History of Houghton

The early history of Houghton is not entirely clear from the sources quoted below which do not accord with each other in all respects. What appears below is an attempt to put the pieces of history together. There may be some errors in the history and the Lower Houghton Residents’ Association would welcome input from readers. Comments, corrections and additions should please be sent to Christopher Ussher at ussher@metroweb.co.za.

The suburb of Houghton Estate lies in the Northern suburbs of Johannesburg.  It borders several suburbs including Saxonwold, Melrose, Norwood and Killarney. It is only a few kilometers from the Johannesburg city centre and is very close to both the Rosebank and Killarney shopping centres.

It is unofficially divided into a northern section known as Lower Houghton and a higher southern area called Upper Houghton.

The suburb was formerly part of the farm Klipfontein which was owned by J J Grobbler.  In February 1888 he leased part of his farm to Samuel Fox who was acting on behalf of Henry Roberts (Fox was one of the early Randlords and he had bought and sold Orange Grove.)  In July of the same year Fox sublet a portion of the property to W S Barrett and F S Mc Hattie at £110 a year. They planted a forest of 250 000 blue gums on the land for timber for the mines. Fox then ceded the lease to Joseph Nicholson who subsequently ceded the rights to a syndicate of Pietermaritzburg businessmen who hoped to find gold in the area.  The property leased to the syndicate was a strip of land which ran along the northern foot of the Houghton ridge from Orange Grove to a point west of where the Killarney Shopping Centre now stands.

A month after acquiring the lease the syndicate bought Grobbler’s land. The syndicate sank a shaft near where the shopping centre now is and began mining operations.  Their engineers reported the presence of payable gold and they floated the Houghton Estate and Gold Mining Company in 1889 with a capital of £300 000. The small amount of profitable gold soon petered out and eventually the ground was deproclaimed. In 1894 the syndicate decided to develop an exclusive residential township on the land and the company’s name was changed to Houghton Estate Company.

From 1896 stands were sold in the southern part which became Upper Houghton. In that year Johannesburg Consolidated Investment Company (JCI) acquired the land but only sold stands from 1901. In January 1902 JCI purchased the northern part of the land where Barrett had established his plantation and added the land, which is now known as ‘Lower Houghton’, to the township.  Because JCI wanted to clear the land, Barrett stood to lose his fine plantation. The dispute went to the Supreme Court in Pretoria but was settled in 1904.

Initially demand for stands in Houghton Estate was slow and by 1910 only 649 erven had been sold, many to the great mining barons and other influential people of the time. Some of their lovely homes dating back to the turn of the twentieth century remain.

Up to about 1920 Houghton could not match the popularity of Parktown. But in the 1930s leading architects began building houses on the large Houghton stands in the so-called International Style. This helped to accelerate development of the area as a very upmarket residential suburb with large beautiful houses, well-tended gardens and tree-lined streets.

The suburb retained its rural character because of the enforcement of strict building controls. For example, roofs could not be made of corrugated iron. Tiles, slate, thatch and shingles were allowed. Concrete roofs were also permitted, apparently for the first and only time in Johannesburg.

The area has a diverse topography with low ridges and broad valleys along which parks and golf courses have been laid.  Most of the stands are large, (approximately 4000m²) and are well treed.  The suburb is enhanced by The Wilds – which was donated to the city by JCI in 1937 and proclaimed as a National Monument on 20 February 1981.  The Wilds is on a ‘koppie’ which used to separate ‘Upper’ and ‘Lower’ Houghton until The Munro Drive was constructed in 1919.

Houghton has always been renowned for its schools. On the ridge in Upper Houghton is St Johns College, with its superb Herbert Baker buildings which were first occupied in 1907.  Not far from it is King Edwards VII Boys High School.  In Lower Houghton there is Houghton Primary School which was built after World War I.

Many top businessmen, professionals, academics and politicians – including our own former president, Nelson Mandela, – have their homes in Houghton.


  • Early Johannesburg: Its buildings and its People by Hannes Meiring 1986
  • A History of Johannesburg by G A Leyds
  • The Johannesburg Saga by John R Shorten
  • Johannesburg Street Names by Anna H Smith 1971

Houghton Heritage Trust

How it all came to be…

The Houghton Heritage Trust was formed in February 2004 when a number of concerned residents were appalled by the demolition of a beautiful home on Houghton Drive, and the destruction of the garden and the uprooting of all the mature trees on the property.

The character and heritage of Houghton is exceptional and special, and not only in South Africa but internationally. The large houses in spacious gardens, wide streets and mature trees give the suburb a wonderful ambiance that needs to be preserved. There do exist some houses that are not necessarily worth preserving and we have no quarrel with new developments, but these must be controlled so that the overall character of Houghton is maintained and this would include protecting beautiful and significant homes and nurturing the mature trees in gardens and on the pavements. To this end we have been closely involved with the Lower Houghton Residents’ Association in objecting to proposed developments that are out of character, and as they prepare a framework for future developments. We are also involved with City Parks in preserving our trees.

We realise that to be effective we will need to develop a list of homes that have architectural merit or are associated with prominent South Africans or events. This list will be a huge help in protecting our suburb. Should your home be over 60 years old, have architectural significance, or have merit by association, please let us know so that we are able to proceed. You may contact us at (011) 728-2351 by ‘phone or fax.