Sammy Marks – from shtetl to “King of the Transvaal”

The silver knives

In 1869 a young man landed in Cape Town, with a set of silver Sheffield knives in his baggage and little else to his name. By the time of his death in February 1920 he was a fabulously wealthy man called by some the “Uncrowned King of the Transvaal.”

The son of an itinerant tailor, Samuel (Sammy) Marks was born in July 1844 in Neustadt-Sugind (Žemaičių Naumiestis), in Lithuania, and was, by the time of his death in February 1920, the confidant of presidents and generals, lords and royalty.

Marks's legacy is epitomised in the large Victorian house that he built in the 1880s when he brought his young bride Bertha to live with him in the pioneering state, the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR). His story, like his house, is a fascinating one.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Looking across the garden from the portico of Sammy Marks HouseSammy Marks. Image from WikipediaSammy Marks, Barnet Lewis, Isaac Lewis. Image from WikipediaPresident Reitz of the Free State and President Kruger of the ZAR on the occasion of the joining of the Transvaal and Free State by railway, 21 May 1892. Sammy Marks stands fifth from the right. Image Wikipedia
Looking across the garden from the portico of Sammy Marks House
Looking across the garden from the portico of Sammy Marks House
Sammy Marks. Image from Wikipedia
Sammy Marks. Image from Wikipedia
Sammy Marks, Barnet Lewis, Isaac Lewis. Image from Wikipedia
Sammy Marks, Barnet Lewis, Isaac Lewis. Image from Wikipedia
President Reitz of the Free State and President Kruger of the ZAR on the occasion of the joining of the Transvaal and Free State by railway, 21 May 1892. Sammy Marks stands fifth from the right. Image Wikipedia
President Reitz of the Free State and President Kruger of the ZAR on the occasion of the joining of the Transvaal and Free State by railway, 21 May 1892. Sammy Marks stands fifth from the right. Image Wikipedia

From the shtetl to Africa

Sammy (as he was known to most) Marks was born into an impoverished, very Orthodox Jewish family in the shtetl on the border between Russia and Prussia, in the area known as the Pale, to which the Tsar had confined all Jews in Russia.

He was taught in cheder to read the Bible and to say the traditional prayers. It is highly unlikely that his education went beyond this and what he would have learned from being around his elders in the little town.

When he was about 17 years old he was offered the opportunity to take a shipload of horses to Sheffield in England. Clearly a restless young man with an intelligence that chafed at the narrow confines of the Pale, he jumped at the chance and so found himself in the city that was a centre of silver working, and met his future in-laws, the Guttmanns. He stayed in Sheffield

While in Sheffield Marks was given the set of silver knives which he took with him when he went to South Africa in 1869. They were the “seed capital” of his fortune.

When he arrived in Cape Town he sold the silver knives in order to buy trade goods and a wagon and with these he left for the newly-opened diamond fields in the northern Cape, where Kimberley would soon rise.

So successful was his trading en route to the diamond fields that he soon had no stock left and had to turn back to Cape Town to replenish his stocks, without reaching Kimberley. He had joined the ranks of the travelling pedlars who plied their trade in the rural hinterland, a group known as “smouse” immortalised in Antony Sher's 1988 novel Middlepost (Chatto and Windus).

Meanwhile Marks was joined by his cousin, also from Neustadt, Isaac Lewis, and the two formed a lifelong partnership, forming the company Lewis and Marks which was initially a little trading store in Kimberley, and grew to be an industrial giant of South Africa's highveld.

In 1881 Marks decided to move on and went to Pretoria, which he found to be conducive and where he soon was accepted into powerful circles. He became acquainted with, and quickly friends with, President Paul Kruger of the ZAR. Having such friends in high places served him well and very soon he was making serious money, especially in the brewing of liquor and a fruit and jam canning factory.

In 1892 Marks and Lewis founded the Zuid-Afrikaansche en Oranje Vrijstaatsche Mineralen en Mijnbouwvereeniging in order to exploit the newly-discovered coal deposits in the southern Transvaal and the Northern Free State. This company gave the town of Vereeniging its name. Vereeniging would a few years later be the sight of the negotiations which ended the Boer War, in which negotiations Marks played a significant, though unofficial, role.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The south portico from the westThe portico from the southDetail of the south porticoThe east verandahRear of the houseAnother view of the rear of the houseThe underground wine cellar behind the houseAblution facilities for the servantsCold rooms which were kept cold by hanging wet sacking over the louvresVarious activities were conducted in this outbuilding, which included a butcheryThe butler's room was in this outbuildingLooking west across the porticoLooking east across the porticoView of the garden from the west verandahThe front of the house from the westThe west porticoThe main gatesThis depression is all that is left of the ornamental lake on which guests joined in boating parties and the imported black swans swam during the house's heydays.
The south portico from the west
The south portico from the west
The portico from the south
The portico from the south
Detail of the south portico
Detail of the south portico
The east verandah
The east verandah
Rear of the house
Rear of the house
Another view of the rear of the house
Another view of the rear of the house
The underground wine cellar behind the house
The underground wine cellar behind the house
Ablution facilities for the servants
Ablution facilities for the servants
Cold rooms which were kept cold by hanging wet sacking over the louvres
Cold rooms which were kept cold by hanging wet sacking over the louvres
Various activities were conducted in this outbuilding, which included a butchery
Various activities were conducted in this outbuilding, which included a butchery
The butler's room was in this outbuilding
The butler's room was in this outbuilding
Looking west across the portico
Looking west across the portico
Looking east across the portico
Looking east across the portico
View of the garden from the west verandah
View of the garden from the west verandah
The front of the house from the west
The front of the house from the west
The west portico
The west portico
The main gates
The main gates
This depression is all that is left of the ornamental lake on which guests joined in boating parties and the imported black swans swam during the house's heydays.
This depression is all that is left of the ornamental lake on which guests joined in boating parties and the imported black swans swam during the house's heydays.

Marriage and the building of Zwartkoppies Hall

When he reached the age of 40, and with considerable wealth to his account, Marks decided it was time to marry and settled on Bertha Guttmann of Sheffield. He returned to Sheffield to visit the Guttmanns and to propose to Bertha.

In the meantime, Marks had bought the farm Zwartkoppies to the east of Pretoria and there he began the construction of his home. He allegedly drew the initial plans for the house on a piece of wood and got a local builder to construct the house according to his rough sketch plan.

It was a verandah house, single storied and relatively modest. Into this house he and Bertha moved in the late 1880s. Bertha was as energetic and entrepreneurial as Sammy and was soon running a tight ship in the house as well as setting up a poultry business (to Sammy's slight displeasure!).

The furnishings of the house were all imported from Britain and the Continent.

Soon the house became too small for Sammy and Bertha and a large-scale revamping was set in motion. It would seem that Dutch architects De Zwaan and Van Dyk were involved in the planning of the improvements.

The house was enlarged with a double story addition added to the north of the original single storey and a portico added to the south frontage of the single story part of the house. The house as it looks today is, in the words of Désirée Picton-Seymour (Historical Buildings in South Africa, Struikhof, 1989), “... not particularly imposing, but vaguely classical...” It shows the effects of piecemeal building rather than an integrated design.

Inside the house is magnificent where it has been restored from some rather unfortunate “modernisations” that occurred after the death of Sammy Marks. The kitchen is huge, and north facing, so boiling hot in summer, but pleasantly warm in winter. The living rooms, being at the southern end of the house, are freezing in winter and cool in summer.

The central hallway is dominated by an imposing staircase which separates the single-storey from the double storey parts of the house.

In the northern end of the top storey is the very imposing billiard room with its coved ceiling decorate by beautiful stencilling. Marks had an Italian artist/craftsman do much of the decorative paintwork in the house.

In Marks's time the house was known as Zwartkoppies Hall, but since 1984, when it was taken over by the then National Cultural History Museum, now the Ditsong Museums of South Africa, it has been known as the Sammy Marks Museum.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Bertha Marks in about 1906. Image Sammy Marks MuseumThe Marks family: (L to R) Fanny Beatrice (Dolly); Louis (YLL); Philip; Joseph; Theodore (on floor); Bertha; Gertrude (Girlie/Gai). Image Sammy Marks MuseumMarks and his family on a visit to England c1903. From left to right are Girlie 1889, Joe 1892, Dolly 1897, Sammy, Louis 1885, Bertha and Phil 1900. Ted 1894 is absent. Image WikipediaMarks frequently entertained famous and influential people. Here is is with Lord and Lady Roberts. Roberts was the commander-in-chief of the British forces in Pretoria in 1900. Image Sammy Marks MuseumThe grounds surrounding Zwartkoppies Hall had many sport facilities. One of the most popular was the tennis court.. Image Sammy Marks Museum
Bertha Marks in about 1906. Image Sammy Marks Museum
Bertha Marks in about 1906. Image Sammy Marks Museum
The Marks family: (L to R) Fanny Beatrice (Dolly); Louis (YLL); Philip; Joseph; Theodore (on floor); Bertha; Gertrude (Girlie/Gai). Image Sammy Marks Museum
The Marks family: (L to R) Fanny Beatrice (Dolly); Louis (YLL); Philip; Joseph; Theodore (on floor); Bertha; Gertrude (Girlie/Gai). Image Sammy Marks Museum
Marks and his family on a visit to England c1903. From left to right are Girlie 1889, Joe 1892, Dolly 1897, Sammy, Louis 1885, Bertha and Phil 1900. Ted 1894 is absent. Image Wikipedia
Marks and his family on a visit to England c1903. From left to right are Girlie 1889, Joe 1892, Dolly 1897, Sammy, Louis 1885, Bertha and Phil 1900. Ted 1894 is absent. Image Wikipedia
Marks frequently entertained famous and influential people. Here is is with Lord and Lady Roberts. Roberts was the commander-in-chief of the British forces in Pretoria in 1900. Image Sammy Marks Museum
Marks frequently entertained famous and influential people. Here is is with Lord and Lady Roberts. Roberts was the commander-in-chief of the British forces in Pretoria in 1900. Image Sammy Marks Museum
The grounds surrounding Zwartkoppies Hall had many sport facilities. One of the most popular was the tennis court.. Image Sammy Marks Museum
The grounds surrounding Zwartkoppies Hall had many sport facilities. One of the most popular was the tennis court.. Image Sammy Marks Museum

Life at Zwartkoppies Hall

Zwartkoppies Hall, after the alterations and additions of the 1890s, had 45 rooms, including a large kitchen with an imported range, and servants' quarters. All the furnishings were imported from Britain.

Running such a huge house was obviously a lot of work and the Marks's brought in a large number of servants from Britain to keep the house up to standard and to cater for the needs of the frequent guests.

At one time there were 19 such servants, including a butler. The first butler was a Mr J. McCracken who was succeeded by a Mr Wilder. There was also a carpenter and handyman, Mr James Potts of whom the Marks children were very fond. The large farm was managed by a Mr Daantjie Hauman.

A nurse was employed to look after the smaller children, while the older children had a governess until they were ready for school in England.

The Marks's had eight children of whom only six survived. The oldest, Louis, came back from his studies in England a bit of a "toff" and was called by the staff "Young Lord Louis", and he even took to signing his letters "YLL". Joseph studied agriculture and ran the farm after the death of his father, in addition to running his own nearby farm.

Gertrude, the oldest daughter, was very talented musically and went to England to study music further. Here she fell in love with a gentile man and wrote to her father that she intended converting to Christianity and to marry this man. Marks immediately ordered her to return home. She never married.

The Marks's only had four grandchildren, all girls, and so Marks's name died out in South Africa.

Marks was a very generous man who did much for the Jewish community in South Africa, especially in Pretoria. He also donated a statue of President Kruger which now stands in Church Square.

The Old Synagogue in Pretoria was built largely with funds donated by Marks.

Sammy Marks was extremely well-connected and entertained lavishly and frequesntly. Among the guests at Zwartkoppies Hall were President Kruger, and the Boer generals Louis Botha, Jan Smuts and Koos del la Rey.

Lord Roberts, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces during the first part of the Boer War, and his Lady, were also frequent guests, as was the wife of the British Military Governor of Pretoria during the occupation, Major General John Maxwell, who often spent the weekend at the house.

More photos: The full set of photos I took at this remarkable house is available here.


The interior of Zwartkoppies Hall

Click thumbnail to view full-size
 The impressive staircase in the main hallThe seats around the pillar supporting the staircaseArrangement on the piano in the music room. When the Marks lived in Zwartkoppies Hall there were fresh flowers daily in most of the rooms.The pianoMandolin and case on a chair in the music roomBread making machine in the kitchenThe huge kitchen range imported from Scotland. It came to the house in four sections and was assembled in the kitchen.The table in the kitchen. My daughter Caitlin and Annemarie of the Sammy Marks Museum standing behind the table.Air vent in the pressed steel ceiling of the kitchenPlatters and silver covers in the kitchenEvery item of silverware and cutlery in the house was adorned with the Marks's monogram.The billiard roomPainted decorations in the ceiling of the billiard room These were done by an Italian craftsman from PretoriaAnother decorated panel in the ceiling of the billiard roomA view of the ceiling of the billiard roomThe desk in the billiard roomLooking down the passage towards the south entrance
 The impressive staircase in the main hall
The impressive staircase in the main hall
The seats around the pillar supporting the staircase
The seats around the pillar supporting the staircase
Arrangement on the piano in the music room. When the Marks lived in Zwartkoppies Hall there were fresh flowers daily in most of the rooms.
Arrangement on the piano in the music room. When the Marks lived in Zwartkoppies Hall there were fresh flowers daily in most of the rooms.
The piano
The piano
Mandolin and case on a chair in the music room
Mandolin and case on a chair in the music room
Bread making machine in the kitchen
Bread making machine in the kitchen
The huge kitchen range imported from Scotland. It came to the house in four sections and was assembled in the kitchen.
The huge kitchen range imported from Scotland. It came to the house in four sections and was assembled in the kitchen.
The table in the kitchen. My daughter Caitlin and Annemarie of the Sammy Marks Museum standing behind the table.
The table in the kitchen. My daughter Caitlin and Annemarie of the Sammy Marks Museum standing behind the table.
Air vent in the pressed steel ceiling of the kitchen
Air vent in the pressed steel ceiling of the kitchen
Platters and silver covers in the kitchen
Platters and silver covers in the kitchen
Every item of silverware and cutlery in the house was adorned with the Marks's monogram.
Every item of silverware and cutlery in the house was adorned with the Marks's monogram.
The billiard room
The billiard room
Painted decorations in the ceiling of the billiard room These were done by an Italian craftsman from Pretoria
Painted decorations in the ceiling of the billiard room These were done by an Italian craftsman from Pretoria
Another decorated panel in the ceiling of the billiard room
Another decorated panel in the ceiling of the billiard room
A view of the ceiling of the billiard room
A view of the ceiling of the billiard room
The desk in the billiard room
The desk in the billiard room
Looking down the passage towards the south entrance
Looking down the passage towards the south entrance

Copyright notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2010

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Comments 30 comments

Scribenet profile image

Scribenet 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

I enjoyed reading this true life account of another fascinating personality. It appears Sammy Marks left behind his "Orthodox" Jewish roots,to some extent, since here Orthodox Jewish men still wear the distinctive black hats and coats as they go about their business and I notice Sammy Marks has other attire!

Thank you for this interesting Hub and pictures... even the Google map is interesting!


Mentalist acer profile image

Mentalist acer 5 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

Sammy's life surely rose into a silver gleam,thanks for the biography,tonymac;)


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

Fascinating life story of someone I'd never heard of. Good stuff :)


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Scribe - thank you so much for stopping by and leaving such a super comment. I do appreciate it.

Yes Sammy did leave behind a lot of the Orthodoxy of his youth, and yet his "Jewishness" was still important to him. He would not allow his oldest daughter to marry the Christian man she fell in love with while studying music in England. He ordered her back to South Africa and she lived in his house until she died, a spinster.

Thanks again

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Acer - those silver knives certainly did start something!

Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Dave - thanks for the kind words and I'm glad you enjoyed the Hub.

Love and peace

Tony


jandee profile image

jandee 5 years ago from Liverpool.U.K

Just another sexist chauvinist! How dare he ! re. his daughter who because of religion had her life screwed up! to me he was just another "user" whose slavish obedience to his "pie in the sky" beliefs has subjected another human being to a life of lonesome misery for the heinous crime of falling in love with someone with a different "pie in the sky" beliefs!

thanks tony, enjoyed,from jandee.


scarytaff profile image

scarytaff 5 years ago from South Wales

Tremendous rags to riches tale. very well done.


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 5 years ago

Great write Tony, as always! Iwondered just a moment about "north facing, so boiling hot in summer, but pleasantly warm in winter". Of course, it's just the opposite for us. God bless Brother Tony!


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 5 years ago from South Africa

I always find the success-stories of the Jews interesting. They were and still are super businessmen, and I wonder why? Their mind-set towards business is very similar to that of the Indians (from India). Although I accept it as an order of the day, I am also disappointed in Sammy’s narrow-mindedness and racists approach towards his daughter’s emotions and choice of love. The fact that she was studying music proves that she had a sensitive soul not able to discriminate. Successful businessmen are not always good husbands and fathers. Their hearts are hard and cold, and they don’t care very much for the heart and souls of others. Money, fame, and materialism are their idols and not love and all its subdivisions such as empathy and compassionate. Well-well-well written article, Tony. Jy bly maar in my oë die beste skrywer van artikels in HubPages. Take ten and a bow!


pigfish profile image

pigfish 5 years ago from Southwest Ohio

Very interesting...makes me want to read more about Sammy Marks and the times in which he lived. Thanks for an excellent Hub!


Peter Kirstein 5 years ago

Interesting read thanks Tony. I love biographies especially the rags to riches kind.


dallas93444 profile image

dallas93444 5 years ago from Bakersfield, CA

Interesting man.. He never forgot his heritage... Marks contributed generously to Jewish communities all over South Africa.


always exploring profile image

always exploring 5 years ago from Southern Illinois

This is so interesting Tony.I have always wondered why the Jewish people were so successful,even in America,the Jewish own most of the stores etc.It is sad to me that he didn't let his daughter marry the one she loved.I guess prejudice runs deep in all nationalities.Thank you for sharing with us,your faithful readers.

Love and Peace


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Maxine - thanks for a wonderfully irate comment! Marks was indeed a man of his times, with all the prejudices. The story of Gertrude is a sad one indeed.

Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Taff - thanks for the comment and the compliment. Much appreciated.

Love and peace

Tony


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

Thanks for enlightening me about Sammy Marks and his rags to riches story of which I was unfamiliar. Nice that his home is now a museum for all to see and enjoy.


Loves To Read profile image

Loves To Read 5 years ago

Great read Tony. It is very interesting to read of these people and their stories. At least in those days if you were willing to work you could rise from the poverty line and climb to great heights. Their was an incentive for people to work hard. Unlike today, now if a person works hard they get penalized. Any overtime you do just lines the Tax departments pockets as it is all taken. Apart from a small amount. That is, if you work on a public holiday and make $120. The Government takes $80 so why would you work 8 hours for $40 plus pay more tax because you are now in a higher tax bracket. You may as well take the day off and spend it with your family. Can you blame people for not wanting to put in the extra hours?

Very well written hub. Thanks for sharing.

God Bless


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Micky - yes we are a little topsy-turvy down here, LOL! Thanks for the comment and glad you enjoyed the read.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Martie my vriend - dankie baie vir die mooi woorde. Ek is nie seker dat ek hulle verdien het nie, maar ek waardeer hulle opreg!

So gald that you enjoyed the article. Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Val - thanks for stopping by. I apreciate your comment. There will be more on this Hub and on the others I have already written!

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Pete - thanks, coz! Looking forward to seeing you and Lindi to hear about the trip.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Dallas - he was indeed an interesting man. He did contribute to Jewish communities very generously though it would seem that he was not a very committed practising Jew himself, though his "Jewishness" was always important to him. For example I'm not sure the kitchen at his house was strictly kosher. Will have to do some research into that.

Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Ruby - thanks for stopping by and commenting. Gertrude did live a sad life, by all accounts.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Peggy - thanks for stopping by and commenting. The museum is lovely and they run wonderful educational tours and events for children which is really great.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

LTR - thanks for stopping by and leaving such a thoughtful comment. I think the reality of many of these "rags to riches" stories is that in those days there was more cheap labour available, for one thihng. I also think that many fortunes were made on the basis of rather dodgy deals! But I take your point about being able to enjoy the rewards of hard work.

Thanks again

Love and peace

Tony


amillar profile image

amillar 5 years ago from Scotland, UK

I often think that those who went out to the colonies - whether they achieved much success or not - had the get-up-and-go gene in them. Maybe that’s why you’re there, and I’m here - freezing, and doing nothing about it.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Amillar - thanks for commenting so thoughtfully! Yes that gene has to been there to get people to go out into the unknown the way they so often did. It is so amazing that a person with little education and from an impoverished and oppressed background could end up hobnobbing with Presidents and Kings thousands of miles from his original home.

Love and peace

Tony


lionel1 profile image

lionel1 5 years ago

Your Hubs have really given me a lot of joy reading them. Thank you very much.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Lionel - your comment gives me a lot of joy, thank you very much!

Love and peace

Tony

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