Courting Controversy

By 21st November 2018 December 6th, 2018 Articles

Due to the nature of the business that is conducted in courts of law, they are often sites of great controversy. The same is true of the building that now houses the Old Court House Museum in Durban. In fact from it’s very beginning the Old Court House caused a bit of a stir as some Durbanites were very unhappy about its location.

In 1865 the decision was taken to build the first courthouse in Durban, on the eastern corner of the market square facing Aliwal Street. This caused great upset as many residents felt that as Durban was developing westwards, government buildings should be constructed on sites that would better serve the inhabitants in the western area of the town. There ensued a bitter battle between the residents of the western and the eastern ends of town, resulting in the council setting aside two whole days for a poll for ratepayers to vote on the site for the new courthouse. After all of that the original site on Aliwal Street was selected!

A young Mohandas Gandhi dressed in a turban and suit, Johannesburg, 1900

A young Mohandas Gandhi dressed in a turban and suit, Johannesburg, 1900

The Old Court House was also originally the home of the Native Affairs Department*, which controlled the movement of black people within the city limits, and was responsible for the administration of the Poll Tax, which led to the Bhambatha Rebellion. In the early 1900s, the Court House made headlines when Mohandas Gandhi was asked by the presiding judge to remove his turban. Gandhi was in court representing a local Indian businessman and, in his tradition, wearing a turban was a mark of respect as opposed to the judge’s view that one should remove one’s hat in court. In protest, Gandhi left the courtroom.

But not all of the stories relating to the history of the Old Court House are quite as serious. There is the famous tale of a certain judge who, on the occasion when he found protracted evidence too much to bear, would disappear across the street to quench his thirst. The story goes that when court resumed and the judge was nowhere to be seen, search parties always moved in one direction. The venue where the said judge could be found was humorously referred to as “His Lordship’s Larder”, and is how the Larder Hotel (no longer in existence) came to be named!

* In the late 1920s the Native Affairs Department was moved to a new, purpose-built office, which now houses the KwaMuhle Museum

Images courtesy of and

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