A MEMORY OF DAWSON’S HOTEL, JOHANNESBURG (1963)

Webster and me. Photo taken in the early 1960s.
Webster and me. Photo taken in the early 1960s.
Dawson’s Hotel 1972. Thanks to Frans Erasmus for allowing me to use this photo

Dawson’s Hotel in Johannesburg was once an establishment of importance in the life of the city and remains one filled with wonderful memories for me. In its heyday, it was one of the city’s best hotels, with perhaps only the Carlton and Langham Hotels being grander. In 1956 the British singing duo, Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, moved to South Africa. They spent their first three months in Johannesburg living at Dawson’s Hotel while they looked around for suitable permanent accommodation.

It was in April 1963 that I first acted as Webster’s accompanist in their singing studio on the eighth floor of Polliack’s Building at the corner of Eloff and Pritchard Streets.

Polliack's is the building on the right with the balconies.
Polliack’s is the building on the right with the balconies.

At the time, Anne was away on a trip with broadcaster Leslie Green and I had been delighted and honoured when they asked me to take her place as studio accompanist. During some free time in the studio, Webster asked me if I would like to have lunch with him at Dawson’s. In turn, he accepted my invitation for him to have dinner with me and my parents at our home after we finished our work in the evening.

Blue plaque at entrance to Dawson's Hotel.
Blue plaque at entrance to Dawson’s Hotel.

Tuesday was the red-letter day when Webster took me to lunch at Dawson’s Hotel. After the final morning student’s lesson was over, Webster announced for the world to hear that “Jean and I are going to blow the family savings today. I’m taking her to Dawson’s.” The poor student looked envious and said, “Oh, I wish I was coming with you.  I have to go back to the office on an apple!”

As Dawson’s Hotel, at the corner of Von Brandis and President Streets, was just around the corner from the studio, we walked there. On our walk to the hotel, Webster seemed oblivious of the curious glances of the lunchtime throng doing double-takes as they recognised his famous face. We were ushered into the sumptuous Edwardian dining room, called the Gold Room Restaurant, on the first floor as though we were royalty. We were greeted by the head waiter who hovered around Webster and then directed us to the best table at the window.

Naturally Webster was at home in this setting. After all, he had frequented the grandest hotels of Europe, the Antipodes, and Britain and was used to being fussed over where ever he went. I, on the other hand, a teenager in a bottle green velvet dress, felt gauche and young, as indeed I was at that time. After studying the menu, Webster ordered grilled trout and I ordered a fish dish also. He had a gin before lunch and was quite disappointed when I refused anything alcoholic. At that stage of my life, the only time I had drunk an aperitif was when my father poured me a thimbleful of sherry on very special occasions.

Dawson's Hotel entrance with Blue Plaque.
Dawson’s Hotel entrance with Blue Plaque.

During our meal Webster told me how he and Anne had lived at Dawson’s until they found their flat at Waverley, Highland’s North. Sadly, he also told about several members of the hotel management, who had theatrical connections, who for unknown reasons had seemingly turned against them.

Anne Ziegler & Webster Booth (1956)
Anne Ziegler & Webster Booth (1956) outside their flat at Waverley, Highlands North.

I enjoyed my fish dish very much and felt very much the grand lady having lunch with a world famous singer in that wonderful dining room. Later, over coffee, we had petits fours. Webster insisted I should eat as many as I wanted. I found out later that they were soaked in brandy, so I did not go entirely without alcohol that day.

I remember coming out of that wonderful hotel into the afternoon sunshine and sauntering back to the studio. Fortunately, there was only one pupil due that afternoon. As we waited, Webster soon fell asleep on the couch while I sat in a chair a fair distance away reading Duet, their autobiography, which he had brought in for me to read the week before.

“Duet” by Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, published 1951.

When Webster woke up, he put on one of the reel-to-reel tapes containing his sacred and oratorio recordings. I remember listening to How Lovely Art Thy Dwellings, The Lost Chord, Abide With Me, and Sound an Alarm. I was entranced and sometimes near to tears by the beauty of his singing.

Recently I heard from Nick Thompson-Wood, who was the manager of Dawson’s Hotel from 1964 – 1969. He is now living in Canada. He sent me a photograph of the staff of Dawson’s taken in the Gold Room Restaurant in 1966. Nick, as general manager, is seated in the middle of the front row.

Staff of Dawson's Hotel (1966) Thanks for this photo to Nick Thompson-Wood, General Manager (1964 -1969)
Staff of Dawson’s Hotel (1966) Thanks for this photo to Nick Thompson-Wood, General Manager (1964 -1969)

Over the years, whenever I went back to Dawson’s Hotel with others, I could not help but recall my first visit with Webster and remember our lunch. Unfortunately, because of the high crime rate in central Johannesburg today, I have avoided going into the city for the past ten years or more. Imagine my sadness when I found Dawson’s hotel on a Google Street map recently and learned that it is no longer occupied. The building is now but a shadow of its former self. It was abandoned and in a state of abject decay. I suspect that it has now become home to squatters and serves merely as a place of shelter from the elements. What a sad end to an elegant hotel, which I will always remember for the happy time I spent there with Webster as a teenager.

Label for Dawson's Hotel.
Label for Dawson’s Hotel.
Dawson's as it is today - no longer a hotel and pretty dilapidated.
Dawson’s as it is today – no longer a hotel and pretty dilapidated. The Edwardian Restaurant was on the first floor.

Jean Collen

Updated 17 May 2017.

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9 thoughts on “A MEMORY OF DAWSON’S HOTEL, JOHANNESBURG (1963)

    1. The building has now been renovated and has become student accommodation. I had a walk around the area last month and saw many improvements to some of the old buildings. Worth doing a walking tour!

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  1. Remember this lovely hotel from the 1970’s. Used to walk down from Hillbrow every weekday morning and catch a lift out to Kelvin Power Station where I worked. In the afternoon used to be dropped off there and pop into the bar for a cold Castle lager before the walk back uphill to Hillbrow, also used to call into the Chelsea Hotel for a second cold Castle on the way home. Such happy days, so sad to see Joburg as it is now.

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    1. Thank you for your lovely comment, Joe. They certainly were happy days. I loved the city and have so many fond memories of it. I’m afraid I wouldn’t venture there today. Even walking around the suburbs is dodgy nowadays.

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  2. Truly wonderful memories of the Dawson’s Hotel. I worked at a well known electronics company, Hamrad which was on the corner of President & Smal street. This was literally a block away from the Dawson’s. For many years the working staff used to inform management numerous times that we needed half an hour off to see the Doctor. True in a sense, we would visit Dr. Dawson. The Foaming Tankard Bar downstairs was well frequented and for a couple of years, barman Nino and Pinto did duty. They were succeeded by Robbie who knew all his regulars by name and had their drink ready before they had sat down. On the odd occasion I enjoyed a drink at the bar on the first floor, set out like that of a ship.
    Wonderful memories meeting many friends there and enjoying a drink or two or three…….

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    1. Thank you for your lovely story, Geoff. Management must have wondered why so many of the staff needed to see Dr Dawson! It must have done everyone’s health good to have spent a bit of time with the “doctor”!

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      1. The period I enjoyed frequenting the Dawson’s was between 1974 and 1987. The firm I worked for had our Staff Christmas function there one year. A Christmas party of note. We can cherish our wonderful memories of places and time enjoyed there. Time marches on, progress cannot be halted but memories are firmly locked in our minds forever.
        There were a number of hotels in close proximity to my place of work, The Stirling, The Johannesburg Towers, Vaal Reef bar, ( Carlton Hotel at the rear ) and others that escape my mind, but, The Dawson’s is a the forefront of my mind and shall always be.

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  3. Dawson’s will always hold a special place in my heart for the wonderful memory I have of lunching there with Webster Booth, but I remember many other places in Jo’burg I haven’t seen for years now. We hardly venture outside of our immediate suburb these days as crime is rampant.

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