South African Ghost Stories: Jan Smuts’ House

It is difficult to write a short story about a ghost that involves the life of Jan Smuts, the 2nd Anglo/Boer War, concentration camps, hidden treasure, the Great War, WWII, a Greek princess, Prime Ministers, pickles, tough Boer chicks and a spot that I just love to visit. I will continue to remind myself throughout, however, that I’m telling a ghost story. If I start to wander off subject, remind yourself that I’ll be reminding myself to return to the point.

Jan Smuts (1870-1950) taken c. 1914 Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jan Smuts’ house (now a museum) is in Irene close to Pretoria/Tshwane, the capital of the old Boer Republic of the Transvaal. I am there often; my in-laws live in one of the oldest houses in the little village. With your back to the railway, you travel over a deep but narrow river that has carved its way into the blood-brown earth. The banks of the river are quite high, but they are rounded, damp and  soft. There are old trees whose branches meet over the road and cast a deep, silent shadow. It is a beautiful spot: magical and haunted. Not least by the women and children who died in the nearby in a concentration camp set up during the 2nd Anglo/Boer War (1899-1902).

Boer woman and child in concentration camp Photo Source:

The Anglo/Boer War of 1899 shook the British military. The British army had planned to march on the gold-rich Boer Republics in a disciplined and ordered fashion to take over the place for the glory of the British Empire. For other more noble reasons too but allow me to be facetious for the sake of brevity. The plucky Afrikaaners (descendants of the original Dutch settlers, who 250 years after settlement of South Africa had developed their own culture, language and national identity) surprised the British with their sophisticated military tactics. The British had bought far too few soldiers to South Africa to win the war. Adding a series of military blunders, the Boer’s superior knowledge of the landscape and the greater flexibility of the Boer commandos to this fact, at a stage it looked as if the Boers might indeed win their war. The British Army was a juggernaut; the Boer forces a Smart car.

(Jan Smuts was one of the great Boer strategists, as well as a fighting man. He was ridiculously smart. He only started school at the age of 12 after his brother died, finished it at the age of 16 and went on to study law at Christ’s College, Cambridge where he graduated in 1893 with a double first and turned down a fellowship to return to the Cape Colony.)

*It’s a ghost story. It’s a ghost story. It’s a ghost story.

Even when reinforcements arrived, the guerilla tactics of the Boers made it seem as if the war would never end. It wasn’t until Lord Kitchener instituted his ‘scorched earth’ policy in 1900/01 that the long defeat really began. There was no real Boer army in the traditional sense. The Boers were farmers (‘n boer means ‘a farmer’ in Afrikaans). Men of fighting age – this included boys of 14 – were called up to go on commando. They put on their wide-brim leather hats and their warmest jackets, slung their rifles over their shoulders, stored biltong (dried, salted meat) in saddle bags and went to war on the backs of their own horses. They left their farms in the very capable hands of their wives. A Boer wife could handle a rifle as well as her husband. She was strong and resourceful, as at home in the kitchen making hearty meals as she was working the fields.

Kitchener’s Army marched across the country, building block houses and burning farms. The women, children and black farm workers found on these farms were put into concentration camps close to railway stations. Tens of thousands of them died in the poor conditions. Tents were initially in short supply, food rations were too little, water supply was a problem and disease was rife. Measles and pneumonia were the biggest killers in the camps but thousands died of scurvy, typhoid, malnutrition, bronchitis, meningitis, dysentery and whooping-cough.

Lizzie Van Zyl Photo Source: South African Journal of Science: Van Heyningen E. A tool for modernisation? The Boer concentration camps of the South African War, 1900–1902. S Afr J Sci. 2010;106(5/6), Art. #242, 10 pages. DOI: 10.4102/sajs.v106i5/6.242

*It’s a ghost story*

I know it’s a ghost story but the image of Lizzie – somebody’s baby – is so haunting, I need a moment to quote a heartbreaking poem by C. Louis Leipoldt who spent time in a concentration camp, watching babies die.

They made you in England, little soap box

To serve as a coffin for our children

They found little corpses for you, soap box

And I have witnessed you as a coffin

After the war, Jan Smuts bought the British army’s old mess hall in Pretoria. He had it dismantled and re-erected on his farm ‘Doornkloof’, in Irene. It is a corrugated iron building supposed to have started its life in England before being shipped out to India where it was also used by the army and then to South Africa. It is big and pink and has linoleum flooring throughout.

Smuts’ House in 1909, the year he moved in. Photo Source:

It is a humble house though for a man who was twice Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, even though there is a telephone in the bathroom! The ‘best bedroom’ hosted Princess Frederica of Greece and George VI King of England visited the farm in 1947. Princess Frederica apparently loved her time in the home of the redoubtable Isie Smuts (her nickname was ‘Ouma’ which means Granny) and her famous husband. I do wonder though what the King of England thought of Jan Smuts’ iron camp bed on the stoep (patio) that he slept on in summer.

Jan Smuts’ bed on the stoep © Tony McGregor 2010

The house does feel slightly spooky generally, as do all houses that have frozen in time. Isie’s knitting can be seen on the front stoep table. Some jars of her home-made preserves and pickles are still on the shelf in the pantry. There is an open book on the table in Jan Smuts’ library, as if he had just popped out for stroll to return to his desk later. It is a wonderful room, lined with books from floor to ceiling. Apparently his grandchildren used to test him by taking a book off the shelf at random and reading a sentence. He could always tell them from which book the sentence came.

But it is not the ‘best bedroom’ or the stoep or the library that is said to be haunted. The haunted room is the second best bedroom, off the dining room. It is painted dark green and is decidedly spooky. The story goes that the farm ‘Doornkloof’ was originally owned by a Boer family. Their house was built on the same spot that Smuts eventually put up his house in 1909. The previous owner had fled one night during the 2nd Anglo/Boer War when it became clear that the Bristish forces were marching on Pretoria and his farm was in the way. Not wanting his family to end up in a concentration camp, he buried his valuables including £30 000 worth of gold and left hurriedly, never to return. There is no word on what happened to the farmer but it is said that his spirit still lingers in the house on his old farm.

One night George Wilson, one-time editor of the Cape Times newspaper, was staying in the green room at the Smuts’ house. He was woken at about 5 o’clock in the morning by a kindly looking man in a brown suit, standing next to his bed. When he reached out towards the man, the apparition vanished into thin air.

The following morning at breakfast, instead of laughing off his vision, Isie Smuts, fully aware of the ghostly farmer who wandered the house in the very early hours of the morning, berated him for not asking where the gold was buried! It was a regular Sunday outing for visitors to the Smuts’ house to wander the koppies and fields with a spade, on the lookout for the buried treasure. As far as I’m aware, no treasure has ever been found on the property.

I’m not afraid of ghosts, I have a spade and enough Boer farmer wife in me, I’m sure, to dig a few holes, although not enough to bake regularly. I think I have plans for the weekend. See you there?

Smuts’ House today Photo Source: Smuts House Museum

11 thoughts on “South African Ghost Stories: Jan Smuts’ House

  1. I left out the bits about Jan Smuts’ involvement in both WW1 and WW2 and about Isie’s sock-knitting campaign. Suffice to say, that Jan Smuts was a military biscuit and Isie was the good woman behind her good man. I was right! It proved too difficult to keep it short!

    • Apparently the Smuts family used to often search for the buried gold as a family “jokeful outing “. The farmer was one Malmapius ( main street is named after him) and his eldest daughter was Irene (the area is named after her) or so I
      have read. JC himself scoffed at the idea of hidden gold

      • I think most stories of buried treasure are a bit of indulgent fantasy. Years ago in the Seychelles, we met a man on the beach who was convinced he had found pirate treasure. Using big earth-moving equipment and funds from Europe and America, he was digging up the beach-front on Mahe. I remember thinking at the time that surely if you were a pirate, you would have been aware quite how shifting the shoreline was and buried your ill-gotten gains on more stable land; beneath the huge granite boulder visible from far out to sea, for instance. I don’t know if the treasure ever turned up (we’re going back in April, so I’ll let you know!) but I was so swept up in the romance of the idea that the treasure itself became almost secondary to the adventure.

        I’m not sure that the family Eric Rosenthal referred to in his book was the Nellmapius family. Irene is indeed named after his daughter but the family still lives there and owns a fair amount of land. Rosenthal’s story of the family fleeing in the night either can’t refer to them or is a mish-mash of several stories with greater emphasis on magic than accuracy.

  2. Hi Tracy

    Jan Smuts was my great grandmother’s cousin. My mom has some personal stories of her grandmother and grandfather- who was a dominee in the Cape and their interaction with the Smuts family. Your story beautifully written. I say we should go look for the gold;)

    • Cathy said you were related. What an illustrious ancestor to be able to claim. I’ve connected Justin to Louis Botha and I am hugely envious of his connection to the doughty Boer War hero. Despite being an Anglophile of note I can’t help but wish, every time I read about the Boer War, that the Afrikaners will win at the end of it all. They were so tough and frankly just so cool.

      And apropos the money, next time you’re in Jo’burg we can reunite on the koppie in Jan Smuts’ garden with a spade!

  3. Pingback: Suffer the Little Children: British Concetration Camps During the 2nd Anglo-Boer War « tracyloveshistory

    • Thanks. It’s always nice to bump into other South Africans on WordPress. I left school not really having a clue either. I learnt all the dates but never really had a feeling for the people on any emotional level. Wanting to find out more about my family history – so a very personal drive – meant that I had to understand the world that my family lived in. Now, I’m obsessed! I think 23thorns is delighted with this new obsession though. The last one was cosmology. My frustration at not understanding rocket science was often taken out on the poor dear. And even when I did understand, I talked about it ALL the time, and that’s just no fun at all.

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