Forgotten Temples, Monuments and Bridges

The many tributaries of the Sandspruit that flowed through the farms Syferfontein and Klipfontein created a rich and fertile landscape, and though the farms are gone, many historic structures on the spruit remain. Explore a series of bridges built by the City Engineer’s department between 1926 and 1938 in unusual sympathy with their context. These structures, built from locally sourced granite, have weathered decades of neglect and look as beautiful today as when they were built. Our City’s rivers were not only important for agriculture, but also for doing the laundry! It may surprise some to hear that one of Joburg’s earliest laundries was founded on the banks of the Sandspruit by Tamil labourers in the vicinity of Melrose in the late 1890s, and that this community has endured to this day. Our walk takes us past their Shree Siva Subramaniar Temple. In this vicinity can also be found two of Joburg’s lesser known memorials, to the Katyn Forest Massacre of 1940 and to the fighter pilots of World War II. And our walk will also encompass some of our earliest residential architecture – a house in Oaklands dating back to 1896, and the oldest existing houses in Abbotsford, Norwood and The Gardens.


Hilson Bridge is the earliest suburban bridge built in Johannesburg, and dates back to 1926. It is constructed of locally sourced granite, and its low-slung and inconspicuous design is in unusual sympathy with its environment. The descendants of the Willow trees seen in this historic photo are still to be found here.


High Road between Plantation and Nursery Roads was called Red Square by the Security Branch because of the number of residents involved in anti-apartheid activities. The Rochmans at 21 Nursery Road sheltered Nelson Mandela in the early 60s, Michael Harmel at 47 High was the chief theoretician of the communist party, and Eli Weinberg became the photographer of the Struggle.


In contrast to the modest Hilson Bridge, the Pretoria Street Bridge, constructed in 1938, asserts its importance with bulky, rough-hewn dark granite and imposing pediments. The construction of the bridge was necessitated by rapid suburban growth in Highlands North and neighbouring Oaklands and Abbotsford in the 1930s.

The Johannesburg Melrose Shree Siva Subramaniar Temple (Melrose Temple) was founded in 1897 by indentured Tamil labourers working in the Melrose Laundry on the Sandspruit. The Tamil community was granted rights to build a temple here by Kruger’s ZAR government, although restricted ownership laws meant that the land was owned by a white proxy. Sadly, the original buildings were demolished in the 1990s.

This odd looking structure is what remains of a memorial erected in 1976 to commemorate the Royal Air Force aircrews who died while undergoing training in SA. Sadly, the Harvard wings once attached to it were removed after being vandalised, and are now housed  at the SAAF Museum at Zwartkops.


In 1927 it was decided to extend waterborne sewerage to the suburbs using the small natural drainage basins of Joburg’s streams. Gravity-fed plants were established and given Classical-sounding names that would not prejudice the neighbouring suburbs by association – Antea, Bruma, Cydna and Delta. These four schemes were constructed during the Depression of the 1930s and were capital projects and poverty relief endeavours using only ‘poor white’ labour. They were eventually superseded by the gigantic disposal works at Diepsloot/Dainfern.


The Cydna Bridge, constructed on Melrose Street in 1931, is the most modest, and perhaps the most charming of our neighbourhood’s three historic bridges. Sadly, this area has been tainted by association with Brett Kebble’s arranged murder-suicide just up the road on Melrose Street Bridge.


The Katyn Memorial was erected in 1981 to commemorate the Katyn Forest Massacre, in which 14,500 Polish officers, police officers and citizens were executed by the Stalin regime of the Soviet Union in 1940. It was the first memorial outside of Poland to this event. The monument has since been extended to commemorate the Warsaw Flights and Polish Home Army during World War II.


The oldest house in Abbotsford, built before 1913, is found next to the Park.


The Bram Fischer family house. After evading police for months in 1964, he was arrested just down the road from his home, at the corner of Beaumont and Stella.

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Pretoria-born attorney MA Begemann arrived in Johannesburg in 1886, and in 1896 was living in a large house set in a block of 8 acres to which four magnificent oak avenues led – “Oaklands”. The house still stands, although the block has been carved up and many of the Oak trees are gone. A subsequent owner, RS Mennie, whose family still own the property, built the magnificent stables on Haswell Street, and the almost hidden water tower on the corner of African and Currie. 


Between 1961 and 1974, Helen Suzman was the sole representative of the Progressive Party in Parliament, and used that position to bravely speak out against Apartheid. Using the privileges of that position, she visited political prisoners and campaigned against unjust laws that so many other activists were subjected to, including detention without trial. Suzman was elected by the Houghton electoral district, and her campaign office was situated at 38 Ivy Road, Norwood.

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The suburbs of Norwood, Orchards and The Gardens were all founded in 1902, and are therefore amongst the oldest suburbs in Johannesburg. Norwood was immediately popular with the lower middle-class as it was served by the tram on Grant Avenue. Development in Orchards and The Gardens tracked the tram’s extension. Though gentrification from the 70s has almost obliterated its historic housing stock, Nellie Road contains the oldest remaining house (1911)at no 2, and a beautifully restored example of late 20s veranda architecture at no 52.

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Orchards' oldest house, dating back to 1903, is found at 11 High Road. The historic St Luke's Church, designed in 1906 by Herbert Baker with later additions by Fleming, is situated across the road. 

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The Gardens was established in 1902, and its oldest remaining house was built soon after, for a Mr Cuthbertson on stand no 1 in 1905. Its late Victorian design is largely unaltered. Land to the east of The Gardens remained undeclared until the 1970s, and it was here that the thriving Portuguese Market Gardens were developed. Sadly increasing land prices resulted in a very attractive sale of the land to Sanlam and Pick n Pay in the 1970s, resulting in the disappearance of the irrigation dams and destruction of much of the wetland. NORA has bravely fought to restore the space in recent years.

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