In Search of Barney

By Dame Esther Rantzen, TV presenter and host of the Silver Travel Awards 2019

Date published: 02 Jul 19

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Dame Esther RantzenSouth Africa has lingered on my bucket list for years. I have heard so many wonderful descriptions of Cape Town of course I wanted to see it for myself. But other dreams intervened. To explore the South Pacific. To discover the wonders of Canada. So the fact that I have just spent a week in this glorious country and unexpectedly fallen in love with it is thanks to Great Uncle Barney.

Ancestral tourism is all the rage, as more and more of us retrace our roots in order to understand our own DNA. Hence my pilgrimage to find Great Uncle Barney. And I am not the only one. We are a self-absorbed generation dedicated to finding new depth in ourselves. We study mindfulness, we send off our DNA to be analysed, and we explore our own family tree. I can’t be bothered with most of this, but I have become fascinated with one branch of my father’s family tree, one I only discovered when I was lucky enough to be the subject of the wonderful BBC series, Who Do You Think You Are? Until then I had never known why my father had the peculiar middle name, Barnato. To my astonishment I realised during the filming that my five-times Great Grandmother Sarah Rantzen was the sister of two extraordinary South African millionaires, Harry and Barney Barnato, who at one stage actually owned the Kimberley Diamond Mine. I knew nothing about them, except that they started as pub entertainers in South Africa, and Barney ended his life mysteriously falling from the deck of a ship on his way back to England. So, I decided to try to dig up some of the family secrets buried, like the diamonds that made his fortune, in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela Square in SandtonMy pilgrimage took me off the beaten tourist track, and into the Northern Cape. Everywhere I went, I stayed in the most luxurious B&Bs, clean and beautifully appointed. My first stop was in Johannesburg where, I discovered, Uncle Barney had set up a few businesses. It’s a vibrant city, and to my joy, when I arrived the jacaranda trees were in full bloom, a torrent of gorgeous lilac flowers. Of course, I had to find Mandela’s home, where the blossom arches over the street like a wedding guard of honour. The Old Fort Prison on Constitution Hill was a stark reminder of a harrowing time in South Africa and the tour reflects on the experiences that Gandhi and Nelson Mandela endured while they were prisoners there. But today’s South Africans told me they were determined to learn from the past and embrace the future.

Nelson Mandela HouseI was curious to discover whether Great Uncle Barney has left any footprints in Johannesburg, and indeed he has. In the University of Witwatersrand there is a building called Barnato Hall, there are park gates with a blue plaque dedicated to him, calling him a Randlord, and a reference to a mansion he built which was later renamed Joel House. A Randlord is someone who made a fortune in the South African gold rush, so clearly Great Uncle Barney had done well in Johannesburg. But who was Joel, and why had his mansion been renamed after him?

Obviously, I would have to go to Kimberley to find the answers. My preferred way of travelling is always by train, especially those classic trains lovingly refurbished. And I was in luck. The beautiful, luxurious five-star Rovos Rail train calls in Kimberley, and I could pick it up from Pretoria, one of the three capitals of South Africa. The controversial President, Paul Kruger, lived in a modest Victorian house which is now a museum, garnished with two magnificent stone lions at the front door, which, I was told, were a birthday present to President Kruger from his great friend, my Great Uncle Barney in 1896. I nipped in to the museum shop to buy a little replica lion before I caught the Rovos Rail.

Rovos Rail courtesy of www.rovos.comIt chugged through sun-bleached countryside of the Great Karoo, then its tracks wound on through the famous garden route between mountains and vineyards, to Cape Town. But I couldn’t stay. Great Uncle Barney summoned me to the diamond mine in Kimberley where he made his fortune, and I suppose mine too.

Kimberley is a quiet pretty town these days, with very little of the wildness and frenzy that must have drawn the Barnato brothers to seek their fortune there. Ancestral tourists who go there are usually the descendants of those who fought in the Boer war, and there are local battlefields and monuments to visit. I was there on a merrier mission. When Barney and Harry went there in the Diamond Rush of 1873, their aim was not to fight but to make a bob or two, to continue their boxing, juggling pub entertaining because there were so many diamond miners with money in their pockets and nothing to spend it on. Barney was no fool. Little by little, from the money he earned as an entertainer, he began learning the diamond trade, and with his savings to buy up the old claims that were no longer yielding their sparkling hoard of treasure. Then he bought some special equipment to dig deeper, and lo! there were the highest quality, including, rumour says, the fabulous huge yellow Tiffany Diamond as big as your fist.

The Big Hole, KimberleyAlthough they no longer mine there, De Beers still has its headquarters in Kimberley, preserving its own history as well as mine. If you love diamonds it’s a fascinating visit, especially looking down from a high platform into The Big Hole, all that remains of the original mine, the biggest man-made excavation in the world. It’s now filled, not with glistening diamonds, but with bright blue water. De Beers has created a diamond museum where Elizabeth Taylor would eat her heart out admiring replicas of the most famous jewels in the world. De Beers has also recreated the diamond rush in a little village fashioned from some of the original Kimberley houses, and I was thrilled to find Barney Barnato’s Boxing Academy immortalised there. There is a picture of Great Uncle on its wooden walls, a little man with a natty moustache and a monocle, prepared, it seems to take on boxers twice his size, and described in a plaque as “an amazing personality”. I was still more thrilled to find Barney’s own boxing gloves preserved there, and to be told that when President Mandela visited, he actually (as an ex-boxer himself) tried them on and pronounced them good.

Chapman's Peak - photo credit: Craig HowesBut when Barney took on Cecil Rhodes head to head, Rhodes won. It was his company, De Beers which took over Kimberley and the world’s diamond trade. Cecil Rhodes himself negotiated the deal which paid Barney over five million pounds, at that time the biggest cheque ever written. My Great Uncle made it a condition also that he should be allowed to join the snobby Kimberley Club. Up till then Barney had been excluded, black-balled each time he tried to join. Rhodes was the founder and Chair, so, deal done, when Rhodes ‘accidentally dropped’ the balls and declared that the Barnatos had been voted in, nobody dared contradict him.  

I was told that my Cockney uncle had been excluded because his language was so bad, it may be true. But it’s not so snobbish now, however bad your language you can stay in the Kimberley Club boutique hotel. Proud of its history, it still has the atmosphere, the mahogany and the stained-glass window of a Victorian gentleman’s club. Framed on the wall is a thank you letter dated 1947 from King George the Sixth, the Queen Mother and her daughters Elizabeth and Margaret. It seems that the Queen Mum accidentally left her diamond necklace on her dressing-table when she stayed there, and they posted it back to her. There was, after all, no shortage of diamonds in Kimberley.

Camps Bay - photo credit: Craig HowesSo now I knew how Barney made his millions. But how did he die? Nobody in the Kimberley Club, I was told, thought he had fallen off the ship’s deck by accident. Nor did they think, as the Coroner decided and the only witness, his nephew Solly Joel claimed, that it was suicide. The Kimberley Club suspect that Solly himself, who was the last person to speak to Barney at the time. as they were walking together around the deck, was somehow responsible. Especially since it appears that Barney disappeared over the side with a shout of “murder”. And according to Barney’s granddaughter Diana Barnato Walker, Barney had just discovered his nephew Solly had been systematically robbing the company of a million pounds, ever since Barney gave him a job there. But dead men tell no tales, and once Barney was drowned, Joel took over his shares in De Beers, and his mansion in Johannesburg. So that’s why it was renamed Joel House.

Soweto - photo credit: Justin Lee PhotographyI really recommend these explorations following the footsteps of your ancestors, even if you do stumble over the occasional skeleton. Did I discover my own Great Uncle Barney on my journey? I think I did. I caught a flavour of the rough and tumble of Kimberley during the Diamond Rush, found myself admiring the toughness of the little East End Cockney who earned a cheque of five million pounds, and on my way felt I had dug a little way under the surface of this lovely, dramatic country. Before I left, I spent a couple of nights in Cape Town, ate some delicious sea food, admired the view from Table Mountain and took an adventurous motor bike along the coast. I didn’t do the traditional tourist things, the safaris, the beaches, the townships, the vineyards, and now that I’ve fallen in love with the extraordinary country, I’ll definitely go back and do all that. But my mind is still reliving the joy of those jacarandas in blossom, and optimism of the South Africans I met. Perhaps I did solve the mystery of Great Uncle Barney’s death, and now I’m delighted he lives on in my father’s peculiar middle name.

More information


For further information about South Africa, please visit www.southafrica.net

Airline:
British Airways flies direct to Johannesburg and Durban from London Heathrow. Return fares start from £416 per person. 

Rovos Rail:
A Rovos Rail two-night journey from Pretoria to Cape Town (stopping in Kimberley), is ZAR 20,600 per person (approximately £1,600) based on two sharing a Pullman suite. Price includes accommodation, all meals, all alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, guided excursions, entrance fee as per itinerary and government tax. To book, please visit
www.rovos.com

Northern Cape accommodation:
Oleander Guest House, Kimberley, Northern Cape
www.oleander.co.za

Room rate: Single luxury room is R1,100 (£60), double luxury room is R1,400 (£77).  The single executive room is R1,600 (£88) or double executive room is R1,950 (£150). All the rates are per night and include breakfast.

Tour Guide:
Jaco Powell

Travel Agent:
Cape Fox Tours & Photography

Jacels Tours
+27 (0) 82 572 0065
www.kalaharisafari.com

The Big Hole
+27 (0)53 839 4600

[email protected]
www.thebighole.co.za


Silver Travel Advisor recommends Africa Sky for holidays to and explorations in South Africa.

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