Once open rolling veld, Florida has an interesting history filled with prospectors, gold and mining. Its popular lake was established for the thirsty mines.
Before the discovery of gold in 1886, land was freely available in the Transvaal. White men over the age of 16 could apply to the government of the Zuid Afrikaanche Republiek for two farms. Borders were determined geographically and described by an inspection committee, after which a letter of ownership was issued. On 29 August 1864, the farm Vogelstruisfontein number 338 was granted to Johannes Gerhardus Steyn.
On the same day, Steyn divided the farm into two portions and sold the western portion - later named Hamberg - to Johannes Nicolas van den Berg. Around 1889, Hendrik George van der Hoven, a renowned prospector at the time, bought a portion of the farm Vogelstruisfontein from Steyn.
Louw Geldenhuys, the owner of the farm Wilgespruit, suspected certain rock formations on his farm were goldbearing. He invited Fred Struben, a man with a reputation as a reliable and experienced prospector, to do prospecting on his farm.
On the morning of 18 September 1884, after months of hard work, Fred Struben struck an incredibly rich vein of quarts, which he called Confidence Reef to show his confidence in the goldbearing potential of the Witwatersrand. The first essay-values showed a remarkable 913 ounces (almost 26 g) of gold per ton of quartz.
Struben’s rich strike at Wilgespruit focused attention on the Witwatersrand and prospectors flocked to the area, which in turn resulted in the discovery of the Main Reef group of conglomerates two years later in 1886 on the farm Langlaagte. This discovery led to the establishment of Johannesburg.
Following Struben’s discovery of gold, prospector Jan Bantjes secured prospecting rights in 1885 on JA Nel van Wyk’s farm, Roodepoort; he discovered gold on the farm in 1886. And Abraham Petrus Marais allowed his son-in-law, PL Halfele, Rex van der Hoven and John Bird to do prospecting on his farm, Paardekraal, and in June 1886 they also found gold.
In the Staats Courant of 15 September 1886, along with the farms that became Johannesburg, the farms Paardekraal, known as Klein Paaardekraal to distinguish it from Paardekraal near Krugersdorp; Vogelstruisfontein; and Roodepoort were proclaimed public diggings. Mining camps were set up on the farms to accommodate the influx of gold diggers.
Four towns developed out of the mining camps: in 1887, Maraisburg (on a portion of Klein Paardekraal) and Florida (on a portion of Vogelstruisfontein belonging to Van der Hoven); and in 1888, Roodepoort and Hamberg (also on a portion of Vogelstruisfontein). Tree of the four townships became the property of mining companies. Maraisburg, named after the owner, AP Marais, was bought by the Main Reef General Mines Company in 1894, and Hamberg by Vogelstruis General Mines Company in 1890. On 31 March1896, Florida was bought by the Bantjes General Mine Company.
Various explanations exist for the name Florida. PE Raper, in the 1989 book A Dictionary of Southern African Place Names, says: “Florida suburb … variously stated to have been named after the American state; after flowers growing there; after Florrie, a four-year-old niece of the founder, Hendrik van der Hoven, who died just before it was laid out.”
However, legend has it that Florida was named after Van der Hoven’s daughter, Florence, who drowned in the lake, but this claim cannot be verified. It has also been suggested that the township Florida possibly was named after Van der Hoven’s wife, Florrie; however, Van der Hoven’s estate records list two wives, neither of whom was Florence or Florrie.
The most credible explanation is found in a letter to the editor of the weekly West Rand Times dated 24 September 1976, in which Ralph C Brown stated that: “the government of the South African Republic … commissioned the land surveyor, William Henry Auret Pritchard, to survey [a portion of the farm] Vogelstruisfontein and lay out a township there … He was impressed by the profusion of wild flowers blooming in the valley so decided on the Spanish word Florida. This was Pritchard’s own account of the origin of the name when interviewed on the Afrikaans service of the SABC in 1936 during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Witwatersrand Goldfields.”
As the population and mine activities in the area expanded, availability of water became a serious issue. In 1889, the government surveyor, JE de Villiers, recommended damming up the spruit which rose in Van den Berg’s portion of the farm Vogelstruisfontein and flowed through the Bantjes mine property. The damwall was raised in 1909, and the dam became the celebrated Florida Lake.
On 26 May 1922, the council of Roodepoort-Maraisburg negotiated an agreement with Bantjes Consolidated Mine, in terms of which the council was granted free use of Florida Lake as well as the use of the surrounding land for a period of 20 years, to lay out parks and recreation facilities. Tennis courts and a bowling green were added to the eastern foreshore and a “bathing enclosure” came into being. Water polo became popular and in later years some of the Transvaal Swimming Championship events were held at the lake.
Boats were put on the lake and the council kept adding amenities to make it an attractive pleasure resort. The council also acquired the old Bantjes cottages to the southwest of the lake, as well as certain buildings on the western foreshore. One of these buildings, which had previously been the Bantjes Mine staff quarters, was leased to the Boy Scouts Association as a permanent training camp. The building was named Gilwell by the Scouts. The other building on the western foreshore, previously used as a miners’ training school, was let by the council as a hotel. It came to be known as the Medina Hotel.
On 25 February 1925, Florida township and Florida Lake were bought by the council for the price of £8 000 from Bantjes Consolidated Mine. In the same year, the Prince of Wales visited Roodepoort-Maraisburg and the first mayoral chains were commissioned to coincide with the royal visit.
A decade later, King George V visited Roodepoort in 1935 and presented 12 swans from the Royal Swannery in Cookham-on-Thames to the municipality for Florida Lake.
Florida Lake was depicted on the flag and coat of arms of the Roodepoort municipality. However, these municipal symbols are no longer in use following the incorporation of Roodepoort into the Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality.
The lake gradually gained popularity until it became one of the Reef’s most popular pleasure resorts, attracting ever-growing crowds of visitors over weekends.
The lake has always been a popular fisherman’s haunt. Reports have been found of carp caught in 1918 weighing almost 15kg, followed by fish weighing 15,2kg,16,4kg and 18kg. In October 1929, FC Nuttley, a well-known Johannesburg golf professional, captured a “monster”, scaling 19kg. At the time, this fish fell 300g short of the world record for rod and line caught carp.
Nuttley claimed that he had played a fish he estimated at not less than 30kg, for a considerable time. Other anglers came forward declaring that they had also seen this big carp in the lake. It appeared that the fish was quite widely known as Adolphus.
In 1934, the Rand Piscatorial Association held a competition devoting the proceeds to charity, in which £100 was offered for the capture of Adolphus. Over 300 fishermen competed, but Adolphus proved himself a wise old fish. Not only did he keep completely out of sight himself, none of the 300 an