Final sitting of the orange river colony parliament before union, 1909

Colonial history of Bloemfontein

The area between the Orange and Vaal rivers, originally known as Transoranje, with its abundance of permanent water sources, was the hunting grounds of the San at the beginning of the 19th century. However, other groups began to infiltrate the area in the early 19th century.

Self-Government, the Orange Free State

In August 1855, JN Boshoff succeeded Hoffman as President of the OFS. Despite all the problems experienced by the young Republic, Boshoff still managed to place state affairs on a strong foothold and made the administration more efficient.

During President Boshoff's period in office, Bloemfontein grew slowly but steadily. By 1858, the need for a municipality or town council became stronger and in April 1859 five municipal commissioners were chosen, with James Cameroon becoming the first Town Clerk, tax collector and market-master. With the establishment of a municipality, plans were now made for a regular market and in April 1859 the market began, which quickly became a profitable venture and served as an important source of income.

MW Pretorius succeeded Boshoff in 1860, chosen mainly because Free State residents hoped it would strengthen their bond with the South African Republic. Economically, the OFS started developing and more towns were established due to the many foreigners that were coming in to settle in the young Republic. During Pretorius' period in office, priority was given to the development of Bloemfontein and in 1862, a bigger improved President's residency was built around Warden's former official residence, which served as official residence until 1861.

In 1860, the first market buildings were established, and in 1861 plans for the first hotel, The Free State Hotel, were laid out opposite the market on the eastern side, next to the government offices. Three banks were also established; The Bloemfontein Bank, Standard Bank and the London South African Bank. In 1862, De Tijd, a German newspaper, was printed in the OFS.

JH Brand succeeded Pretorius in 1864 as President and was re-elected to office for five consecutive periods until his death in 1888. During his period in office, President Brand re-organized the administration and government affairs of the Republic, thus Bloemfontein experienced unparalleled progress in almost every sector. Due to President Brand's leadership, a sense of unity and national pride developed among the Free State residents and the Republic developed into a model state. The Second Basotho War took place during this period but peace was eventually agreed to by the Basothos. In 1868, Basotholand (today Lesotho) became a British Protectorate.

The discovery of diamonds between 1867 and 1871, and the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886 led to a general boom in trade and gave stimulus to Bloemfontein's growth. The discovery of diamonds near Hopetown in 1867, in Jagersfontein and next to the banks of the Vaal River around the Du Toit's Pan area in 1869, led to an immense number of fortune seekers rushing to the area between the Vaal and Orange Rivers. In 1871, diamonds were also discovered in Kimberly.

After the discovery of diamonds in the OFS the Griqua Chief Nicolas Waterboer claimed that the area between the Vaal and Orange Rivers rightfully belonged to the Griquas. After some deliberation between Sir Henry Barkly and President Brand, Sir Henry Barkly issued a proclamation that the area known as Griqualand West was now declared a British territory. In March 1876, President Brand undertook a deputation to Britain to discuss compensation for Bloemfontein's loss of the diamond fields. It was decided that Britain would pay a sum of 90 000 pounds as damages to the OFS. Although the amount awarded did not make up for the loss of the area, it served as recognition that the OFS was wronged and would help in the development of the Republic.

During President Brand's long period of office, Bloemfontein became the leading town in the Republic, mainly because the diamond fields created new markets and brought in new trade. In 1866, the new Anglican Cathedral was opened in St George's Street and in 1875 both the Wesleyan and Lutheran church buildings were completed.

In 1875, the Basotho monument, on the hill near the Fort, was unveiled in memory of the Burghers that lost their lives during the Basotho war of 1865-1866. Between 1874 and 1876 great progress was made in Bloemfontein, especially in the education sector, largely due to the appointment of  John Brebner as First Superintendent of Education, and the establishment of many new and different schools.

Britain’s withdrawal from Bloemfontein

The population grew fast, but conflict in the surrounding areas continued for a long time. It then became evident that Britain no longer wanted to carry the cost of having an armed garrison in the Orange River Sovereignty. In August 1853, Sir George Russell Clark, former Governor to Bombay, was sent as a special commissioner to Bloemfontein to make the necessary arrangements for Britain's withdrawal from the area.

On 15 February 1854, a meeting was held between Clark and the residents in the school building on St Georges Street to discuss the conditions of withdrawal. On 23 February 1854 the Bloemfontein Convention was signed, which gave the Orange River Sovereignty self governing status. Soon after, a provisional election was held where Josias Philippus Hoffman was chosen as President and William Collins as Secretary of the Orange River Sovereignty. The new administration was to receive an amount of 10 000 pounds from the British government to assist them through their first year of administration.

On 11 March 1854, Clark, together with staff and troops, left the Orange River Sovereignty and the area became an independent Republic. The name was changed to the Orange Free State and Bloemfontein became the official capital. The temporary government chose to purchase the Warden residence to be used as the official residence for the President of the OFS. An election was held to choose a new Volksraad and a new constitution was drawn up. In May 1854, JP Hoffman was elected as first State President, his advantage being his personal relationship with Chief Mosheshwe.

With the withdrawal of the British troops, Bloemfontein lost half of its population, and only about 1000 residents remained, leaving the mainly English speaking community in dismay.  For a short while after the withdrawal of Britain, the progress of the town slowed down. However, the British were gradually replaced by other foreigners like the Dutch, Germans, Jews and Afrikaners. At this time the town only consisted of simple single-storey houses with face brick walls and straw roofs, and a few shops that were centred on the market place.

Development of Bloemfontein

Birds eye view of Bloemfontein when it was still the Orange River Colony, pre 1910. Source: Franco Frescura collectionBirds eye view of Bloemfontein when it was still the Orange River Colony, pre 1910. Source: Franco Frescura collection

The town was surveyed and pegged out by Andrew Hudson Bain, whose layout took the form of long streets that were parallel to the stream running in a north and south direction. The shorter streets were at right angles to the long ones and the town continued to expand northwards of the stream. Bain's plans went only as far north as St Andrews Street.

In 1849, the First Raadsaal was built in St George's Street, initially as a school and hall, but it was also used as a church and meeting place. In 1848, the first NG congregation was formed and in May 1852 they moved into their new church, built at the top end of Kerk Street. The Roman Catholic, Anglican and Wesleyan churches also formed congregations at this time in Bloemfontein and they held their services at the First Raadsaal. The Wesleyan priest who arrived in Bloemfontein in 1850 held service in a hut, mainly for the Black and Coloured population.  In 1852, the first Roman Catholic Church was built in St Georges Street near the Government Building.

Several businesses were then established and the town grew larger. In June 1850 the first municipal commissioner was appointed, although Bloemfontein did not have full municipal status at the time. The Commissioner could now have greater control over the affairs of the town and officials, such as the Town Clerk, market-master, and water fiscal.

Postal services at this stage were relatively primitive. The first postal route between Bloemfontein and Colesberg was established soon after the settlement was started in 1846 by Major Warden.  Other routes followed very soon after.

In 1875, the first official Post Office was accommodated in the Old Parliament Building on Market Square. A new Post Office was built on the same site when this building became too small, and was opened on 22 June 1892.

All supplies came by transport riders with ox drawn wagons from the harbours of Port Elizabeth and East London which made the delivery of things like building material, clothes, household goods and furniture difficult to obtain. Therefore, living in Bloemfontein was quite expensive. On 10 June 1850 the first newspaper, The Friend of the Sovereignty and Bloemfontein Gazette, was printed.

During this period relations between the different groups were still strained and British authority in the region did not have the desired effect. As a result, Major Warden was dismissed and replaced by Henry Green on 23 July 1852.

During Green's residency Bloemfontein grew and in 1853 Church Square and Market Square (today Hoffmann Square) was laid out. During the 1850s, Bloemfontein remained a small town, relatively isolated from the rest of South Africa. The borders of the town grew until Church Street in the north and to Market Street (today Markgraaf Street) in the west. By 1851, the population was about 300 people with about 60 houses.

Early background 1889-1895

The area between the Orange and Vaal rivers, originally known as Transoranje, with its abundance of permanent water sources, was the hunting grounds of the San. at the beginning of the 19th century. However, other groups began to infiltrate the area in the early 19th century.

The Griquas under Adam Kok came from the west and settled themselves near the area later known as Philippolis. As a result of the Difaqane, many groups came to the Transoranje area in the 1820s from the east, fleeing from Shaka, King of the Zulus, and later Mzilikazi, first King of the Matabele. In 1824, Chief Mzilikazi established himself on ThabaBosiu and began building a strong nation from people previously scattered in the area.

In 1833, the Barolong under the chieftaincy of Moroka II established themselves at what was later known as Thaba Nchu. Around 1821, White stock farmers crossed the Orange River in search of grazing land, after drought and locust infestations ravaged the Cape Colony. Sometime between 1820 and 1826, trek Boer farmer Johan Nicolaas Brits settled in the Transoranje area. The area was convenient as it had a small stream and a fountain provided him with a good water supply.

Apparently the place Brits chose was originally a meeting place for hunters, and the Black people called it Mangaung (place of the cheetahs), but it became known as Bloemfontein in later years. There is some controversy surrounding the name, but one theory is that when Brits settled here, the fountain was surrounded by flowers and thus the Brits family named it Bloemfontein, literally meaning 'fountain of flowers'. Another theory is that the name was put forward by one of Brits' neighbours, a Mr. Griesel, who referenced it to Mrs. Brits' garden.

Johan Nicolaas Brits built a pioneer's home close to the fountain. During the Great Trek many other Voortrekkers also settled in the area. Because these Boers were from the Cape Colony, they were still considered British subjects.

Over a period of time, conflict grew between the different population groups in the Transoranje area, resulting in British intervention. Therefore, in 1846, Major Henry Douglas Warden was appointed to set up a British residency in the area. Warden was tasked with the difficult job of maintaining peace between the different population groups and to set up an administration. His immediate orders were to set up a residency as soon as possible in a centrally situated place, between the areas occupied by Adam Kok and Mosheshwe.

Warden accidentally came across the fountain area between the Riet and Modder rivers. From a military point of view, Warden found the area suitable because it was situated in a small valley surrounded by hills on all sides and was free of horse sickness. The centrality of the site would also make it easy for transport riders to bring necessary commodities to the settlement.

Warden's troops, known as the Cape Riflemen, arrived in Bloemfontein on 26 March 1846 and Warden followed shortly after. He was charmed by the position of the new residency, and took over the farm 'Bloemfontein' from Brits, and paid him 500 rijksdaalders for the layout and improvements that he made. At the time the farm consisted of a small mud house with a garden in the front and an orchard which was watered through a furrow.

One division of Warden's soldiers began building a fort to the north of the fountain which was named Fort Drury, after Sergeant Drury who served the dual function of garrison's doctor and teacher to the children of the soldiers. The second division began building the official residency at the top end of the present St George Street. While this was being done, Warden moved temporarily into the Brits' house. The third division of the regiment concentrated on building clay huts for the soldiers and stables for the horses, which was the beginning of the settlement.

However, relations between the different groups in the area were still strained, with the biggest problem being land. To put an end to this problem, Sir Henry Smith, Governor of the Cape Colony, annexed the area and renamed it the Orange River Sovereignty.  This led to the Battle of Boomplaats between the British and Boers who were unhappy with the annexation, which resulted in the British increasing their garrison to 400 men to defend the Bloemfontein area. In addition, a more strategically situated fort called Queen's Fort, was built to replace Fort Drury. Fort Queen was situated at the top end of what was later known as Monument Road. At the foot of the fort were the officers' houses, barracks for the soldiers, the horses' stables and the Commissioner's depot.

Read more about the emancipation of slaves and slavery at the Cape

The community of Bloemfontein initially consisted only of English speaking people. Almost all the houses and buildings were south of the stream on the so called 'water plots'. The town grew with the building of churches and schools and attracted many other groups like Germans, the Dutch, Jews and Afrikaners who were the first pioneers to settler there. The fast growing pace of the town also attracted many Black and Coloured people in search of work.  The Blacks and Coloureds originated from the Bechuana, Hottentot, and Fingo groups, many of them emancipated slaves. Other mixed groups in the area included the Griqua, the San, the Khoikhoi and BaSotho.

Parts of this Colonial history section was translated from Afrikaans by Varushka Jardine for the SAHO website, with the kind permission of the author Marianna Botes. The original title of the unpublished text is Bloemfontein Gedurende die bewind van President F.W Reitz, 1889-1895: 'n Kultuurhistoriese Studie.

City Development

Industrial growth

Industry in Bloemfontein remained relatively small until the railway system was introduced. The lack of effective transport together with the absence of electricity and proper water supply hampered the progress of industry in this city.

One of the earliest industries in Bloemfontein was a tannery on the farm called Tempe in 1865. Other industries that developed were a wool washery, a steam mill and sweet factories in St. George Street, known as the Bloemfontein Sweet Manufactory. There was also a vinegar brewery and a lemonade factory in St. Georges Street.

In the 1880's, brick making became a profitable industry as building activity increased. The wagon and cart manufacturing industry became the strongest industry due to the absence of railways, but at the same time the demand for transport increased. Even after the advent of railways, the wagon and cart industry still remained strong due to the need for wagons and carts by the mining industry.

Other industries that also became prominent in the early days of Bloemfontein were a sand-stone yard to the north  of Waaihoek, the OFS Brewery Company in Fountain Street, The OFS Distillery Company Limited at Bishop's Glen outside the town, the Kruidfontein Soutwerke as well as the Shoe and Boot factory in Maitland Street.

There was no real town planning that was intended to cater for the early industries, and most proliferated along the edge of the town next to the railway line.

Water supply

The original water source was the main fountain, Bloemfontein Fountain, complimented by other fountains in the south.

The so-called water erven benefited from the fountains by means of a canal which was later replaced by a pipe line with water points at intervals. Over a period of 25 years, the water was to be carried from these water points to the houses of White residents.

However, with the expansion of the residential area to the north, the so-called droe erven demanded additional water supply which resulted in a dam being built behind the Ladies Institute. The fact that both humans and animals shared the water supply, made the conditions very unhygienic.

Public and private wells were also sunk in order to meet the increased demand for water. The first public well was situated in the Market Square in 1877, shortly followed by a well in Waaihoek. Other wells were later sunk on Baumann Square, Warden Square and on the corner of St Georges and Monument Streets, as well as the corner of President Brand and St Johns Streets.

The increased demand for additional water supply led to the approval of a proposed water supply from the Modder River, with a dam at Sannaspos. In the meantime a pipe network was introduced which allowed for distribution of water to all households in Bloemfontein.

On 20 April 1899, the first water from Sannaspos reached Bloemfontein and from May 1899, the system came into full use.

Communication services

In 1874, a telegraph service was started which eventually connected Bloemfontein to other Free State towns and the rest of South Africa.

The first telephone service, which dates back to 1891, was limited locally between the railway office and the municipality buildings. In 1905, the telephone service was expanded.

Sanitation services

During the 19th century, three factors contributed to poor hygienic conditions in Bloemfontein. Firstly, there was a lack of sufficient and hygienic water supply and during times of drought, water in wells often stagnated and became contaminated. Drinking water was also not purified.

Secondly, the large number of animals on plots, contributed greatly to the unhygienic conditions. In some cases up to 40 cows could be found on a single plot. To control this problem, the municipality introduced regulations which restricted the number of large animals per household that were allowed in town and provision was made for a municipal grazing ground where any extra cattle could be kept.

Thirdly, household refuse was a problem as it was simply dumped on the streets or outside of town. In 1880, a system of refuse removal was introduced and dumping outside the town was prohibited.

Sanitary services in the Black locations were also upgraded, six public ablution blocks were erected, namely; two in Waaihoek, one in the vicinity of the present day Eunice, one by the fort, one on the East End and one along the road to the diamond fields.


In 1867, the first hospital, St George's Cottage Hospital, was opened in Bloemfontein, under the auspices of the St Michael Sisterhood. The first government hospital, the Volkshospitaal, was opened on 31 October 1893. This hospital was largely intended for Whites only, and a separate building was provided for Non-Whites.

The mental hospital, Krankzinnige Gesticht, was built in 1883 and was located outside of town on the way to Fauresmith.

A leprosy hospital was opened in January 1899 and this was located on the farm Sydenham to the south east of Bloemfontein.

Museums, libraries and other buildings

In 1867, a travelling library was established, and was later transferred to Bloemfontein's public library and reading room which was housed behind the Town Hall. In 1877, the National Museum was established in the former First Raadsaal.

The Government's building (which included the Third Raadsaal) was also built in 1877 at the top end of Maitland Street and the National Bank was also established. A few more banks and hotels were also opened in the 1870s.

Discovery of gold

During the 1880s, trade in Bloemfontein declined due to the long drought and depression that devastated the OFS. However, trade improved drastically when gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand in 1886.  In 1880, Bloemfontein received municipal status with a population of about 2567, and Robert Innes was chosen as the first Town Mayor.

Due to the discovery of diamonds, the population increased at such a fast pace that there was talk of a housing shortage in the town. Between 1880 and 1886 many new buildings like the Two Towers Church (NG church, 1880), The Church of the Sacred Heart (new Roman Catholic building, 1881), the new market building (1882) and a new Town Hall in Maitland Street (1883) were erected in Bloemfontein. In 1885, the Anglican Cathedral was extended and in 1886 a smarter, more elegant President's residency replaced the structure of the Second Presidency, which dated back to 1862.

Establishment of graveyards, streets and a railway system

The original graveyard was situated on Monument Road, now known as the Old Graveyard. Next to it was the graveyard for the Jewish population. In 1901, this graveyard was moved to a few miles south of the city. The NG Church originally had its own graveyard in Kruger Avenue, but this was moved in 1893 as a result of town expansion.

The Black graveyard was located south of the city between present day Memorial Road and Hamilton Shooting Range.

After 1866, streets were developed from the so-called veld paaie to proper compacted surfaces with adequate drainage.

The railway system and market activities in town were the main factors that stimulated street development. Sidewalks of up to 9 or 10 ft in width were introduced and in 1891 streets were given names.

Street lamps were introduced in 1883 and were lit at sunset everyday. In August 1898, an electricity scheme was accepted for the first time by the council, which provided 130 street lamps with 32 candles each. Only the main streets were to be lit by these lamps.

Electricity and transport

In 1900, the electricity system was put into effect.

In August 1895, the right to establish an electrical plant was granted to Delfos Bros and Co. The project, which was only completed in 1900, cost 171 000 pounds, and quotes were available for household electrical supply.

Bloemfontein's development as a nucleus of the Free State necessitated the development of transport routes between Bloemfontein and the surrounding towns. Again, the discovery of diamonds gave transport its first big boost towards greater development. Transport, which included goods and passenger coaches, flourished as a business.

The most important consequence of the discovery of diamonds was the advent of the railways, which provided the citizens with a safer, more efficient and reliable transport system.

In 1873, a weekly transport service was introduced for goods between Bloemfontein and the diamond fields. However, the first passenger service was only introduced in 1856. In 1880, passenger transport services were introduced between Cape Town and Bloemfontein via Kimberly. In 1883, passenger transport was introduced between Bloemfontein and Pietermaritzburg. In 1888, a passenger service, known as the Free State Line, was introduced between Bloemfontein, Johannesburg and Pretoria.

In 1890, the railway line from Colesberg to Bloemfontein was completed, and later this was extended to the Vaal River.

The city's growth took place due to the fact that Bloemfontein became the nucleus of railway activities in South Africa.

In 1892, the first traffic regulations for the town of Bloemfontein were introduced, traffic speed in the town was limited to 6.m.p.h and wagon drivers and horsemen were to keep to the left while the cracking of whips was prohibited in town.

Early Prison history

When the national railway line reached Bloemfontein in the late 1800s, it brought with it unwanted elements of society unaccustomed to Bloemfontein. These 'loose women', white youth criminals, pickpockets, street entertainers and bar fights seemed strange and outlandish but unavoidable with the influx of people and growing industries of the expanding town.

Within the first three months of the railway opening, more than eighty drunk and disorderly arrests took place. Crime in general also increased, with a 66% increase in prosecutions from 1890 to 1891 (398 whites and 1 918 blacks). The most prosecutions were in cases of the transgression of the pass laws that can hardly be described as a crime, followed by theft, drunkenness, disturbance of the peace, and the forgery of alcohol slips, while a black man could be sentenced to fifteen whips with a 'kats' if he refused the orders of his white employer.

A result of the increase in crime was that Bloemfontein needed a new prison to replace the old (first) town prison in St. George Street described as 'unsightly and redundant' - the same building (with slight expansion) erected by Major Warden. In 1892 the St. George Street prison could house 70 criminals (black and white). The prison had eight cells, two of which were designated for whites and one for women. The cells were overcrowded and many of them had no source of light or ventilation and had mice and rat infestations.

The prisoner community grew to such an extent that the District Physician, Dr. JW Krause, requested an increase in salary as more than half of the prison population acquired his services from 1891 to 1892. Dr. Krause had previously compiled a report to the 'Volksraad' highlighting the miserable conditions at the St. George Street prison in 1878. He called it 'een schreeuwend onrecht' (a screaming injustice).

With no formal medical facility available to treat sick patients in Bloemfontein the little St. George Street prison was also used as a makeshift hospital. Here patients stayed in the midst of 'drunken Hottentots and bushmen, as well as the lowest drunken dirty whites that could be found in any community', according to a local newspaper. Complaints from different sources about the inhumane ramshackle prison continued. De Tijd declared indignantly that it is 'voor een neger byna te slecht om in te blyven'. (almost too bad for a negro to live in)

The construction of a desperately required new prison ('Ramkraal') started in 1893 on a premises just East of the railway line adjacent to the Dewetsdorp Road at a cost of £16 000. It was taken into use approximately three years later. Further development has made it almost non-visible but it must have been an impressive sight standing in the field just after completion. A journalist wrote a few years later, 'On approaching, the building gives one the impression of an ancient stronghold of [a] feudal baron of a past age; high stone wall forms the outer enclosure with two massive turrets as watch towers'.

Executions continued to take place in public although it was moved to a spot further from the town's centre. In 1883 two black men, Fire and Hoffman, were 'hanged behind the hill, in sight of Voigt's farm'. The sight later became known as 'Hangmanskloof'. Although the execution took place at six o' clock in the morning there was a curious crowd of about 200 to 300 people present. The Express wrote, 'We never remember seeing a more orderly crowd'. While The Friend called it 'a revolting sight'.

With the completion of the new prison ('Ramkraal') the gallows were also moved there, 'near the circular wall enclosure', according to a woman detained here during the Anglo-Boer war, '”¦immense, sturdy and square, erected with thick black beams and ironwork with twenty two steps leading to a platform halfway to the top. Then there is the cloak of black material covering the body of the sentenced in which he or she was dressed prior to the hanging. Further up the framework was the cross-beam from which the rope hung.'

The treatment of the prisoners was still dire and a blot on the name of the otherwise relieved Free State. Corporal punishment was still freely applied – at least to black prisoners because the Magistrate declared 'that he did not like a white man to be flogged'. For adult black prisoners there was the 'kats' and for the younger ones the 'kweperlatjie'. The scourging area at the new prison was used regularly. All prisoners still had to wear foot shackles (often causing painful chafing) with which they had to sleep as well. Mixed working groups with black and white prisoners with a white or black supervisor were a common sight in the town.

To the end of the 1890s the City Council did complain about this phenomenon but only because of the impression it could make on visitors and children. The supervisors were asked to lead their groups around the outskirts of the town to their working areas rather than through the streets. One consolation was that it was quite easy to escape from such a group and one white prisoner who intentionally proved this point was only caught by Major Albrecht, who heard the jingle of the prisoner's chains, after the prisoner unhurriedly went passed the Presidency and Magistrate's Office.

The above text on early Prison History is an abridged version of a translated extract from the following book: Schoeman, K. (1980) Bloemfontein: Die Ontstaan van 'n Stad, 1846-1946. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.

End of President Brand’s reign

On Saturday 14 July 1888, after playing a game of chess with his son, President Brand suffered a heart attack. Although doctors CJG Krause and BO Kellner came immediately to the President's aid, it was too late. Three days later about 2000 Free State residents attended the state funeral of their President.

Francis Willem Reitz, who was appointed in 1874 as the OFS Chief Justice, was appointed as candidate in the next election. Reitz accepted the nomination and in December 1888 he was elected as the fifth President of the Orange Free State.

Last updated : 18-Aug-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Mar-2011