Written by Rosemarijn Atalante Veenenbos
After yesterday’s introduction of the Blue Train races, we continue today with the life of the most famous Bentley Boy. The bespoke playboy Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato (1895-1948) was a British financier, like his dad, but most of all a daring racing driver of the 1920s. His life consisted of sex, drugs and cocktails with a lot of roaring Bentley engines and exhaust fumes.
Why you should never ever have gotten into one of his daily cars? Well, those were blinded with curtains, like in THIS story of the tinted window history. You probably already know now what the reason was that his cars really were a playboy mansion on wheels… Next to his image of being a Woolf, he was a true star in the automotive and racing world. He won the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times in a row. Of course also the Blue Train victory in his Bentley Speed Six with body by H.J. Mulliner.
To start at the beginning though, there was a most interesting family history behind this man. Our protagonist was the youngest son of the diamond- and gold-digger Barney Barnato. Daddy Barnato had made his fortune as a Randlord in South African diamond and gold mining from the 1870s onwards. Barney Barnato, officially named Barnett Isaacs on this birth certificate, like most Randlords, had started far from possessing rivers full of cash. Barney was one of the sons of the Jewish cobbler Isaac Isaacs from London’s East End and I can assure you, it was a long way for him before he made his way into the jet set…
With his brother Harry, Barnett helped his dad trading secondhand clothing, as well as earning some extra money by street trading of mostly apples, and also juggling. You may wonder why Barnett Isaacs became Barney Barnato. His nick name was Barney and the name Barnato is actually a fun story.
On an ordinary day, Barnett decided to sign up for an entertainment show to play Othello. The audience thought he was “playing for laughs”. He was very upset when the audience began to cheer in hilarious delight and he left the stage in tears, poor Barnett. At the end of the show, it was bow time, he was too ashamed to come on stage, until the audience began chanting “Barnett too! Barnett too!”. From then on he did some performances with his brother Harry. Their stage name was ‘The Barnett Too Brothers’ which eventually became Barnato, the surname they adopted. Perhaps they also changed their name to leave their struggling Isaacs past behind them and start a new future with new Barnato opportunities. You will understand that this story is quite complicated to unravel with all those changes in names…!
Diamond mining began in South Africa in 1867, and in 1869, brother Harry left to start his South African adventure to become rich. While Barney stayed behind with a dream of becoming rich as well, he soon followed the footsteps of his brother in 1871. All Barney had was £50 and 40 boxes of cheap cigars, given to him by his uncle. It took him 300 South African miles to reunite with his brother.
He had to walk all the way with a bullock cart, delivering supplies to the miners, before he reached the destination with the diamond mines. It was a rough journey. Along the way he also had to help farmers with their cows and slept under the carriage, not very glamorous. When he finally reached his destination Kimberley, he found Harry sleeping under rough conditions in a tent. Barney was surprised, because the letters he had received from Harry about making a fortune turned out to be all lies!
Soon Barney set about trading and was able to acquire the postman’s pony, which knew its way around the various mining claims. The practice was to sieve the soil for diamonds but when the ‘blue earth’ was reached, a claim would be abandoned. Barney started to buy these abandoned claims and, with the profit from the few diamonds he found, buying more. It was a slow and sometimes frustrating learning process to get higher on the diamond mining ladder. When had finally earned enough, he bought machinery to mine the ‘blue earth’. His first mine was named The Primrose Diamond Mine. In the next twenty years he made a vast fortune from diamonds and gold mining. Since he did not give up, he grew into the role of that mighty Randlord and became an international financier.
His company Barnato Bros (45%) was later amalgamated with Anglo American (45%) and Johannesburg Consolidated Investments (10%) to form De Beers. He became a Life Governor of De Beers, a Member of the Cape Assembly for Kimberley and a Lieutenant of the City of London. He brought his three nephews Jack, Woolf and Solly Joel into the business, but this may have lead to his death…
Yeah, cliff hanger time again! I hope you like to go thru the whole history, of this roaring family. It is not about the brutal engines yet, but for good reasons. While editing I found out that this is a great story and too good to skip. Some people say that the owners make the cars. Let’s think about that when digging deeper into the Barnato history. I personally love to research history and it can even reveal some surprises you would otherwise never find in automobile history. Let’s keep history alive, because it is what vintage cars are all about. Off we go to part 2, perhaps walking with a bullock…