Barney Barnato

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Barney Barnato can refer to actual person, or to the title of the TV mini-series made of his colourful life (1989).

Barney Barnato (1852-1897)

Barney Barnato was a mining magnate, boxer and entertainer.


Born Barnett Isaacs (called "Barney") in Aldgate, London on 21 February 1851, he was the son of Isaac and Leah Isaacs and grew up in Whitechapel, the very poor East End of London in an area that was predominantly a Jewish neighborhood. His father, Isaac Isaacs, was a small general dealer with a prosperous business and his mother was the former Leah Harris. He was educated at what was called the Jews’ Free School, in Spitalfields where the head master was Moses Angel.

When he and his brother Harry Isaacs were teenagers, they began to perform turns in the various music halls in their vicinity. They were initially billed as "the Great Henry Isaacs and Barnett too", but at Barney's suggestion they later converted the phrase "Barnett too" to "Bar-na-to" and thenceforth adopted it as theur surname, calling call themselves Harry Barnato and Barney Barnato or the "Barnato Brothers" when appearing on stage as well as registering a mining company.

In addition to his performances, Barney was also a talented boxer, and - in the days before the Marquess of Queensberry Rules were widely used - he made money by placing bets on himself with the bookies.

In 1871 Harry went out to South Africa to join the diamond rush in Kimberley, and in 1873 Barney too travelled to Cape Town, aiming to join his brother, who was not immediately successful at the prospecting and was trying to eke out a living by from performances on stage (as a conjurer and entertainer under the professional name of “H.I. Barnato”) and doing odd jobs.

With Barney's arrival, he initially joined in his brother on stage (in his case using the stage name "B.I Barnato" and trained those who wished to take up boxing. Barney took trouble to learn the diamond business and things slowly changed, until Barney was offered the opportunity to buy four adjacent claims in Kimberley, an offer the brothers took op. This and other successful investments in Kimberley diamonds now turned the Barnato Brothers company into a viable venture, and Barney Barnato in particular into a major mining magnate and life Governor of De Beers Consolidated Mines (which he and Rhodes founded in 1888). Member of Cape Parliament for Kimberley (1889-1897) and founder of Johannesburg Consolidated Investment Co. in 1889.

Barnato died under mysterious circumstances in 1897 when he allegedly fell overboard in mid-ocean when travelling from England.

Contribution to South African theatre and performance

In the period 1870-1875 he was one of the performers who performed in "Entertainments" at the Good Hope Gardens, and when he first arrived on the diamond fields, he initially continued his interest in both boxing and theatre, often appearing on stage in the old Theatre Royal in Kimberley, having joined in his brother on stage (using the stage name "B.I Barnato".

He was popular with the miners for his fiery performances, despite his lack of education and uncouth pronunciation. He apparently continued performing in Kimberley on occasion, being especially great in character parts. For example, he played "Iago" in a production of Othello in aid of the Kimberley hospital (having offered to double the takings, if allowed to play the part), appeared as "Matthias" in The Bells (Erckmann-Chatrian).

Barnato has been the subject of a number of theatrical and other works, and has been commemorated in various fashions over the years, for example:

In 1953 Harold J. Laite wrote a play called The King of Diamonds, based on . This was turned into a musical by Bob O'Keefe, and Edgar Adeler in 1961 and also called The King of Diamonds.

In 1976 Pieter Toerien and Shirley Firth renamed the Little Theatre in Johannesburg as the Barnato Theatre, in his honour.


F.C.L. Bosman. 1980. Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika, Deel II, 1856-1912. Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik: pp.

Jill Fletcher. 1994. The Story of Theatre in South Africa: A Guide to its History from 1780-1930. Cape Town: Vlaeberg: p.

Barney Barnato (TV mini-series, 1989)

Based on the life of Barney Barnato, it was produced and filmed in South Africa, West Germany and the United Kingdom.

First shown on television in South Africa by the South African Broadcasting Corporation on 9 April 1990.

Produced by Edgar Bold, written by John Burch and directed by David Lister, with a large cast including Sean Taylor (as "Barney Barnato"), Graham Hopkins ("Cecil John Rhodes"), Vinette Ebrahim ("Fanny Bees"), Richard Cox ("Harry Barnato"), Amadeus August ("Schneider"), Manfred Seipold ("Mr. Sonnenberg"), Claudia Demarmels ("Mrs. Schneider") and Fiona Ramsay ("Lily").

For the full production team, cast and crew, see IMDB[1]


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