The first recorded discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand was made by Jan Gerrit Bantjes in June 1884, on the farm Vogelstruisfontein, and was followed soon thereafter, in September, by the Struben brothers who uncovered the Confidence Reef on the farm Wilgespruit, near present-day Roodepoort. However, these were minor reefs, and today it is the general consensus that credit for the discovery of the main gold reef must be attributed to George Harrison, whose findings on the farm Langlaagte were made in July 1886, either through accident or systematic prospecting. Before long open cast workings were being opened up along the full length of the main reef in the present district of Johannesburg.
By August 1886, the mining camp, as yet unnamed, could already boast of some 3000 inhabitants, most of them White, and on 8 September of that year nine farms, located in what is now regarded as the central Rand, were proclaimed public diggings. However Randjeslaagte, the site of present-day central Johannesburg, was not declared until 4 October 1886, and its village was only officially named ‘Johannesburg’ for the first time the previous day, 3 October 1886. The first building plots were subdivided and sold by public auction two months later, on 8 December.
The original miners' camp, under the informal leadership of Col Ignatius Ferreira, had been located in the Fordsburg dip, possibly because water was available there, and because of the site's close proximity to the diggings. Following upon the declaration of Johannesburg, this area was taken over by the Government who had it surveyed and named it Ferreira’s Town.
The sub-division of what became the settlement's central district was a typical product of nineteenth century mining camp planning. In the case of all other gold discoveries made previously in the Transvaal, deposits had invariably proved to have a short working life, so the concentrations of people they stimulated were equally short lived. However, these diggings had also been largely alluvial in nature and, despite the fact that ore deposits on the new reef seemed to be both concentrated and of a long life expectancy, the Government took the view that Johannesburg would be no different from any of the other gold mining villages which had preceded it. As a result, the initial survey and layout of the settlement was made with impermanence in mind. Even after it was realised that the gold reef ran both deep and wide, and the introduction in May 1890 of the MacArthur-Forrest cyanide process made recovery of gold excavated at deep levels economically feasible, the general consensus of the time was that Johannesburg's life span would not exceed 25 years. Thus, initially at any rate, life in the new mining town was one of uncertainty and, for a number of years many of its early buildings retained their prefabricated iron-and-timber character.
Growth of the Early Gold Mining Industry
On 14 September 1886, the first large mining company on the Reef, the Witwatersrand Gold Mining Company, was formed with a total nominal capital of £3,063,000. The first crushing battery, consisting of five stamps, had been erected on the Reef in 1885 to service the Struben's excavations on the lower West Rand reef, but this was a small operation, and the first crushing machinery ordered specifically for the new Reef diggings began to arrive from the coast in 1887. The first of these to be erected was a three-stamp Sandycroft on the Jubilee Mine, which came into operation on 22 April of that year, and by the end of 1887 it had been followed into production by the Wemmer, Ferreira, Salisbury, Wits (Knights), Meyer & Charlton, George Goch, Jumpers, City and Suburban, Geldenhuis Estates, Langlaagte, Robinson and Wolhouter mines. By then 14 mines and 93 stamps were in operation, with a total annual output of 19,080 oz of gold.
By the end of the following year, in 1888, the number of companies had dropped down to 39, only to rise up again to 52 by the end of 1889. By this time it had been realized that the Reef extended not only to the east and west, but also downwards with persisting values of ore. At the time mineral outputs averaged £1 per oz per ton of rock mined. Despite this, the vast majority of the Reef's companies were still engaged in surface mining and the only real shafts sunk to date were on the Jubilee and Langlaagte properties.
Later on, mining engineer Biccard Jeppe listed a number of advantages which, in his opinion, had facilitated gold mining in the area. Primary among these were:
- The Rand’s healthy and equitable climatic conditions. These included seasonal variations, which were not unduly severe, as well as the almost total lack of noxious fauna and flora, most specifically insects and bacteria dangerous to man.
- The ore was rich and located close to the surface. This made initial operations highly profitable and enabled further in-depth exploration of the reef to be self-financing.
- Capital, mine personnel and technical expertise were available from the Kimberley diamond mines, as well as the gold fields of Australia and North America.
- An availability of unskilled labour, which he described as being "virile and excellent workers under white supervision".
Not all of these advantages were immediately perceived. The existence of the mines was threatened by one immediate and severe drawback: the field was relatively isolated from other urban centres and did not lie on any of the established trade routes. Most particularly it could not boast of a single major waterway in its vicinity. In practical terms this meant that, from the onset, it became heavily reliant upon an existing system of rural animal-drawn transports. As the nearest rail-heads were at Kimberley, Ladysmith and Komatipoort, all stores, materials and personnel had to be carried to the mines at great expense by either mule or ox-drawn wagons. This also means that animal-drawn transport was also subject to seasonal shortages of fodder along its routes of travel, sometimes leading to long delays in the delivery of much needed mining equipment. Thus, within a short time, the mining town's rapid growth began to overtax its infrastructure to a degree that it also created problems in other areas, such as its supply of potable water.
Prior to the discovery of the Main Reef in 1886, the Transvaal Republic is estimated to have been the home of some 40,000 White and predominantly Dutch-speaking immigrants, and 300,000 indigenous residents. Of these about 600 White residents farmed the Witwatersrand region, which was considered to be a fairly well populated area by the standards of that time. Within a year of the discovery of gold in Johannesburg, the whole Reef was estimated to have some 7,000 people, with 3,000 residing in Johannesburg itself. The rise of population numbers thereafter can only be described as phenomenal, following an exponential growth pattern for virtually all sectors of the population. By 1890, a scant four years after the discovery of gold, it had multiplied ten-fold on both the Rand and in Johannesburg. Five years later, in 1895, Johannesburg was known to hold 102,000 people, this number being equally divided between White and Black residents. The South African War of 1899-1901 saw a temporary downturn in Johannesburg's population, partly due to the exodus of the Uitlander [foreigner] community who fled the Reef, and partly to the departure of Dutch residents on commando duty. The closure of all mining activity in October 1899 brought to a sudden end to virtually all economic activity in the region.
Following the South African War, population patterns resumed their previous trends of rapid growth, assisted in part by the influx, in 1904, of some 64,000 Chinese indentured labourers. Following their repatriation in 1910, they were replaced on the mines by the introduction of migrant Black labour, much of it recruited from neighbouring territories. Initially these men came from Mozambique, but later on they were also drawn from British colonies further afield. (See Migrant Labour, Chinese Labour)