The following exert is part of a narrative written by our late father Gerry (Gerald) Jacobson who passed away in June 1993. After some pleading on our part, he began to record and document his early memories and our family’s history. Sadly the job was never completed, but what we still have is a fascinating glimpse into life of the early days in Northern Rhodesia which we are happy to share with you.

    Ilana Joselowitz : [email protected]  

     Melissa Test: [email protected]


“In about 1918/19, the Brenner Bros sold their business, which went under the name of B. H. Trading Co. to I. Rosen who at the time was also operating two or three Native stores.  Dad left Rosen about 1921 to start his own business.  He bought a corner stand and put up a wood and iron building and was not long in trading on his own as M. JACOBSON GENERAL DEALER. The business prospered for after a year or two Dad’s original wood and iron shop was replaced by a respectable brick building with proper shop windows.  He also had a house built next to the store. 

There used to be a special school train carrying only scholars to their homes in Northern Rhodesia.  The journey from Bulawayo to Broken Hill took a day and a half to cover the 600 miles.  When the train stopped at the various stations on route, the whole population of that area was there to meet the train.  What excitement there was!  As we grew older towards the end of our schooling, we used to help in the store (not always fun). On returning to school, we always took with us well-filled tuck boxes! Our pocket money was 10/- per month. I left school (St. George’s, Bulawayo) at the end of 1924 to attend an engineering course in Johannesburg.

On my return to Broken Hill, I started my apprenticeship on the mine.  I spent a year in the drawing office before going out in the workshop where I completed my training and became a qualified tradesman early in the 30s. 

Dad was well respected in Broken Hill, and it was a proud day for him indeed when he was accepted in the local Masonic Lodge.  He never refused any request for charity, and was inclined to be a bit easy in granting credit to customers. In those days, all your business was done on credit.  There was one occasion when the railway workers went on strike and were out of action for a considerable time and many could not pay their monthly accounts.  But Dad never turned a single one away during that period.

I will go back in time, for I would like to describe Broken Hill from the early 1920s and its growth and development thereafter.   When Dad first arrived there, it was a small mining camp, which owed its existence to the lead mine “The Broken Hill Development Co.”  The village was divided into three distinct areas.  There was the mine and admin office and housing area.  Then there was the railway camp i.e. the Railway Station and workshop and its residential area.  Finally there was the Business area and what little housing there was.  To start off with, there was no electricity supply, nor laid-on water or sewage.  Water was drawn from the village pump. Your house staff normally employed a young boy whose main job it was to carry water.  There were no toilets as we know them.  They were was simply built over a hole in the ground and later a bucket.  Hot bath water was heated in 40-gallon drums.  Your water boy also served to collect your firewood from the bundu. 

The mine and railway towns were each responsible for their own services.  At that stage, the total white population was not much more than about 200.  There were not more than two or three Jewish families and a maybe a couple of single men working in the native stores. The roads if they existed were gravel roads.  The rail heading to the north ended in Kapiri n Pashi about 60 miles further north.  From there on, the transport was by Nature Carrier and the official load was 60 pounds per head. Later on, heavy transport was undertaken by motor lorries to out-lying districts and via the Great North Road through Tonga and north to Kenya.

At the height of Broken Hill’s development, the population might have been 2000 whites. ‘Round about 1930, the Jewish population was about 45 souls.  As far as I can remember they were: the Jacobson family (6), Rosen (3), Herbstein (5), Thal (5), Feigenbaum Bill (2) Wacks (2), Jowel (2), Hochstein (5), Samuels (2). The bachelors were S. Lakofski, Teddy Herr, David Pinhassowich, Harry Girst, Mike Berr, Shwartz, Fisher, Sugarman and Waks. Naturally the Jewish population was involved in business.  I won’t say that anti-Semitism did not exist, but it was no more rife there than anywhere else.  The Jewish shopkeeper extended credit and generally there was a friendly relationship. We played sports together and membership to the various clubs was not restricted.  We drank at the same pubs, we danced together, however there were no social get-togethers in each other’s homes.

In the early days we attended the regular dances at the hotel or club as a family.  There were no separate tables i.e. you sat on chairs arranged around the hall against the wall.  At a special ball, you had a program and had to book your partners ahead for the whole program.

In the beginning, the main center of social activity revolved around the Mine Club where they showed a film once a week. The projector was worked off a Ford car engine.  To get there at night, you walked with the aid of your mlonda (watchman).  He led holding a paraffin lamp and always held an assegai.  He brought you to your destination and waited there until you were ready to come home.  Not only did the vicinity abound with wild animals, but also it was mosquito ridden and malaria fever was rife.  To combat the fever, anti-malaria pills (quinine) were made available by the government without charge.

The development projects started in the north around about the late 1920s (27/28).  The Anglo American group had obtained miners’ concessions and was busy with the geologists exploring the country for minerals.  Up until then, Broken Hill was only producing lead.  It was later discovered that the mine was also rich in zinc and vanadium.  To develop and produce the metals, a good supply of electricity was required and that was when the Mulangushi power stations were brought into being.

Mulangushi was situated about 25 miles from Broken Hill, and the construction of the power plant provided employment for many Europeans as well as Africans.  Then the construction of the zinc and vanadium plants also involved hundreds of laborers, engineers, tradesmen and admin staff all of whom had to be housed, clothed and fed.  So things began to buzz.  Roads had to be built as well as transmission lines to carry power to the mines.  All this was not accomplished overnight but took a few years. 

The population grew and the boom was on.  The village grew into a town as the population increased.  Boons Hotel came into being, to be followed by a second hotel Rawson’s, which opened on the corner opposite Jacobson’s store.  From one butcher shop became two.  The Wackses opened the hardware store, and Oscar and Esther Jowel opened a bakery. Esther worked in the mine office as a typist and secretary.  Maurice and Celia Thal and family came on to the scene with a grocery store, the Herbsteins started a mineral water factory and a chemist shop came into being.  Contis and Moreton started a vegetable market and we even had an Indian gent’s hairdresser.

There were hundreds of Africans employed on the mines, and the half dozen or so African shops grew to about thirty.  In the early thirties, Jewish bachelors staffed a lot of these. (Harry Gersh, Micky Brin, David Pinhassovich, Aubrey Cohen, Old Man Shwartz, young Fisher, Sugerman,  young Wacks and others whose names I have forgotten.) Celia Thal was a very good pianist, and was instrumental in starting a dance band.  Dances were held regularly at the Railway and Mine Recreational Club and occasionally at one of the hotels.

The capital of Northern Rhodesia was originally Livingstone, but was later transferred to Lusaka which was 90 miles from Broken Hill.  In the meantime, the Railway workshop and Admin offices for all of Northern Rhodesia were established in Broken Hill which also accounted for the growth in population.  As construction of the mine was completed and production at last commenced, there was a slight drift of population.  This all coincided with the development of the copper mines in the north.  Here again the Anglo American Mining group were responsible and three large copper mines came into being at Nkana, Chingola and Roan Antelope. 

After some time, the prices of base metals (zinc, lead and copper) were dropping and production on the mines was being curtailed. This resulted in a cutting down of staff, and a slight recession set in.

Around about 1937/38 the influx of Jewish refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe started to arrive, thanks to the powers that be.  The government permitted a limited entry only into the country.  Amongst those that arrived in Broken Hill were Sydney Marcus and Rosenfield who entered into a partnership in a dry-cleaning business. They subsequently gave up the business and took on shiftman’s jobs on the mines. I remember Josef Roth who with his wife went into the bakery business, and the Stern couple who were charming people.  He got a job in one of the legal firms and she opened a fancy goods shop. The Jablonki family arrived and started a hardware store.  There were many others whose names have slipped my memory. They all arrived with no cash but with well made clothes.

Many of the refugees got jobs on the mines and earned good money.  They all became useful members of the community and began a new life.”