We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
Randlords (act. 1880s–1914) formed a distinct group of individuals who controlled the gold mines on the Witwatersrand in the Transvaal, southern Africa, which were the richest such mines in the world. They were among the wealthiest men in the late Victorian and the Edwardian age and they reached the height of their wealth and influence during the reign of Edward VII. As a group they were subject to political malice and religious, racial, and social prejudice. The British press, fascinated by but not uncritical of their colourful and controversial lives, coined the evocative sobriquet of Randlords. They were also referred to as ‘gold bugs’, ‘Park Lane millionaires’, and scornfully as ‘the Kaffir Circus’ because of their ‘elaborate entertainments, fantastically bejewelled wives and their frantic social efforts’ (Viney, 142). The Randlord in the guise of Max Hoggenheimer, portrayed with grossly exaggerated Semitic features, became a stock character in musical comedies and cartoons. He was the archetypal Randlord, the rich and greedy exploiter of working men who manipulated government for his own ends (Wheatcroft, 243–4). The Randlords were also the target of radical critics of imperialism. J. A. Hobson's Imperialism: a Study (1902) alleged that the mining capitalists had engineered the South African War of 1899–1902 to make increased profits, and that through their control and manipulation of the press they had whipped up the fervour that was responsible for Britain's imperial aggression in southern Africa (Cain, 7–10).

The future Randlords were still young when they met and made their fortunes during the 1870s in the diamond fields of Kimberley. Lionel Phillips, Barnett Isaac (Barney) Barnato, and his nephews Solomon Barnato Joel and Woolf Joel (1863–1898) were English Jews. Cecil John Rhodes and Charles Dunell Rudd were also English. Joseph Benjamin Robinson and James Benjamin (Jim) Taylor (1860–1944) were from Cape Colony. Alfred Beit and Julius Charles Wernher (representing the Parisian firm of Jules Porgès & Co.), Hermann Ludwig Eckstein (1847–1893), and two German Jews, Sigismund Neumann (1857–1916) and Maximilian Michaelis (1860–1932), formed the ‘German mess’. Rhodes, Beit, and Barnato were the most powerful men in Kimberley at the time of the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886.

Only men with capital could operate on the Rand. Therefore the Kimberley millionaires were able to gain control quickly, backed by money made from diamonds. Alfred Beit's personal initiative and financial guarantees were pivotal to the early development of the gold mining industry. Acting on behalf of Jules Porgès (1838–1921), Beit formed the Robinson Syndicate with Joseph Benjamin Robinson and Maurice Marcus for the purpose of buying farms and claims. He then approached Hermann Eckstein and Jim Taylor to open a branch of Jules Porgès & Co. in Johannesburg, which was known initially as H. Eckstein and colloquially as the Corner House. The name was changed to H. Eckstein & Co. after the death of Eckstein in 1893, the year in which the partners floated Rand Mines Ltd. Taylor retired in 1894. Lionel Phillips took over as senior partner in 1893 and was the first chairman of Rand Mines.

Jules Porgès retired at the end of 1889 and his undertaking was reconstituted as Wernher, Beit & Co. in 1890, with Julius Wernher, Alfred Beit, Max Michaelis, and Charles Ernest Rube (1852–1914) as the partners. A decade later the partnerships of Wernher, Beit, and H. Eckstein were wound up and all the assets were transferred to the Central Mining and Investment Corporation Ltd. The formation of this company in 1905, referred to as ‘the £6,000,000 Kaffir Trust’ by the London financial press, represented the pinnacle of Wernher's career as a mining financier.

Four mining finance houses were founded within the space of four years: H. Eckstein (1887), Rhodes and Rudd's Consolidated Gold Fields (1887), Barnato's Consolidated Investment Company (‘Johnnies’, 1889), and Robinson's Randfontein Estates Gold Mining Company (1889). Six more mining finance houses were established subsequently: Neumann & Co.; General Mining and Finance Corporation, controlled by Sir George Albu (1857–1935) and his brother Leopold Albu (1860–1938); A. Goerz & Co. (Union Corporation after 1918); the Anglo-French Exploration Company (chaired by George Herbert Farrar); the African and European Investment Company, controlled by the partnership of Isaac Lewis (1849–1927) and Samuel Marks (1843–1920); and South African Townships, Mining and Finance, founded by Abe Bailey. These companies were the ‘big ten’ and by mid-1895 they controlled the mines of the Witwatersrand. Their founders got in on the ground floor and made large fortunes. By 1899 the Wernher–Beit–Eckstein group had established a clear hegemony in the industry. Its mines accounted for nearly 50 per cent of the total gold production. After the death of George Farrar in 1915 and Sigismund Neumann in 1916 Central Mining (formerly Wernher, Beit and H. Eckstein & Co.) gained control of their companies. Robinson sold his Randfontein Estates to Johannesburg Consolidated Investments in 1916.

Some of the Randlords did, as Hobson asserted, have influence through newspaper ownership. Rhodes, who understood the value of the press, exercised a considerable control over the Cape Argus and a group of South African newspapers. H. Eckstein & Co. started publishing the Transvaal Leader in April 1899 as a rival and ‘an antidote to the poison administered daily by the Standard and Diggers' News’: the latter was anti-capitalist, hostile to the Randlords, and sympathetic to the working-class man and the government of the Boer South African republic (Phillips, All that Glittered, 111). H. Eckstein & Co. also had shares in and a seat on the board of the Argus Printing and Publishing Company, which published The Star, whose editor (W. F. Monypenny), however, insisted in 1903 that ‘Under the present editor, the Star has never been the organ of the financial houses, of the mining industry or any mere section of this great and complex community’ (Clarke, ii). J. B. Robinson unsuccessfully published the Johannesburg Times for a while and Abe Bailey's South African Mails Syndicate published the Rand Daily Mail and Sunday Times from 1904 onwards.

Although the title of Randlords was applied to the mining magnates individually and collectively they did not present a homogeneous, united front, either socially, politically, or in business. Robinson, disliked by the other Randlords, was anti-Rhodes and pro-Boer. Wernher, who had an aversion to ‘high politics’, was dismayed to learn that Beit and Phillips were implicated in the Jameson raid. Goerz and George Albu remained aloof while Rhodes and Rudd fell out over it. In his report to the board of Gold Fields Rudd described the raid as ‘incomprehensible’ and suggested it ‘could only have been arranged by a madman’ (Lunderstedt, 52). They also differed on issues confronting the industry, like Sir Alfred Milner's indentured Chinese labour scheme which was generally supported, except by the renegade Robinson who ridiculed Milner by proving that black miners could be recruited successfully.

The Wernher–Beit–Eckstein group enjoyed a reputation for fairness and honesty, but the disreputable financial dealings and questionable business ethics of some Randlords further tarnished their image. Barnato was implicated in bribery and his nephew Isaac dealt in stolen diamonds. The partners in the Corner House distrusted George Farrar's management of the East Rand Proprietary Mines Ltd, and were justified when it was shown that gold production returns were falsified. Robinson was found guilty of concealing from shareholders large and illicit profits.

The men who made the largest fortunes were those who had been associated with the founding of the original mining houses. They preferred to live in London, entrusting their interests in South Africa to co-directors and managers. Wernher was the first of the Randlords to move to London, in 1880, without ever having set foot on the Rand; he visited it for the first time in 1903. Beit followed him in 1889. Almost all the Randlords moved to London before the turn of the century.

The Randlords became rich in an age when there was no false modesty about being wealthy. The smart set of financiers and millionaires were launched from Marlborough House, the London residence of the prince of Wales. Wernher stayed at Sandringham in June 1897 and in 1905 was the first of the Randlords to be awarded a baronetcy. Welcomed in the most exclusive London clubs, and pursued by society hostesses who took their cue from the prince of Wales, the Randlords assumed upper-class identities and lifestyles. They acquired properties and possessions that symbolized wealth and power: town houses in Park Lane and country estates in England and Scotland—where they enjoyed riding, hunting, shooting, and entertaining—were de rigueur. The introduction of the motor car to the English public at the Crystal Palace exhibition in 1896 meant that they could enjoy the best of both worlds. Grouse moors and deer parks, yachts, racing studs, and motor cars were all part of their trappings. Rhodes, who did not fit the stereotype image of the Randlord, stayed at the Burlington Hotel when he was in London. He saw no point in living ostentatiously or cutting a figure in society, and regarded spending money on pictures as a fad which he could not afford when there were so many miles of railway to be built in Rhodesia (Williams, 222).

The Randlords' expenditure on art, which they acquired with great zeal, was a component of their pattern of conspicuous consumption and contributed to their unpopularity. The collections assembled by Robinson, the Phillipses, Michaelis, the Beits, and Wernher have been the subject of a book. Robinson's, Wernher's, and Beit's were the largest. The Phillipses' collection was relatively modest but what distinguished them from the other Randlords and their wives was that they provided the initiative and drive behind the establishment of the Johannesburg Art Gallery and prompted most of their peers to contribute money and works of art. Phillips was well aware of the odium in which the Randlords were held because of ‘The absence of a generous public spirit on the part of … a few men, among whom there have been individuals of poor repute, [who] have amassed large fortunes’ (Phillips, Reminiscences, 143). Rhodes, Beit, and Wernher made large public benefactions, including to education in South Africa.

The outbreak of the First World War marked the end of the heyday of the Randlords, of whom four leading figures had died before 1914: Barney Barnato in 1897, Cecil Rhodes in 1902, Alfred Beit in 1906, and Sir Julius Wernher in 1912. If Beit had been the most popular of the Randlords, then Wernher was the most respected. After Beit's death Wernher relied increasingly on Friedrich Gustav Jonathan (Friedie) Eckstein (1857–1930) to take over from him in due course. Eckstein was forced to resign as a result of anti-German feeling in 1914 and was succeeded by Lionel Phillips as chairman of Central Mining.

Maryna Fraser


G. Wheatcroft, The Randlords (1985) · P. H. Emden, Randlords (1935) · M. Stevenson, Art and aspirations: the Randlords of South Africa and their collections (2002) · R. V. Kubicek, ‘The Randlords in 1895: a reassessment’, Journal of British Studies, 11/2 (1971–2), 84–103 · All that glittered: selected correspondence of Lionel Phillips, 1890–1924, ed. M. Fraser and A. Jeeves (1977) · J. Camplin, The rise of the plutocrats (1978) · L. Phillips, Some reminiscences, ed. M. Fraser (1986) · R. Trevelyan, Grand dukes and diamonds (1991) · A. P. Cartwright, The gold miners (1962) · D. Cannadine, The decline and fall of the British aristocracy (1990) · P. H. Emden, Behind the throne (1934) · P. H. Emden, Jews of Britain (1943) · S. Lunderstedt, The king of diamonds: Cecil Rhodes (2002) · B. Williams, Cecil Rhodes (1921) · J. Lawrence, Buccaneer (2001) · T. Green, The new world of gold (1882) · G. Viney, Colonial houses of South Africa (1987) · J. Clarke, ed., Like it was: The Star, 100 years in Johannesburg (1989) · P. Cain, J. A. Hobson's ‘Imperialism, a study’: a centennial retrospective (2002) · G. R. Searle, Corruption in British politics, 1895–1930 (1987)