Jaco Schoonraad, Acting Manager, DITSONG: Sammy Marks and Pioneer Museums and curator of Numismatics, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History
The centenary of the passing on of Sammy Marks was commemorated on 18 February 2020. The commemoration of his birth 176 years ago in 1844 will be celebrated on 11 July.
Samuel Marks, a Russian Jew, was born in Neustadt, a village in Lithuania on the Russian border on 11 July 1844. His father, Mordechai, was a travelling tailor. His mother was Miriam and they had 5 children.
Sammy went to an elementary school for Jewish children (a cheder) where he acquired a basic literacy in Hebrew to enable him to read the Bible. At the age of 17 he left home and immigrated to Sheffield, England. There he made a living from peddling and met Tobias Guttmann, a Jewish businessman with whom he became friends. Guttmann encouraged Sammy to come to South Africa, and he arrived in Cape Town in 1868.
Guttmann gave Sammy a chest of knives as a parting gift, which he sold shortly after arriving in South Africa. With the profit he purchased merchandise and started peddling again. His cousin, Isaac Lewis, joined him and they entered into a partnership called Lewis & Marks in 1870.
Sammy the businessman
The discovery of diamonds in the 1860s, led to a rush of diggers to Kimberley. Lewis & Marks followed them with their merchandise and opened a general dealer store in Kimberley. From the diamond business Lewis & Marks went into coal business and founded the company “De Zuid-Afrikaansche en Oranje Vrijstaatse Kolen en Mineralen Mijn Vereeniging” in 1880. The town Vereeniging founded on the banks of the Vaal River in 1892, was named after this company. On a visit to Pretoria in 1881 Sammy Marks met another Jewish businessman, Hugo Nellmapius, who had received quite a few concessions from the government of the ZAR (South African Republic). One concession he was granted, was for the production of liquor. Nellmapius and Sammy entered into a partnership and founded a company: “De Eerste Fabrieken in de Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek.” They bought Nellmapius’ farm Hatherley and built the distillery there. Over a period of time they also built a glass factory and a jam- and preserve factory at Eerste Fabrieken.
Apart from the above-mentioned companies Sammy also owned the African and European Investment Co. Ltd, Robert Victor Diamond Mine, Union Steel Company and had shares in companies such as Kimberley Mining Company, Compagnie Française des Mines du diamants du Cap, Irene Estate, South African United Breweries, De Eerste Zuidelike Nationale Bank, Imperial Cold Storage, Victoria Falls Power Company (became Vereeniging Power Station), Sheba Gold Mines. Sammy also had interest in cement and dynamite concessions and was a director of Pretoria Portland Cement Co. Ltd.
In 1884, at the age of forty, Sammy went to Sheffield where he married Bertha Guttmann, a daughter of Tobias Guttmann. She was 18 years younger than him and it was an arranged marriage. The couple had 9 children of whom only 6 survived until adulthood.
Sammy bought part of the farm Zwartkoppies east of Pretoria in 1883. The homestead was a simple clay house with a thatched roof. Sammy and Bertha lived there while their house was being built. They started to build the house in 1885 and on completion the house had 40 rooms.
Marks planted thousands of trees and established a parklike garden with a man-made lake. He did not allow hunting on Zwartkoppies and was proud of the abundant bird and wildlife of Zwartkoppies.
Sammy lived here with his family until his death in 1920 and he was buried in the Rebecca Street Cemetery in Pretoria West.
Today Zwartkoppies is a national museum and forms part of DITSONG: Museums of South Africa comprising the National Museum of Cultural History, National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of Military History, Pioneer Museum, Willem Prinsloo Agricultural Museum, Kruger Museum and the Tswaing Meteorite Crater.
After the social ban regulations of COVID-19 are lifted and until further notice, the Sammy Marks Museum will reopen its doors for the public and will operate as usual from Tuesdays until Sundays. The Museum is closed on Mondays, Christmas Day and Good Friday.