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UPDATED: 19/03/2024

19 March 1869, Star of South Africa diamond arrives in Hopetown.
19 March 1889, Author Sarah Gertrude Millin (nee Liebson) born in Lithuania.

Sarah Gertrude Millin (nee Liebson)

Sarah Gertrude Millin (pictured) was born in Lithuania on 19 March 1889, in a village consisting of a few hundred Jewish inhabitants who lived in constant fear of pogroms. Her father, quietly spoken, handsome Isaiah Liebson, was a merchant and her mother, Olga, from whom she inherited much of her personality, was colourful and dramatic.


Sarah Gertrude Millin

The family came to South Africa five months later and made their way to the diamond fields where Olga’s father financed a small shop in Beaconsfield. They moved into lodgings and settled down to earn a modest living.

Shortly after Sarah Gertrude’s 5th birthday in 1894, the family moved to the river diggings at Waldeck’s Plant near Kimberley where Isaiah was able to acquire trading, water and ferry rights along a section of the Vaal River. Sarah, who had started school in Beaconsfield, now became a pupil of the Waldeck’s Plant School. The life of the diggers contrasted greatly with that of the Liebsons who were cultured people with a great love of learning. The miscegenation she observed there and the drunkenness and sloth were to find a place in her novels.

At the age of 8 her parents decided to send her to Kimberley to attend the Kimberley Girls School while living with cousins of Olga’s.

The child travelled on her own, arranged for music lessons and bought her own school uniform and she declared that, “By the time I was eight, indeed, I attended to practically all my own affairs and as I grew up, I attended to other people’s affairs.” Her relatives, though kind enough, had no idea of the fears of children. The worst part of living there was that they insisted that she sleep with her window open and her vivid imagination conjured up a Coloured man, huge and toothless, the true stuff of nightmares. Her lifelong insomnia started here and she later wrote in her autobiography, The Measure of My Days, that, “I don’t sleep as much in a week as the average person sleeps in two days…. some nights I don’t sleep at all.

In 1918 Sarah’s relatives went to Europe and she arranged to live with a school friend. Although she liked the family, life in the overcrowded little house eventually became too much and she escaped to a boarding house. But, as she said, her sleep was murdered, and she wrote her matric exams in a haze of weariness. Nevertheless, she was the only girl at her school to obtain a first-class pass that year and received the highest marks of any girl in the entire Cape Colony. Although she won a scholarship to attend the South African College, she decided to remain in Kimberley and study music. She soon realised her mistake, as she had no real aptitude for music, but she did qualify as a music teacher in 1906.


Portrait of Sarah Gertrude Millin by Irma Stern

She then returned to Waldeck’s Plant where she ordered Arnold Bennett’s How to become an author, but finding his instruction inadequate, enrolled in a correspondence course which in turn was of little use. Perhaps this was as well, and may account for the freshness and originality of her writing.

It may also be the cause of some stylistic flaws, as she tended to pay little attention to character development.

Nevertheless, the stories are on the whole well constructed and oddly compelling.

In 1909 Sarah met Philip Millin at the seaside resort of Muizenburg, and they were married on 1 December 1912, after which they lived in Johannesburg. She only returned to Kimberley twice, the second time for her father’s funeral.

She was a prolific writer. Her first novel, The Dark River, which was written in 1916 and was followed by God’s Stepchildren in 1922, followed by The Sons of Mrs Aab in 1931, dealt with miscegenation.

She wrote a two-volume biography of General Smuts, a major work and to her the most rewarding, the first volume of her autobiography The Night is Long and between 1944 and 1948 wrote her six war diaries.


Star of South Africa Diamond (Dudley Diamond)

1952 was a year of honour and despair. She published a novel, The Burning Man, and was honoured by the University of the Witwatersrand which conferred an Honorary Doctorate in Literature upon her. But her beloved husband died that year and she never recovered from the blow. She felt that with him she had lost her life and withdrew from social life, lived alone and wrote the second volume of her autobiography, the record of her life with him.

Sarah Gertrude Millin outlived her husband by 15 years, becoming ever more eccentric. Fay Jaff wrote that she became difficult socially, talking incessantly, monopolizing all conversations and phoning her friends late at night or at the crack of dawn. She was demanding and even aggressive.

Her last book, White Africans are also People, was published in 1966 and in 1967, in her eightieth year, she began work on another non-fiction work, Time no longer. Her British publishers rejected the work as being too long for commercial publication and she was left feeling dispirited.

She was also in a poor physical condition, having fallen on several occasions. Two operations had to be performed on her leg. The death of her favourite sister-in-law, Lola Liebson, further depressed her lagging spirits.

She was hospitalized after suffering a series of mild heart attacks towards the end of June 1968, and died of a massive thrombosis on 6 July. She was buried beside Philip. It was a very small funeral, attended by less than a hundred people.

(From Petticoat Pioneers by Maureen Rall).

UPDATED: 19/03/2020

19 March 1869, Star of South Africa diamond (pictured) arrives in Hopetown.
19 March 1889, Author Sarah Gertrude Millin (nee Liebson) born in Lithuania.

The Star of South Africa, also known as the Dudley Diamond, is a 47.69-carat white diamond found by young Griqua shepherd in 1869 on the banks of the Orange River. The original stone, before cutting, weighed 83.5 carats. The finding of this large diamond spurred the rush by so many prospectors to these new diamond fields.

The shepherd sold the stone for the hefty price of 500 sheep, 10 oxen and a horse to Schalk van Niekerk, a neighbouring farmer locally famous for having discovered a 21-and-a-quarter carat diamond in 1866/7 which he had sold for a good price.

Van Niekerk sold the stone on to the Lilienfield Brothers in Hopetown for £11,200. The Lilienfield Brothers then sent it to England where it changed hands twice before finally being bought by the Countess of Dudley for £25,000. William Ward, the Earl of Dudley, had it mounted with 95 smaller diamonds in a hair ornament.

The diamond stayed in the Wards’ possession until 2 May 1974 when it was sold on auction in Geneva for 1.6 million Swiss Francs, equivalent to around £225,300 (£2,096,980 in 2016), at the time.

It was seen in public at the vault of the Natural History Museum London, from 8 July 2005 – 26 February 2006, and was also part of the “Cartier in America” travelling exhibit in 2009 – 2010.

(Mostly from Wikipedia).


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