An ever growing town

Chinese labourers where brought in by the gold-mining houses to replace black miners who retreated to their distant homes during the war.

The aftermath of war and Alberton – 1900-1910

These were the years with big gaps between the haves and the have-nots. Rural farmers had been left destitute – first by the rinderpest and then the war.

Even the famous Org Meyer returned from war to find his wife and children interned in a concentration camp, all his buildings, including the homes of his black staff, burned to the ground and all his stock stolen.

In 1903 Gen Alberts and a group of friends pooled their resources and bought a portion of the farm Elandsfonten from Jan Meyer’s mother, now widowed the second time. The land was close to Johannesburg and Germiston, and with the markets of the two adjacent towns within a matter of hours away farmers could easily make a living. There was enough water and farming, was the first thought to spring to mind with the mines close at hand and the new railway, it definitely held promise for the desperately poor to survive.

The Albert Syndicate bought the land and divided it up for sale (free-hold), on the easily manageable payment of four pounds a month until the purchase price of one hundred and twenty pounds (R240) was paid off. This bought an “erf” of 100 square foot.

When naming the new town, and with Jan Meyer’s mother declining any personal honour, and the Meyer family coming from Prince Albert in the Cape, and General Alberts had initiated the scheme, they agreed to share the honour between the families and named it Alberton.

Not free to all:

Free-hold land it might have been, but definitely not free to all. Land was not for sale to black or coloured buyers, and later, when the syndicate was in deep financial trouble due to back-taxes owing on unsold land, prices dropped to as little as one pound ten shillings for an erf in the rocky areas. Indian entrepreneurs were still debarred and bought land just outside the proclaimed township.

Here they were allowed to use the premises for business purposes only. Back then the primary function of the town was simply to provide assistance to the impoverished Boers.

The first family who took advantage of this was Jacobus Johannes van der Merwe from Barcley East. He was appointed caretaker of certain mining ground roughly where the old railway station is today. The family moved onto Erf 1 in December 1903, and stayed in a tent house until they could build. Being the first woman in a fast growing town, Mrs Van der Merwe, or aunt Let, became the first midwife.

Being the only freehold land available, the town grew quickly with miners and railway men from Germiston moving in. Houses quickly sprang up between the mielie-lands, but with that came new problems.

A better source of water:

Natalspruit flowing from the mining area was not exactly suitable for healthy living. A better source of water needed to be found. The Alberts Syndicate then drilled a borehole, which promptly became known as the ‘goewermentsput’ (although the government had nothing to do with it). This well provided fresh water to the town for many years. There are reports of queues forming as early as 03:00 in the morning for people to collect drinking and cooking water. Washing was done on the rocks down at the spruit near where Redruth bridge is today.

Sanitation:

A health committee was established in 1908 and their solution was to bring in a private contractor to get rid of the waste disposal. Living on the quartz koppie did not offer the luxury of digging a longdrop so the bucket system was brought in. Enclosed boxes with a bucket were build back to back against an alley that ran the length of each block. This was the route for the night truck (nagwa) which stopped and emptied each bucket during the night. A local entrepreneur borrowed 80 pounds to buy a night-soil cart from the Germiston Town Council, and relying on six-mule-power, he set off each night to clean out the buckets. It earned him 2/6 a month from each household.

In 1915 the Health Committee took over the task and residents had to pay them seven shillings a month to have their rubbish and night-soil removed – no doubt complaining about the cost.

Cheap labour:

Chinese labourers where brought in to work in mines and there are wild stories about these workers. Although it would seem that nobody in Alberton actually suffered at their hands, their presence in Johannesburg had a profound effect on the politics at the time.

They were brought in to replace black miners, who retreated to their homes during the war so roughly 50 000 Chinese labourers were imported. Being paid a pittance for extremely hard work, one would find it natural that they would not stay in the confines of the mining compounds.

There were reports of assault, murder and robbery on the outskirts of Johannesburg and people lived in fear of the “Yellow Peril”. It is said that children were taught to run home immediately if they caught a glimpse of an ‘oriental’ and stories circulated wildly about narrow escapes, averted thefts and midnight sorties.

*Taken from An Alberton Album, published by the Alberton Town Council 1997

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