Fonds BC1087 - Sonnenberg Family Papers

Reference code



Sonnenberg Family Papers


  • 1798-1960 (Creation)

Level of description


Extent and medium

ca.1000+ items
12 archival boxes

Name of creator

Biographical history

The bulk of the collection relates to Charles Sonnenberg, his son Maurice, and grandson Melville.
Charles was the youngest brother of Louis Sonnenberg, amongst whose descendents are:

  • daughter Betty, who at the age of 17, married Charles' son Maurice
  • son Max, who made his name as the founder of Woolworths in South Africa
  • grand-daughter Mathilda, who married Bertie Stern, and whose family papers are also held by UCT Manuscripts & Archives Department. Charles had a chequered and fascinating life, from the time he left his home in Germany and went to seek his fortune on his own in America. That was in 1856 and Charles was 14 years old! In order to earn money for food he bought and resold matches at a profit on a New York street. This was to become the pattern of his working life, though the goods varied from bales of sheep's wool to diamonds. He made and lost large sums of money in his speculative deals in America, Bechuanaland and in South Africa. Charles came to South Africa, after returning home to Germany from America to visit his family, to reassure them that he was fit and fully recovered after sustaining a leg injury whilst fighting under General Sykles in the American Civil War. It is interesting to note that on his arrival in Cape Town in 1864, Charles had to get from his steamer to the jetty at the end of Adderley Street by small boat, at there were no docks at that time. Charles' first-hand descriptions of some of the battles of the American Civil War, from a foot soldier's viewpoint are most graphic and fascinating, as are his descriptions of what life was like in the first diamond prospecting towns of South Africa. These narratives are to be found in the loose-leaf copies of Charles' autobiography. Charles was a contemporary of the Barnato brothers; on friendly terms with President Kruger, who stayed at his home on several occasions; and an associate of Cecil John Rhodes, as an invitation to his funeral is included in the collection. As well as being a successful businessman Charles was also the President of the Jewish Community of Vryburg for some years; operated as a licensed auctioneer; as a licensed broker; and as a Member of Parliament for Vryburg. This latter role came about when British Bechuanaland (in which Vryburg was situated) was annexed to the Cape Colony and consequently representation by 3 elected MPs was allowed. Charles Sonnenberg was one of these and served from 1895 to 1902. It was during Charles' term of office that the Jameson raid (December 1895) and the South African (Boer) War took place and Parliament's deliberations over these events are chronicled in great detail in Charles autobiography. Much of this detail is taken from THE TIMES HISTORY OF THE WAR IN SOUTH AFRICA. Even during his term in Parliament Charles continued with his business ventures, such as contracting to supply vegetables to the troops at the Castle in Cape Town. When he was able to devote himself full-time to business he attempted to launch several ventures, even soliciting involvement in America, a country he visited several times. These included meat distribution utilising a chain of cold storage depots in South Africa; a chemicals factory; and the New York Import and Export Company. Unfortunately he met many difficulties and was not as successful as he had been as a young business man. Charles died in Sea Point, Cape Town in 1912. Maurice was Charles' younger son, and though like his father he became involved in some speculative land deals, the mainstay of his working life was the legal profession, which both he and his brother Harry Joseph entered. He was a public notary early in his career, and later a partner in the short-lived firm of solicitors known as Minchin & Sonnenberg. Details taken from papers in the collection reveal that Maurice Sonnenberg lived in Port Elizabeth in 1894-5; was "residing and practising in Mafeking" in 1897, and he was referred to as "Maurice Sonnenberg of Vryburg" in items dated 1898 and 1899. However in the early 1900s it would seem that he lived in Sea Point, Cape Town. There is little in the collection to indicate the pattern of his life after the age of 30, other than that he had moved to the Cape. There are some papers in Maurices' letter file referring to the purchase of the Royal Dairy in Long Street, Cape Town in 1908 in the name of Jacob Sonnenberg. There are no other references to a Jacob in the papers. In 1913 Maurice purchased two grave plots in Cape Town for œ4. He would then have been 41 years old. It would however seem that he did not occupy his for quite some time as there is one letter to "Berthe" written in 1954 regarding his last wishes. It can reasonably be supposed that Maurice died in the 1950s. Melville was Maurice's elder child and only son. He had aspirations as a writer, and intended to pursue this interest when World War I was over. However this was not to be as Melville was killed in action at the end of the war in 1918 in France at the age of 22. He was obviously well-loved and deeply mourned. René, his sister, was born after his death. It is unclear from the papers whether or not they had the same mother. The letter written by Maurice to "Berthe" had the tone of a husband's letter to his wife, but the only record of Maurice's marriage is to Betty Sonnenberg. It is possible that Betty and Berthe are one and the same person, although Betty would have been 48 years old when René was born. Rene married Mr Richard Adler. She now lives in Somerset West in the Cape.

Archival history

Immediate source of acquisition or transfer

Scope and content

The collection was donated to UCT Libraries in 1995 by Mrs René Adler, grand-daughter of Charles and daughter of Maurice Sonnenberg. It covers the personal and business lives of Charles, Maurice, Melville, and René Sonnenberg. As Maurice was a first cousin to Max Sonnenberg, this collection provides valuable additional information on the extended Sonnenberg families, to that contained in the Herbert (Bertie) & Mathilda Stern Collection, which was also acquired in 1995, and which gives considerable information on the Max Sonnenberg branch of the family, as Mathilda was Max's eldest daughter. The collection comprises both personal and business correspondence of Charles, Maurice and Melville Sonnenberg, together with some of their legal documents; newspapers and newspaper cuttings relating especally to Charles' parliamentary career; several hundred photographs and several hundred unsorted used postage stamps (probably belonging to Melville). The collection also contains three typed loose-leaf copies of Charles autobiography. The most poignant section of this collection is that relating to Melville Sonnenberg. His cheerful, optimistic short letters written during his short period of active service in France in 1918, to his aunts in England are preserved here, and include a note after his fatal wounding, with a request to tell his father that his injuries were minor, and not to worry about him.
Letters of condolence, photographs of his grave and a war medal are included in the collection.
The papers relating to René (donor of the collection), are a few personal items from her childhood.
The collection contains an unusually large number of "miscellaneous" articles, such as wallets, writing-cases, watches, foreign coins, keys, jewelry, pens, games and even an unused smoker's pipe. There are 1000+ items in this collection.


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  • English

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  • English



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