Sophiatown (Gauteng)

Written by Moira Seligman, November 2004

Alec Aubrey Seligman – Moira’s father, related some of the stories here, some come from Stella Schlosberg, daughter of Benjamin Tobiansky, others have been published in magazine articles and books e.g. Founders & Followers, Johannesburg Jewry, edited by Mendel Kaplan & Miriam Robertson.

The first Jewish house on the Witwatersrand is believed to have belonged to Woolf Miller, one of the first English Jews to settle there. The house stood on stand 782 on the corner of Market & Von Brandis Streets, later the site of Geen & Richards furniture store.

If he was not the first Jew to come to the goldfields, he may well have been the first to bring his family; his wife Golda was certainly the first Jewess. The Millers are said to have arrived in 1885 – the year before the town of Johannesburg was proclaimed – hence the claim that they were the first Jewish family.

The family emigrated from Lithuania to England, where they lived for some years and had their first two children; they are believed to have married there. They first made their home in South Africa in Verkeerdevlei in the Orange Free State, where two more children were born.

The family (Woolf, Golda and four girls) moved to the goldfields in 1885, when gold was discovered on the Rand. They lived in a tent at Natal Camp until Miller obtained his stand in the town and built this house. ‘Miller’s Claims’ was named after him, and was located south of the Wolhuter Gold Mine on a Johannesburg & Surrounds map, dated 1890.

Woolf established a cordial factory next to his house, but later had a watchmaker and jewellery business across the way. Woolf also brought the first piano out to the Rand. It was much used and was in great demand for the rehearsals of Trial by Jury, given at the Royal Theatre upon its completion. This was the first amateur performance on the Rand; among those who participated were messrs Smith, Horwitz, Sylvester and Fred Lincoln.

Miller is described as a “well known community leader”. He was founding trustee and first honorary treasurer of the Witwatersrand Hebrew Council (established the President Street shul) and vice president of the President Street synagogue. He left the original Witwatersrand Old Hebrew Congregation to form the Johannesburg Hebrew Congregation, which he served as Honorary Treasurer and vice president.

In 1919 when the Millers celebrated their Golden wedding anniversary, the United Hebrew Congregation wrote to Mr. Miller in these terms, “As one of the oldest foundation members of the two former congregations now merged into one, and as one of its earliest members of its executive, you may rest assured that you have the sincerest of good wishes of all our members and particularly of your old colleagues”.

The name of Woolf’s eldest daughter Sophy is part of the history of Johannesburg. Born in England, Sophy (Sophia), married Hermann Tobiansky, who came to own the piece of land he named for his wife – Sophiatown.

Memel in Lithuania is as far back as the history goes. Hermann Tobiansky was one of 13 siblings, his brothers Julius and Benjamin also came to South Africa, a sister, Evelyn went to Australia, and the other siblings went to the USA. Their father was Wolfgang, the mother’s name is not known. Hermann began trading, like so many other immigrants, as a smous around the 1870’s, eventually owning six wagons. He was a friend and near contemporary of Sophy’s father and considerably her senior. They were married on 31 May 1893, in the ‘New Synagogue’ (presumably the Park synagogue).

During the Anglo-Boer War, Hermann, together with Sophia, his two daughters, Bertha and Gertie (my mother), and Sophia’s two sisters (Rachel & Rebecca) left for England, where he called upon Neville Chamberlain’s father to ask for help for South Africa, as President Kruger had asked him to do. He must have been quite a remarkable man. The British government wanted him to remain (in Britain) and offered him the suburb of Putney ‘for a song’ – which he refused. He was a staunch nationalist, and told them he was a “Boer of the republic of South Africa”. He asked Mr. Chamberlain how he would like to stand under two flags, and claimed to be a burgher of the Republic of the Transvaal.

He was refused a passport to return to South Africa, as he refused to take an oath of allegiance to the crown. It was only after communicating with General Louis Botha, who handed the matter over to General Smuts for attention, that he was helped to reach Laurenco Marques, from where they arranged for him to cross the border back to the Transvaal.

The family were away for ±3 years, having a house in St. John’s Wood in London, a home in Bournemouth, and for a time a house ‘unter den linden’ in Berlin. According to records they also went to France.

Anecdotes from their stay in England reveal that Hermann was a gambling man – not on the races – but on the stock exchange. He apparently lost a quarter of a million pounds on the London Stock Exchange (circa 1902). Another story has it that while in Vrede in the Orange Free State, he lost £80 000 overnight on the wool exchange.

The story of Sophiatown is related in an article in the Jewish Affairs of September 1991:

He was also a friend of Paul Kruger and a burgher, to quote
“Hermann Tobiansky was a great friend of President Kruger, he fought in the Boer War (*) and to show its gratitude, the Republican Government transferred the farm on which Sophiatown stands to Mr. Tobiansky. He cut it into plots and spent the rest of his life selling and renting them”.

* incorrect in article – Tobiansky did no fighting in the war.

Another article states that it was
“ . . . during the SA War when Mr. Tobiansky helped President Kruger with plans for his journey to Europe to seek help for the Republics and in gratitude Kruger transferred the farm on which Sophiatown now stands to Tobiansky”.

Father Trevor Huddleston, in his book Naught for Your Comfort, presents a more romantic past for Sophiatown:
Some fifty years ago, when Johannesburg was still a mining dorp, a planned and growing town, yet small and restricted in area, a certain Mr Tobiansky dreamed of a European suburb in the west, on a rocky outcrop, which is shadowed by the spur known as Northcliff. It is quite a long way from the centre of town …an attractive site in every way …and could hold its own with Parktown and Houghton, and, like them, it had iron-red rock for a foundation and for a problem in civil engineering. Mr Tobiansky bought a large plot of ground*, and named it in gratitude and admiration after his wife Sophia. As he pegged out the streets, he named many of them after his children, Gerty and Bertha and Toby and Sol.

* incorrect in article – Tobiansky was given the ground by Pres. Kruger.

The true story officially documents the original suburb as adjoining Newlands and Martindale. It was eight kilometres north-west of the Johannesburg City Hall and was established on the farm Waterval by Hermann Tobiansky who had purchased the site in 1897 . . . (The stands) he sold in 1903 at prices of between twenty-five and thirty pounds each. Bertha, Edith and Gerty Streets were named after Tobiansky’s daughters; Miller Street was named after his father-in-law.

On the owner’s own volition, portions of the township were restricted to white occupancy. About ninety families, most of them white, lived there in 1910. Since the siting of municipal sewerage works and refuse dumps in the immediate vicinity discouraged further investment and occupancy by whites, racial restrictions were lifted, and by 1913 there were approximately seven hundred people of all races living in Sophiatown. By 1923 the population was said to be about ten thousand, a figure that probably doubled during the next decade. The official count in 1953 was 39 186, although one estimate put it as high as seventy thousand. At that time the township had 1971 coloured and 1845 Indian residents.

The 1933 proclamation of Johannesburg as a white area under the terms of the Native (Urban Areas) Act of 1923 encouraged the rapid growth of the population in Sophiatown. People displaced from the city crowded into freehold Sophiatown, which granted exemption from the provisions of the 1923 Act to landlords, building owners, and families of all races. There was also at that time a great demand for working-class housing, and an even greater demand for the construction of new houses because of the shortage of building material during World War 1. Thus Sophiatown became a mixture of solidlv built brick houses and ramshackle corrugated iron and hessian hovels.

Built within easy reach of the centre of Johannesburg, and one of the few areas where all people were permitted to hold freehold title, Sophiatown contributed to its final destruction through overpopulation resulting from extensive leasing of properties. The overall density of the population eventually came to average more than a hundred and fifty people per acre. The environment was not only overcrowded, with the population falling prey to landlordism, but it lacked adequate lighting, sanitation and refuse disposal. As Hart and Pirie describe it,
…the landscape consisted of sordid and overcrowded backyards. ..dusty, dirty streets …slovenly shops. ..sprawling and unplanned stretches of corrugated iron roofs. ..fetid and insanitary yards.

It spawned numerous shebeens and, from the official point of view, degenerated into one of the country’s worst slums.

All this notwithstanding, Sophiatown bubbled with activity .The sheer numbers of persons housed there made for a diversity of sound and activity rarely found elsewhere. People drawn from every walk of South African society mixed with businessmen and intellectuals of all kinds. From their midst emerged talented men and women – actors, musicians, scholars, educationists, doctors, lawyers and artists. In Sophiatown, the newspaper Drum flourished; there, singers like Miriam Makeba began their careers. In their urge and will to be free they created a vibrant society which is still remembered with nostalgia.

The suburban borders of Johannesburg grew steadily closer to Sophiatown. By the mid-1940s some protesters wanted the authorities to redevelop the area, not only for racialistic reasons, but also as part of a slum clearance programme. Ultimately, when no action was taken by the City Council, central government took over the township and implemented forced removals from 1953 to 1962. From that time Sophiatown ceased to exist. All its inhabitants were forcibly removed to new areas such as Meadowlands. What had formerly been Sophiatown was cleared, resurveyed and declared a whites-only group area. By 1963 the new houses built by the National Housing Commission on the site were already occupied, mainly by immigrants.

‘The stream of regulations governing the ownership and disposal of land at Sophiatown is making the administrators of the Will quite dizzy’, the Rand Daily Mail remarked in 1956. Houses had been demolished to comply with the law, but the land could not be sold, let or built upon because of the regulations governing its ownership.


The complexity of the financial arrangements under which the stands were sold by Hermann Tobiansky to ‘native buyers’ resulted in the estate’s remaining under liquidation for many years. Some stands had perpetual mortgages, while others had been bought on small-payment hire purchase terms or on even more complex conditions of purchase. Though Tobiansky died in 1933, by 1962 the whole estate had not yet been wound up.

When the township was declared a white area, the Government decided to rename it. Verwoerdburg, Maraisrust, Riethaville, Transville, Judithville, Koppieview, Willowdale, were all suggested as potentially suitable alternatives. In August 1964 the municipal plan finally designated the suburb where Sophiatown had formerly been situated as Triomf. No official explanation has ever been offered by the National Housing Commission for bestowing so pejorative an appellation on this area.

Hermann Tobiansky was one of the first liberal private owners of a suburb in Johannesburg – he sold to all who wished to buy. Little information is to be found about him during his lifetime . . . Only a name on the list of founder members of the United Hebrew Congregation indicates his congregational affiliation. He apparently spent his time working on his township development.

The family photograph . . . shows him as a husband, father and brother-in-law. We need to remember him also as a man who provided Johannesburg people, of whatever group, with facilities to purchase a place to live, and who went out of his way to help his tenants. Who knows whether the fate of Sophiatown might have been different had Hermann Tobiansky still been alive at the time of the forced removals?

There were approximately 3000 plots (according to records also reflected in Hermann’s will) some of which were still unsold as at the time of his death in 1933. The saga of the handling of the estate by the executors, a firm still existing in Johannesburg, will best be left unstated at this point.

Because of his friendship with Paul Kruger, Hermann donated a fence around the Dopper’s Kerk in Pretoria – a fact which was corroborated by someone who saw it – with a sign reading “Geskenk deur Hermann Tobiansky”. Hermann, along with other friends of President Kruger, such as Barney Barnato, Alfred Beit and Sammy Marks, used to visit and drink coffee with him on his stoep in Pretoria. It was in view of this ‘friendship’ that the floor of Tobiansky’s house was lifted to search for gold, as was suspected he may have hidden Kruger’s gold there.

The story goes that when Hermann’s brothers Julius and Benjamin arrived in Cape Town, they travelled by ox-wagon via Kimberley to Johannesburg. Hermann took them to be formally introduced to President Kruger on Ouma Eloff’s farm (family of the president). They had to say “U edele Johannes Stephanus Paulus Kruger”. Kruger told them to be “good burghers like their ouboet”.

Another anecdote told me by my father, was that Hermann had a carpet woven in the pattern of the SA flag as a gift for Pres. Kruger, who in turn, refused to put it on the floor, as he said no-one would walk on the flag. (Perhaps he hung it on the wall). I was unable to find it in the Kruger museum, and speculate he took it with him when he went into exile.

Hermann was a Freemason. General Louis Botha went from Johannesburg/Pretoria by horse and carriage to Bloemfontein to be present at his induction into masonry.

According to Stella Schlosberg’s letter to me, “Your grandfather also owned concession stores – very valuable as they were tendered for. One store was ‘Wit Deep’. I don’t remember more”. The stores are believed to have been on ‘Modder B’, where Chinese labourers worked. Stella continued, “More often than not, Hermann had dishonest employees. The younger brothers had to come to the rescue. One such person became independently wealthy from the ‘start’ he got from Hermann, she went on, I prefer not to disclose names. They also worked in Vrede for Hermann in Tobiansky’s Boeren Winkel.”