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Flamboyant José leaves her mark upon the ridge Print E-mail
18 February 2002
Josephine Dale Lace
Josephine Dale Lace was a flamboyant Johannesburg socialite and owner of one of Johannesburg's most prominent historic landmarks


HEN she went shopping, she would have one of her servants blow a bugle as she left her home. She would ride around in a cart pulled by four zebras, take milk baths in a marble tub, and was mistress to a king.

Josephine Dale Lace was a flamboyant Johannesburg socialite and owner of one of Johannesburg's most prominent historic landmarks, the Parktown mansion Northwards, designed by British architect Herbert Baker in 1904.

She was in fact Josephine Cornelia Brink from Richmond in the Karoo, nicknamed José. It is believed that she was proposed to by Cecil John Rhodes, prime minister of the Cape at the time, and was mistress to King Edward VII of England. It is known that she was mistress to another man: Ernest Beckett, the Baron Grimthorpe, with whom she had a son, although she claimed it was King Edward's son.

There was nothing ordinary about José: she married her husband, Colonel John Dale Lace, whom she met in London while pursuing an acting career, twice.

The first time she refused to consummate the marriage because she wanted to finish the play she was acting in. She still loved Ernest, so John, at her request, divorced her. The second time, on the rebound after Ernest refused to marry her, she and John married in Cape Town and John adopted her son. They never had children of their own.

The Northwards mansion, perched on the top of Parktown ridge overlooking the M1 freeway and the northern suburbs, is a symbol of the wealth of early Johannesburg's Randlords and the grand style in which they lived.

A 40-roomed mansion, now a national monument, it combines decorative Dutch and Flemish gables with Baker's beloved Arts and Crafts style. It is an imposing presence on the cliff, with its façade constructed of quartzite rock taken from the site.

Baker was always concerned with using natural materials and training craftsmen on the spot, and would be pleased to know that the house is painstakingly and lovingly looked after these days.

Northwards Neil Viljoen, who lives in the house as curator, conducts tours of Northwards for the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust. He obviously loves the house. "The driveway used to be gravel, with the gates to the house where the M1 freeway is now, giving the full view of the house as one entered the driveway, as Baker intended it originally. Now it is tiled. The tiles were rolled in a drum to give them a used, antique look. We try to capture the old feel, even when we're obliged to repair with new materials," he says.

In 1995 when some of the sandstone chimneys had to be restored, several quarries were searched to find sandstone of the same composition. "The new chimneys will look the same as the original ones in 60 years' time," he adds.

When the roof needs repair, original clay tiles are taken from unseen sections of the roof, and replaced with new tiles.

The south side is dominated by an impressive entrance portico topped by a Cape Dutch gable, but the architecture is an eclectic mix of styles. The windows Tudor, Palladian, and English. There is even a window in a chimney.

A third of the south wall is quartzite, the rest covered with rough white plaster up to the roof, in typical Arts and Crafts style. It makes a pleasing and impressive entrée to the house.

The entrance hall is breathtaking - the ceiling is in white plaster with beautiful lamps, and simple but dramatic Norman arches, looking down on Italian marble. This leads through to the drawing room on the right, another delightful room.

It is oval in shape with a domed ceiling, with delicate cornices, a marble fireplace, and curved glass-fronted display cabinets and a bay window. José chose Victoria-style wallpaper, a replica of which decorates the walls. "Baker would probably have hated the wallpaper," says Viljoen.

Opposite this is the highlight of the house, specifically suggested by Baker for José: the large wood-panelled, double-ceiling entertaining hall with a minstrel gallery, and opposite it, a delicately carved Juliet balcony, a sandstone fireplace, teak ceiling, large brass chandeliers, and an intimate dining area off the hall, with tall windows opening to the view northwards.

The most striking feature of this room is the three-metre high portrait of José, in a long pink gown with flounces off the sleeves, hanging to the floor and a pink satin sash at the waist, standing proudly and looking beautiful.


Viljoen tells the story of her ghost lingering in the house. It is said that when a foot touches the second to last step on the staircase, the swish of her skirt can be heard.

"A year ago a TV crew with a clairvoyant and an infrared camera came to talk to her. He spoke to her for some time, and asked her a cruel question: 'Do you know that you are dead?' To which she replied: 'Only now do I know that,'" says Viljoen.

Northwards But since this conversation, Viljoen says she is more settled and he doesn't have to continually straighten her portrait in the hall.

Upstairs above the drawing room is her bedroom, where she used to lie in until noon, under black silk sheets, and if she had visitors before noon, she would receive them in her bedroom. It's a lovely room: with a barrel-vaulted ceiling, a white marble fireplace, two doorways with cornices around them, leading to José's maid's room and dressing room. Two charming bay window seats with Roman columns and recessed windows are on the east wall.

Leading off the room is the upstairs balcony, with a magnificent view of the northern suburbs, including views of the Magaliesberg to the north-west on clear days. When the house was built the view north was largely of bare veld.

In the 1950s the balcony had been enclosed and used as a typing pool for the SABC. "It's been restored to its original state, thank goodness," says Viljoen.

The front of the house is true Baker - stone walls, palladian windows, a tall oriel window, an Italian staircase leading onto a three-arched verandah with the balcony above. "What is now lawn would have been muddy gravel, hence the scrapers to clean the shoes."

Northwards' garden stretched down to Oxford Road in the east, which was part of the "sachenwaldt" forest (later the suburb of Saxonwold). José used to ride in the forest - she was a "superb horsewoman", according to her biographer, Daphne Saul, in Bird of Paradise. She often wore a green velvet riding habit, and made a striking figure.

There were beautiful gabled stables (with teak fittings) and a gatehouse below the house, where the M1 freeway is now, demolished for the freeway.

On the west the gardens stretched right down the hill, with a swimming pool and rose garden. The swimming pool still exists, but the gardens were pulled up and now house two rather ugly three-storeyed hostels.

The south wing of the house contained the servants' rooms. They have pressed steel ceilings, and delightful fireplaces, some with Delft tiles and black ironwork.

Fire and the fall from grace

The Laces lived in the house for seven years. In 1911 a fire, believed to have started in the kitchen, ravaged most of the west wing.

There was more ill fortune waiting for the Dale Laces. John was a broker in mining, finance and property and a wealthy man. He was involved in the Jameson Raid in 1895 in Johannesburg, an effort by the wealthy mine owners to overthrow the Kruger government. He got off lightly with a 2 000 pound fine.

In 1899 he floated the Lace Diamond Mine, but by 1907, the depressed conditions after the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902), combined with José's extravagant lifestyle, forced him to close the mine. He managed to retain several of his directorships, and the Dale Laces continued living at Northwards until 1911, but in a more economical style.

They disappeared after the fire - they retired to their farm, Boschkop (where Randpark Ridge is now). It seems that they went to England and remained there during World War 1, according to Saul.

They returned to Johannesburg around 1922 and José opened an exclusive dress shop. In 1925 they bought a modest two-bedroomed house in Ferreira Street in Kenilworth, south of the city, where they spent the rest of their days.

She died in 1937, at the age of 68. Three weeks later John died. He reputedly said: "Living with José was hell, but it was a worse hell without her."

José made sure she went out with a flourish, as she had lived her life: she left instructions in her will that "her body should be cremated at night and her ashes cast upon the wind", according to Saul.

New owners

In 1912 Sir George Albu bought Northwards for 12 000 pounds (the Dale Laces had paid 21 000 pounds for the house). George and his brother Leopold were German Jews and when they landed in Cape Town, George became a sales assistant in the haberdashery counter in Stuttafords. They then moved to Kimberley and made a fortune in diamonds, before selling out to De Beers and moving to the Witwatersrand.

George Albu took over the Meyer and Charlton Mine and put it on a sound footing, and in 1895 he and his brother established General Mining and Finance Corporation.

This became the Federale Volksbeleggings, then Gencor, then Billiton, then BHP Billiton, one of the biggest mining houses in the world, with interests in Borneo, China, Australia, South America and South Africa. In 1912 their office premises in Johannesburg were inside a thatch and mud hut - a photograph of it hangs on the walls of Northwards.

George and his wife brought up their five children in the house. She was a formidable lady, and her children were in awe of her. Two further generations lived in the house. They had a country estate in Rietfontein (now Fourways) which they could see from Northwards.

When the Albus bought the house they had the west wing extended, when it was rebuilt after the fire, in a more Victorian style. "The ceiling decoration is not typical of Baker,' says Viljoen, "But it is nevertheless an exquisite room."

The Albus made another addition: the grand piano in the hall. "It is a Steinway in mint condition, with bronzed strings, and is a very fine instrument," says Viljoen. It is believed that 10 elephants a day were hunted in East Africa to supply Steinway with ivory for their piano keys, he adds.

In 1951, after 39 years, the Albus let the house go: it was sold on auction to the SABC for 80 000 pounds, and they had plans to demolish it and build a television tower on the site. During their stay in the house, light fittings and paintings went missing, and one SABC employee bought the grand front gates.

"The gates have now been brought back. They are heavy - it takes 10 men to lift one gate," says Viljoen, obviously looking forward to their being erected again.

In 1960 the SABC sold the property to the Transvaal Education Department, which erected several hostels in the gardens, which still stand in ugly contrast to the beauty of Northwards.

Now the mansion is owned by the Northwards Trust, and only educational or cultural institutions are permitted to rent offices or hold performances or functions in its rooms.

The Dale Laces have been remembered in Johannesburg with the Dale Lace Sport and Social Club in Westcliff, and Dale Lace Avenue in Randpark Ridge where they had their farm Boschkop, which still stands but in a rundown condition.

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Last Updated on 15 February 2013