Having bequeathed his name to the world’s largest gem-quality diamond ever discovered, it was inevitable that Sir Thomas Cullinan’s enduring legacy would be most closely associated with South African diamond mining and, more particularly, the 3 106 ct Cullinan diamond.
In fact, it was precisely for his “services to the diamond fields” that he was knighted in 1910. What is perhaps less well known is that Sir Thomas was first and foremost a master builder, his craftsmanship and enterprise being evident in many of Johannesburg’s earliest grand buildings. One such building, a plush residential mansion nestled in the heart of Houghton Estate and unsurprisingly dubbed Cullinan House, is now on Johannesburg’s property market for a cool R10-million.
Sir Thomas was a second-generation Cape colonial of Irish descent, born on June 12, 1862, in the small British military outpost of Eland’s Post, in the Eastern Cape. Little is known of his early life beyond the fact that he was one of seven siblings, that he left school at 15 and that his father, who was employed on the railways between East London and Queenstown, died when he was only 17, leaving no property “whatever of any description” to his wife and children.
As he came from an entrenched military background – his grandfather, James Cullinan, having been sent to the Eastern Cape in the 1840s to serve as a sergeant in the British Army – Sir Thomas volunteered in the Frontier War of 1877 at the age of only 15. When the campaign was over, he, like his father before him, secured a job on the railways. But that career prospect must have proved unsatisfactory, for he soon moved to Queenstown, where he was apprenticed to a builder.
While he proved to be a builder of excellent skill, evidenced by the fact that one of his earliest projects, a Dutch Reformed Church in the small town of Dordrecht, still stands today, with its spire being one of the tallest in the Eastern Cape, like many other Cape and Natal colonials of his generation, Sir Thomas was struck with gold fever and joined the rush to the De Kaap valley in 1884. However, as the gold turned out to be quite elusive, he had little luck in making his fortune and soon returned home to the Eastern Cape to claim 19-year-old Annie Harding as his bride.
No sooner had he settled into married life than gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand. Again, he chose to join in the rush to the new El Dorado, but, instead of trying his luck at mining, he opted to set up a business building houses and office blocks for the inhabitants of the rapidly burgeoning village of Johannesburg. It was through his efforts that buildings such as the first Chamber of Mines building, the National Bank building, the Robinson Bank building and the second Rand Club building were constructed. Significantly, it was that skill as master builder that helped him amass enough wealth to retire at the age of only 36.
The story of his transition into diamond prospecting, the discovery of what is now the Premier diamond mine, just east of Pretoria, and his rise as one of South Africa’s most powerful diamond magnates is worthy of its own insert and will be elaborated on at a later stage. Suffice to say that the discovery of that massive and richly endowed kimberlite pipe and, more particularly, the wealth that was accrued from that mine, earned Sir Thomas a place at the very top of Johannesburg’s Randlord hierarchy.
At the turn of the twentieth century, it was customary for the Randlords to build palatial residences to the north of Johannesburg’s picturesque ridges, which separated them from the noisy and dusty mines that followed the golden outcrop from Randfontein to Benoni. The most favoured suburbs included Parktown, Westcliffe and Saxonwold, all of which are still strewn with expensive turn-of-the-century residences. Interestingly, Houghton Estate, which is today one of the city’s most exclusive suburbs, only gained in residential popularity in the early 1900s, the area first having thought to be auriferous and subject to intense prospecting activity. It was only in 1904, when the land which now makes up Houghton Estate was bought by Johannesburg Consolidated Investments and earmarked for residential development, that the city’s elite began to settle in the area.
Having already discovered the famous Premier mine and established himself among Johannesburg’s mining elite, Sir Thomas was one of the first Randlords to buy and develop property in the new suburb. His flagship development in that suburb is undoubtedly Cullinan House. Interestingly, the house, which was completed in 1910, was not built for his own personal use but for his business partner and brother-in-law, Joseph Mitchell.
While it is interesting to note that the house was designed by Robert Howden, who would become the first president of the Institute of South African Architects, what is perhaps the most important feature of the house, at least in this context, is that it was constructed with bricks and tiles manufactured entirely by Cullinan’s very own factory, the Consolidated Rand, Brick, Pottery & Lime Company. In fact, the original interior tiles still feature prominently, despite the house having been “updated to suit modern day living”.
The four-bedroom house is a declared national monument and is, according to real estate agent Chas Everitt, the only remaining example of an art nouveau private residence in Johannesburg. It is seldom that an original Randlord mansion comes on to the market, and one hopes that whoever buys the property will appreciate and protect the house’s undoubtedly unique historical aura and significance.