Article Author: Kathy Munro
On September 24th 2015 our private party decided on a Heritage day treat. An excursion for four friends by car to the Sammy Marks House museum. Zwartkoppies Hall was the home of Sammy Marks and his English wife, Bertha (née Guttmann). They lived there between 1884 and 1909, when they moved to their house in Parktown. Thereafter during Sammy’s lifetime it was their country weekend retreat. Sammy Marks died in 1920. It was then that Bertha gave up their Johannesburg home and returned to live formally at Zwartkoppies until her death in 1934.
As a result of the legal device of entail built into the will of Sammy Marks (and there were two wills, ultimately both declared legally valid) the house passed on to the children who had the right of residence, but not sale. This is the fascination of the story – a family, a magnetic energetic patriarch, a successful business empire, the power of a will and the survival of period home. The home is now a museum. Its survival has been extraordinary. It is a special place frozen in the time of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras and captures the gracious lifestyle of an estate on the Transvaal Highveld.
This extraordinary family home is on what was once the farm Zwartkoppies, located some 23 kms east of Pretoria, a short distance from the N4 main road that takes one on to Cullinan and Witbank. You will find it easily as it is on the old Bronkorspruit Road, in an area called Donkerhoek. Today it is about an hour’s journey from Johannesburg, down the N1 motorway and sweeping around the city of Pretoria to the N4 off-ramp
Before one even arrives one realizes that the city of Pretoria now spreads in every direction and particularly eastward. Here there is an obvious demand for old farmland to be turned into new somewhat uniform residential suburbs of our era. Secure townhouse clusters and walled complexes are being dropped onto the grasslands of the veld. Developers have an insatiable appetite for open land. This is the backdrop that makes one realize that for a grand century-old estate to survive into this new age of urban sprawl is an anachronism and perhaps even a miracle.
Integral to the story of the family who lived in the house a century ago is that even more fascinating sub-theme as to how and why this particular country home, although on a much smaller expanse of land, became a national museum. South Africa does not have a British National Trust organization nor a tax regime that makes heritage and history prizes to be saved, preserved and restored. Few seem to see the link between the unusual in the built environment and tourism potential. But here is a model that for a foresighted government if only they choose to prioritise heritage possibilities and we were open to “colonial history” successes of Britain, Australia or the East coast of the USA. There may be a lesson in how to celebrate the past and actually develop some tourist highlights that could be proudly nominated for a UNESCO list. Maybe I am dreaming but my visit to the Marks Museum set me thinking.
To reach the house one takes a turn off from the main road onto a long dusty country road and approach through old stone gate posts. We are welcomed to the Ditsong Sammy Marks Museum passing through conspicuous gate posts. Watch out for a number of different old driveway gates on the property, each worth closer inspection.
|Entrance to the Sammy Marks Museum|
It is a country property that still means to impress the visitor as Sammy Marks intended. Mark was a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant from the town of Neustadt (also the hometown of Hermann Kallenbach), born in 1844, who first emigrated to England when he was eighteen. He arrived in South Africa in 1868 at the age of 24 and before long started a general dealer’s business in Kimberley. His cousin Isaac Lewis joined him. The cousins formed a successful lifelong business partnership, Lewis and Marks, that lasted until Sammy’s death in 1920. They became a powerful team and later Barnet Lewis, the brother of Isaac also became a partner. The business empire extended over almost every possible early enterprise in farming, land purchases, mining, transport, liquor and pioneering industries. Risk-taking combined with deal-making. Success in business was embedded in cultural norms that meant nurturing good relations with the government of the day through war and peace. Marks cultivated Boer generals and politicians of the South African Republic prior to 1900, later he hobnobbed with the British colonial administration of the post-Boer War era and in the final decade of his life, he was a stalwart supporter of the Union Government of Louis Botha and Smuts. He served as a Senator in the final decade of his life.
To understand how Sammy Marks fitted into South African history, it is worth noting that Marks, though an immigrant was neither an “uitlander” nor “a randlord”. He was the man always for peace and preferred to get on with those in authority so that government would provide the right support for business and prosperity. He was an entrepreneurial capitalist who understood the power of business and the business of power.
|Lewis and Marks Building Johannesburg (Seventy Golden Years)|
Marks made his fortune but he also spent a fortune in order to create an English country estate and the appropriate upper class lifestyle on the Highveld. His estate was a work in progress throughout much of his life. Richard Mendelsohn (his biographer) comments that the house represented a dimension of Marks’ creative energy and the transformation of Zwartkoppies was a vital element of his social strategy. That in turn was an integral component of his business and political plan. His personality was gregarious and entertaining the movers and shakers of South African political life at Zwartkoppies came naturally to Marks. The objective was to offer conspicuous entertainment as a social means to a business end, but the hospitality was nonetheless warm, genuine and generous. The Sunday lunches at Zwartkoppies were an institution.
Zwartkioppies was also a home for a large family. It was and still is a substantial house with over 40 rooms. It was set amid a rose garden, formal flower beds, tall evergreen conifers (but not bluegums) an orchard of fruit trees and a vegetable garden. Avenues were flanked by pruned hedges. There were once a tennis court and a swimming pool. Croquet was played on the front lawn. The right kind of animals was part of the lifestyle - a flock of guinea fowl, blesbok and stables for 14 horses and a coach house for five carriages. There was a cowshed and dairy. Water came from a well operated by a steam-operated pump. A lake was the home to imported English swans (“three fine boats on my lake and nine beautiful English swans”). Guests could punt on the canal that fed the lake. Electricity, from 1896, was generated on the estate by a small hydro-electrical plant fuelled by water from the river.
Bertha, the much younger English wife of Sammy Marks (age 22 when she married Sammy) was a capable prize-winning poultry farmer. She was a more retiring person and her letters reveal that the Sunday events were more Sammy’s projects than hers. She was nonetheless a gracious hostess. The estate cum farm was an entire community of people revolving around the needs and affluent lifestyle of the large moneyed newly rich and successful family. The family was unashamedly aspirational, so it was not surprising that the four sons were sent abroad to England to be schooled at the age of 8 and the girls departed from home also to be educated abroad from the age of 12. I found this surprising when one considers that life on a farm but with all modern conveniences was a dream childhood milieu.
In 1995 roughly 73 hectares of land, including the Victorian house, and the surrounding significant outbuildings were alienated from the rest of the farm and expropriated by the State enabling the National Cultural History Museum to run a viable and permanent museum (this was approximately one-tenth of the expanse of the original farm). In March 1989 Zwartkoppies was declared a National Monument. It is a national treasure.
Today, enough of the legacy imprint of the Marks family in residence circa 1903, remains for one not to have to stretch one’s imagination to visualise the lifestyle of a century or more ago. It is as though a family, their occupations, entertainments and possessions that made life purposeful and fun have been preserved in amber. I felt like I was entering a time machine to be a guest and visitor invited to call on Bertha Marks one hundred and twelve years ago. I should have arrived in a lace embroidered exquisite tea gown, hair coiffed in ringlets, a parasol in a gloved hand and worn a large floral hat.
We are here to see the house and its possessions and the only way to enter the home is on an hour-long tour of the interior, which happens on the hour. It was slightly disappointing as there was no external tour of other buildings or gardens. We decided to start our day by enjoying a pre-tour coffee and planning our post-tour picnic lunch. The German accent maitre’d of the little restaurant at the rear of the house, was very gruff... "No definitely you can't have your own picnic anywhere" on this huge estate, because they wish to sell their own picnic hampers. Understandable, but hardly welcoming. This was not the voice of the gregarious Sammy Marks or his more retiring but gracious wife, Bertha. We settled on savouring the Viennese iced coffee with lashings of real cream in those tall elegant tapered glasses (delicious) and the large scones, jam and cream (scones stale!). The admission tickets were a very modest and excellent value for money R25 for pensioners.
We also visited the small gift shop prior to our tour and other than the three helpful pamphlets, the souvenirs were priced at the level that assumed a captive market. I thought the young man who managed the till was welcoming and pleasant and he was keen to help us organize our picnic – he had the right attitude in the tourism business.
What is so remarkable about the home is that 98 percent of the household contents that you see today, originally belonged to the Marks family: the silver, crockery, ornaments, furniture, furnishings, fittings, kitchen utensils, musical instruments were all newly purchased from the best stores in England and were imported before the turn of the 20th century. Today these items are prized antiques but imagine them when they were regarded as the latest in style, fashion and technology. Sammy Marks was not a great collector of fine art but instead there are a huge number of family photographs, framed certificates, personal mementoes and memorabilia, studio photos of historical figures of note across the political spectrum of the pre and post Boer war period who Marks sought to influence and who figured as important people in his world view. One needs only look at what hangs on the walls to quickly grasp where Marks stood politically in his even-handed juggling. He was a man with a strong sense of family, traditional values, a secular Jewish identity. One gets the feeling that here was a man who was comfortable being himself in his own era, doing things his way.
What of the history of the house and the estate?
Marks bought the farm (original size 902 morgen or 773 hectares) and a house then called Christienen Hall in late 1883 for 1400 pounds sterling. The original farmhouse was a simple L shape thatched roof, ‘wattle and daub’ (clay) wall dwelling. Marks initially lived simply in what was a Boer farmhouse. The house of 1882 was a rough and ready, modest homestead, better suited to a young bachelor and his male friends.
|Old Zwartkopje 1882|
He rapidly planned and built a new mansion, renamed Zwartkoppies Hall (Zwartkoppies was the name of the earlier much bigger farm). It was a self designed new house to which he brought his young bride in 1884.
Harry Struben described the house as “neither Gothic nor Tudor but more Coney Hatch or Newgate". Marks “drew the plan I am told on a plank with a piece of charcoal”. Desiree Picton Seymour in her book on Victorian buildings in South Africa, informs us that Sammy Marks continued to add to the building in 1890 and 1896, without an architect, until eventually there were 23 rooms plus storerooms and outbuildings. However, the Maisels pamphlet and other sources mention that the 1890s additions and alterations were carried out by the Dutch architect Willem De Zwaan (1867–1948) of the firm De Zwaan and Van Dyk, who became well known as Pretoria architects.
The contractor for the additions was John Johnstone Kirkness, a builder from Pretoria. It was at that time that the kitchen wing and servants quarters were added. Being a long house with rooms on either side of the central corridor that ran the length of the house, more rooms and more corridors could be added when the need arose.
|A Slightly Pretentious Front Portico|
|Stained Glass Windows|
The exterior can be described as vaguely Victorian, but it is not particularly imposing. Externally the house is a long, proportionately narrow double storey over much of its length, veranda house with shuttered windows. White walls are under a corrugated iron red roof. There is a wooden railing along the long gallery narrow stoep or veranda. The windows are shuttered with wooden rust coloured shutters. In the 1880s yards of cocoa nut matting 6 to 7 foot in width went around the stoep. On the roof there are some hip shaped air vents also made of corrugated iron, plus a couple of decorative plaster work chimneys. Originally the main entrance was on the South side of the house, and one ascended to the entrance via a set of steps and onto a porch cum balcony. Today, the main entrance is on the West and a slightly pretentious front portico, flanked by columns breaks the line of the veranda roof.
I noticed an interesting set of stained glass decorative small window panels in Art Nouveau patterned effect surrounding plain glass panes at first floor level and I wondered if there had been a more substantial feature here at one time.
The interior that is on a far grander scale than the exterior, with a fine teak staircase and an enormous number of rooms leading off the long central corridors.
One really comes to see inside the house and it was definitely worth the journey. The tour does not give one access to all rooms and it is not possible to stray down the ground floor corridor to the old south side main entrance hall. Our party was a small one and our guide was charming and knowledgeable and an employee of Ditsong, who, she told us paid her salary (we had wondered if she was an employee of a family trust). She encouraged the young children in our party to play the piano in the music room and have a shot at banging the dinner gong. I liked the professional welcoming tone set by our tour guide who had studied her subject in depth and passed her exams with flying colours.
|The teak staircase|
The house is fascinating because it looks like a home where an important family from the turn of the 20th century have just taken their leave. The home was occupied by members of the Marks family until 1978 and whilst restoration over a century was required because of wear and tear and possibly changing tastes (the original wallpaper and painted panels imitating granite and marble were painted over). Now it is a labour of love and careful study to re-establish the original look and return as much as possible precisely to the original period decor. I kept coming back to the metaphor of a house utterly frozen in time.
I found it impressive that so many personal family objects and possessions, circa 1900, toys, dolls, musical instruments, books, ornaments, furniture, kitchen tools, crockery, cutlery, utensils, old trunks are still in the house. It is remarkable that all these personal objects belonged to the family and fill most of the 40 rooms (although not all 40 rooms are accessible to visitors). The dining room is laid for a Sunday lunch, their books are in the library, you feel you have been invited to take tea with Bertha at a small table upstairs, the kitchen set out as it would have been at the turn of the century, ready to swing into action to serve a breakfast on a tray for Bertha or a gargantuan meal for 40 guests. There is an electric bell system to summon the servants to any room in the house. Perhaps you would be lucky enough to be invited to a game of billiards in the grand billiard room (which is the outstanding centre piece of the house because of its ornately decorated ceiling).
Who visited Marks and his family at Zwartkoppies? The political movers and shakers of the late 19th century both British and Boer were guests. The Boer generals (De la Rey, De Wet, Reitz), the politicians, the business associates, the important sojourners and travellers were lavishly entertained. Lord Randolph Churchill came in 1891. Kruger came for a working breakfast in 1886. Rhodes when he was Cape Prime Minister, visited in the early 1890s and discussed viticulture and the possibility of the establishment of a fruit industry in South Africa. The preeminent legal figure James Rose Innes (who later became Chief Justice of South Africa) spent a night when observing the trial of the Jameson Raid plotters. Meals were five course marathons prepared in a kitchen that was rather like a hotel engine room. In keeping with the masculine habits of the era Marks had a huge stock of cigars for his male guests (there was an inventory of 4000 in 1902).
|Bertha Marks and her Children|
The music room has a Bechstein grand piano and the children were encouraged to take up any number of musical instruments.
|Bedroom of Bertha Marks|
I found my eye drawn to the details of domestic architecture and taking a closer look at the technology of the house. Electric lights, hot water systems, servants bells, air cooling, storage spaces are worth exploring because they show a house as a machine for living and in this case living luxuriously but not without effort.
The library reveals the books that appealed to Sammy and Bertha Marks. Sammy sought practical information, books on mining, sheep farming, irrigation, iron manufacture all related to his business interests. He enjoyed reading the speeches of 19th century British politicians, Bertha read contemporary novels, Marie Corelli, Wilkie Collins, Ouida. There were also books likely to appeal to the children – Kipling’s Jungle Book, Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense. As can be seen in the photo below the leather bound sets almost gleam behind the glass doors of the beautifully crafted book cases. The library is the ultimate gentleman’s retreat. Marks was a self-educated man who because of weakened eyesight enjoyed having his children or his secretary read to him.
It is fascinating to read Bertha’s revealing letter to her husband (quoted in the Mendelsohn biography of Sammy) when in 1906 she gives the staff needs to run Zwartkoppies. The list covers a cook, kitchen maid, butler and assistant, 3 housemaids, plus staff for the laundry, dairy and poultry, a governess, a nurse for the youngest child and a maid for Bertha in addition to black staff to support this complement. Sammy retorts that its not necessary to keep an establishment of 12 white women. Zwartkoppies was a home for entertainment rather more for business and political purposes than for family. Marks was always hospitable and generous as his many donations and personal kindnesses testify.
The monogram on the fine bone china crockery was of the entwined alphabet letters, a large S M and a small B, Sammy Marks and his Wife Bertha. This was very much the status symbol.
Our guide quipped that on one occasion Bertha ordered some big platter covers emblazoned with a large B, to her husband’s displeasure. There are 400 items of fine china still remaining and in store. I tried to turn over a plate to check out the provenance of the china, only to be reprimanded and told “no touching”.
The Billiard Room on the first floor is perhaps the showiest room in the house. Shaded lights hang over the green baize of the imported billiard table.
Our guide told us that only men played billiards but this is nonsense as Bertha is said to have enjoyed a game of billiards.
|Billiard Room Ceiling|
It's the baroque painted ceilings that makes this room so impressive. The ornate decorative floral work was painted by an Italian craftsman from Pretoria. An enlarged portrait photo of Sammy Marks and his father Mordechai Marks (who died in 1908 and who never left his home country) hands in pride of place on a west wall.
How do we jump from a family life in circa 1903 to the present museum?
In 1909 the Marks family moved to a home in St Davids Road Parktown Johannesburg and Zwartkoppies became a weekend retreat. After her husband’s death Bertha gave up the Johannesburg home and Zwartkoppies was her principal home though she travelled a great deal.
On Sammy Marks’ death in 1920 his assets including the farm and the family home became subject to entail which Marks successfully imposed onto the 3rd generation after he and his wife had passed on. He wish to decree that it was to be only after the death of his last surviving of the tier of great grandchildren that the descendants would be free to sell Zwartkoppies. The Marks will was extraordinary as he (Sammy ) tried to rule from the grave and his strictures about his children and descendants not marrying out of the Jewish faith.
This legal device proved to be both a burden and a positive legacy, as this was the thread whereby the tale of bringing a museum into existence hangs.
The son of Sammy and Bertha, Joseph or as he was called Joe, and wife, Kirsty, continued living there until the 1970s (the widow of Joe died in 1978). Joseph was the only son with a profession, he was trained as an agronomist. He was the son who took on the task of farming Zwartkoppies in the 1920s left in the thirties and then returned after war time service after 1945.
By the 1970s the question for the family trust was what was to become of the house and its possessions . It has become a magnificent white elephant. The various prospects for an old age home, a sanatorium , a school, a hotel and so on came to naught. But in 1980 the germ of the idea of a museum began to bear fruit. There were only 4 grandchildren and the descendants by the fourth generation, no longer lived in South Africa.
In 1984 the Trust estate of the Late Samuel Marks came to an agreement with the National Cultural History and Open-Air Museum to establish the Sammy Marks Museum in the Hall. It was Neill Maisels, ( Sammy and Bertha’s astute and foresighted grandson) the executor of the estate who saw the potential for a unique museum. Richard Mendelsohn writes of Neill’s vision and sums up what is still unique about the house “ Here was a wealthy upper- class , late Victorian residence captured in amber. Its Victorian and Edwardian furnishings , its glassware and ornaments, and its collections of silver, crockery and china were basically intact, little changed since the death of the owner more than half a century before, requiring only sensitive and skilled restoration.” ( p255, Mendelsohn, 1991)
It was a long drawn out negotiation to create the museum and begin a process of restoration that is still ongoing. Today the museum is a Ditsong Museum , and some 25 years later the museum still attracts visitors wanting to glimpse this affluent life style of a man who left his indelible imprint on the shape of South Africa’s economy. He was a man who with his partners, made his fortune (and lost some fortunes too) and was able to indulge his own his tastes and be a benefactor of many public charitable causes as well as many individuals (family and others) who could rely on his generosity.
The Marks papers were steered by Mendel Kaplan to the University of Cape Town’s Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research archives and hence resulted in the Richard Mendelsohn biography (Sammy Marks ‘The Uncrowned King of the Transvaal”).
The story of the house cannot be divorced from the story of Sammy Marks and his wife Bertha and their children. It is a story of an immigrant Jewish ill educated Jewish young man who had ideas and vision for the economic development of his adopted country. He was ambitious, entrepreneurial, shrewd and talented. He was an excellent financier and knew the importance of peace and being on the side of the government of the day. He was the man who worked on averting hostilities between Boer and British. Marks and his partner Isaac Lewis had an enormous spread of business interests from liquor manufacture to beer brewing. The partners invested in glass manufacture, tanning, iron and steel, mining (diamonds, coal, gold), fruit and meat preserving, the milling of maize, cold storage. power generation. The range of interests reveals the shift in the economy from agricultural to mining and then to manufacturing. By 1904 Lewis and Marks ownership of farms in the Transvaal placed them among the top five private landowners. The business empire and partnership of Lewis and Marks lasted half a century, but in 1945 the controlling interest in Lewis and Marks was sold to Ernest Oppenheimer and the Anglo American company.
However while the furniture, goods and chattels are beautifully preserved, the house after 130 plus years needs some careful restoration. Errors in past later paint jobs need correcting, the paint needs stripping off and some wall paper is peeling. There is a begging box in the foyer appealing for restoration funds, I thought this a little odd considering the huge wealth generated through the Marks enterprises and the fact that we all pay taxes to the State. Why is it that objects cultural are last in line when it comes to state funds?
In summary, the house as a museum is a period relic, a treasure, a burden and a fascination. It is a compelling must see place. I hope to return one day soon and to enjoy a picnic under the pines. Do come join me.
* * *
I was recently given an eight page pamphlet: “The Life and Times of Sammy Marks” by S J N Maisels, "the administrator of the estate of the late Sammy Marks". The pamphlet presents interesting photographs of Marks, his family and the exterior and interior of Zwartkoppies Hall. There is also an illustration of the official seal of Mark's Eerste Fabrieken Hatherley Distillery limited, established in 1882, plus the S M B monogram of Sammy Marks (large SM) and Bertha (small B).
The pamphlet carries no date, though is listed in the World Cat as 1987. Marks' daughter Dolly married Israel Maisels. The authoritative biography of Sammy Marks was by Richard Mendelsohn: Sammy Marks 'The Uncrowned King of the Transvaal' published by David Philip 1991. Mendelsohn does not mention this pamphlet, though it is clearly a publication associated with the Museum, which opened in 1986 and Zwartkoppies was declared a national monument in 1989. SJN or more familiarly called Neil Maisels was Sammy Marks' oldest grandson and the chairman of the Marks Trust. The Mendelsohn biography lists S J N Maisels as the author of Notes of an Epilogue to Sammy Marks Biography (Johannesburg 1986) in the section unpublished papers and MSS.
It is well worth reading the Mendelsohn biography of Sammy Marks ahead of a visit to Zwartkoppies. Marks was indeed the uncrowned king of the Transvaal, it was his foresight, vision, and risk taking that led Marks to venture into brewing, glass manufacture, fruit and meat preserving works, coal mining. He was a deal maker, investor and financier of the Transvaal Republic and later the Union of South Africa.
There are three useful current pamphlets on Zwartkoppies available from the small shop.
Acknowledgement of photographic sources - all external photographs are by K A Munro, some of the internal photographs are mine others are taken from public sources on the internet. Photography inside the house is discouraged but I found a discreet cell phone could be used effectively. I should add that a google image search will provide all the pictures of the interior that one could ever wish for.
Kathy Munro is an Honorary Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand. She enjoyed a long career as an academic and in management at Wits University. She trained as an economic historian. She is an enthusiastic book person and has built her own somewhat eclectic book collection over 40 years. Her interests cover Africana, Johannesburg history, history, art history, travel, business and banking histories.
- Mendel Kaplan . Jewish Roots in the South African Economy (1986) chapters 5 & 6.
- Richard Mendelsohn : Sammy Marks ‘The Uncrowned King of the Transvaal’ (1991)
- S J N Maisels: “The Life and Times of Sammy Marks” 8 page pamphlet (no date, circa 1988)
- D . Picton-Seymour: Victorian Buildings in South Africa ( 1976) p 301
- Dictionary of South African Biography, Volume 1, HSRC, 1969 entry for Sammy Marks p 515 -517 (one error spotted Bertha was not a widow)
Reproduced from The Heritage Portal