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From Spitalfields conjuror to Diamond King - the amazing story of Barney Barnato & his son 'Bentley Boy' Wolf Barnato

Barney Barnato - the Diamond KingBarney had the most humble of origins. Born on July 5 1852, he lived in Spitalfields very near the Jews’ Free School in Bell Lane where he and his elder brother Harry were educated. Their father, Isaac Isaacs, was a secondhand clothes dealer (a “clobberer”).  Only 5ft3ins tall, Barney was as tough as teak with a physique to match.

When Harry went on the stage with a comedy juggling act, Barney joined him. Harry considered himself the star and took the curtain calls – until one night a kindly stage manager called out: “And Barney too.”

“And Barney too” lodged in Harry’s mind. He renamed the act The Barnato Brothers, and they adopted the surname Barnato. 

Harry left to seek his fortune in South Africa, and in 1872 Barney decided to do the same.  He voyaged to Cape Town and from there travelled to Kimberley (then called Dutoitspan) in a wagon of the Diamond Fields Company. On the first day the wagon halted at Ceres where Barney put on a conjuring show at the Town Hall. He made some money and gave shows at other places, in particular Kimberley.

Using these earnings, he rented a mining claim for 10s6d  (52 ½ p) a year, and found a few diamonds. Those funded more claims and he started employing staff. His career as the Diamond King was taking off.

At the same time he continued on the stage, at one time even playing Othello. He appeared on the London stage only once, a charity performance at the Vaudeville theatre.  One reviewer described him as an actor from South Africa and said: “All we can add is that South Africa must have had a mournful time of it.”

He never appeared on stage again.

In 1895, Barney described his journey from poverty in Spitalfields to riches in the diamond fields of South Africa: “It is just 23 years ago since I, considered then a good looking boy, landed at Cape Town after a tedious journey of 27 ½ days, the greater part of which time I had spent building castles in the air and dreaming of the possibilities of the New World I was approaching. Full of hope and confidence, I walked to the Masonic hotel, and on the veranda was met by a gentleman, whose name I will ask you to allow me to withhold, but who, as I afterwards learnt, held the position of president of the Diamond Diggings.

“I was startled by the brilliancy of his shirt-front, on which there blazed three enormous diamond studs … As these only formed part of his jewelled adornments, I thought he must be a walking diamond mine. He spoke to me very kindly, though with rather a patronising air, asking me my name and destination.  I told him my name was Barney Barnato, and that I was going up to the diamond fields to join my brother, and as I hoped, to make my fortune.

“A look of sympathy, almost of pity, suffused his face, as, placing his hand in a fatherly way on my shoulder he said: ‘Go home again my boy, for I have cleared that country of all the gems it contains,’ and, looking at the sparkling brilliance which shone out from every possible part of him, I was almost convinced that his statement was true.

“I was too proud to let the tears of disappointment fall, and stood wondering what would be said to me if I returned home to admit that I had been on a wild goose chase; this was sufficient to make me adhere to my original intention, whatever the result might be, so I determined to go and book my seat on the coach which was leaving the next morning, lest anything should occur to make me waver.

“This year – 25 years after my interview with him – I met in the market square at Johannesburg this same gentleman who had cleared the country of all the gems it contained, and, on my reminding him of the incident, he asked: ‘How did you discover the De Beers Diamond Mines and become a life governor of the company?’  I replied: ‘By not taking your advice and going home again!’”

Deeply engrossed though Barney was in managing a company with assets valued at a staggering £40m he found time to enter the political arena and was elected local representative for Kimberley, defeating no less a personage than Cecil Rhodes. His influence was very great and he had the ear of President Paul Kruger, who was much guided by his advice. 

Meanwhile, he was building a palatial mansion in Park Lane, a mansion he was never destined to occupy and was later bought by Sir Edward Sassoon.  All the while he did not forget his humble origins. When the Jews’ Free School was in need of funds he collected about £1,600 in Kimberley to contribute towards an extension of the school in Sandys Row, and in 1896 he and his friends contributed £15,000 to the Metropolitan Hospital Sunday Fund.

The tomb of Barney Barnato in Willesden cemetery, North West LondonOn June 16 1897, the Jewish Chronicle reported a telegram received from Funchal, Maderia, and announced that Mr Barney Isaacs Barnato had committed suicide by throwing himself overboard from the Union Liner Scot while on a homeward voyage, and that the body had been recovered.

The previous month there had been newspaper reports concerning his mental condition and his doctors had ordered that he take complete rest.

Control of his business empire, including Barnato Brothers, passed principally to his nephew Joel. Meanwhile the rest of his family received generous bequests including bequests to his sons Isaac Henry and Joel Wolf Barnato, known as Wolf. In 1898 Joel Barnato was murdered in his Johannesburg office and the Barnato business empire was taken over by Joel’s brother Solly.

Barney’s famous son Wolf Barnato was born in 1895. During the First World War he enlisted in the army, rising to the rank of captain. He was physically imposing, which gave rise to his ironic nickname of “Babe”.  On reaching 21 in 1916 he inherited vast wealth from his late father and was able to indulge in his love of motor racing. In 1926 he became a major shareholder in Bentley Motor Cars, and an enthusiastic racer of the marque as one of the famous racing “Bentley Boys”.

During World War Two he was an RAF Wing Commander. He succumbed to cancer in 1948 aged 53. His Le Mans winning Speed Six Bentley led his funeral cortège.

The name of  “Bentley Boy” Wolf Barnato remains a legend in motor racing circles, just as his father Barney’s does in the annals of the Jewish East End of London.

Sources: various contemporary Jewish Chronicle articles, and Classic and Sports Car magazine April 2005

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