The Old Carlton Hotel - The Haunt of Fashion and Beauty

The original Johannesburg Carlton Hotel, located on a block bounded by Eloff, Commissioner, Joubert and Market streets, was probably the most famous hotel in the country from its construction in 1903/4 to its demolition in 1964. Many books refer in detail to the landmark structure. Below are two short passages from Eric Rosenthal's Meet me at the Carlton giving one a sense of its significance as a major social and political centre...

"Inevitably the Carlton Hotel was the social centre of Johannesburg from the moment of its opening. To this function came not only His Worship the Mayor, Mr James Thompson, founder of the well-known and still active building construction firm, but His Excellency the Governor of the Transvaal, the Earl of Selborne. From that day, without a break, the stream of fixtures and events continued for close on 60 years. Everybody of consequence preferred to stay there, from the stage star to the big local and overseas businessman, holding his conference within its walls, or the politician of every breed who, in a back room, took decisions that affected the future of South Africa.

Only a few months after the opening of the Carlton Hotel came the grant of self-government to the Transvaal by the British Cabinet under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, followed in 1907 by the first General Elections, which put into power Het Volk, the party led by General Louis Botha. Much of the negotiating and planning for this campaign was carried out at the Carlton, more particularly by the English-speaking candidates, who included Sir Percy FitzPatrick, Sir George Farrar, Sir Aubrey Woolls-Sampson, Sir Willem van Hulsteyn, Mr (afterwards Sir) Abe Bailey, Mr (afterwards Sir) Drummond Chaplin, Mr (afterwards Sir) Thomas Cullinan, of diamond fame, and many other leading mining men.

Even before the electoral excitement died away, preparations began for the National Convention, which brought about the unification of South Africa. Preliminary talks took place in the Carlton, where the comings and goings of statesmen and journalists soon were taken for granted.

Eminent foreign personalities were also to be encountered there. Thus in 1908 the Carlton entertained Bernhard Dernburg and Walter Rathenau. Originally a banker, Herr Dernburg had been appointed Secretary for the Colonies by Kaiser Wilhelm II while Rathenau, apart from being a distinguished writer, was destined to succeed his father as head of the great A.E.G. - the Allgemeine Elektriziataets Gesellschaft, the German General Electric. With his unique insight into business problems, Rathenue had been invited to join Dernburg in an official trip through German South West Africa, whence the two statesman, accompanied by their considerable entourage, made the overland trip from Kalkfontein to De Aar - the railway not yet being in existence - and thence to Johannesburg. Not only the German community, but public bodies, notably the Transvaal Chamber of Mines did them honour and at the Carlton Hotel speeches were exchanged to reassure an anxious world that there was no chance of conflict between Britain and the Reich."

"With the achievement of success by the National Convention, the Union of South Africa was born on May 31 1910 the anniversary of the Treaty of Vereeniging that ended the independence of the old Boer Republic. To the men and women who witnessed the event it seemed as if the Millenium had arrived, with the realisation of dreams going back many generations. From the Cape to the Limpopo the young nation entered an endless series of celebrations, culminating in the opening of the first Parliament by the Duke of Connaught, son of Queen Victoria and brother of the reigning monarch.

Just as the Rand was preparing to welcome the royal delegate, decorations of a kind very different from those planned went up at the Carlton and elsewhere - great streamers of purple, in mourning for the death of King Edward VII on May 6 1910. Within a few weeks they came down again and the symbols of rejoicing were restored and the Duke toured through all four provinces. For the three days during which the royal party was in Johannesburg, the city was a forest of flags those of the Carlton being among the most prominent.

In his memoirs, the Mayor of that year, Mr. (later Sir) Harry Graunabb recalled: 'The Duke among many other activities laid the foundation stone of our new Town Hall.' With an instant sense of appropriateness, the pastry chefs at the Carlton took the opportunity to construct a perfect replica, in sugar, of the future building, a masterpiece of their art. Publicly exhibited it drew thousands of admiring sightseers, before being finally demolished by merrymakers.

The Duke of Connaught's visit to the Rand also witnessed a gigantic banquet in his honour at the Carlton, with the newly appointed first Governor-General of the Union, Lord Gladstone, in the chair."