Welcome to >>roaming<< a fortnightly column that will explore both the outside world and the interior landscape, from museums and restaurant and place to be, to an ode to e-reading and an exploration of films, and more. If you would like to suggest places to see and other ideas, email me on arja@iafrica.com

Smuts House Museum: poignancy of past lives revealed

Smuts House Museum in Irene, Gauteng
Picture: Arja Salafranca

By Arja Salafranca

There is a moment, when visiting the Smuts House Museum, that the poignancy of the lives of its residents becomes real. And the thread of loss that that runs like a hum beneath the surface banalities of our lives is starkly displayed. It occurs when staring into the black and white photos of the faces of the infants that Jan Smuts and his wife, Issie, lost in 1898 and 1900 that Issie kept in her bedroom for the forty plus years that the couple lived here.

Having a bite to eat at Ouma’s Tea Garden after the hike up Smuts koppie
Picture: Arja Salafranca

The museum is situated in the village of Irene. It is prefabricated of tin panels, and was bought by statesman, and South Africa’s second prime minister, Smuts for £300 in 1908. Originally an officers’ mess, it was shipped from India, used in the Anglo-Boer War and then brought by ox-wagon to Doornkloof Farm where the house is. The Smuts family lived here from 1909. 

What is fascinating about the Smuts House is that although there is a palpable sense of history, there is also an awareness that this was a large, sprawling family home, filled with children and later grandchildren, and noisy with rambunctious company. They had five other children, as well as an adopted daughter. Going through the house, reading the detailed information boards made the past come alive. Far from this being a static museum, I got a sense of the love and activity that went on in the house. The plentiful notice boards explain what the various rooms were used for, and who slept where, and what life was like in those years.

The museum opens into the living room, complete with two dark dining room tables, casual seating and a heavy, dark wooden dresser to match the other furniture. There’s a piano in the corner, Issie was an accomplished player, and she and Smuts sang German lieder together. There is also an old cinema projector and a screen would be hung on Friday nights when the films were shown. Issie liked the cowboy Westerns where the ‘baddies’ were always caught. Smuts sat at the head of the table and mealtimes were hushed as they coincided with the news on the radio, which they always listened to. The original large radio stands in a corner. There is an old-fashioned toaster which opens sideways, rather than being a pop-up toaster, and I stood looking at a wooden chest, wondering what that was, before reading the information boards: it was an icebox, of course, and ice was delivered daily.

The prefabricated house was the home of Jan Smuts, above, and his family from 1909
Picture: Arja Salafranca

There is also a large sitting living room decorated with photos of the British Royal Family who visited in 1947. There are several bedrooms that were used for guests, again with original, dark wooden single beds, one with an old-fashioned electric heater and a chamber pot. There is only one bathroom – added later – and a toilet.

The bathroom is intriguing, it is sparse, but it also has a phone installed on the wall, no rotary dial, of course. This was for Smuts to conducts his affairs of the state calls in private. Smuts’s bedroom was also sparse. A single bed and armoire, a few pieces of bedside furniture. A tin of peppermints for the children, which they called ‘parliaments’, a tin for rusks. A door led to the veranda a single iron bedstead stood. As the house was freezing in winter and boiling in summer – all that tin – Smuts read on the veranda at night by the aid of a paraffin lamp and slept there too in summer.

His study is a large room, lined on all four walls with built-in bookcases, two desks, more seating. Both the Smuts’s read widely, and prolifically and in many languages. He learned Greek in a week. He and Issie read in several languages, too. There are more books along the passages. Some of the Smuts books are four hundred years old, such as the Shakespeare volumes.

Smuts’s study lined with thousands of books
Picture: Kimberly Reid

The girls’ rooms – that of the Smuts’s daughters – are now ‘legacy’ rooms which explain the political career of Smuts, his military career and the impact he had.

The pantry and kitchen were built on in 1918 in brick, and these rooms are far cooler. The house, just past midday, was getting unpleasantly close on this summer’s day. Issie received awards for her chutney and jams, an information board points out, while the kitchen offers another window onto their lives. The frugal Issie used dishcloths saved from canvas bags. A large brown thigh-high tin was filled with flour for all the loaves of bread baked for the large family daily. There is a wood and coal stove, which Issie used all her life, and a packet of coal beside it. The sink is dark tan, with a built-in drainer, no fitted cupboards but a large dresser to store various kitchen goods.

After walking the Oubaas Trail, have a bite to eat at the onsite restaurant, Ouma’s Tea Garden
Picture: Arja Salafranca

The last room before leaving was Issie’s room, preceded by a corridor in which Issie’s life and impact is explained. Again, the room is small, and has a single bed too, an iron one, against the window. There are heavy cupboards, looking into the large mirror I imagined Issie staring into it as she got ready for the day. Volumes of books from her library are in a bookshelf, there’s poetry, Shelley, for instance, and volumes of Walter Scott among them. A simple radio hung from a string on the wall. Then there is the dresser and the photos of her deceased children, that simple expression of her loss which both reverberates through the years and shows us another side of the capable intelligent woman who wanted to be a doctor, who read in four languages, and yet woke up to the photos of the infants who had died and were always a part of her.

After visiting the House, we walked the Oubaas trail of 4kms that leads up Smuts koppie. Smuts walked up here daily and meditated at the top where an obelisk now stands. He and Issie’s ashes were scattered here, as were other members of the family. The views from the top are worth the climb, although the land is now extensively developed. But we looped away, down the hill, and away from the views, and the grass hummed with insects and heat, and our hiking sticks found grooves between rocks, and we could have been back, back in a time before everything.   

For information on Smuts House or if you would like to be a Friends of the Smuts House, or donate urgently needed funds for its upkeep, see www.smutshouse.co.za

Have a bite to eat at Ouma’s Tea Garden, my toasted cheese, tomato and ham sandwich was plump with tasty cheese; while my friend’s chicken burger and chips hit the spot.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


6 Responses

  1. This wonderful old house is badly in need of funds to maintain it as part of our national heritage. It does not receive any funding from Government or other sources and relies on donations from the public.
    It is well worth a visit if you are in the area.

  2. Beautifully written, Arja. So evocative, makes me proud to have worked with you all those years ago. As for the house, can you imagine any of our modern leaders/rulers taking the trouble to pick up a second-hand prefab to live in? Somehow I think not.

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