The last De Beers Life Governor dies
Sir Julius Charles Wernher, 1st Baronet (9 April 1850 – 21 May 1912) was a diamond mining magnate, Randlord and art collector who became part of the English establishment.
Born in Darmstadt Hesse, Germany, Wernher was the son of a railway engineer of Protestant stock, Friedrich Augustus Wernher and his wife Elisabeth Wernher (nee Weidenbusch).
The eldest of three sons and one daughter born to the union, his brothers were Henry and Frederick, and sister Maria.
Julius was educated at Frankfurt-am-Main, where he entered a banking house. In 1871, having fought in the Franco-Prussian War as a Dragoon with the 4th Cavalry Division, he moved to London, and then virtually immediately to the Diamond Fields via Cape Town. It took 35 days for the journey from England to Cape Town by boat, and another 40 to 60 days by wagon to the New Rush.
His talent for business was spotted by the diamond dealer Jules Porgès of London and Paris, who, when his representative in Kimberley, a Mr Mege, retired in 1873, appointed Wernher in his place. Wernher bought up mining interests and by 1875 was an influential personality in Kimberley.
Porgès and Alfred Beit joined him in Kimberley, and Porgès formed the Compagnie Française des Mines de Diamants du Cap (the French Company). Porgès returned to London after having made Wernher and Beit partners in his firm Jules Porgès & Co. By 1884 Wernher returned to London and traded in diamond shares, while Beit remained in Kimberley to look after their interests. On Porgès’ retirement in 1889, the firm was restructured and named Wernher, Beit & Co.
With the discovery in 1886 of gold on the Witwatersrand, the firm appointed Hermann Eckstein as their representative in Johannesburg, while Cecil Rhodes and Beit effectively amalgamated the Kimberley diamond mines by 1888 and enabled Wernher, Beit & Co. to acquire a controlling interest in De Beers Consolidated Mines. Wernher by now was managing over 70 South African companies from his London office, and developing a passion for collecting art.
He was created a baronet by King Edward in 1905, as well as being a member of the Order of the Crown of Prussia. Despite having a reputation for prudence in business, Wernher was swindled out of £64,000 in 1906 by a Henri Lemoine, who claimed he could make synthetic diamonds.
Beset by failing health in 1911, Wernher merged the shareholdings of Wernher, Beit & Co. with those of Central Mining and Investment Corporation and Rand Mines Ltd.
Besides his interest in art, Wernher funded an extension to the National Physical Laboratory. He also bequeathed £250,000 to establishing a university in Cape Town, and £100,000 to the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London.
At the time of his death in London, he was one of the richest men in the United Kingdom with a fortune of £12 million.
Although his death was not unexpected it still cast a shadow in Kimberley as he was the last of the Life Governors of De Beers Consolidated Mines to die.
The Mayor of Kimberley, Councillor William Gasson, moved at a special council meeting: “That this Borough Council place on record the expression of its deepest regret at the death of Sir Julius Wernher, who played so prominent a part in building up the great diamond mining industry with which this city has for so many years been identified. The deceased gentleman was noted for his innumerable acts of generosity towards all deserving objects and institutions, not only on the Diamond Fields, but throughout the Empire. Further, that a message be cabled to Lady Wernher conveying an expression of the sympathy and condolence of the people of Kimberley with herself and family in the irreparable loss they and the community at large have sustained in the death of Sir Julius Wernher.”
The resolution was adopted in silence, the members all rising as a sign of respect.
Wernher kept his art collection at his London mansion, Bath House in Piccadilly, and at his country house Luton Hoo (occupied by Robert de Hoo in 1245). Much of it is now on display at Ranger’s House in the London suburb of Greenwich. A large memorial to Wernher flanks the entrance to the Royal School of Mines in London.
Another memorial to Sir Julius is the Sir Julius Wernher memorial lecture, held at major mining or metallurgy conferences at approximately two-yearly intervals, focussing attention on important questions connected with mining and metallurgy. The first Wernher memorial lecture was held on 15 April 1947.
On 12 June 1888 Julius married socialite Alice Sedgwick Mankiewicz (1862 – 30 November 1945), nicknamed “Birdie”, whom he described as “bright-eyed, fair-haired, small, intelligent and musical”. Birdie and her mother lived in part of a big mid-Victorian house in Bayswater, 15a Pembridge Square. Julius and Alice had three sons: Sir Derrick Julius Wernher, 2nd Baronet (7 June 1889 – 6 March 1948); Alexander, killed in World War One; and Major General Sir Harold Augustus Wernher, 3rd Bt. (16 January 1893 – 30 June 1973).
The baronetcy became extinct upon the death of the 3rd Baronet, Sir Harold Wernher, in 1973.
Lady Alice Wernher, as she was known throughout the period of the Great War 1914 – 1918, was not only the lady of the manor of Luton with her country residence at Luton Hoo, she was also one of Luton town’s biggest benefactors. Virtually every charitable list included her name among the donors, be it meat and vegetables for local hospitals, uniforms for the Luton Volunteer Training Corps, ambulances for the Red Cross at the front, gifts for front-line troops, or paying for buildings in Luton to be converted for military purposes such as hospitals. Luton Hoo itself became a military HQ that hosted troop reviews by Lord Kitchener and King George V in the autumn of 1914. It was also used as a hospital for officers.
The Wernher family’s mansion was sold in 1999, and is now a luxury five-star hotel with an 18-hole golf course, spa and more than 1,000 acres of parkland. Bought in 1903, the main estate has remained in the hands of the family.
(Sources: Diamond Fields Advertiser, Wikipedia plus others).