EAST END OF LONDON PHOTO GALLERY & COMMENTARY
London's East End Synagogues, cemeteries and more......
My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London
From Spitalfields conjuror to
Diamond King - the amazing story of Barney Barnato & his son 'Bentley
Boy' Wolf Barnato
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.”
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.
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.”
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!’”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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
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
various contemporary Jewish Chronicle articles, and Classic
and Sports Car magazine April 2005