Barney Barnato: Rags to Riches

Barney Barnato was born Barnett Isaacs on 21st February 1851 in a slum in Whitechapel in the East End of London and brought up in the Petticoat Lane area.

The tale of Barney is a true rags to riches story. He was the son of a second-hand clothes dealer and as a child (along with his brother Henry) attended London Jews’ Free School. His mother died when Barnato was very young and the family were desperately poor. He left school at fourteen and spent time as a music-hall entertainer with his brother under the adopted name ‘Barnato.’ For a while he became a prizefighter too.

Several of his family members relocated to South Africa after hearing of diamonds being discovered in the Northern Cape area. Barney later left for South Africa towards the end of the 19th century (1880s), where he began to purchase diamonds. His personality assisted him in this endeavour, where he made his fortune and formed the Barnato Diamond Mining Company. Cecil John Rhodes was Barnato’s biggest competitor in the sector, and the two had an ongoing rivalry.

Pictured in 1890 are De Beers Central Diamond Mining Company directors and management. Standing, left to right: William H Craven (Secretary), Gardner F Williams (General Manager), and Ludwig Breitmeyer. Seated: John Morrogh, Francis Oats, B I Barnato, Charles E Nind, Woolf Joel. Image sourced from

The two entered a fierce battle for shares to gain control of the Kimberly Central Diamond Mining Company.

In March 1888, Rhodes bought out Barnato’s shares in the company. It is reported ‘Rhodes wrote out a cheque for £5,338,650 for the assets of Kimberley Central, which in those days was the largest sum of money ever covered in a single cheque, four million pounds of which went into the pockets of the Barnato Brothers. As part of the deal Cecil Rhodes made Barnato one of the four life-governors, arranged for him to be elected as Kimberley’s member of Parliament in the Cape Assembly and procured him membership to the exclusive Kimberly Club.’

He married Frances (known as Fannie or Fanny) Christina Bees (1859 to 1943) in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1889. In November 1892 their Civil Marriage took place at Chelsea Registry Office, London, England. It seems there were a number of long trips between the two countries for family and business purposes.

Between these dates, Barney also had an illegitimate daughter Isabel/Isabella Louisa Barnato (born 5 June 1891, and who died on 19 June 1891). She was the daughter of Isabella Clarke born on 30 November 1865, who died 30 October 1891).

In 1894 he returned to London from South Africa, to build a house in Park Lane. Here, he sought to establish his position in British society by building an impressive mansion: ‘Barnato proceeded to commission a flamboyant imitation of a French chateau, it’s roof bristling with gargoyles.’

Barney commissioned a statue for his mansion at 25 Park Lane, London. The statue was comprised of five allegorical figures: ‘The original statues that were sited on the five plinths were allegorical representations of: ‘Morning’ (symbolized by a youthful warrior holding a sword and gazing at the rising sun), ‘Welcome’, ‘Fidelity’, ‘Truth’ and ‘Evening’ (represented by an aged warrior resting on his weapon while he watches the sun declining).’

The public joked the five statues were the ‘petrified effigies of Barnato’s creditors.’ At some point, assumed to be in the 1930s, the statues were relocated from their original location in London to Victoria Gardens in Brighton.

Barnato – C. Jewish Historical Studies Vol 30 1987-88 pps 91-124

The statues are currently lost. There are two plinths remaining which have evidence of wording present, but the wording is illegible. The two plinths currently reside in Victoria Gardens in Brighton, East Sussex.

Statue Plinth In Victoria Gardens. Image from

In September 1895 he and his family were residing in Spencer House, St James’ Place London.

Barney died in 1897, aged forty six. He died at sea, on route to the United Kingdom. It is suspected he committed suicide. His family reject the suicide theory, citing it as against his character. It is possible foul play was at hand in this untimely death given his vast riches.

‘Records state that he was lost overboard near the island of Madeira, whilst on a passage home to England. 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 vigorously rejected that theory, saying that it was totally out of character for a man who had been a pioneer in the rough-and-ready days of emerging Southern Africa….

The theory regarding the suicide of Barnato has also been tied to sinister later events. One of his heirs, Woolf Joel was shot and killed in his business offices in Johannesburg by a con-man named Karl Frederick Kurtze who went away with the name of 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 Boer 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, and unsettled by his physical threats and the possibility of exposure’.

At the time of his death, he was declared one of the richest men in the nineteenth century. His body was found and buried at Willesden United Synagogue Cemetery in the London Borough of Brent. 

After his death, his wife and three surviving children moved to Brighton: Isaac Henry Woolf Barnato (1894 to 1918), Joel Woolf Barnato (1895 to 1948) and Leah Primrose Blackwell (1893 to 1933).

Barney’s sister Sarah married Abraham Rantzen. Barney Barnato is English journalist and television presenter Esther Rantzen’s five times great uncle.