iron door, top-hinged and opening out, the purpose of which is not known: could it have been installed for pouring boiling oil or other unpleasant commodities upon attackers who had managed to storm the outer gate?

At this stage it might be as well to refer to the plan of the Fort which is reproduced in these pages. The general design is simple enough: a rectangle of ramparts surrounding a concentration of buildings around which runs a peripheral road, the whole structure being situated on a hill-top dominating Johannesburg and the surrounding country. Its uninteresting exterior, similar to any stronghold, is, of course, part of its essential camouflage, but it is unexpected that the ramparts contain and conceal offices, store rooms, and gun emplacements, the last approached by vaulted tunnels. The ceilings of these premises must be of enormous strength to sustain the tremendous weight of the earthworks above.

Walking in single file through the tunnels to the gun positions is an eerie experience, something like entering the approaches to the Catacombs, and to the claustrophobic the sense of enclosure is enhanced when doors are locked and bolted behind one — presumably a security drill so that there can be no attack from the rear. At one spot there is an ingenious device wheras by some balancing trick, a portion of the floor can be elevated to allow access to secret stairs leading to a storey below. Embrasures for cannon are protected by great iron shutters, each of which takes all the strength of two men to move.


Returning from our underground expedition, Mr de Villiers took me down the road which leads almost to the bottom of the hill where, beyond the unprotected northern entrance are situated the old stables with hay loft and double-doored gun park for the maxim guns of the old Staatsartillerie: a simple but charming bit of architecture. It seems probable that these stables took the place of those marked on the plan when the Northern entrance was opened up.

It was noticeable that the strange Tudor-like architecture which surprises one on first arrival is reintroduced where offices occur under the ramparts, and where stone walls support those earthworks the stones themselves might well interest geologist. In fact it is quite possible that 'there's gold in them thar walls'.

At one spot, firmly embedded in the masonry, is a horse-shoe. Did some sentimental soldier-builder put it there for luck?

After circling the ramparts from below we climbed to the top of these formidable erections where once were heavy guns to protect the old Pretoria road and the approaches from the East Rand. The views from the summit are superb.


Back to the main gate to read the inscription which proclaims:

GEBOUD 1896 - 99

The dates correspond with the Jameson Raid and the beginning of the South African War respectively, and the Public Works Department certainly did an excellent job, for even today there is not a crack to be seen.

The Fort site has contained a gaol since 1892, but in 1895 a vast sum (for those days) equivalent to R200,000 was voted by the Raadsaal for Improvements. It is said that President Kruger stated at the time that some day Johannesburg would be troublesome and he would need to turn the prison into a fortress, remarking that he would see that it was properly armed before the conflict came.

The improvements were made with considerable secrecy in the beginning and Johannesburgers were amazed to see what appeared to be mine dumps rising from the top of the hill. The President, it seemed, was entering the gold mining business. Soon, however, citizens became apprehensive as they watched the ramparts grow and later, when siege guns and ammunition began to arrive quite openly, an appeal was made to Lord Milner to have the place demolished.

Nothing is known about the garrisoning of the Fort during the war, but it seems likely that during that period it ceased to be a prison. Dr Punt, director of the Simon van der Stel Foundation and member of the Historical Monuments Commission, instances the fact that when his maternal grandfather, W. Ruwers, erstwhile station master of Braamfontein, was interned there by the British he was ordered to bring his own bed and food: this suggests that, as a prison, the Fort was hardly a going concern at the time.

Incidentally, the ground to the south, where the Medical Research Centre now stands, was used as a parade ground by the Boers — parts of the surrounding wall which survive are of the same brickwork as the Fort. No doubt the inhabitants of Johannesburg were suitably impressed by the military displays which took place there.

After the South African War several people suspected of supplying information to the enemy were summarily tried and executed inside the Fort by the British.

From the South African War our history proceeds to the year 1914 and the Rebellion. Certain dissident officers of the Union Defence Force were not in agreement with the war against Germany and her allies and secretly took up arms against the South African Government. The rebellious forces were, however, overwhelmed by General Smuts and numbers of rebel officers were for convenience housed in the Fort, pending their removal for trial to Pretoria or Bloemfontein. Generals de Wet and Kemp


[(Some text skipped) While there is no clear understanding of the origins of the coat-of-arms] it is known that in 1891 Anton VAN WOUW sculpted the same heraldic symbols in stone on the facade of the Raadsaal in Pretoria.

The armorial bearings certainly warrant examination. One wonders how the anchor, well-known symbol of the Cape of Good Hope, arrived as the central feature of the quartered shield and, more surprising still, how the lion couchant came to appear on one of the quartering. The eagle, which dominates the design, seems to have no connection with the Boers or even the Netherlands.

Dr C. Pama, in his book Lions and Virgins, says: 'The symbolism of the arms is simple. The lion in its natural form no doubt means courage ... whether the anchor was simply an indication of hope for the future or a reminder of their (the Boers') origin from the Cape Province is impossible to say. The eagle was no doubt meant as a symbol of domination and power'. The flag, of course, is the Vierkleur and the meaning of other items is obvious.

After the Boer War the Fort and some 23 acres of ground were presented as a Crown grant to be administered by the Johannesburg City Council for so long as the Government did not require them; the terms of the agreement were that the property should be dedicated to the 'recreation and amusement of the citizens'.

Many years later there was considerable objection when the proclamation of the Fort as an Historic Monument was first mooted, the main argument being that it had never seen a shot fired. I hope that these notes of mine are sufficient indication that, shots or not, this strange building has at least some history attached.

Plaque (see above) by the Egoli Heritage Trust

Commissioned November 1896

The Jameson Raid led the South African Republic
(Z.A.R.) Executive to instruct Cmdt. A.F. Schiel
to construct a fort around part of the existing gaol.
Designed to control the town, railways and mines,
the fort had two bastions for long-range guns
linked by earth ramparts. Convict labour
excavated and loaded rock and soil
from the northern slopes.

Plaque (see above) by the Egoli Heritage Trust


On 31 May 1900
the South Australian Mounted Rifles took the
surrender of The Fort. The first to enter were
Sgt.Maj. J.R. Read and Cpl. H.H. "Breaker"
Morant. Thereafter it was garrisoned by the
Cheshire Regiment which retained the
captured South African Republic (Z.A.R.)
flag, the "Vierkleur", amongst
its trophies.

All truncated references not fully cited below are those of Joanna Walker's original text and cited in full in the 'Bibliography' entry of the Lexicon.

Writings about this entry

Gardiner, KEF. 1969A visit to the Old Fort, Johannesburg. Lantern in December. pp 84-88
Bakker, Karel A, Clarke, Nicholas J & Fisher, Roger C. 2014. Eclectic ZA Wilhelmiens : A shared Dutch built heritage in South Africa. Pretoria: Visual Books. pg 83-85, 165, 195
Chilvers, Hedley A. 1929. Out of the Crucible. Being the romantic story of the Witwatersrand Goldfields; and of the Great City which arose in their midst (with sixteen drawings by William M. TIMLIN). London: Cassell. pg 210 opp
Gaylard, Shaun & McDougall, Brett . 2022. RSA 365 : 365 Drawings of South African Architecture. Johannesburg: Blank Ink Design. pg 66 ill
Greig, Doreen. 1971. A Guide to Architecture in South Africa. Cape Town: Howard Timmins. pg 131-132