John Johnston Kirkness

John Kirkness
  • Born:

    Vetquoy, Sandwick 1857

  • Died:

    Pretoria June 1939

  • Father:

    Thomas Kirkness

  • Mother:

    Mary Johnston

  • Married:

    Mary Baikie

  • Children:

The following article appeared in Orkney Today on 24 June 2010:-

Sandwick man helped build South Africa

One of the World Cup venues in South Africa [2010] is the Loftus Versveld Stadium in Pretoria. Rugby fans might recognise it as the stadium where the Springboks beat the British Lions last year [2009]. If you look at a street map of the area, you'll see a good Orkney name, as the stadium stands on Kirkness Street, named after a man described as the pioneer master-builder of the Transvaal.

John Johnston Kirkness was born at Vetquoy in Sandwick in 1857 and, although he emigrated to South Africa when he was twenty-four, he visited Orkney as often as he could. Once he had made his fortune, he came home every two years and his later visits in the 1930s must have caused a sensation in Sandwick and beyond, as he hired a chauffeur-driven car in London for his journey north.

John was the eldest son of Thomas Kirkness and Mary, nee Johnston. He left Heriot-Watt College in 1878 with a certificate in Building Construction and the David Cousin Prize in Architecture and then emigrated to South Africa. In such a young country, John's talents as a builder and contractor were soon in demand. He moved to Bethlehem, a small town in the Orange Free State, and an Orcadian article from 1906 describes his early years.

"He remained at Bethlehem for some years in business, amongst his handiwork being the Heilbron Dutch Reformed Church and several bridges in different parts of the colony. In the early days of the Barberton [gold] fields, he trekked north into the Transvaal, which has claimed him ever since. At Barberton he built the English Church, the Dutch Reformed Church, the Stock Exchange, and other buildings, and in the early days of Johannesburg such landmarks as Julius Jeppe's house at Doornfontein and the Hatherley Distillery Buildings in Market Square were erected under his hand."

Many of these buildings no longer exist but some have been preserved as part of South Africa's heritage, including the Lewis and Marks Building in Barberton. It was the first two-storey building in the town and it may have been the first in the whole Transvaal.

A blasting accident in those early years badly injured his right eye. His brother Thomas brought a horse and cart to take John back to his farm at Koelfontein near Ladysmith but, after travelling 180 miles, the eye had became so painful that they had to stop at Newcastle, where a doctor removed it.

In 1884 he made what was probably his first visit to Orkney. He had a very good reason for the long trip home, as he married Mary Baikie on July 16. Her father Samuel is described on the marriage certificate as a Wood Merchant but he was also a Master Builder. His firm, Samuel Baikie and Sons Ltd, built the Town Hall, the King Street Church, the St Magnus Centre and much of Dundas Crescent.

John was such a pioneer builder in South Africa that there were not yet carpentry firms there that could supply the fittings he needed so, despite the distance involved, he was a regular customer of his father-in-law's business. In his obituary in 1939, The Orcadian reported, "For the Town Hall of Cape Town Mr Kirkness secured windows from the Kirkwall firm of his father-in-law, which firm is now known as S Baikie and Son Ltd. Baikie and Son also built a pulpit for a Dutch Reform Church which Mr Kirkness erected at Harrismith.

For municipal buildings he erected in Pretoria itself, Mr Kirkness secured mantelpieces from the late Mr Samuel Baikie of Stromness [his brother-in-law]. The late Mr Baikie also designed and constructed a pulpit for a Dutch Reform Church Mr Kirkness built at Heilbron, and a platform pulpit for another church at Barberton. The doors of these churches were made by Baikie and Son, Kirkwall"

In 1885, John and Mary moved to Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal, also known as the South African Republic. This city, only founded thirty years earlier, gave even more opportunities to a young and talented builder and he began his best known building when President Kruger laid the foundation stone of the Ou Raadsaal in 1889. This was Pretoria's first Council Chamber and it was designed to be the most impressive building in the city. The architect's original design was for a two-storey building but the Council wanted it to be the highest building in the whole Transvaal so another storey, and a clock tower with a statue on top, were added.

The fittings again came from Orkney and, in Samuel Baikie's ledger for March 1890, among accounts for shops in the isles and fishing boats, listed under JJ Kirkness, South Africa, there are five doors, 9ft 8in x 4ft 3in at £15 each, five semi-circular fan lights at 20/- each and 96 interior doors costing between 11 and 12 shillings each. The total, including packing cases, was £141.7.2, equivalent to about £8,500 today. The transport to South Africa was billed separately and cost £36.8.11. After reaching Durban, they went by train to Charlestown, the nearest railway station, and then the last one hundred and fifty miles by wagon.

The Raadsaal was completed in 1891 and declared a national monument in 1968.

The firm went on to build more of the capital's important buildings including the National Bank and Government Mint and Transvaal University College.

JJ Kirkness, as he came to be known, didn't just erect the buildings, he also made the bricks they were built of. In 1888 the firm which owned the Groenkloof Brickfields was declared bankrupt and JJ took them over. Under his management, the brickfields became enormously successful, large enough to have their own railway and producing 50,000,000 bricks annually. His bricks became famous for their quality as well as their quantity and were used all over southern Africa: the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town (where the first heart transplant was performed) and the ex-Post Office in Harare were built of Kirkness brick. He is credited with establishing the brick-making tradition in Pretoria, which was later used throughout South Africa. Every brick had KIRKNESS stamped on it, so who knows how many million Kirknesses there are in South Africa. His standards were so high that he liked to say that his house on Muckleneuk Hill, was built entirely of rejects from the brickfields. In memory of his childhood home in Sandwick, he called it Vetquoy but it is now known as Kirkness House and houses two embassies: South Korea and Belgium.

JJ was very public-spirited and gave freely of his time. After the Second Boer War, when the South African Republic became part of the British Empire, he became a member of Pretoria's first City Council. As Chairman of the Works Committee, he helped to set up storm-water drainage and sewerage schemes. The Council was led by an elected Mayor, who held the position for a year and JJ was elected to the position in 1906. A Pretoria newspaper said, "He is one of the most highly respected men in Pretoria and his election as Mayor has afforded pleasure throughout the capital."

He was also Chieftain of the Caledonian Society, Chairman of the Prisoners' Aid Association, President of the Master Builder's Association and received an OBE for his work as Chairman of the Committee of the Governor-General's Fund during World War I.

In 1934, he donated a magnificent stained glass window to St Andrews Church in Pretoria, dedicated to all Presbyterians (British and Boer) who had died in the wars.

When he died in Pretoria in June 1939, the South African Builder wrote,

"Probably no one commanded the respect of his colleagues as did John Kirkness. His honesty and integrity won for him a lasting place in the affection of all with whom he came in contact… His chief attributes were honesty, integrity and kindness."

The Orcadian wrote,

"Unlike many men who acquire wealth and position, Mr Kirkness's personality and character were unaffected by the material things he gained. His attitude towards life was ever the same - to make the world a better place because he had lived. If ever any man was an idealist Mr Kirkness was. He leaves behind in the Union many memorials of his enterprise in stone - churches, schools, town halls, dwelling houses, bridges, etc. The great Groenkloof Brick and Tile Factory, with its own train and railway sidings, a flourishing builder's business and many things besides, but best of all he has left the memory of a life well lived - a life that honoured God and did its best for mankind. Mr Kirkness was indeed a great man, but he was even better than that; he was a good man... Mr Kirkness was a widely travelled man, and a man who delighted in travel and was a keen observer. On the farm of Vetquoy there is a place which was known to him as Copland's Brae. A splendid view of all surrounding districts can be obtained from this point. Mr Kirkness used to walk often to the top of this brae during his stays at Vetquoy and he mentioned that nowhere on earth did he ever see a view which could, in his estimation, excel the beauty of the view he got from the top of Copland's Brae."