Historic Homes of Kimberley

One can hardly imagine a more disruptive force to hit a community than the discovery of riches buried in the ground. Kimberley moved from a region characterized by large family farms (1870) to the second largest city in Cape Colony in the space of only seven years because of its rich deposits of diamonds in kimberlite “pipes” from ancient volcanoes.

In this tour of historic homes, I am very grateful for the contributions of Robert Hart, who invested time in finding the right images to showcase these buildings. I would also like to thank Matamela Mulaudzi of the U-Wits library, who re-scanned a thesis chapter for three of the images below.

The Old Residency of the Civil Commissioner (1881/1884)

4 Bennett Street, SAHRA 9/2/049/0046

The Residency as of 1989 in image mmkp7732/2, courtesy of the McGregor Museum
The Old Residency as of 2020, courtesy of the McGregor Museum

To contemporary South Africans, it may seem self-evident that Kimberley is capital of the Northern Cape. In the late nineteenth century, however, the city was in a very controversial location. Given that the city is a mere two hours’ drive from Bloemfontein, it is understandable that the Orange Free State republic felt the city was within its bounds. The British who ran the Cape Colony, however, were determined to find a way that they retained control of its riches. In 1873, the British declared that Kimberley would be the capital of their Griqualand West colony (most of the inhabitants of Griqualand West were followers of Andries Waterboer and then his son, Nicholas Waterboer). In effect, the Griqualand West treaty provided an excuse for the British to annex Kimberley. In 1877, however, the Cape Assembly decided to merge Griqualand West into Cape Colony because the Griqualand West colony was bleeding money. In that same year, Kimberley cast ballots to elect a Town Council in its first municipal election. Actually carrying out that annexation, however, would wait until 1880.

It is this period of rapid change that saw the construction of the Old Residency. October, 1881 saw the appointment of E. A. Judge as the Civil Commissioner and Registrar of Deeds for Kimberley Division, a position he would hold until the end of the century. The Residency would serve as his home rather than his office; it is the oldest built residence still standing in Kimberley (it is worth noting, though, that a pre-fabricated house dating from 1877 can be seen at the Big Hole Museum).

The plan of the Old Residency, from David Yuill’s thesis, page 153, shows the wraparound verandah.

David Yuill’s 1984 M.Arch. thesis is a key resource for understanding the architecture of Kimberley. He noted that the Old Residency is a barely-altered copy of a design by the Public Works Department that had previously been used for the Civil Commissioner residence in the nearby town of Douglas. The central dining room of the house features a “lantern,” a raised area in the middle of the roof that lets in light on all sides. The Residency is a private home today, so it is not a tourist destination.

The Bungalow (late 1880s)

5 Loch Road, SAHRA 9/2/049/0085

The Rudd House in August of 2015, courtesy of the McGregor Museum

When it was originally constructed for W.H. Solomon, this building was probably quite a simple home. When it passed into the hands of Charles D. Rudd in 1896 and then his son H. Percy Rudd in 1898, however, the house gained a claim on a rather more unique history. Charles D. Rudd was Cecil Rhodes’ partner in their early days at the diamond fields; they met in 1872 because they had adjacent claims. Their teamwork was so resilient that Charles D. Rudd eventually served as chair and managing director of the De Beers Mining company. His son Percy had a long tenure in The Bungalow, living there until 1954.

Some houses can be classified on sight as fitting a standard architectural pattern. The Bungalow, on the other hand, has been described as “sprawling,” “labyrinthian,” and “a fruit salad.” Yuill’s observation that the Bungalow “was not in many ways a forerunner of things to come” would seem appropriate to an evolved rather than designed structure!

This diagram from David Yuill’s thesis, page 155, illustrates both the series of extensions that produced the Bungalow and the long verandah of the house.

The Bungalow has been substantially restored, and tours may now be arranged via the McGregor Museum.

The Lodge (1889)

12 Egerton Road, SAHRA 9/2/049/0023

The Lodge in March, 2015, courtesy of McGregor Museum

J.B. Currey was a distinct personality of early Kimberley. He was appointed secretary to the government in 1872, and his antagonistic opposition to the “diggers’ committees” may have helped incite the Black Flag Revolt in 1875. One cartoon of the era shows him leading Governor Southey (his superior) around by the nose! In 1883, he became manager of the real estate-rich London and South African Exploration Company.

Turn-of-the-century building plan for the Lodge (Yuill, page 157)

Because of his prominence, J.B. Currey had the funds to create a really lovely red-brick villa in the tony Belgravia neighborhood. “The Lodge” was very positively viewed by the community, being described as “one of the best country houses in the Colony” by a contemporary newspaper. The house was still under construction when Stanley Leighton, M.P., passed through the area in 1889, but he stopped there to compose a lovely sketch of the site.

Leighton’s 1889 sketch shows a lovely villa flanked by gardens on all sides (included on p. 395 of Picton-Seymour)

I mentioned that The Lodge was constructed from red bricks, but it is worth noting that burned bricks were actually quite difficult to acquire in early Kimberley. The first railroad connecting the city to the coast was only completed in 1885; before that, all building supplies were shipped in via ox-wagon. The Lodge is an unusual home for a city in that its U-shape partially encloses a courtyard, and the home is surrounded by gardens rather than facing the street.

The Lodge is very much in use today as the Duggan-Cronin Gallery, housing the photographic collection of the McGregor Museum. The building’s use as a museum actually dates from the 1930s, when De Beers made The Lodge available to Alfred M. Duggan-Cronin for his ethnographic collection.

Dunluce (1897)

10 Lodge Road, SAHRA 9/2/049/0088

Dunluce in 2011, courtesy of the McGregor Museum

The turn of the century marked the rise of the architect in residential architecture for Kimberley. D.W. Greatbatch came to prominence as an architect in 1892 when his design was selected for the exhibit hall of the Kimberley Exhibition. Gustave H. Bonas was chairman of the Griqualand West Hebrew Congregation (the foundation stone of the first synagogue at Kimberley was laid in 1875). He hired Greatbatch to create “Lilianville,” a rare two-story residence of unusual opulence. In the same year, Greatbatch designed the Kimberley Sanatorium, now the McGregor Museum.

John Orr began operating a draperies store in Kimberley in 1885, and he and his brother built a chain of stores across South Africa in 1891 and after. When Bonas moved to London in 1902, Orr purchased the mansion and renamed it “Dunluce” after a castle in Northern Ireland. Dunluce is a well-documented villa, with original working drawings reproduced in David Yuill’s thesis. The ground floor serves as living space, and four bedrooms and two dressing rooms occupy the upper floor.

Today Dunluce is operated as part of the McGregor Museum, with tours available by appointment.

The Grange (1898)

13 Lodge Road, SAHRA 9/2/049/0090

The Grange as it appeared in 2020, courtesy of the McGregor Museum

Friedrich Hirschhorn was born in Germany in 1867, but as a young man he began working as the Kimberley representative for Julius Pam and Company, a European firm that made early bets on the diamonds of Kimberley. He gained the confidence of Cecil Rhodes, who claimed Hirschhorn was “recognized to be one of the finest authorities on diamond matters.” I appreciated a story about him appearing in Brian Roberts’ Kimberley: Turbulent City that reveals Hirschhorn’s playful side. After inviting friends to a dinner party at his house, he first pretended they had arrived on the wrong date and then conducted them to a hotel where a lavish dinner was ready! Hirschhorn was also a strong supporter of the Kimberley Africana Library, providing a ready wallet for the acquisition of new items.

Hirschhorn’s residence at The Grange is also notable as the first home for Ernest Oppenheimer, who came to Kimberley in 1902 at the age of 22. Hirschhorn was related to Ernest’s mother, so when Oppenheimer arrived at Kimberley he offered him room in his then newly-constructed home.

The Grange could hardly be located more ideally; it is only a couple of blocks from The Lodge and the building that now houses the McGregor Museum. Hirschhorn would live there for thirty years before relinquishing the house to become a boarding hostel for the Girls’ High School. It later became the residence of the general manager at De Beers Consolidated Mines.

Violet Bank (~1900)

1 Vista Street, SAHRA unlisted

Violet Bank in 1989 in image mmkp7752/1, courtesy of the McGregor Museum

James Hill is a fine example of a would-be “digger” who gave up his shovel to find a more lucrative career. Born in England in 1849, he moved to South Africa in 1867. Like other young men of the time, he was lured to the diamond fields from his initial home at Port Elizabeth. In 1871, he had established a commercial business at “New Rush,” soon to become Kimberley. By 1890, his store was the largest importer of goods into Kimberley, supplying expeditions such as the “Pioneer Column” representing Cecil Rhodes’ effort to subjugate what is now Zimbabwe.

This image (11204/1) highlights the cast iron “tympanum” over the front door of Violet Bank, courtesy of the McGregor Museum.

Given that Hill’s company was the leading seller of cast-iron fittings for Kimberley, it is perhaps not surprising that his turn-of-the-century house, Violet Bank, is renowned for its use of cast-iron fittings at every possible opportunity, even incorporating a half-barrel trellis over the walkway to the front door. The rear of the house also offers an elevated rooftop booth, apparently to take advantage of any breezes in the hot Kimberley summertime.

James Hill could only enjoy his house for ten years, since he died in 1910, but his wife continued living in the house for another twenty-five years. In 1994, the site was purchased by the adjoining Medi-Clinic hospital, and the historic house now serves as a maternity ward!


7 Lodge Road, SAHRA 9/2/049/0086

“Friedberg” was constructed for Ernest Oppenheimer to start his family. Image mmkp112891/1 captured in 2008, courtesy of McGregor Museum

Here we return to the life of Ernest Oppenheimer, mentioned above in the story of Hirschhorn’s The Grange. After a few years in Kimberley, Ernest married Lena Pollak in 1906. At first they moved to a flat on Bean Street, but a year later they were able to move into a cozy burned-brick house on Lodge Road named “Friedberg” after the German town where he was born. The house is notable as another creation of D.W. Greatbatch. They occupied the house until 1915, when the family moved to Johannesburg (this was connected with anti-German rioting, though many Kimberley “diggers” sought opportunities in gold at Johannesburg after the discovery of the reef). Paradoxically, when Oppenheimer tried to gain a share of Kimberley’s diamond output in 1923, he and his former host Hirschhorn became bare-knuckled opponents.

The house continued as a private residence for some time, but it became the Estate Private Hotel and home to the Butler’s Hotel School of Kimberley until 2015. Now, however, Friedberg is once again a private residence.

Sol Plaatje House

32 Angel Street, SAHRA 9/2/049/0045

It may not have been built for him personally, but Sol Plaatje’s legacy lives on in his museum and library. Image courtesy of McGregor Museum

To focus solely on grand homes would miss at least two key houses that are important to the history of Kimberley and of South Africa as a whole. The multiracial “Malay Camp” became a substantial community of Malays and Indians in the earliest days of Kimberley; by 1877, an estimated 600 people called the camp home.

Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje was born in 1875. He moved in 1894 to Kimberley as a postal worker, but he quickly emerged as both a polyglot and a writer after moving to Mafeking; his Boer War diary related the siege of that city during the Anglo-Boer War. In 1912 he became the general correspondence secretary for the African National Congress, greatly increasing his political role. In 1921, he returned to Kimberley to stay at 32 Angel Street in the Malay Camp with his brother-in-law, Isaiah Bud-M’belle. In 1927, the Plaatje Jubilee Fund purchased the house for his family. Sol Plaatje lived there until his death in 1932, and his widow lived there until 1942.

How this house became a national monument, a museum, and an educational bridging site is very interesting. Elizabeth Voigt, then director of the McGregor Museum, detailed this process in a 1992 paper for the Southern African Museums Association. I am sure that Sol Plaatje would be delighted as a man of letters that his former home is the site of a literacy program for this community! It is no coincidence that the new university opened at Kimberley in 2014 was named for him.

Robert Sobukwe House

Naledi Street (Galeshewe), SAHRA unlisted

This image of Sobukwe House from https://www.experiencenortherncape.com/visitor/blog/northern-cape-in-pictures was made available by Flow Communications

Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe (1924-1978) worried the Apartheid government. “The Prof” was a talented linguist, but his college training in the 1940s at Fort Hare awoke his political instincts, as well. African nationalism animated his interests for the rest of his life. At first his activism was through the ANC Youth League, but in 1959 he broke with the ANC to become the first president of the Pan-Africanist Congress. His protest against the hated pass laws in 1960 led to his arrest and a large protest march against the Sharpeville police station. The police opened fire, killing 69 and wounding almost 200 people. Sobukwe’s initial three-year sentence was extended by a law apparently pertaining only to him; for each of the next six years (spent on Robben Island), Parliament voted to extend his sentence another year.

Sobukwe’s isolation and never knowing when he might be released went on for six years. He was allowed occasional visitors, and he told one of them that he was forgetting how to speak. The strain finally began to tell and he was hurriedly removed from the island and banished to Kimberley, 480 kilometers west of Johannesburg. He was dumped among strangers in a large house with little furniture in Galeshewe township. Veronica Zodwa (who later also used the name Zondeni) joined him. He was subjected to severe restrictions: house arrest from sunset to sunrise and over weekends. He could not be with more than one person at a time. Nothing he said or wrote could be quoted. He was not allowed to leave the township and could not enter schools or factories without permission. Despite the obstacles, he qualified as an attorney and opened a practice. He was called the ‘social-welfare lawyer’ because he charged clients little or nothing.

Benjamin Pogrund, “The man whose sacrifice and suffering changed South Africa” in Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe: New Reflections
Robert Sobukwe Law Office, as it appeared in 2020, courtesy of McGregor Museum

One can certainly make the argument that Sobukwe’s legacy has been downplayed to some extent, even though South Africa has had a democratically-elected government since 1994. In Galeshewe, one can visit Sobukwe’s legal office at the Galeshewe Centre; it recently began renovations after many years of neglect. Given that Sobukwe was banished to Kimberley rather than returned to a former home of his, we might be cautious about calling the house on Naledi Street his “home.” As of 2018, the family that moved into the house after Sobukwe’s death still occupied the property. As with the Residency and a few of the other houses above, this house is not accessible to tourists.