Forward to La Belle Epoque


Twenty years later Belloc was still writing that the war had been "openly and undeniably provoked by the Jewish interest in South Africa". But he did also say, with some truth, that there was no antagonism towards "ordinary" Jews among average citizens in Britain, only an interest, a curiosity. All the same, the anti-Semitism that he and others provoked did affect the public attitude towards the Randlords, Gentile or Semite, throughout the Edwardian period, even if envy and snobbery played a part.

Joseph Chamberlain visited the Transvaal in January 1903 and took a tough line with the wealthiest firms of Johannesburg. There was to be no compensation for losses. Instead the firms were told that they had the patriotic duty to help in post-war reconstruction. On top of a 10 per cent tax on mining profits, he asked for a loan of 35 million. After argument this was reduced, thanks to FitzPatrick, to 30 million, the first third being guaranteed by members of the Chamber of Mines (J. B. Robinson excepted). Wernher, Beit would put up 1 million, as did the other big names: Barnato Brothers, S. Neumann & Co., Consolidated Gold Fields, G. & L. Albu, A. Goerz & Co. The Compagnie Française would provide 100,000.

There was also to be an imperial loan of 35 million. Chamberlain failed to persuade Smuts and other former Boer Commando generals to join an enlarged Legislature, but FitzPatrick became a member of it, as did his successor at the Chamber of Mines, George Farrar, both men whom Milner knew could be relied upon to serve imperial interests -but then, as Julius Wernher was to say: "What is good for the country is good for us." Privately Julius was not so pleased about this development in FitzPatrick's career, and remarked that he could not understand why such a decent fellow should want to get himself mixed up in politics.

Julius had already offered personal loans of 5,000-7,000 cash to the three Boer leaders whom he felt the firm had to thank for the preservation of the mines: Botha, De La Rey and Lucas Meyer. As it happened, the 30 million loan was never raised, because of the continuance of the economic depression. This was, needless to say, a fine piece of ammunition for enemies of Wernher, Beit, when it came to be noticed that huge sums were being spent on building schemes, both for the firm and privately.

In the City, near Finsbury Circus, a seven-storey headquarters for all the W ernher, Beit interests was erected, covering an acre of the most expensive land in the world and in a "bold and handsome Italian Renaissance style". It cost 400,000, and the proud address was N°.1, London Wall, ready for occupation in June 1903. In Johannesburg the Corner House was magnificently rebuilt and in effect finished by the end of 1904. It had six storeys and was the biggest office block to date in all South Africa, built on a steel frame "in the American style" and costing 218,000, not counting the Waring and Gillow furniture and such luxuries as Bokhara carpets. Two sensational features were its lifts, five of them, and its own electric power supply. The ambition of every child in Johannesburg was to have a ride in these lifts.

FitzPatrick and other tycoons such as Abe Bailey had motor cars: another sensation. FitzPatrick had also bought a 5,000-acre country estate, which, however, was small compared to colleagues' acquisitions in England and Scotland, where Michaelis had bought the Tandridge Court estate and the Phillipses were spending "hundreds of thousands" on improving Tylney Hall. Solly Joel and his brother Jack were launching out into huge racing establishments, and between them were to win practically every classic event -the Oaks, Two Thousand Guineas, Derby and Gold Cup. Solly also had a steam yacht. Beit moved into Tewin Water, near Welwyn, a large Regency house with Victorian additions and 7,000 acres, and a few miles away Julius Wernher at last bought Luton Hoo, with 5,218 acres.

Beit had been advised by doctors to slow down, and was noticeably turning to a more bohemian circle of friends, some of whom such as the scandalous boaster Frank Harris were abhor- rent to Julius. He was friendly with stage celebrities like Herbert Tree and Lena Ash well, and kept a box at the opera which was always at the disposal of friends. He often visited his mother in Hamburg, and still relied on the advice of Dr Bode of Berlin for his art collection. Generous as ever, if not more so, he would hire a ship for family and friends at the Naval Review at Portsmouth, and a house at Ascot for the races. He was far more in the public eye than Julius. According to Jim Taylor's autobiography, he once was featured in an American paper as the "bachelor Diamond King". "Now watch the next mail", Beit told him.

"You will see that I shall receive hundreds of offers of marriage from all sorts and descriptions of women, to say nothing of begging letters of all kinds." And sure enough, wrote Taylor, 26 Park Lane was snowed up with letters, "black and white women offering themselves by the hundred". Yet the memory of Rhodes dominated Beit's remaining years, and he was obsessed by the need to help and develop Rhodesia, which strangely had been neglected in the will. His offer to rejoin the board of the Chartered Company was accepted, and he became Vice-President. The Chartered Company was given offices at N° 1, London Wall.

Most people assumed that he had bought Tewin Water, but it was only a furnished lease. It had belonged to a colleague who was in financial trouble and had a good collection of Italian old masters, majolica and Hispano-Moresque ware. Once Beit, whilst staying with his friend at Tewin Water, had asked his host after dinner if he would let him have the house. 'Yes, at a price,, was the answer. "I want everything", Beit said. "Furniture, servants, horses and all." A bargain was struck, said to be at 100,000, and only an easel portrait of the owner's wife was allowed to be removed. Beit loved the place, and after his death most of the art collection was bought by his family, a pair of portraits by the Flemish artist Heemskerk finding their way to the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. His brother Otto bought the freehold after his death.

Birdie Wernher's impressive charity concerts, bazaars and balls during the war had evidently given her the taste for entertaining on the grand scale, and Florrie Phillips found it difficult to compete. At Bath House the Wernhers, among their innumerable treasures, "set a standard hard to attain, let alone surpass". During Coronation year, 1902, London's grandees came there to "suppers" which were really banquets, and guests had 1 million worth of pictures and objets d'art to admire. Florrie comforted herself with believing that her own houses showed better taste, not to mention charm and comfort. If the Wernhers, like the conventional English rich, had themselves painted by Sargent, she and Lionel were painted by the more avant-garde Boldini. But it was the age of the Belle Epoque, and the Wernhers, who "popped over" to Paris whenever possible, rightly felt in the heart of it. Under the circumstances it might seem strange that they were attracted by the formality of Luton Hoo's architecture, let alone by its Victorianized interior. However, they had plans for the total transformation of the latter.

Julius had offered 200,000 for the property, but the eventual price was 250,000. Virtually all the Leigh and De Falbe contents were sold during a three-week auction, though there had to be a lawsuit, which the Wernhers lost, as to whether some Gobelin tapestries which filled panels in a reception room were fixtures.

The plan at first was to reconstruct the entire interior in Louis XVI style, using the French architect Charles Frédéric Mewès, who had designed the Paris Ritz, triumphantly opened on 1 June 1898. Now a London Ritz was being planned only a hundred yards or so along Piccadilly from Bath House. Russian Grand Dukes, Marcel Proust and exotic figures such as Calouste Gulbenkian had been at the Paris opening, and so had Jules Porgès, who with Wernher, Beit had been part of the syndicate that had put up the money for César Ritz to launch his international chain of hotels. Very likely the Wernhers had also been present.

Like all the very rich, including the French financiers and Edward VII when Prince of Wales, and beauties such as Lillie Langtry and Lady de Grey, Julius had been a frequenter of the Savoy Hotel in London when managed by César Ritz, with the legendary Escoffier as chef. No doubt it was the socially ambitious Madame Porgès who had had the idea of employing Mewès to build a gigantic chateau at Rochefort-en- Yvelines outside Paris.


The Porges château
at Rochefort en Yvelines
(near Paris)

For the Porgèses were moving into the aristocracy, their only daughter and child having married the Marquis de la Ferté-Meun ; a niece married a Prince Borghese of Rome, and other nieces a French Count and a Belgian Viscount respectively. ( to see the family tree, click here)

This extraordinary building was inspired by the Palais de la Légion d'Honneur, with a peristyle and a cupola, and was perched above a waterfall that tumbled through a terraced garden. It is now a golf club. [Jules Porgès lost some of his fortune as a result of the First World War, having deposited it in Viennese banks. This meant selling the chateau and objets d'art. He died in 1921, aged eighty-three.]

At any rate the Wernhers, after seeing the plans for the Porgès château and other work by Mewès at the houses of Lucien Guitry and W. K. Vanderbilt in Paris, had been "totally seduced" by the opulent style of the Belle Epoque. They also planned to add another attic floor for staff at Luton Hoo with about thirty-odd rooms. Madame de Falbe's overheated conservatory would be scrapped, but her Gothic-cum-Byzantine chapel, created by G. E. Street in 1874 when she was Mrs Gerard Leigh, would probably be retained.

The completion date for the purchase was 13 June 1903. Within months the work of reconstruction had begun, drawing, as usual, sarcastic comments from the Radical anti-Hoggenheimer press.

One such comment appeared in the Clarion:

South African gold mines are not paying so well as formerly, but the patriotic Anglo-Saxon-cum-Semitic millionaires manage to make ends meet. At Luton Hoo a quarter of a million is to be spent on the work. It is not true, however, that Mr Wernher is going to turn the mansion into a retreat for maimed and out of work soldiers who fought for him and his brother-plutocrats in South Africa