Did you know?
Barney Barnato built a huge mansion in Park Lane, London – but never lived in it.
Barney Barnato, who sold his diamond empire to Cecil John Rhodes for more than 5-million Pounds Stirling (making him a billionaire by any modern-day standards), had to walk from Cape Town to Kimberley when he arrived from London he was so poor (a distance of about 1000km), and began his working life in Kimberley as a boxing jack of all trades.
When Payne’s Travelling Circus came to Kimberley in the mid-1870s, their main drawcard was The Champion of Angola, a behemoth of a boxer who took on all comers for a gold medal.
The relatively tiny Barnato climbed into the ring fully dressed – he even kept his little round spectacles on his nose. Barney literally pummelled the giant about the midriff and finally finished him with a blow to the solar plexus.
He then entertained the roaring crowd by juggling his bowler hat and three bottles and finished off by quoting a soliloquy from Hamlet by William Shakespeare.
That was the nature of the most colourful character on the Kimberley diamond fields, a bustling dynamo who believed in the true wealth that lay below in the so-called ‘blue ground’, the rock now known as kimberlite.
Less than 15 years after that fight with the massive Angolan, Barnato and Rhodes controlled the diamond fields. After much haggling and finally getting Barney into the exclusive Kimberley Club (said to be the deal-clincher), Barnato took his millions and went north to Johannesburg.
He founded Johannesburg Consolidated Investments (JCI), prospered with gold and invested hugely in the City of Johannesburg.
It is said that when Transvaal President Paul Kruger sentenced various members of the Jameson Raid group to death for treason, Barney Barnato used his friendship with the old Boer leader to get the sentences commuted.
He often journeyed to London and back by ship. In 1897 he sailed to England on board the Scot with his family. He disappeared overboard into the sea and a later coroner’s report declared ‘death by drowning while temporarily insane’.
Needless to say, the suspicious circumstances of the little mogul’s death at sea are still a matter for conjecture today.
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