Durban city hall: a witness to history

“One of the finest buildings in South Africa,” was how mayor J Ellis Brown described the future Durban City Hall in September 1904, about six months before construction started on the new seat of power for governance in the city.

He was speaking at a meeting of the city council, desperately trying to convince its members that the hall was worth building, despite an economic downturn and a budget several thousands of pounds higher than first anticipated. Eventually, Ellis Brown convinced city leaders that building the hall was the right thing to do and construction went ahead.

Five years and £300 000 later, the new city hall, with its colonial Edwardian exterior, was opened on April 12, 1910 – and since then it has stood as a central, essentially unchanging landmark as Durban has grown.

“The city hall stands as a testament to transition,” said Mikhail Peppas, a member of the South African National Society (for the preservation of objects of historic interest and natural beauty). “This city hall and the space around make up a piece of ground that has so much history. The hall has seen the British Empire, the apartheid government and now a multiracial council.

This is Dr Pixley kaSeme (West) Street, pre-1910. The park opposit the road from the old Town Hall (now the post office) is where the City Hall was to be built.

“It has seen the city grow and change around it, even to the point where the two roads next to it have had their names changed. It’s remarkable,” said Peppas.

Speaking at a ceremony on Friday to mark the 100 years, eThekwini Municipality head of international governance and relations, Eric Appelgren, said: “I used to come here and protest and shout at the people who worked in this building. Now I’m in here and people come and shout at me!”

Like many other major infrastructure projects, the building of the city hall was heavily criticised. Many claimed it was too expensive, too big and unnecessary.

The original architects sketch of City Hall

At Friday’s function, Robert King, who had a relative at the opening ceremony, said the Governor of Natal, Lord Methuen, spoke at the opening on April 12, saying that time would show that building the hall was the right thing to do and that it would eventually be too small for the needs of the growing city.

“I think it’s fair to say we’ve reached that day now,” King said.

In 1902, the site of the city hall was identified for the building to replace the old Town Hall, which is now the post office across the road. A competition was held the next year, for architects from Britain and South Africa to submit their plans for the new building.

On December 7, 1904, the winner was declared: Johannesburg-based Scott, Woolocott and Hudson. Scott and Woolocott eventually left the firm, leaving Hudson at the helm. Their design was the most expensive and was more than the council initially wanted to spend.

City Hall lit up at night

Construction started on July 4, 1905, but a strike by workers in Greytown in the Natal Midlands affected the supply of sandstone and labour. This was resolved and, eventually, the building was completed in early 1910.

Apart from being a seat of power and a witness to the city’s changing history, the building was also the place where one of South Africa’s most prominent bands made their name. According to musician Steve Fataar, he and his brother entered a music competition with their band at the venue in “1962, or something like that”.

“That was The Flames, you might have heard of them,” he said. “Some years later we did three nights in a row here, in front of 2 000 people each night. I used to talk a lot and we were trying to get the crowd involved, calling out to  them. At one point I looked at the royal balconies and said, ‘Hello to the people in the ashtrays up there’. It brought down the house,” Fataar said.

Already R45 million has been spent on refurbishing the city hall, including the cleaning of statues in Francis Farewell Square, opposite the main entrance of the hall. The renovation work will continue this year, with other celebrations planned to mark the building’s centenary.

Apart from the opening of city hall, 1910 was a big year for Durban. The first commercial wireless radio station in sub-Saharan Africa began broadcasting from Jacobs. Methuen was appointed governor not long before speaking at the hall’s opening and on April 30 the first airplane flight in Durban took place. Also in 1910, Natal joined the Cape, Transvaal and Orange Free State to form the Union of South Africa. The phrase “Union of South Africa” was coined in a speech on the steps of the city hall in Durban.

Towards the end of the year, a wireless radio installation was built on the Bluff, with a range of about 650km.


3 thoughts on “Durban city hall: a witness to history

  1. Very interesting article. Today I was going through some old papers which belonged to my grandfather and came upon his copy of the ‘Programme of the Town Hall Opening Ceremony’.

  2. Your old city hall was built by my great grandfather W. Horsley. Was sent from England to help with an uprising and stayed because he was asked to build the city hall

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