The British Empire provided the chance for thousands of men like Sammy Marks who started life with virtually nothing but found opportunities in the Empire to better themselves through luck and hard work. Sammy Marks was born in Lithuania in 1844, the son of an itinerant tailor who eked out a meagre existence, and decided at the age of 17 that he was going to seek his fortune abroad. Migration was seen by the peoples of Eastern Europe as he way towards self improvement and Sammy decided to move to Sheffield, England. Here Sammy met Tobias Guttman, a Jewish business man, who persuaded him to join him in migrating to South Africa, which at the time did not seem to offer many opportunites but once there the colony was to be transformed by the discovery of diamonds.
Sammy Marks travelled to South Africa in 1861, then a British colony governed by a Governor appointed from London in the middle of a series of wars with the Xhosa people of the Eastern Cape. Sammy had with him a canteen of cutlery which on arrival he used to buy trade goods, which he used to start peddling. His cousin from Lithuania, Isaac Lewis soon joined him and they formed a partnership, Lewis & Marks, which survived his lifetime. They did well and soon they were able to buy a horse and cart which allowed them to extend their operations in the Western Cape.
In 1870 diamonds were discovered in Griqualand West, and Sammy and Isaac moved to Kimberley where they opened a general trading store. They were often paid in diamonds so they soon began trading in diamonds and then they bought their own claim to mine. In 1880 with Cecil Rhodes and Barney Barnato buying up more and more claims in the New Rush and De Beers mines Sammy marks sold their claims in the New Rush mine and invested in the Dutoitspan mine. They were soon trading on the international market.
Sammy and Isaac never allowed themselves to remain in one industry lest there be a depression. They were always looking for new ventures and ways to diversify their investments. They soon moved in to coal mining (1880) founding a company based in Vereeniging in the Transvaal which became an industrial centre with Sammy Marks owning a number of different industrial concerns. Marks then obtained a licence to distil liquor and set up a distillery on a farm he bought east of Pretoria. The factory was called ‘The First factory in Transvaal’ and around it a number of other factories producing jam and glass wee also set up.
With his money from his business ventures Marks invested in agriculture and was the first person in South Africa to import a steam plough.
At the end of 1884 Marks returned to England where he met and married the daughter of an old friend, Bertha Guttman. She was eighteen years younger than he but despite this they were to have a happy life and brought up a family of eight children. Marks had bought a home in 1883 anticipating marriage and he was to transform this farm house into Zwartkoppies Hall, drawing up the plan himself. The house was extended in the 1890s into a double storey house and by the end of teh century the house had a servants’ wing. Around the house he landscaped the grounds into a park with thousands of trees, several orchards and formal flowerbeds. The family remained here until in 1909 they moved to Pretoria to be closer to the company headquarters.
Although never involved in politics Marks was asked to be involved in the negotiations leading to the Peace of Vereeniging, dong what he could to end the war. When the Union of South Africa was brought about in 1910 Marks was nominated as a senator and kept the position until his death in 1920.
The British Empire had provided Sammy Marks the opportunity to make himself a rich man and to become a respected member of South African society – something that an itinerant peddler surely would not have been able to do had he remained in Sheffield.
Top: The family of Sammy Marks
Above: Sammy Marks
Zwartkoppies Hall -