The Amazing History of The Workshop
This beautiful picture above by the talented Andrew Harvard captures the magic of a historical building in our city that is often overlooked. The Workshop shopping centre has been a hive of activity for over two decades in Durban. But not many people know the actual history of this iconic building over 150 years old!
In 1986, the old Durban railway workshop got a makeover into the bustling shopping centre that you see in the CBD today. The historical building, originally constructed in 1860, was skilfully transformed into a huge shopping centre that was unanimously adopted by Durbanites and became one of the most popular shopping haunts.
The Story of the Picture
Andrew who took this picture said: “The theme on the KZN Hub is “M” and I simply had to rework this “old” photo I had of Durban. I have called it “Magnificent Durban” to suit the theme but more importantly because I believe that it truly showcases my home town that I love very much. Louis En Marie Helberg arranged this shoot for us in the CBD in April 2014. This is your town!”
It is remarkable that, in 1860, a small town like Durban had the distinction of operating the first public steam railway in South Africa. The population of Durban in 1863 was 4 313, which included 1 593 Africans and 153 Indians. Few Africans were urbanised and the first indentured Indian labourers for the sugar farms were only to arrive on 17 November 1860. While there were primary schools in Natal, there was not yet a secondary school, the first opening in Pietermaritzburg in 1863 and in Durban in 1866.
The re-establishment of the former station as one of the city’s most buzzing places managed to retain the building’s colonial character – the original iron girders sustain a vaulted glass roof of the country’s first theme shopping mall and much of the aesthetics of the old railway workshop remained. But over time the Workshop lost its footing as a major upmarket niche centre as most of Durban’s CBD moved to the nether regions of Umhlanga, and the perception of the Workshop as unsafe, due to its position in an area marked by crime, had its effect on the centre.
Then came a marketing campaign that drew on the building’s value as a former railway workshop, to restore interest in the building and change the opinions of visitors to the Workshop. A ‘railway platform’ within the centre gave ‘passengers’ a chance to journey through Europe, India and Africa, allowing the Workshop tenants to display their culinary skills and merchandise, attracting shoppers back to the centre. The campaign won an award and was considered highly successful.
The Workshop provides a free shuttle service to and from any destination within the CBD, which adds to the attraction. That and the array of shops that include African arts and curio shops, smaller trendy clothing boutiques, and a strong Indian influence in the form of the heady smells of spices and pretty Indian fabrics.
There is also a flea market and the famous Orientals Curries which is one of Durban’s famous curry places. So the next time you are in the CBD, stop by The Workshop and experience the nostalgia of an long lost steam railway era.