Mosenthals: A Metaphor for the Fortunes of Port Elizabeth

 Even my family has a connection to this once prominent company. Firstly, my maternal grandfather was a wool sorter and later my mother was a typist in their employ.

For me, the firm Mosenthals epitomises both the growth and subsequent decline of Port Elizabeth, but also the trajectory of South Africa’s industrial, agricultural, and commercial growth. 

Let us trace the journey that Mosenthals, Port Elizabeth and South Africa took. 

 Main picture: The original offices of Mosenthals in Port Elizabeth

Entrepreneurs to their core

Central to the founding of Mosenthals was an entrepreneur of German extraction, Joseph Mosenthal. In the spirit of enterprise that drove Joseph, he had elected to leave his homeland. Whether he had any notion of establishing a company in the Cape Colony or whether he was merely on a reconnaissance mission in order to establish the potential of this far-off undeveloped land, one will never know for certain.

The Mosenthals from Hesse-Cassel were the most significant Jewish family connected with the early settlement and development of the Eastern Province, with family connections in the other provinces as well.  The Mosenthals’ ancestors, Sussman and Moses were Shutzjuden, who in 1700 were living in Petershagen on the River Weser. The Schutzbrief was a letter of protection that enabled them to live in the city and carry on business. Moses Heitz had a son Abraham Moses (Marburg), who was granted a Schutzbrief in 1717. He had nine children, of whom one, Moses Abraham, was the paternal and another, Joseph Sussman, the maternal grandfather of Joseph Mosenthal, the first of the family to settle in the Cape in 1819.

Joseph’s business eye must have espied some business opportunities as he set himself up as Mosenthal Brothers – General Merchants in St. George’s Street in Cape Town.  The plural in the word Brothers reflected the fact that Joseph had urgently requested his brother Adolph to join him in the business.

L-R: Adolph & Joseph Mosenthals
L-R: Adolph & Joseph Mosenthals

Within a short period, their activities covered a wide area extending to Murraysburg, Burgersdorp, Richmond, Graaff Reinett and Hopetown. In six years, Mosenthals had become one of the leading forms of merchants in the Cape Colony. For those initial six years, Cape Town was to be the Head Quarters of the flourishing business.

Eyes set on Port Elizabeth

Then being the sharp businessmen that they undoubtedly were, these two founders perceived that as a distribution centre, Port Elizabeth would develop into a prominent town and port. Even though during the 1840s, Port Elizabeth was a diminutive in comparison to Uitenhage or Grahamstown, they had the foresight to relocate their headquarters there. In 1842, a branch was opened in Port Elizabeth. The brothers had bought a huge consignment of goods in England and shipped this to Port Elizabeth. They advertised very carefully, setting themselves apart from other traders by stressing the fact that they were from Europe, and had contacts and financial backing. They were opening a mercantile and shipping house, clearly stating they would be doing exports and imports. Their primary interest originally was trading in the export of wool, bides and skins and importing everyday products from Europe.

The former St. Mary’s Grammar School was used as a synagogue while the Western Road synagogue was being built

Wherever the brothers cast their eyes, they perceived business opportunities. Initially their business remained merchanting to the outlying districts. Whilst sharing the strong coffee of the rugged Dutch farmers bemoaning the prices of their produce, the difficulty of distribution and the costs thereof, the Mosenthal brothers saw an opportunity to open agencies in the country towns for purchasing wool, skins and hides. The farmers could now concentrate upon farming whilst Mosenthals would concern itself with transporting, processing, and exporting these products.

The world’s demand for wool was growing rapidly. Through a Mosenthal’s initiative, the South African farmer was able to reap this bounty. From 1840 to 1860 the wool shipments from South African ports increased twentyfold largely as a result of Mosenthal’s efforts. In fact, Mosenthals should be credited with the creation of South Africa’s wool export industry. From those early days, wool was one of Mosenthals chief activities.

Mosenthal Transvaal 1910 Advert Card
Mosenthal Transvaal 1910 Advert Card

It was now that that the Mosenthal brothers displayed their business acumen and genius. Their belief in their being in a partnership with the wool growers, led them to play a leading part in improving the quality of the South African wool. To this end, they were at the forefront of the introduction of the French merino sheep to South Africa in 1852. In September of that year, the brothers offered Thibet merino rams for sale with this guarantee: “neither trouble nor expense was spared  in selecting those offered for sale [by the French Government at Gevolles]  from the renowned flocks of Bergeries, the largest sheep in existence, the strongest of staple, thickest of fleece, the finest of wool and altogether the best adapted for the Eastern Province.” This new blood brought great advantages to the woolgrower by improving the quality of the product and ensuring better prices.

Mohair industry

As if the improvement of the sheep flocks was not sufficient, the Mosenthals then cast their eyes on the common Cape goat which was found in large numbers on many sheep farms throughout the Cape Colony during the 1850s. These animals were only valuable for their skins and flesh. Their proposal to the farmers was that their goats should be replaced with the Angora with its rich silky fleece, which would make goat farming much more profitable.

Wool sorting
Wool sorting

This proved to be a harder nut to crack than acquiring the French Thibet merinos as the Angora breeders in Turkey jealously guarded their monopoly in mohair production. Hence, they vigorously opposed the export of any such animals. After the Peace of Paris ended the Crimean War in 1856, Adolph Mosenthal made yet another trip to Constantinople in Turkey in order to obtain some Angoras. After great difficulty but aided by the British consul, he purchased a number of rams and ewes. Despite many deaths of goats en route, eleven of the twenty-five originally acquired, survived. They were sold in Graaff Reinett in September 1857.

first-sale-of-angora-goats-by-mosenthals-in-graaff-reinett

It was this far-sighted importation of Angora goats that laid the foundation for the mohair industry in South Africa.

Furthermore, Julius Mosenthal, a brother of Joseph and Adolph, was instrumental in the establishment of the ostrich feather industry. To this end, the Mosenthal’s made a special study of ostrich farming and export of ostrich feathers.

Citrus fruit

A further example of their foresight was to promote the export of citrus fruit from South Africa. The citrus farmers were extremely hide-bound and hence reluctant to get involved in this trade. In order to convince these farmers of the feasibility and profitability of this trade, the Mosenthals agreed to make experimental shipments at a loss to themselves.

For their efforts to establish the citrus export business, they were rewarded with the appointment as the London representative of the Sunday’s River Citrus Co-Op, famous for their three-ring brand.

Angora goats
Angora goats

Family and fellow Jews

In the period 1845-1870, they were responsible for more than half the Jewish families coming to settle in South Africa. These Hessian Jews became managers and sub-managers for the brothers’ rapidly spreading enterprises, or they traded on their own account with financial support from the Mosenthal’s.

Of Adolph Mosenthal’ s six sons, two died in their twenties, one went to London and the remaining three, Harry, George and William, went into the business. The family had a commitment to civic duty. Adolph became a Justice of the Peace at Graaff-Reinet (1851) and a Member of the Legislative Council (1857); Joseph was a Member of the Legislative Council in 1861; another brother, Julius, was the first professing Jew to be elected to the Eastern Cape Legislative assembly, and also became a JP (1855)1 and Harry was Chairman of the Port Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce in 1893 and 1911.

Shift of focus

It was now that the Mosenthal’s exclusive focus on the Eastern Cape and agriculture decisively shifted. Diamonds and gold had been discovered at Kimberley and on the Witwatersrand, respectively.  The collapse of the wool market due to the drought of 1868/9 forced the diversification into these two fields. The Mosenthals outlook had changed. In 1867, with the discovery of diamonds, Harry encouraged his father’s firm to engage in mining, and at the age of twenty founded the London and South Africa Exploration Company, with Lord Farquar and Sigmund Ochs. The company bought the first two farms with surface soils indicating diamond fields, and within a few years owned a large part of the burgeoning diamond town of Kimberley. Later, Harry joined with Cecil Rhodes, Alfred Beit and Barney Barnato in establishing De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited, thus joining a lot of small mines into a huge conglomerate.

Diamond mining in Kimberley
Diamond mining in Kimberley

They became members of the original Diamond Syndicate and remained a member until shortly before WW2. In fact, the world famous “Star of Africa” diamond was sold by the Mosenthals in London.

What is little realised, is that Harry Mosenthal understood why the era of uncontrolled diamond production had to cease. With production volumes skyrocketing, it had caused a disastrous collapse in the diamond’s market values.  Together with John X. Merriman, Harry Mosenthal had originated an attempt to effect a merger of the various small diamond interests. In this initial effort, he was unsuccessful. However, it did pave the way for Cecil John Rhodes to accomplish the merger ultimately. For his efforts, Harry Mosenthal was appointed as a Director of de Beers and later a Director of Rand Mines. When Harry died in 1915, his brother William succeeded him as a Director of Rand Mines.

George, said to be of a delicate constitution, was involved in developing the policy and activities of the firm. William took over after Harry died in 1912. He was also president of the PE Chamber of Commerce and the PE Turf Club, owning fine horses. His nephew, Edgar, took over after his death in 1933.

Eunice McCleland in background at work at Mosenthals with Peggy Kent
Eunice McCleland – my mother in background – at work at Mosenthals with a friend, Peggy Kent

Inevitable decline of the Port Elizabeth operation

With the Mosenthals involvement in diamond mining in Kimberley, this period probably marks the end of the beginning – as Churchill so presciently remarked during WW2 after the defeat of the Germans in Tunisia – of the Mosenthals focus on Port Elizabeth.

The Adolph Mosenthal & Co's Head Office opened on 5 February 1905. Architects Smith & Dewar. Demolished 1974 for Norwich Union Building
The Adolph Mosenthal & Co’s Head Office opened on 5 February 1905. Architects Smith & Dewar. Demolished 1974 for Norwich Union Building

Yet the firm was still a household name in Port Elizabeth until very recently. Among their buildings were stores in Queen Street built in 1860 & 1880 and a splendid store in Market Square opened on 5th February 1903. They also owned to buildings in Baakens Street and Military Road.

Mosenthal's Building in 1920
Mosenthal’s Building in 1920

Even before the outbreak of WW2, the decline of the general merchant business was in decline. Their role prior to the war had been the importation of non-agricultural goods into South Africa. The uncertain future facing the importing merchants was the threat posed by South Africa’s industrialisation. This process was accelerated by WW2 as the procurement of goods from overseas was restricted. To compensate, South Africa embarked on a process of import substitution. Despite imperfections, it succeeded to a marked degree.

While the production of items requiring a large number of imported components still required a plant at the coast, those that were wholly produced in South Africa had to be produced close to the location of the consumption. Thus, the selection of the location of production became bifurcated with vehicle assembly plants located at the coast and the rest on the Reef. The focus of distribution now switched from coastal towns to the point of manufacture: The Reef.

queen-street-in-1966

Thus, after the war, Port Elizabeth gradually lost its importance as a national distribution centre. Even in the case where items were wholly imported, the logical port at which to base the distribution was without a doubt, Durban. With the bulk of the consumers congregated in the Transvaal, only 600 kms distant, Port Elizabeth’s position as the premier port in South Africa was in ineluctable decline.

By 1961, Mosenthal’s Board of Directors was faced with the unenviable decision & stark choice of loyalty to Port Elizabeth versus relocating to the nerve centre of South Africa’s economic activity.

Finally, the inevitable decision was taken. Mosenthal’s roots in Port Elizabeth, though deep, were severed.

Harking back to a non-distant past, it left behind Valley Textiles in Port Elizabeth. The Joburg based company then diversified into engineering, travel, shipping, insurance, and real estate. In effect, it had shorn itself from its agricultural roots in toto.

This rise and stagnation of a once colonial seaport is even reflected in its architecture. During the 1950s & 1960s much of the historical buildings and facades were destroyed in a spasmodic eruption of development during those two decades. In addition, the 1960s heralded the construction of the freeway network along the foreshore and the inevitable destruction of invaluable buildings such as the historic Customs House at the Harbour entrance.

Fortunately, funds were exhausted before the proposed Baakens Freeway could be constructed. This would have culminated in the destruction of the green lung of Port Elizabeth to be replaced with tunnels, overpasses, and four lane highways. What that cancelled project signified was the inevitable decline of Port Elizabeth, past its prime and its heyday.

Many will lament the inexorable decline of Port Elizabeth, but I view it as an opportunity to market its Colonial Heritage and as a hub for high-tech manufacture. Decoupled from consumer demand, its market would be the world and not Gauteng.

I am unable to determine the ultimate fate of the rump of the Mosenthals conglomerate. Nonetheless, it is highly likely that it was consumed by one of the many Corporates in Joburg.

What I more certain of is the fate of the faith of the Mosenthals. By intermarrying outside their Jewish faith, the family is no longer recorded as being Jewish.

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Sources:

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth) Colonial Port Jews: The Jews of Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape by Saul Issrof (SA-SAG, Vol 15, Issue 1, April 2017) Article, Jewish Settlers Played a Role, Ivor Markman The City of Port Elizabeth: From a Border Garrison Town to a Modern Commercial and Industrial City Edited by Ramon Lewis Leigh

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