The Young Julius

The Wernhers were not Jewish but Lutheran, from an "old and reputable" Palatinate family, though many of Sir Julius Wernher's closest business colleagues and friends were Jewish. A Wernher obtained his baccalaureate in antique law at Heidelberg in 1516, but the first recorded direct ancestor was Warden of the monastery school of Hornbach at the beginning of the seventeenth century. There followed a series of pastors and a book-binder. Julius Wernher's great-grandfather was a Judge and Cabinet Minister at Zweibrücken, until forced to leave on the arrival of the French revolutionary army. It was his son, Julius's grandfather, who rose to prosperity, as a Privy Councillor and President of the Court of Appeal in the Grand Duchy of Hesse.

Julius's obituaries maintained, in parrotlike fashion, that he was the son of a general. They were mistaken. His father, Friedrich August Wernher, nicknamed Gustel, was an eminent railway engineer. The general in question was a cousin, a member of the elder branch of the family which had vineyards at Nierstein on the Rhine. In his old age Gustel became difficult because of his deafness, which interfered with his great love of music. Nevertheless, so we are told, he was ‘in every respect a real man', straightforward, simple in manner, honest, exceptionally conscientious, 'without a trace of conceit', 'strict' at work-attributes that were applied later to Julius himself. He was a keen collector of minerals and had an appreciation of art. As a youth he fell deeply in love with his relative Henriette Bruch, (The future composer Max Bruch was a family connection) who unfortunately was under age, so off went Gustel disconsolately to Paris, to study chemistry and mathematics. On his return her parents denied a request for the hand of Henriette, and he left his home again, tortured with love, this time for England, where he became friendly with the engineers Stephenson and Brunel. Then, at last, in 1834 he was permitted to marry Henriette. Alas, she died during a typhoid epidemic seven years later; there had been four children, but only a boy survived.

Gustel's particular friends were the Zöppritz brothers of Darmstadt, cloth manufacturers. One of them had married a Weidenbusch, daughter of a lawyer, and in 1844 her sister Elise became Gustel's second wife. Clearly there was no grand passion this time. She was his 'helpful companion', a good housewife and stepmother. She too bore him four children, two girls and two boys. One daughter, Maria, was sickly; she spent 'many of the best years of her childhood in bed', and never married. Another, Emilie, did marry and had a family. One son was mentally retarded. The other was marked out from early childhood for a brilliant future, on account of his extraordinary memory and aptitude for learning : this was Julius Carl Wernher, born at Darmstadt on 9 April 1850.

Gustel became director of an ironworks at Darmstadt. In 1848 he was sent to England by the Ministry of Marine to buy warships for the German fleet, with unhappy consequences -but that is another story. His next duties took him to Mainz and then to Frankfurt, where the family settled and where he became chief engineer of the Taunus Railway. Julius was therefore mostly educated in Frankfurt. He had been tempted by a career in engineering but eventually decided against it and served an apprenticeship with a bank. Friends and relatives were in awe of his business acumen even when he was aged eighteen, and would ask his advice on abstruse questions of investments.

Portraits of Julius as a grown man show him to be handsome and regular-featured, bearded and with blue eyes wide apart, typically Teutonic. After his death he was remembered as having ad a massive frame and great strength. It is a surprise therefore to discover that as a child, like his sister Maria, he was a "weak and thin mite", and thus constantly fussed over by his mother. He had an aptitude for languages and learnt Spanish. Then, in 1869, he insisted on going to Paris to perfect his French, in spite of his mother's fears that his tendency to overwork would harm his eyes. He did work very hard, again in a bank, Ephrussi Porgès, and preferred studying at night to those "notorious" temptations of Paris in which some of his German friends indulged. He greatly impressed his employer Théodore Porgès, and this was later to stand him in very good stead, in an unexpected way.

Porgès was Jewish, supposedly of Portuguese Sephardic descent, and had emigrated from Bohemia to Vienna and then to Paris. At that period when anti-Semitism was waxing in Europe, Julius's attitude towards Jews was ambivalent.

Obviously he had prejudices, for his mother wrote to him :
"What you say about your new employer is not very pleasant, but he does sound a well-adjusted person. I do hope that as a Jew, and especially as a Jew from Vienna, he does not take honesty light-heartedly and will do business in a fair way."

Julius persuaded his family to invest in the Zöppritz brothers' new blanket-making firm : this too would have important results or him. The family was missing him in Frankfurt, and seemed a little lost. "As you know, your father takes offence easily. It was easier for you to humour Papa. You had that light-hearted and happy approach that pleased him."

Julius had been too unfit for his year of military service, but was called up for the army of occupation during the Franco- Prussian War as a cadet in the Dragoons of the 4th Cavalry Division. It is clear from his letters at that time that he despised both the coarseness of his officers and the wave of imperialist sentiment that was surging through Germany. The devastation after the siege of Paris upset him also. 'The whole of joyous St Cloud is unrecognizable and abandoned by its inhabitants,’ he wrote to his mother. "The castle from which eight months ago the Emperor set out, so full of hope, is in ruins. Below me is a beautiful view of Paris, quiet and serene as if we had done it no harm."

After the war he went to London. In spite of high recommendations from Porgès he could only find a post first as a bookkeeper in a firm of German druggists and then in a bank. He liked London ("Paris is a village by comparison"), but was depressed. Suddenly, however, his luck changed. On 11 November 1871 he wrote to his obviously worried parents that : "Mr Jules Porgès, the cousin [It is assumed that this was a mistake, and that Jules Porgès was the brother not cousin of Théodore. In France Porgès always had an accent.] of my Paris head, and a leading dealer in diamonds both in Paris and London, has engaged me to go with his partner to the Cape of Good Hope to buy diamonds on the spot." Jules Porgès, still in his early thirties, wanted him to go out for two years, with a free passage and all costs paid, except for clothes. He would be given 150 for the first year, 180 for the second. "The offer is so extraordinarily favourable that I did not doubt your permission and accepted it." After all, he was now twenty-one. Then, with his mother's doubts in mind, he added : "Mr Porgès is the most charming and kindly man in the world, and behaves as heartily and confidentially as you could wish. He looks upon me as his helpmeet and fellow worker."

The partner he was to accompany was French, Charles Mège. Julius wrote again : "The advantage of the whole affair does not lie alone in the conditions that I have been offered, but also in the fact that in a relatively short time there is a chance of independence." Charles Mège would be returning from South Africa after two years, and Julius had now decided that he would probably stay on out there, as he would be left in sole charge of the firm's interests. "One wins nothing without daring, and there are few cases where chance offers itself as it does here. There is always a risk and danger in every business, and that can never be a reason for keeping away from it. What reproaches I would have to make in later life if I let such an opportunity go by."

Diamonds, including the superb stone known as the "Star of South Africa", had recently been discovered in the arid, desolate country named Griqualand West, over five hundred miles inland to the north-east of Cape Town. As the Wernher parents were well aware, by the year 1871 the scramble of prospectors was well ruly on; hundreds of fortune-seekers from Britain, Eastern and Central Europe, America and Australia had made the arduous journey to the banks of the Vaal River and the country around. The British government had also recently decided that the moment had come for annexing the territory.

There was only time for Julius to make a quick dash for goodbyes at Frankfurt and to pay one last visit to his "beloved" opera house at Covent Garden. Within a month he and Mège were off on the thirty-eight-day sea journey, in the course of which Julius started to teach himself Dutch. The family tradition is that the ship ran into a storm, and that he, being very prone to sea-sickness and therefore on deck, was actually washed over-board but swept back by a wave.

He was not especially impressed by Cape Town, as against its "strupendous" surroundings, and still less by its inhabitants, whom he found indolent and lazy, at least one-third constantly drunk. By January 1872 they had reached Port Elizabeth, which they admired for its fine buildings and warehouses. "But one must be very careful here of the people, even of one's dearest friends. It is degrading to have to deal with persons who are friendly to one's face but of whom one knows for certain they want nothing but to make a profit out of you." Ox carts were assembled in the market square of Port Elizabeth for the transport of goods to the interior. Each could carry eighty tons and would be pulled by sixteen animals. The journey would take up to five weeks. Julius admired the physiques of the "Kaffirs", as the blacks were known. "They have such a stature and symmetry of limb, and are so and muscular that it is a pleasure to look at these naked Apollos. Of course in the town they have to wear clothes." As for the English, "they drink and booze like animals".

Julius attended auction sales of diamonds, and soon realized how much he could earn privately if he had the capital. He therefore wrote to the Zöppritz brothers asking them to help by standing security for a bank loan in London. He had already, it appears, borrowed money from his half-brother August, a doctor of private means. Then he and his companion were off to the diamond fields of Griqualand West, six people packed like herrings in a two-wheel cart drawn by six galloping horses, which were changed every two or three hours. "You cannot imagine what one has to suffer, over utterly impossible roads. The whole body is bruised and wounded." The country through which they passed had been almost stripped of its inhabitants because of the frantic dash northward.

At last, after "many disagreeable adventures in great heat through the weird Karroo" -it was mid-summer- they reached the place known as Du Toits Pan, where only eighteen months before there had been but a single farmhouse (owned by a man called Du Toit) in a barren waste. [A pan was a reservoir or pond.] Now there was a population of about a thousand, two-thirds black. Diamonds were being found there up to a depth of sixty feet. The richest mines, however, were about three miles away at a hillock called Colesberg Kopje, appropriately renamed New Rush, and at Old De Beers, once part of a farm owned by two Boer brothers called De Beer; round these places were camped some eighteen hundred people in tents and corrugated-iron shacks. Mines at Bultfontein and, some way off in the Orange Free State, at Jagersfontein were also in operation.

The prospectors were mostly a rough lot, to say the least, though "democratically minded". The smells were vile, the dust appalling. Rather than stay long in a "den of indescribable filthiness", one of the many so-called hotels, Mège and Julius erected a canvas house, sixteen feet by ten, with a double roof to keep off the heat and divided by a green cloth into two rooms, forming a bedroom and an office. There was another tent for the cook, and they had a stable for two horses. They also acquired a little canvas office in New Rush, a town of tents, like "white antheaps", where they found themselves in frenzied competition with other diamond dealers, already well established, and who did not welcome these new arrivals backed by the rich Mr. Porgès of Paris.

Not surprisingly, Julius soon had to reassure his mother about his health. He carefully avoided telling her about the epidemic of camp-fever, which had caused some deaths. There was plenty to laugh at, he said, but did not specify what, unless he meant Mège's snores. He avoided telling about the ruthless greed of prospectors, but concentrated on the sense of adventure and discovery. As for the landscape, he told her that he was living in the midst of a great bare plain, dotted with aloes and distantly bounded by pebbly hills, once inhabited only by a few nomadic tribes and some scattered Boer farming families. In summer there was no grass and the few straggling camel-thorn trees were hardly bigger than bushes. Sometimes you saw skeletons of oxen or mules. "Now and then a little green and yellow sand is broken by muddy water, and that is everything, everything, that can be said of the place." The contrast in climate between summer and winter was tremendous, snow being not unknown. In due course he was to write of winter days as being "like paradise" with a "purity and translucency of air". Until two and a half years before, traders had rarely come to the district in order to barter with the Boer peasants who knew absolutely nothing about the outside world. "And thus", he wrote, "there sprang from these farmer Dutchmen a race of terrific bodily strength, but extraordinarily limited spiritually. Among these peasants cooking is an unknown art, and cleanliness doubtful. They leave their sheep to graze unguarded, and do nothing but sit, laze and smoke pipes. Their women are huge."

He explained how until a short time back the area had been part of the Orange Free State. Soon it would become a British Crown Colony, separate from Cape Colony, with its own administration. The earliest diamonds had been collected or "washed out" on the banks of the Vaal River, and it was Joseph B. Robinson, a cantankerous bully "born with a tombstone in his soul" and later to become famous in the diamond fields, who had shrewdly acquired property there at Hebron. But an Anglo-Irishman, Captain Loftus "Paddy" Rolleston, whom Julius seemed quite to like, claimed to have been the first to initiate the actual diggings; that was in January 1870. Within three months there had been five thousand prospectors at the Vaal River sites, but after this 'short blossoming' the place had "sunk to nothing" because of the greater number diamonds found at Bultfontein and Du Toits Pan some twenty miles to the south. Then there had been the even more diamondiferous discoveries at De Beers and New Rush. All those places were known as the dry diggings, as against the river diggings. In eighteen months, Julius said, New Rush would probably be as desolate as before, leaving only the artificial valleys and heaps of earth and gravel abandoned by the prospectors. Here he was quite wrong. In spite of disasters and periods of crisis New Rush would turn into the awesome Big Hole of Kimberley, thirty-six acres in area and nearly a quarter of a mile deep, in appearance and size not unlike the crater of Vesuvius, and one of the wonders of the world.

Julius admitted that he was finding life pretty monotonous. Not for this circumspect young man the gambling dens, grog shops or bars like the Spotted Dog or Pig and Whistle :

During the day I run about on the claims to buy small lots of diamonds, and in the evening I sit at my table, read or learn Dutch grammar, or think of you. There are any amount of Germans everywhere, but not twelve Christians. Food is expensive, bad, and the 'restaurants' dirty beyond description. Drinks are colossally expensive, a bottle of beer costs three shillings, a taste of cognac in water one shilling. In this my solitude it consoles me to remember that there are at least those at home who worry about my future. But there is one thing about which you cannot help me, and that is the fleas, which are as numerous here as the sands of the sea. I spend a fortune on flea powder, but it is hopeless. Mr. Mège killed fifty-seven on his body the other day, and yet he was practically eaten up the same night.

The Zöppritz brothers had willingly obliged with security for a loan, in spite of an impending slump in Germany. Julius warned his family not to sell any shares just because rumours made the prices low. "There is so much swindling in Austria." Then came the news that his father was leaving the "good old" Taunus Railway for a more important post. He was to be the chief engineer of the Hessische Ludwigs Railway, and in due course was to build the Ruhr-Sieg Railway running from Limburg to Westphalia. The family would therefore be moving to Limburg. Julius wished his mother would write 'more vivacious' letters. Frau Wernher had been worrying about whom he would marry if he stayed abroad so long. She had always hoped for a German daughter-in-law. Julius admitted that he had been quite fond of a girl at Frankfurt, but had not been in love with her. At present he knew of only one person who would always be faithful to him, and that was his mother. In any case his work was all-absorbing. There were such enormous possibilities ahead. "I am becoming more and more indispensable to my Frenchman." What was more, he expected to be able to send back yearly sums of money "towards our inheritance".

Some wives and children of dealers and prospectors had arrived, but he did not of course reveal in his letters that in 1872 a large proportion of the females around New Rush, white and black, were prostitutes.