Barney Barnato

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Barney Barnato
Black and white portrait of a seated man. He has a short beard, is wearing glasses and is dress formally.
Barney Barnato circa 1890
Barnet Isaacs

(1851-02-21)21 February 1851
Aldgate, London, England
Died14 June 1897(1897-06-14) (aged 46)
At sea, near the island of Madeira
Occupation(s)Diamond and gold mining entrepreneur
SpouseFanny Christina Bees
Children3, including Woolf Barnato

Barney Barnato (21 February 1851 – 14 June 1897), born Barnet Isaacs, was a British Randlord and diamond magnate, one of the entrepreneurs who gained control of diamond mining, and later, gold mining in South Africa from the 1870s up to World War I. He was known as a rival of Cecil Rhodes.

Early life[edit]

Barney Barnato, originally named Barnet Isaacs, was born in Aldgate, London, on 21 February 1851,[1][2] to parents Isaac and Leah Isaacs. He was educated by Moses Angel at the Jews' Free School and became a music hall entertainer and prizefighter.[3] Barney made an income from prizefighting.

Barney grew up in Whitechapel. His mother, Leah, died in 1852. His father, Isaac Isaacs, made a living by selling second hand clothing and fabric remnants. Barney and his older brother Harry, left school in their early teens and entered their father's business. Their siblings were Kate, Sarah and Lizzie.

Barney and Harry performed on stage in the music halls. Harry was introduced as the Great Henry Isaacs and Barney as "and Barnett too". They became known as Bar-na-to, the Barnato Brothers.[4]


In 1873, Barney joined his brother Harry in the Cape Colony during the diamond rush, which accompanied the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley, and they eventually bought four claims in Kimberley.

Barnato Diamond Mining Company[edit]

Barnato, caricatured by Spy in Vanity Fair, 1895
Barnett Isaacs Barnato by Harry Furniss. Pen and ink, 1880s–1900s. National Portrait Gallery, London

Initially, more than 3,600 claims were being mined at Kimberley. Over time, this number reduced to under one hundred.

A French mining company, Compagnie Française des Mines de Diamants du Cap de Bonne Espérance, held a large block of claims that split the Kimberley mine in two. It was owned by a wealthy Parisian diamond dealer named Jules Porges. Barney telegraphed Porges, expressing interest in bidding if a sale was imminent. Rhodes bid £1.4 million to acquire the company. Barney countered by bidding £1.75 million. Before receiving a response from Porges, Rhodes contacted Barney and requested him to withdraw his offer.

In exchange for withdrawing the offer, Rhodes proposed to purchase the company at his original bid price and sell it to Barney for £300,000 plus a twenty percent holding in Barnato's Kimberley Central Diamond Mining Company. After several days of consideration, Barney agreed to withdraw his offer, and a month later, he owned the French Company. Shares in Kimberley Central DMC surged from £14 to £49.

Rhodes proposed that they merge the De Beers DMC into Kimberley Central DMC, forming one company, De Beers Consolidated Mines. Barney emerged as the largest shareholder, with 6,658 shares in the new company. A group of shareholders from Kimberley Central applied to the Supreme Court of the Cape to stop the merger. The judge ruled in favor of the applicants. The result was that Kimberley Central was liquidated, and De Beers Consolidated purchased the company. The Barnato Brothers shares were bought out for the sum of £5,338,650 in 1889.

De Beers Consolidated purchased two other mines in the area, Bultfontein and Du Toitspan.

By 1888, after the consolidation of diamond mining had taken place, the Barnatos were late in coming to Johannesburg. A dozen gold mining companies floated on both the London Stock Exchange and the new Johannesburg exchange. These mining shares were given the nickname 'kaffirs'.

With his nephews Woolf and Solly, Barney went on a buying spree, spending more than a million pounds in one year. Additionally, he invested in Johannesburg's infrastructure. Early in 1889, Barney floated his first gold mining company on the London and Johannesburg stock exchanges. After the formation of his Johannesburg Consolidated Investment Company that year, he went on a major acquisition plan.

Barnato doubled his fortune in the boom in South African gold mining shares of 1894–95 before losing most of it in the 1896 share collapse. He built, but never lived in, a vast house on the corner of Park Lane and Stanhope Gate in Mayfair, London, which was bought after his death by the banker Sir Edward Sassoon.[3]

Personal life[edit]

Fanny Christina Bees

Barney married Fanny Christina Bees. Together, they had three children:

  • Leah "Lily" Primrose Barnato (1893–1933)
  • Isaac "Jack" Henry Woolf Barnato (c. 1894–1918)
  • Woolf "Babe" Barnato (1895–1948)

He was also the father of Isabel Louisa Barnato (born 5 June 1891,[5] died 19 June 1891[6]), daughter of Isabella Barnato (born Isabella Clarke 30 November 1865, died 30 October 1891[7]).


Barnato died in 1897; records state that he was lost overboard near the island of Madeira while on a passage home to England.[8] Although some have wondered if this was suicide and suggested that the Jameson Raid had had a major impact on him and left him severely depressed, his family said that it was totally out of character for him.[9] Especially as a crew member gave evidence at the inquest that Barnato had been walking round the deck with his nephew Solly Joel at the time and as he fell overboard, his last word was "murder!". Solly Joel who was suspected of stealing money from the company then inherited it on Barnato's death. Barnato's body was recovered from the sea and buried at Willesden Jewish Cemetery in London.[citation needed]

The theory regarding the suicide of Barnato has also been tied to one of his heirs, his nephew Woolf Joel (1863 – 14 March 1898),[10] who was shot and killed in his business offices in Johannesburg by a con-man named Karl Frederick Kurtze, who went away with the name Ludwig von Veltheim in 1898. In the trial for murder, von Veltheim hinted that he was supposed to be orchestrating a plot to kidnap Paul Kruger, President of the Transvaal Republic, that Barnato and Joel were backing. The murder stemmed from blackmail against Joel, but von Veltheim claimed he was only seeking his promised payment. As a result, von Veltheim was able to get an acquittal from a Boer Jury (possibly due to anti-British and anti-Semitic feelings towards the deceased). It was suggested by Brian Roberts, in his book The Diamond Magnates, that Barnato may have been approached by von Veltheim too.[11]

His fortune was divided up among his family, among which were his sister Sarah and her husband Abraham Rantzen, great-grandparents of TV presenter Esther Rantzen.[8] Another beneficiary was his son, Woolf Barnato, who used part of the multimillion-pound fortune he inherited at the age of two to become a racing driver in the 1920s, one of the so-called Bentley Boys.

Cultural depictions[edit]

  • Barney Barnato's life was the subject of a South African television mini-series, Barney Barnato, made in 1989 and first aired on SABC in early 1990.
  • He was the inspiration for the character Reuben Rosenthall, also an alliteratively named Jew who became rich through South African diamond mining, in the A. J. Raffles short story "A Costume Piece".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rubinstein, William D.; Jolles, Michael; Rubinstein, Hilary L. (15 March 2011). The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 52–. ISBN 978-1-4039-3910-4.
  2. ^ "Barney Barnato | South African History Online". Retrieved 3 September 2022.
  3. ^ a b Stephen Inwood (2005). City of cities: The birth of modern London. London: Pan Books. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-330-43457-7
  4. ^ Leavitt, M. B. (1912). Fifty Years in Theatrical Management. New York: Broadway Publishing Co. p. 302.
  5. ^ General Record Office Births Jun 1891 Barnato, Isabel Louisa B, Christchurch, 2b 679
  6. ^ General Record Office Deaths Jun 1891 Barnato, Isabel Louisa B, 0, Christchurch, 2b 483
  7. ^ General Record Office Deaths Dec 1891 Barnato, Isabella, 25, Christchurch, 2b 422
  8. ^ a b Who do you think you are? — Esther Rantzen on Accessed 3 September 2008.
  9. ^ "The story behind "Barney" Barnato".
  10. ^ "Woolf Joel". Geni. A MyHeritage Company. 25 January 2019. Retrieved 28 June 2023. [Died] 14 March 1898 (34-35), Johannesburg, GP, South Africa. Shot dead in Johannesburg office by blackmailer. See also Joel family.
  11. ^ Brian Roberts, The Diamond Magnates. London: Hamilton, 1972. pp. 232–244. OCLC 254654034

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