Before Parkhurst

Since 2003 Tim Truluck has been researching and writing the history of Parkhurst. If you have any old photos, stories or other information on Parkhurst, please contact Tim on ttruluck@gmail.com. The history will be added as and when Tim has time. Please be patient and please return from time to time.

The story of Parkhurst begins with Mr Isidore William Schlesinger, the New York insurance salesman who became one of the most influencial businessman in Johannesburg in the early half of the 20th century. He came to South Africa in 1894 when he was 23 and worked as a commercial traveller selling American goods, before becoming an insurance salesman. He made between ₤10,000 and ₤15,000 a year and travelled throughout Southern Africa. He returned to the USA and travelled to Ireland during the Anglo-Boer War and returned to Johannesburg after the war was over.

He almost immediately founded 2 companies which were to loom large in Parkhurst’s history: African Realty Trust (ART) and African Life Assurance Society. It was the ART that started buying up small parcels of farmland in Johannesburg and developing them into residential suburbs or townships (as they were called then). Parkhurst was one of these parcels, being the most northerly portion of the Braamfontein farm.

Braamfontein was a large farm – most of the more illustrious suburbs that lie south of Parkhurst (ie Parktown, Emmarentia, Westcliff, Saxonwald, Greenside, etc) were all part of the farm. However, the little portion 36 that was to become Parkhurst was the most remote part of the farm. It measured 189 morgen and 273 square roodts or 162.3 hectares. It was located on the slope of one of Johannesburg’s deceptively steep hills. It’s western, southern and northern boundaries follow the courses of 2 small spruits (streams). It was an unvaried terrain of grassy veld, deep erosion ditches (dongas) and green pastures near the streambeds. There was no old farmhouse. Parkhurst fell into a no man;s land between the the lesser track to Rustenburg (now Barry Hertzog Dr/Rustenburg Rd) and one of the main routes to Pretoria (now Jan Smuts Dr).

On 11 September 1903 the ART purchased the farm from the Afrikaner farmer Petrus Johannes Barnard for ₤36,019, 11 shillings and 4 pence. This was quite a lot of money in those days. Without wasting any time, the ART under Schlesinger’s guidance started developing the land into small 1/8 of an acre (+-500 m2) stands and launched an audacious naming competition to publicise the new suburb.

His Father’s Son

(source: Time 02 Aug 1963)

Isidore William Schlesinger (Source: National Archives, Pretoria)

When US-born Isidore William Schlesinger arrived in Cape Town in 1896 [Note – his officail biography says he arrived here in 1894] , South Africa was in the throes of the gold rush. A salesman from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I. W. preferred to seek his fortune above the ground. Soon the diminutive (5 ft. 2 in.) drummer was coursing the veld in horse and buggy, selling life insurance to gold miners and Swazi chiefs for the U.S.’s Equitable Life Assurance—and earning a record $30,000 a year in commissions. He set up his own insurance company, then turned to real estate.

As Johannesburg grew from a brawling mining camp to a vital metropolis, I. W.’s enterprises grew with it. I. W. put up $560 million worth of real estate subdivisions, introduced the chain store, cafeteria and American-style drugstore to South Africa. He gradually bought up most of South Africa’s “tearoom bioscopes” (combination cafe-movie theaters), then added a catering service to supply them. Catering led him into the hotel and restaurant business. When he died in 1949, he was involved in nearly every sector of the economy and had built his $84 million real estate and cinema-chain empire on thrift, hustle and an eye for the shape of things to come.

Yankee Doodle on the Rand

(source: Time 27 Jul 1953)

South Africa had seldom seen a hustler like Isadore William Schlesinger, who was born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and arrived penniless in Cape Town in 1896 to take part in the gold rush. Schlesinger never got to the goldfields. Instead he took a salesman’s job, switched to life insurance as an agent for the U.S.’s Equitable Life Assurance, was soon earning $30,000 a year in commissions.

While others went looking for gold and diamonds, Schlesinger started his own insurance company, began making himself one of South Africa’s biggest landlords. He started by promoting real estate subdivisions in the path of Johannesburg’s growth, eventually put up $560 million worth of buildings and gave South African cities an American look.

North of Johannesburg he bought 16,000 acres of barren bush, dammed two rivers, built 200 miles of concrete flumes, and planted half a million orange trees. He bought confiscated German lands in Tanganyika after World War I, and became one of Africa’s biggest sheep ranchers. When the flickering “bioscopes” caught on, he built a chain of theaters across South Africa and produced his own films. In remote regions, Schlesinger traveling vans still carry Wild West and Charlie Chaplin films to native villages and compounds. He introduced the chain store, the cafeteria, and the American-style drugstore. Through all this he never gave up American citizenship, had his stationery emblazoned: “I. W. Schlesinger, American Citizen.”

4 photo(s) Updated on: 16 Mar 2015