Sir John Ellerman inherited his father’s massive fortune, which was considered the largest in Britain at the time, at the age of 23. Though considered an extremely capable businessman, he had little interest in running the family shipping business and instead focused his attentions on his true passions in life: environmentalism – in particular the study of rodents – and philanthropy.
After his father’s death, Ellerman married Esther de Sola, and in the late 1940s they began frequenting South Africa, specifically the Cape, often traveling around in search of field mice and other rodents and small animals to study. In 1948, Piet Beukes, the editor of a South African newspaper, interviewed him at the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town, and the two hit it off. In fact, Ellerman, who was an avid believer in reincarnation, claimed that he and Piet had known each other in a previous life back in the 14th century. Their friendship was even further solidified when Ellerman asked if Piet would reach out to his contacts in the journalism world and request that they leave the Ellerman couple out of the spotlight. Piet happily obliged, and the Ellermans continued their trips to the Cape and were never harassed by the press on their trips.
A few years after their initial meeting, Piet was asked to open the Bredasdorp Agricultural Show. While walking around the show and admiring the vendors, he was approached by a young woman without arms or legs, who urged him to come and try her homemade jams. Piet was inspired and amazed by the woman, and wrote a column about her in his newspaper.
An avid student of Afrikaans, Ellerman read the article in Piet’s newspaper. Ellerman was incredibly generous with his friends and loved ones, and he had a particular interest in helping people with disabilities. In fact, in a letter he sent to Piet much later, he said “I have always had the idea in this life that if with one’s money one can salvage (so to speak) a few [people with disabilities] whom one knows personally and with whom one can share one’s life, much more good is done than giving large amounts of money to somewhat impersonal institutions.” In response to the article, Ellerman reached out to Piet to find out how he might be able to help this woman and was promptly introduced to Rachel Swart. And so began a friendship between Ellerman and Rachel that would last until her unexpected death in 1955 giving birth to her second child.
Rachel Swart was born in 1923 in the Bredasdorp district of South Africa, a rural community far from medical assistance. Born without arms or legs, she surpassed the expectations of those around her, growing into a woman of indomitable spirit, determined to live life to its fullest. In fact, in a review of her autobiography, which first appeared in Piet Beukes’s newspaper, she was described as “a truly remarkable woman whose life was not an apology but a challenge. . . [and] one of South Africa’s great personalities.” Among other things, she taught herself to eat with a fork, to write and to sew. Threading a needle without hands or fingers was one of her special feats.
When Rachel met Piet Beukes at the Bredasdorp Agricultural Show and was later introduced to John Ellerman, her life changed, though her positive demeanor remained the same. In addition to Ellerman’s friendship, he equipped her home with electricity, as she had struggled to keep paraffin lamps from falling and catching alight, and he hired a car and driver to ensure she could come and go independently. Rachel married her husband in 1949 and was absolutely thrilled to welcome her first child, a son, into her home and life. She loved being a mother, and had a happy, though short, marriage, unexpectedly passing away in 1955 giving birth to her second child, a daughter.
Ellerman, as well as the many people who knew and loved Rachel, was devastated when she died, and with the help of Piet Beukes, he established the Rachel Swart Fund to continue helping people like Rachel throughout South Africa. Ellerman personally served on the Rachel Swart Fund board and later his wife Esther took his place. Today, many years after their deaths, the Rachel Swart Fund continues to benefit from an annual contribution from the John Ellerman Foundation in London, as well as support from a number of other trusts, foundations, corporate donors and caring individuals who share his vision.
Today, many years after the deaths of Sir John and Lady Ellerman, the Fund continues to benefit from an annual contribution from the John Ellerman Foundation in London, as well as support from a number of other trusts, foundations, corporate donors and caring individuals who share his compassion and vision.
The Fund has a remarkable record and is highly thought of in the health and disability sector. The small and able staff, as well as the Committee, are chosen for their dedication to the cause, and still follow the guidelines set out by Ellerman, himself.
For more information about supporting the Rachel Swart Fund, please see our donations page.