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Kempton Park

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It is fascinating to rediscover the accidents of fortune which led to the birth of Kempton Park, located as it is, in the heart of South Africa's vibrant industrial and mining areas. Even before the 25th August 1903, which has been established as the official birth date of Kempton Park, the forces of fate were at work, playing a major role determining the destiny of the town.

Prior to the Great Trek of the 1830's, the area upon which Kempton Park now stands was known only to hunters and nomad cattle farmers. With the advent of the Voortrekkers one is able to trace the first sign of land settlement and administration.

The "Natalse Gouvernement of Zuid-Afrikaansche Maatskappy" received a request from settlers "oversijde van de Drakensbergen" (the other side of the Drakensberg) who enquired whether they enjoyed the same rights to the possession of land as the Natal settlers. On April 1st 1840 the Natal Volksraad decided that settlers on the west side of the Drakensberg were each entitled to two farms and a plot of land. After the annexation of Natal in 1843, the Transvaal area became the scene of great dispute until 1858 when the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (Z.A.R.) was formed under official constitution. Title deeds were issued to existing settlers to legalise their occupation of land.

The first seeds of the Kempton Park story were planted when, on 25 October 1859, the Z.A.R. issued a title deed for the farm Zuurfontein 369, in the district of Pretoria, to Johannes Stephanus Marais. The land was inspected on 12 December 1859 an declared to be "about 3 000 morgen" in area.

Another settler in this part of the world was Cornelius Johannes Beukes, in whose name the farm Rietfontein 32 IR, just northwest of Zuurfontein, was registered on 17 March 1865. These two farms form a substantial part of what is today Kempton Park, and the families and descendants of the original owners have played a part in the affairs of the town ever since.

Marais married his neighbour's daughter Jacoba Aletta Maria Dorothea Beukes and not long afterwards, on 27 December 1869, inherited Beukes' farm Rietfontein as well. At the age of 50, in 1873, Johannes Stephanus Marais died tragically from a gangrenous leg after falling from his horse. It thus came about that his widow Jacoba became the owner of the two farms and these were registered in her name on 23 March 1874 (with the exception of a tiny piece which her husband had previously sold to a young man called Daniel Riekert).

In those days farm life was fairly exacting. Each farm had to be self-sufficient to a large degree for there were no nearby towns and wild game wandered at will across the flat highveld plains. Managing two farms and bringing up a young family was clearly a difficult, if not impossible task for the widow Marais and it is not surprising to find that she remarried and in due course her land was divided up.

Her son Cornelius Johannes Marais acquired the farm Rietfontein. The farm Zuurfontein was divided four ways as follows:

One portion to Daniel Jacobus Christoffel Riekert who was married to Engela Susanna Marais.

One portion to Jan Adriaan Duvenhage who was married to E.M.M.S.G. Marais.

One portion to Theunis Hasie Duvenhage who was married to M.A.H.M. Marais.

The fourth portion of Zuurfontein, on which the spotlight was later to fall, became the property of Jacoba Marais' second husband, Matthys Jacobus Buitendag on 29 May 1890.

The discovery of gold

By now exciting things were happening in the Transvaal. Gold prospecting had been on the go for some years and, in 1886, George Harrison made the first discovery of the gold reef at Langlaagte, some 50 kilometres west of Zuurfontein. Further gold finds were recorded and within months the whole reef to the south of Zuurfontein was alive with activity. This was the start of the Golden City, Johannesburg, and the beginnings of the Witwatersrand.

The momentous discovery of gold in vast quantities became the first major event to influence the future development of Kempton Park.

The railway line

The next important and historic incident which was to have a permanent effect on the shaping of the town was the building of the railway line. It had long been a Voortrekker ideal to build a rail link between the Transvaal and the east coast and with the opening of the goldfields it became a vital priority.

On 25th June 1890, the Z.A.R. government granted a concession to the Nederlandsche Zuid-Afrikaansche Spoorwegmaatskappij to build a railway line from Pretoria, bypassing Johannesburg on the east and directed to the Vaal river by the shortest route.

It is interesting to note at this point that simply because of the desire to find the shortest geographical route to the sea, the railway line was designed to bypass Johannesburg completely. A junction linking the Witwatersrand and Johannesburg to the main line was established at Germiston. Significantly, however, the main line passed directly over the farm Zuurfontein, thus forging another link in the destiny of the yet unborn township of Kempton Park.

The route of the railway line, decided upon by the concession-holders and the government commissioner, resulted in the establishment of stations at Irene, Kaalfontein and Zuurfontein. This was to eventuate in Zuurfontein becoming a gathering place for the resident farmers in the area and thus local community life had its first origins.

The dynamite factory

But there was a third major development which was to determine the future of our town as fate moved once more into the affairs of Zuurfontein. This was the arrival of "the dynamite factory".

The Witwatersrand gold was discovered to be available in rich quantities at a depth below the surface which required tunneling and blasting on a great scale to extract the precious metal. Dynamite was an essential requirement for the burgeoning gold industry to the south of Zuurfontein and rival importers began to compete with each other for the supply of dynamite to the mines. The Z.A.R. was determined to keep control over the supply of explosives and on 31 December 1887 a sole concession was granted to Edouard Lippert to establish a company called the Zuid-Afrikaansche Maatskappy van Ontplofbare Stoffen.

For five years, operating under the mantle of an explosives manufacturing company, Lippert's enterprise imported blocks of explosives from France, machined and packed the explosives into cartridges and sold them to the mines at an enormous profit. A storm of protest arose from the mining industry and the dynamite concession became an international issue involving the British and French Governments.

To overcome the difficulties the Z.A.R. summarily cancelled Lippert's concession and assumed for itself the sole right to import, manufacture and supply dynamite. In conjunction with the largest dynamite manufacturer in Europe, the German-owned Nobel Trust*, a new company was formed in 1894 - Zuid-Afrikaansche Fabrieken voor Ontplofbare Stoffen Beperkt.

* The founder of the Nobel Trust, the world renowned Alfred Nobel, who was the pioneer of dynamite manufacture, died in 1896, largely unaware of the fact that this new South African factory was to become the largest manufacturer of dynamite in the world. On his death he left a sum of £2 000 000 for international prizes for the advancement of science, literature, medicine, and world peace - The Nobel Prize Awards.

A stretch of land, the farms Modderfontein and Klipfontein, northwest of Zuurfontein, was chosen as a suitable site for the dynamite factory. It was well clear of inhabited areas, accessible to the goldfields and had the advantage of natural contours which provided ideal dam sites - necessary for the large quantities of water to be used in acid plants.

Within a remarkably short time, "the dynamite factory" (as it was to be commonly known) became a reality. A contingent of specialists from Europe, mainly German, began the highly technical task of erecting the world's largest dynamite factory. A great deal of machinery, equipment, raw material and supplies was required. While the first builders and carpenters had walked the 10 kilometres to Modderfontein on foot, clearly a railway link to the main Pretoria line was an urgent necessity and Zuurfontein station became the logical link-up point.

Zuurfontein was now sharply defined on the map of progress.

Although a Z.A.R. Volksraad resolution (82 of 1889) precluded the government from paying compensation for land expropriated for the purposes of establishing a railway line, this did not apply to the envisaged private link and the Nobel company was obliged to negotiate with the local landowners, including the Buitendag family at Zuurfontein.

The stage was set for the entry of the central figure in the plot, the founder of Kempton Park, Carl Friedrich Wolff.

The founding of Kempton Park

Carl Friedrich Wolff was born on Christmas eve 1851 in Kempten, the capital of the Bavarian district AllgaŁ in South Germany. After school and an early training in the iron and steel industry, he moved to London and in 1873, embarked on a financial career. In 1875 his company, Adolph Mosenthal & Co. transferred him to South Africa where he took command of the accounting division in the Port Elizabeth branch. In 1880 he was transferred to Bloemfontein where he married Maria Fichardt, granddaughter of Carl Wuras, a noted missionary.

In 1888, Wolff was transferred to Pretoria to establish a branch office. He became a leading figure among the German community and was elected as chairman of the local German Club. From Pretoria he moved to Johannesburg to open another branch office and became a founder member and the first chairman of the German Club in the city.

Because of his German origin, Carl Friedrich Wolff was a natural choice as a go-between for the Z.A.R. in their transactions with the Nobel Trust, who were building the dynamite factory. The Nobel company had established the Zuid-Afrikaansche Fabrieken voor Ontplofbare Stoffen and had appointed Wolff as local director in South Africa (although he apparently retained his connections with his English employers).

The Nobel Trust exercised complete financial control over the dynamite factory and Wolff's major role appears to have been as negotiator with the Z.A.R. government and local landowners. During the establishment of the dynamite factory and the delicate negotiations which evolved as a result of the private rail link from the factory to Zuurfontein, Wolff played a prominent part.

The exciting events taking place at this time can well be imagined. Gold fever had gripped the Witwatersrand and the dynamite factory was a vital industrial necessity. Land speculation was rife, community development was beginning to take shape and Carl Wolff, at the peak of his career, was right in the heart of the drama.

Establishing the rail link was of prime importance and successful negotiation with the owners of the farm Zuurfontein, the Buiendags, was crucial The Buitendag's great complaint was that the existing railway line already divided their property and some 113 morgen on the east side of the farm was completely cut off from the main property. The new railroad to the dynamite factory would further divide their property and disrupt their farming operations.

Wolff successfully placated the land owner by obtaining the dynamite factory's agreement to an option to purchase the farm Zuurfontein (with the notable exclusion of the 113 morgen portion east of the main railway line). On these conditions, Buitendag agreed to the dynamite factory's new rail link.

"Indien gemelde Matthys Johannes Buitendag te eeniger tijd zijn plaats zou willen verkoopen, heeft die comparanten q.q. ten andere zijde (die maatskappy) het eerste regt van koop, uitgezonderd het oosterlijke punt of hoek van de gemelde plaats aan de overzijde van de thans bestaande spoorbaan."

Details of discussions and intentions are not recorded but the subsequent history of the 113 morgen portion to the east of the railway line leads to the conclusion that its exclusion from the option may have been no mere omission on the part of the chief negotiator.

On 7 January 1095 M.J. Buitendag signed the vital contract with the dynamite company.

A month later, on 8th February 1095, Buitendag sold the 113 morgen on the east side of the railway line to one George Just.

The following year, on 7 May 1896, Just sold the same property to Carl Friedrich Wolff and the die was cast for the establishment of Kempton Park.

Meanwhile, dynamite production had commenced and in the same year (1896) a postal agency was set up at the Zuurfontein station. The Anglo-Boer war broke out in 1899 while Wolff was in Europe. The Zuurfontein station became a significant link in the Z.A.R.'s communications and munitions supply line during the struggle. Because of its importance, a blockhouse was erected on the high ground to the east of the station to protect the rail link and postal agency. *

* The passage of time and the speed of Kempton Park's recent development has resulted in the disappearance of most of the early landmark. Although the old guard post has long since been demolished, its existence is commemorated in the name of Blockhouse Street, which forms a junction with Park Street in present-day Kempton Park, at the site of the old building.

War ended on May 13, 1902 with the Peace of Vereeniging and Carl Friedrich Wolff, who by now had severed ties with the dynamite factory, wasted no time. On 13 August 1902 he sold his 113 morgen portion of the farm Zuurfontein to his own newly formed private company called Kempton Park Estates Limited.

The purchase price of the land was ₤5 650 sterling and 57 fully paid up shares of ₤100 each in the company, which ensured control remained in Wolff's hands.

On 25 August 1903 the then Surveyor-General, H.M. Jackson, approved plans for the establishment of a new township "the said property to be known as Kempton Park" and the township officially came into existence.

During the period immediately following the peace treaty, some confusion reigned whilst a new government administration was established and although the Surveyor-General had approved the plan for the proposed new township, no official proclamation appeared in the Government Gazette nor did the Registrar of Deeds file an official title deed of registration for the town.

In the absence of any other official documents the date of the Land Surveyor's approval became the official birthday of Kempton Park.

Carl Friedrich Wolff's power of attorney had referred to "the said property to be known as Kempton Park" subdivided into a township of 216 plots. This was the first official mention of the name Kempton Park. History does not record the particular reasons for the choice of the name. An obvious derivation would be Wolff's birthplace Kempten but thisd would not explain the difference in spelling. The fact that the company owning the township was also registered as Kempton Park Estates Limited makes the matter more complicated unless the spelling arose as the result of a typographical error which was then duplicated. It has been suggested that the name derives from Kempton Park in Great Britain, the site of a famous racecourse, but no direct link of nature can be established. The correct source of the name must therefore remain a matter for speculation.

The original town plan made provision for roads, two of which wer already in use as tracks. The most prominent of these was the connecting road between Pretoria and Germiston which the Surveyor General accepted as the western boundary of the township and it became officially known as Pretoria Road. The second was the main route from Zuurfontein Station to Benoni which met the Pretoria Road at a T-junction and became known as Central Avenue. It was not until years later that these and other roads provided for in the original plan actually came into being as such. Carl Friedrich Wolff purchased for his own use stand 212, on the southern boundary of the township, near the eastern corner and subsequently erected the first house in Kempton Park on this site.*

*In Kempton Park today a block of residential flats, Deodar Grove, stands on the site of this first house.

And so we have the birth of Kempton Park.

With history being made all around it, the tiny portion of Zuurfontein farm east of the railway line became the nucleus of a progressive town which now includes most of the surrounding farms previously mentioned in the narrative. The shadows of many great men are to be discovered along the path to its foundation. Men like Paul Kruger, famous President of the Z.A.R., Alfred Nobel and Cecil John Rhodes** who although not directly involved in Kempton Park's affairs, were nevertheless concerned in the events which led to the founding of the town.

**A syndicate consisting of C.J. Rhodes, a well-known figure in South African history, C.D. Rudd and H.S. Caldecott, purchased the farm Witkoppie to the south of Zuurfontein just before the turn of the century with a view to its potential gold reserves. Prospecting results were disappointing, however, and Witkoppie became a timber plantation for supplying the rapidly developing Witwatersrand mines. Witkoppie was later to become the site of Jan Smuts International Airport.

Cecil John Rhodes
- Empire Builder - Co-owner of the farm Witkoppie, where Jan Smuts Airport is situated today.


Next: Early Days - 1903 to 1935


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