Hugo Nellmapius built a dairy farm as a legacy in the village of Irene outside Pretoria. He made and lost several fortunes in his lifetime and was a friend of President Paul Kruger and Jan Smuts. The barn he built in 1890 is still used today to feed the cows of the Irene Estate milking herd. But who was he?

Most Midstreamers are familiar with Nellmapius Drive, the major road that stretches from the Old Johannesburg Road past the Midstream turnoff and on to the Southdowns shopping centre, then past the Irene Dairy farm before passing under the railway bridge and Cornwall Hill before crossing the highway and continuing past the Rietvlei Dam.

Hugo Nellmapius, after whom Nellmapius Drive in South Africa is named, made a significant contribution to the local village of Irene and the surrounding area.  He made and lost several fortunes in his lifetime and was one of President Paul Kruger’s closest friends.

He was born in Poland in 1847 and trained as an engineer in the Netherlands. He arrived in South Africa in 1873, the year that gold was first discovered in the South African Republic.  The enterprising Nellmapius made his first fortune mining gold near Pilgrim's Rest in the Eastern Transvaal, where he was reputedly the first digger on the Transvaal goldfields to  use dynamite.

Two years later he managed to obtain the first transport concession to Delagoa Bay in 1875. He built what is now known as the Nellmapius Road, used by transport riders including Percy Fitzpatrick and his dog Jock. From the Mac-Mac falls area and the goldfields, the road crossed the Crocodile River at Nellmapius Drift near Hectorspruit before ending in current-day Maputo in Mozambique.

Now a wealthy man, Nellmapius settled in Pretoria, buying a farm outside the city. He quickly struck up a lifelong friendship with President Paul Kruger and financed a new house for him in Church Street. Nellmapius was welcome in the Presidential home whenever he chose to call.

The Transvaal Republic was short of funds and Nellmapius persuaded Kruger that a good way to raise money was by selling monopoly concessions to independent businessmen. The Transvaal needed its own industries to produce basic products such as clothing, blankets, flour and sugar. The monopoly businesses would be protected from outsiders by high tariff protection.

Nellmapius asked for two monopolies, one to make liquor from local grain, the other to make sugar from beets and maize. He asked for a fifteen-year concession, in return for an annual payment to the treasury of £1000. The scheme was approved and Nellmapius took on two partners, Sammy Marks and his brother-in-law Isaac Lewis, to build the Hatherley Distillery that produced gin and whisky on the farm Hatherley.

Later Nellmapius used the monopoly concession system to build the first gunpowder factory in South Africa and the Irene Lime Works. He also owned the Pretoria newspaper De Pers.

He continued his business relationships with Sammy Marks, who after his premature death took over his concessions for the distillery, canning fruit and a ceramics factory. A portrait of Nellmapius is to be seen on the second floor of the Sammy Marks Museum on the Marks family farm outside Pretoria.

He married Johanna Corlydia Hoffman in 1882, and their son Ernest Harold was born in 1890

Irene estate farm

In 1889 Nellmapius bought a farm near Centurion named Doornkloof. He re-named the farm Irene after his two-year-old daughter who used to pronounce her name with three syllables: Ireenee.  The name of the village is still pronounced this way today. He built the Irene Estate and over the years bought more farms nearby along the Hennops River to enlarge the property.

Nellmapius had grandiose ideas for the development of a model farm at Irene. He began to experiment with different crops, and established a stock farm and dairy, for which he imported seventy Friesland cows. He employed horticulturists and used the temperate climate, ample water and fertile soil, to create an extensive flower, fruit and vegetable garden.

He built a fine farmhouse designed by the architect de Zwaan and erected impressive stables and a dairy which are still in good condition today. It is believed that he spent £80,000 in developing the Irene Estate, which was sold after his death to the Van der Byl family who continued growing the I estate and village.

The experimental farm became a refuge for Nellmapius, who in the early mornings could be found inspecting his young orange trees and carefully going through the immense stables where horses, cows and even wild animals knew him intimately.

Nellmapius experimented with taming the eland and zebra on his farm to work as coach animals. When travelling through Pretoria from his Albert House residence he would sometimes commute on a cart pulled by four zebras.

Flora Shaw from the London newspaper ‘The Times’ visited the farm in late 1892 and wrote about her experience of the Irene Estate: “There is hardly a crop from tea to turnips which I did not see in the course of a long morning’s drive”.

Nellmapius often entertained in grand style at Irene and amongst his guests were many well-known personalities including President Kruger and former Prime Minister and neighbour, General Jan Smuts, the man who crafted the draft of the Covenant of the United Nations

Nellmapius lived at the Irene Estate until his death in 1893, he was buried in the 'Golden Acres Cemetery' in Church street in Pretoria where Paul Kruger and many others of that time were buried.

Irene was first proclaimed a township in 1902 by Bert van der Byl and today it is officially part of the municipality of Centurion. The Irene Golf Course, between Irene Dairy Farm and the Smuts House, was laid out by Bert Van der Byl and Jan Smuts in 1911.

Today the Irene Dairy Farm is a well-known landmark for visitors and my wife and I often go there for meals.  The “Barn” restaurant is situated in one of the original farm barns, built in approximately 1890 and used as a farm barn for over 100 years. The Barn looks out onto the dairy stable, also built in 1890. It is still used today to feed the magnificent herd of cows of the Irene Estate milking herd, as it has been every day for over 100 years. There are lovely walks around the estate and a duck pond to the delight of children.

Reference: “The tycoon & the president: The life and times of Alois Hugo Nellmapius, 1847-1893”, by Helga Kaye, published by Macmillan