From Gin Stills to Steel Mills

Vereeniging Estates’ ambitious farming schemes at Maccauvlei continued with the
re-introduction of sheep, which had been the mainstay of Pistorius’s farming operations, when a herd of 5 000 was purchased from Christiaan de Wet, who distinguished himself as a general in the Anglo-Boer war.

Curiously another young Afrikaner who became equally famous as a Boer general was also involved in the area. Coal mining operations had been expanded as the demand in Kimberley increased, but the plan to float the coal down the Vaal River was abandoned as impractical. An iron boat called the “Cecil Rhodes” was built for the purpose but literally and figuratively never got off the ground! Instead the coal was transported on ox wagon trains by transport riders, one of whom was the enterprising young Koos de la Rey.

The fluctuating fortunes of Maccauvlei during these early years illustrated Sammy Marks’s amazing entrepreneurial flair, and it is largely due to him that the Vaal Triangle became South Africa’s premier industrial area. In 1882, the costs of mining and transporting coal to Kimberley rose to the point where it became uneconomical and the colliery was temporarily closed. Marks transferred his attentions to a Pretoria project to build a distillery to produce gin. Despite some doubts about the quality in the early stages, Marks was quite correct in his belief that there would be a big demand for the product. Indeed it proved so popular that at one stage Marks seriously considered banning the use of his alcohol by his own mine workers because of the productivity problems it caused.

The coal mining slump was short-lived however, as gold mining activities on the Rand soon revived the fortunes of Maccauvlei. It also prompted the revival of Marks’s plans to establish a township in the area where a herd of a few hundred springbok roamed. Hunting was seldom allowed and then only for very important visitors. One of these was Lord Randolph Churchill, father of the future British prime minister.

The establishment of Vereeniging Estates occurred after a difference of opinion between Marks and Lewis over the floating of their company on the stock exchange. Lewis won the day and in 1897 the South African and Orange Free State Coal and Mineral Mining Association was listed as Vereeniging Estates Limited.

Not content with diamonds, gold, coal and his distillery, Sammy Marks also investigated the possibility of establishing an iron works at Vereeniging. The idea was prompted by the costs and problems associated with hauling coal to Kimberley by ox wagon. He knew there was an iron ore deposit nearby and, with coal and water, hoped to produce the rails to build a line to Kimberley. He had a detailed study made of the requirements and costs. His partners were not so enthusiastic however, and very little progress was made with the project.

However, Marks was vindicated in 1910 when the Transvaal Administration invited tenders for the purchase of 15 000 tons of scrap iron lying at various railway workshops at £1 per ton, on condition that the tenderer set up a plant to convert the scrap into steel. The contract was awarded to a syndicate headed
by an English engineer, Henry Horace Wright, but his group did not have the resources to proceed with the melting plant. He knew of Sammy Marks’s dream to establish a steel industry and enlisted his aid. The result was the Union Steel Corporation of South Africa Ltd. Marks chose a site on the north bank of the Vaal River close to his coal mining operations which supplied the furnaces of the steelworks, and in 1913 the first steel was cast by USCO.

But that was still not enough for Sammy Marks. He had a pathological hatred about wasting anything, whether it was unused poor quality coal from the colliery or idle farmland. He decided, quite rightly, that it would make sense to use the coal to produce power to mill maize grown on the farms, originally purchased for their coal deposits, thus reducing the cost of feeding the coal miners. Power could also be used to pump water to the rapidly growing gold mining settlement to the north, which had graduated from Ferreirastown to Johannesburg and was growing at a phenomenal rate. The Victoria Falls and Transvaal Power Company shared Marks’ views and erected a power station on the banks of the Vaal River just south of the steelworks in 1912. This also used coal from Marks’s collieries, and the canny entrepreneur obtained a shareholding in the power station as well.

This in turn opened the way for his milling proposition and the result of this initiative was the Vereeniging Milling Company.

Marks was also keen to exploit the large clay deposits under the coal seams and started an operation to make firebricks. Although the quality of the clay was very good the venture initially failed to get off the ground. However, once again it proved correct in the longer term as the project was later revived and grew to become Vereeniging Brick and Tile Company, now Vereeniging Refractories.

A feature of this plant in the early days was a 150 foot high chimney which dominated the Vereeniging skyline. During the latter stages of the Anglo_Boer war, an adventurous employee, Bob Eadie, climbed this structure to watch an engagement between the retreating Boer forces and an advance guard of the British Army. However, Eadie’s initiative was not really rewarded because the British troops took him for a sniper and promptly went into action. When a shell hurtled past him, Eadie lowered his profile in record time. The Anglo Boer War caused mining and farming operations to be scaled right down as there was plenty of action around Maccauvlei and gunfire could be heard in the mine offices from time to time. In the second half of 1899, coal mining operations ceased altogether because of a lack of labour, supplies and transport. The company’s farming activities were also severely curtailed because of the hostilities.

As a personal friend of President Paul Kruger, Sammy Marks helped to set up the meeting near Maccauvlei at which the historic peace treaty between Britain and the Boer Republics was agreed upon in 1902. The event provided a news scoop or the writer Edgar Wallace, then still a resourceful young reporter with the London Daily Mail. He had a friend, who was employed as a guard at the peace talks marquee. Wallace arranged for the man to signal to him with a handkerchief while he waited at the Vereeniging station several kilometres away. On receiving the signal he boarded the train to Johannesburg and cabled through the news, which his paper published some 24 hours before the official announcement.

After the war both coal mining and farming activities resumed and by the time of the first World War the company’s farming operations at Maccauvlei had developed into the largest undertaking of the kind in South Africa. When Lord Milner left South Africa in 1905, the Earl of Selborne was appointed High Commissioner in his place. Selborne and Marks got on very well and spent a week-end together at Maccauvlei. Marks helped to engineer a meeting between Selborne and General de la Rey to improve relations between the British Administration and the Boers. Selborne in turn helped Marks to organise a shooting party at Maccauvlei for the visiting Crown Prince of Portugal. A member of that particular shooting party was General Jan Smuts, later to become Prime Minister of South Africa.

However, the coal mining and farming ventures ran into problems. Mining became difficult, as water had to be pumped out of the workings continuously. The farming ventures were extended and Brandmuller became the first person to grow asparagus commercially in South Africa. Ostriches were introduced, sweet potatoes sown and tobacco planted – not for the production of cigarettes (at least not officially) but for the making of sheep dip. But a series of disappointments from crops and setbacks with other agricultural activities prompted the Vereeniging Estates to discontinue farming operations altogether in 1923. When agricultural activities were abandoned, the company’s farmlands were divided into smaller properties on which houses were built and then leased to farmers. Nevertheless, the Maccauvlei forest was retained and maintained.

When Sammy Marks died in Johannesburg on 18 February 1920, Isaac Lewis, who at that stage lived in England, continued as the head of the Lewis and Mark empire for another seven years before he too died. The affairs of the company in South Africa, however, were controlled by Marks’s eldest son, Louis Marks, who was 34 when his father died. Louis, who had been educated in England, also brought his brothers Joe and Ted into the business which they ran together with Roy Lewis, Isaac’s son.

In October 1945, the Anglo American Corporation took over the Lewis and Mark group of companies and with them the Vereeniging Estates Limited, but prior to that, the Marks familv had one more important contribution to make to Maccauvlei.