Mrs Sarah Gertrude Millin

Sarah Millin
Sarah Millin before 1931[1]
Sarah Millin, 45, (1888-1968) was a prolific author of fiction and non-fiction, living in South Africa. She was visiting London at this time promoting her new book, a biography of Cecil Rhodes, which had just come out and was getting good reviews. She was also a contributor to Time and Tide and frequently corresponded with Winifred Holtby. She was an active member of PEN, the writers’ association – the initials first stood for Poets, Essayists, Novelists.


As per the likely layout we have devised for this table, she may well be seated beside one of the Heald sisters, Edith or Nora, and either Vera Brittain or Violet-Scott James. But alternatively a conversation with Sarah MacDonald Sheridan might have been the one to facilitate, the two visitors perhaps not having the opportunity to meet many times, even though both were quite frequent visitors to London. Perhaps they might have shared thoughts on music, Sarah having trained as a piano teacher but not taking it up as a profession, Sarah Sheridan having been a professional musician who used it as a vehicle for her social work.

Given that the aim of the dinner was to keep things informal, I could see a little swapping of places happening on this one. Lots to talk about, as they say.


Her newly published book on Cecil Rhodes can’t have been far from her mind but an opportunity to talk about something completely different would doubtless have been very welcome. This table was an opportunity for the writing community of London to hear tales from South Africa, and from the US (struggling to get out of the depression). What did Sarah Sheridan, one time friend of the Woodrow Wilsons, think of the newly inaugurated FDR? What about the Bank Holiday of March 9th? And what did Sarah think about the beginning of the end of prohibition – sales of low alcohol beer and wine were legalised again on Tuesday March 21st 1933 so in the 24 hours before the dinner, beer and wine was legal again in the US, prompting FDR to quip “I think this would be a good time for a beer.[2]


Portrait by Irma Stein 1968

Sarah Gertrude Leibson Millin was born in Zagare, Lithuania, close to the Latvian border 10th March 1888 to her Russian Jewish parents Olga Rebecca Friedmann (xx – 1941) and Isaiah Liebson, (1857 – 1926) one of seven children. Isaiah’s father Michael moved to New York in 1888 with his wife and 4? other children, whilst Isaiah and his family, including Sarah, moved to South Africa when she was 5 months old, where she stayed for the rest of her life. Her childhood was spent near the Kimberley diamond fields and Barkly West river diggings, where the experience of white, coloured and black communities influenced much of her future writing. She originally studied music in Kimberley, rather than go to University in Cape Town, but despite getting her piano teacher’s certificate, (one review implies it wasn’t really her forte anyway – no pun intended) never took it up as a career, switching to writing instead. [3] [4]

Sarah married lawyer Philip Millin on 1st December 1912 and they lived in Johannesburg. At one time a journalist, he became a judge of the Supreme Court of South Africa.

Sarah spoke at PEN monthly dinners (in London) in the 1923/4 and 1927/8 seasons and later in 1936.  Other PEN members at the dinner included Lady Rhondda, Richard Ellis-Roberts, and Winifred Holtby.

Winifred Holtby had visited Sarah on her first visit to South Africa in March 1926 where “they sat in the pleasant book-lined living-room of the Millins’ house, designed by the famous South African architect, Sir Herbert Baker, in a new avenue of Parktown West, and talked about South Africa”. By this time “Sarah was already the leading South African author although she had not yet written her notable biographies of Rhodes and Smuts. Winifred described her as ‘as a lively, vivacious Jewess, dark, plump, very well waved and shingled – no side, no sentiment,’ and remained her friend and correspondent for the rest of her life”. Sarah and Winifred clearly hit it off: “you’re such a golden person, I hate you not to be well” Sarah wrote in 1932 when hearing of the first onset of Winifred fatal illness. [5]

Her presence in London seven years later in 1933 (though she visited from time to time) was undoubtedly something to do with the publication that month of her biography of Cecil Rhodes (published by Chatto and Windus), the third of her five main non-fiction books and no doubt related to other work in train. The review by Cecil Roberts published in The Sphere on 11th March 1933 gives us a good vignette of Sarah the writer:

“Mrs Sarah Gertrude Millin as one of South Africa’s foremost writers, would seem to have exceptional qualifications for the task of Rhodes biographer. She is a native of the land of which she writes, she is of an age that makes her not too remote from the events she scrutinizes. Above all, she has a vivid, vigorous prose style. Yet with all these qualities she might easily fail because of partisanship. It becomes clear from the outset of this very remarkable book that she has astonishing independence of mind and a masculine grip of industrial, financial, and political detail. To this she adds a rare skill in biography. This book has all the drama, the development, the climax, the insight,, sympathy, and imaginative groundwork of a great novel. This book is a fine novel which happens to be about a character who really existed, and whose deeds in their immensity and surprise exceed anything that the novelist could devise”. And the review concluded: “After this biography there seems to be no further need for a book on Rhodes. Mrs Millin has said it all magnificently.” Reading a rather scathing Wikipedia page about Cecil Roberts, the reviewer, he was probably full of admiration: it was probably just the sort of book he would have liked to have written.[6]

The reviewer “C.K.A.” in the Illustrated London News, though also very positive, isn’t quite so uncritical, taking Sarah a little to task:

“Rhodes’ imagination perpetuated itself in his will but not in Mrs Millin’s opinion to any great purpose. Its effect, we are told, has been to produce a number of Oxford trained “decent fellows” who have enjoyed pleasant advantages which they would not otherwise have enjoyed. …… Had Mrs Millin have inquired more closely, she would have found that there are today, scattered all over the world, a goodly number of Rhodes children who are performing public duties of many kinds in a manner, and with an achievement, which would not have disappointed their benefactor”.[7]

The ILN a month later did say that this was “a book that will rank amongst the best of modern biographies”, citing General Smuts’ comment “Will remain the classic on Rhodes”. [8]

The Scotsman had got off the mark a week earlier, again with a passive reviewer, admitting that their initial opinion that another book on Rhodes had seemed superfluous until reading Sarah’s book. I do like the extract they cited which perhaps reflects Sarah’s ability to try to understand people: “Strange to think of these three men , these three sickly bachelors , all born in the same year, an Englishman ( Rhodes ), a Scot ( Dr Jameson ) , and a German Jew ( Alfred Beit ) making this great untamed country the work of their lives”.[9]

I wonder if Sarah reflected at the dinner that the coming Sunday, 26th March, would be the 31st anniversary of the death of Rhodes. Possibly another hook for another dinner with reviewers?

Today’s Wikipedia tells us Sarah’s book is still considered an authoritative source though predictably it wasn’t of course the last word said on Rhodes and the mere presence of his statues still arouses wrath and debate.


Sarah was also a prolific novelist: her 11th book of fiction was probably nearing completion in 1933, being published in 1934. She wrote two autobiographies[10] and a six volume diary. She was also a contributor to Time and Tide[11] and frequently corresponded with Winifred Holtby.[12] In fact on April 5th 1933, a fortnight after the dinner, Winifred wrote from Cottingham (Yorks) to Jean McWilliam (Celia to Rosalind in Letters to a Friend) thus “Sarah Gertrude Millin is in England. I met her last time I went to London [possibly at the dinner? Ed.]. I do like her so much. She is such a generous, warm, quick creature, without any stiffness. She has gone to Palestine for a visit”.[13] No doubt Sarah and Jean knew each other quite well, both living in South Africa – a possible avenue of research.

puzzle-piece2-50Are there more links between Sarah and Jean McWilliam of interest?

In a final anecdote on a flavour of the times etc, in October 1934 The Sphere lists three books received from Chatto and Windus: Richard Aldington’s Women must Work, Sarah’s new book Three Men Die and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.

A scan of her quite frequent sea voyages shows a somewhat liberal assessment of her age, within a three year range: if not born in 1888 it would be 1889, as shown on a later-in-life voyage to Rio de Janeiro.


Judge-diesThe death of her husband Philip from heart failure while on the bench affected her deeply, just as she was starting to write her autobiography “The Measure of My Days”.[14] One review reports of increasing eccentricity towards the end of her days.[15] Sarah died on 6th July 1968 in her 80th / 81st year.







[1] Rozpravy Aventina, volume 7/1931-1932, issue 13, page 97. Digitized by Institute of Czech Literature, Czech Academy of Sciences, from Wikipedia Sarah Millin accessed 20.8.2019

[2] Cullen-Harrison Act Wikipedia,

[3] Sarah Millin, Wikipedia

[4] Encyclopaedia Britannica

[5] Vera Brittain, Testament of Friendship, The Story of Winifred Holtby, Macmillan, 1940, Virago edition 2012 p244

[6] Wikipedia Cecil Roberts

[7] The Colossus, being an appreciation of Rhodes by Sarah Gertrude Millin, Illustrated London News, Saturday 11.3.1933 p342,

[8] Illustrated London News, 22.4.1933

[9] Books of the Day. An Empire Builder, The Scotsman 6.3.1933, p2

[10] Mullins, Sarah, The Night is Long, Faber and Faber, 1941 and The Measure of my Days, Faber and Faber, 1955

[11] For example The Novelist’s World, Time and Tide 9.8.1929, Vol.10 No.32

[12] Noting references to letters to her from Winifred in Vera Brittain, Testament of Friendship: The Story of Winifred Holtby, Macmillan and Co (1st publisher) now Hachette UK online access 5.2.2018

[13] Winifred Holtby, Letters to a Friend, Collins, p457

[14] South African Judge Dies in His Court The Ottawa Journal, 15.4.1952

[15] Today in Kimberley History accessed 1.2.2019

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