Master builder

[Disclaimer:  This contribution was published in slightly different form as an Afrikaans-language article in FAMILIA, quarterly journal of the Genealogical Society of South Africa – GSSA]

When a 22-year-old youth arrived in South Africa from Scotland in 1879, he was certainly hoping to become successful here.

And he was.

Within ten years John Johnston Kirkness won a tender as master builder on the project to construct the Raadzaal (now called ‘Ou Raadsaal‘ – Old Council Hall) on Pretoria’s Church Square. This building was to serve as the ‘parliament’ of President Paul Kruger’s Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR), also called the Transvaal.

The impressive historic Ou Raadsaal on Church Square in Pretoria, built by John J. Kirkness during the 1890s. The third floor was not part of the original design but was added during construction.
Image by: Sam J Basch

During his long life of 82 years, John J. Kirkness left his mark as a prominent building contractor – literally. The dark red face bricks from his factory in Groenkloof, Pretoria, were stamped with his name ‘Kirkness’ in the ‘frog’, the sunken flat side of the brick. These wire-cut bricks and roof tiles were used throughout South Africa and even abroad, including in the famous Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town and the Salisbury post office in Harare, Zimbabwe. Renowned architect Sir Herbert Baker specificed Kirkness floor tiles and terracotta pots for South Africa House in London (South Africa’s High Commission), as well as the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

Advertisement for the Kirkness business, showing a photograph of the Groenkloof brick works. (Photo supplied by William Martinson)

Besides the well-known Tram Shed in Pretoria’s city centre and the Sammy Marks Building opposite the State Theatre, numerous other buildings and houses in the city’s residential areas were constructed with Kirkness bricks.

The distinctive red wire-cut Kirkness brick with the name stamped on the ‘frog’. This one was found at a demolished house in Pretoria.
Image by: Sam J Basch

John J. Kirkness was born in 1857 on the Orkney Islands, the eldest son of Thomas William Kirkness en Mary Johnston. With a diploma in building construction from the Heriot Watt college in Edinburgh in hand, he arrived in South Africa where he variously worked in Durban, Bethlehem and on the goldfields in Barberton. However, he briefly returned to Scotland to marry his childhood love Mary Ann Baikie on 16 June 1884 in Kirkwall.

From this marriage were born Thomas (Tom) Godfrey, Jessie Mary and John Niven, as well as two boys who had died as babies.

John J. Kirkness had his offices in the Bank of Africa building on Church Square, Pretoria.
Image by: Sam J Basch

The Kirkness head office was in the two-storey Bank of Africa building on the northwestern corner of Church Square. Nowadays the building is almost hidden in the shadows of the historic Palace of Justice. In 1888 he established the Groenkloof Brick, Tile and Pottery Factory that produced a staggering 50 million face bricks per year. The brickworks with their tall chimney stacks stood on the site of the present-day sports grounds of the University of Pretoria next to the Fountains Circle.

Talking of the university: Kirkness also built the impressive French Renaissance style Ou Letteregebou (Old Letters Building) on the main campus that was completed in 1911.

In about 1929, when Kirkness was in his 70s, Vivian Sydney Rees-Poole designed a lovely home for him in Muckleneuk with a north-facing view over Pretoria and the Union Building. Kirkness’s eldest son Tom was the building contractor. The house is now part of the Belgium Embassy.

As a young architect Rees-Poole, a pupil in Sir Herbert Baker’s studio, had won a competition commission in 1911 to renovate Church Square. Kirkness himself was an influential proponent of conserving the square and provided Rees-Poole with significant ideas.

It was exactly here on Church Square that Kirkness had watched as President Paul Kruger laid the foundation stone of the Raadzaal on 6 May 1889. Interestingly, the doors and windows of the building came from his father-in-law’s business Samuel Baikie & Company in Kirkwall on the Orkney Isles. The consignment was shipped to Durban, from where it was transported by rail to Charlestown and then by oxwagon to Pretoria.

The work progressed quickly, because the Volksraad (People’s Assembly) held its first sitting there in 1890 where it was decided to add a third storey to the Raadzaal. This additional project was once again allocated to the Dutch architect Sytze Wierda and master builder John J. Kirkness.  The building, described as Italian Renaissance, was completed in December 1891 at a final cost of £175 000. A telephone system was installed in 1892 after which the building was commissioned without any formal ceremony.

For his immense contribution to Pretoria’s economic and cultural life, including as generous donor and serving as mayor, Kirkness received an OBE (‘Order of the British Empire’).

The graves of John J. Kirkness and his beloved wife Mary Ann in Pretoria.
Image by: Sam J Basch

John Johnston Kirkness and his beloved Mary Ann Baikie lie buried next to their baby sons in the ‘Presbyterian Acre’ in Pretoria’s Rebecca Street cemetery. Could the simplicity of their graves reflect the sober respectability of this wealthy Scottish couple?

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