Open main menu

BEIT, ALFRED (1853–1906), financier and benefactor, born at Hamburg on 15 Feb. 1853, was eldest son of Siegfried and Laura Beit. The father was a merchant belonging to a well-known Hamburg family, Jewish by race, Lutheran by religion. 'I was one of the poor Beits of Hamburg,' the son once said, implying that another branch was better off than his own. Beit was educated privately, and at seventeen entered the Hamburg office of a firm of South African merchants, D. Lippert & Co., his kinsmen. With a view to qualifying to act as a representative of the branch of this firm, just extended from Port Elizabeth to Kimberley at the diamond mining centre in Griqualand West, Cape Colony, Beit spent 1874 at Amsterdam, where he obtained a knowledge of the diamond trade at first hand. Early in September 1875 he sailed for Cape Town, and proceeding to Kimberley by waggon was one of Lippert's representatives there until 1878, when he revisited Hamburg. His Amsterdam training enabled him to see that Cape diamonds, so far from deserving their current repute of being an inferior product, were generally as good as any in the world, and were being sold in Africa at a price far below their worth in Europe. Accordingly borrowing 2000l. from his father by way of capital, he returned to Kimberley in the same year, and set up under his own name as a diamond merchant. Foreseeing the growth of Kimberley, he is said to have invested most of his capital in purchasing ground on which he put up a number of corrugated iron offices. For twelve of these the rent ultimately received by him was estimated at 1800l. a month, and later he is believed to have sold the ground for 260,000l.

In 1882 he became associated in the diamond business at Kimberley with J. Porges and Julius Wernher. The latter, who was created a baronet in 1905, was a young Hessian who, having fought in the Franco-German war, had come out to South Africa as a qualified architect and surveyor. In 1884 Porges and Wernher returned to England and constituted the London firm of J. Porges & Co. dealing in diamonds and diamond shares, and after 1888 in gold mines as well. Beit was sole representative of this firm at Kimberley until July 1888, when he made London his headquarters, although his subsequent visits to Africa were frequent. On 1 Jan. 1890 the firm of Wernher, Beit & Co. replaced J. Porges & Co., in the same line of business.

When settled at Kimberley, Beit made the acquaintance of Cecil John Rhodes [q. v. Suppl. II], and while close business relations followed he felt the full force of Rhodes's personality. Yielding to its fascination, he became his intimate friend, accepting his ideas and aspirations with enthusiasm. He soon joined Rhodes on the board of the original De Beers Diamond Company (founded in 1880) and played an important part in Rhodes's great scheme of the amalgamation of the chief diamond mines of Kimberley as De Beers Consolidated Mines. The scheme took effect in 1888 after Beit had advanced to Rhodes without security a sum of 250,000l. Under Rhodes's influence, Beit, who had become a naturalised British subject, thoroughly assimilated, despite his foreign birth, the patriotic spirit of British imperialism, and was in politics as all else a strenuous supporter of Rhodes. His association with Rhodes became the chief interest of his life. The two men rendered each other the best kind of mutual assistance. Without Beit, Rhodes was puzzled, or at least wearied, with the details of business. Without Rhodes, Beit might have been a mere successful gold and diamond merchant.

Meanwhile the gold-mining activity in the Transvaal Republic, which first began at Barberton in 1884, had spread to the conglomerate formation of Witwatersrand, familiarly known as the Rand, where Johannesburg now stands. The Rand was declared a public gold-field on 20 September 1886. Early in 1888 Beit paid it a visit, and before leaving Kimberley he arranged provisionally that Hermann Eckstein should establish a branch of his firm on the Rand, trading as H. Eckstein later H. Eckstein & Co. To the development of the Transvaal gold-mines Beit signally contributed. Perceiving the possibilities of the Witwatersrand, he acquired a large interest in the best of the outcrop mines, which soon became valuable properties. But his chief stroke was made in 1891, when he revisited South Africa and illustrated his characteristic perception of possibilities. Adopting the suggestion, in face of much expert scepticism, that it might be possible not only to work the outcrop but to strike the slanting reef by deep level shafts, at some distance away from the outcrop, he evolved, and devoted capital to testing, the Great Deep Level scheme. Beit was the first to recognise the importance of employing first-class mining engineers. With their aid he proved the scheme to be practicable, and to its success the subsequent prosperity of the Rand is chiefly due. In the whole deep level system Beit's firm were forerunners and creators; other firms followed later in their footsteps.

Beit was deeply interested in the scheme of northern expansion which Rhodes had formed early in his South African career. On the formation (24 Oct. 1889) of the British South Africa Company for the administration of the extensive territory afterwards known as Rhodesia, Beit became an original director. He first visited the country in 1891, entering the country by the old Tuli route, and travelling by Victoria to Hartley. He joined later the boards of the various Rhodesian railway companies. His loyal support of Rhodes had its penalties. Like all who had a great stake in the Transvaal, he sympathised with the reform movement in Johannesburg of 1895 and shared the general impatience with the rule of President Kruger. Beit was concerned with Rhodes in placing Dr. (later Sir) Starr Jameson with an armed force on the Transvaal border (Dec. 1895). After nebulous intrigue with Johannesburg there followed the raid into the Transvaal. Beit's share in this blunder cost him 200,000l. Censured for his part in the transaction by the British South Africa committee of the House of Commons in 1897, he resigned his directorship of the Chartered Company, although the committee relieved him of any suspicion that he acted from an unworthy financial motive. During the South African war of 1899-1902 he spent immense sums on the imperial light horse and on the equipment of the imperial yeomanry, and before and after the war he poured money into land settlement, immigration, and kindred schemes for the development of South Africa.

Meanwhile Beit pursued other interests than politics or commerce. With a genuine love of beautiful things he formed from 1888 onwards, under the guidance of Dr. Bode, director of the Berlin Museum, a fine collection of pictures and works of art, including Italian Renaissance bronzes. He finally housed these treasures in a mansion in Park Lane, which Eustace Balfour built for him in 1895. Of painting he had a thorough knowledge, and among his pictures were the 'Prodigal Son' series of Murillo, six pictures acquired from Lord Dudley's Gallery, and many of the finest examples of the Dutch and English schools.

On Rhodes's death in March 1902 Beit succeeded to much of his friend's position. He became the chief figure on the boards of the De Beers Company and of the Chartered Company, which he rejoined in that year. He was also one of Rhodes's trustees under his will. In all these capacities he faithfully endeavoured to do what Rhodes would have done. His health had long been feeble, and in the autumn of 1902, when he visited South Africa for the purpose of examining with admirable results in the future the organisation of Rhodesia, he had a stroke of paralysis at Johannesburg. Through Dr. Jameson's skill he rallied, but never recovered. But his interests were unslackened. He identified himself with the movements for a better understanding with Germany and for tariff reform. He bore witness to his enlightened colonial interests by founding at Oxford in 1905 the Beit professorship of colonial history and the Beit assistant lectureship in colonial history, besides giving a sum of money to the Bodleian Library for additions to its collections of books on colonial history. In the early spring of 1906 he was sent to Wiesbaden on account of heart trouble. By his own wish he was brought home to England, a dying man, and passed away at his country residence, Tewin Water in Hertfordshire, on 16 July. He was buried in the churchyard there.

Beit, who was unmarried, was survived by his mother, two sisters, and his younger brother Otto, and while providing liberally for various relatives and friends he left the residue of his fortune to his brother. At the same time his public benefactions, amounting in value to 2,000,000l., were impressive alike by their generosity to England and Germany, and by their breadth of view. To the Imperial College of Technology, London, was allotted 50,000l. in cash and De Beers shares, valued at the testator's death at 84,8432. 15s. To Rhodesia, for purposes of education and charity, 200,0002. was bequeathed to be administered by trustees. King Edward's Hospital Fund and the trustees of Guy's Hospital were left 20,000l. each. Rhodes University at Grahamstown received 25,000l., Rhodes Memorial Fund 10,000l., and the Union Jack Club, London, 10,000l. Funds for benefactions in the Transvaal, in Kimberley, and the Cape Colony were also established. Two sums of 20,000l. were left to his executors for distribution to the charities of London and Hamburg respectively. Finally 1,200,000l. passed to trustees for the extension of railway and telegraph communication in South Africa, with a view to forwarding the enterprise known as the Cape to Cairo railway. With admirable sagacity Beit made his public bequests elastic. Thus, while bequeathing an estate at Hamburg as a pleasure-ground to the people of that city, he provided that twenty years later Hamburg might realise the estate and apply the proceeds to such other public objects as might seem desirable. Two of the bequests 200,000l. for a university at Johannesburg and 50,000l. destined for an Institute of Medical Sciences lapsed into the residuary estate owing to the schemes in question being abandoned, but Mr. Otto Beit intimated Ms intention of devoting the 200,0002. to university education in South Africa, and the 50,0002. was made by him the nucleus of a fund of 215,000l., with which he founded in 1909 thirty Alfred fellowships for medical research in memory of the testator. Beit also left at the National Gallery the picture known as 'Lady Cockburn and her Children,' by Sir Joshua Reynolds; and to the Kaiserliche Museum in Berlin another by Sir Joshua, 'Mrs. Boone and her Daughter,' together with his bronze statue 'Hercules' by Pollaiuolo. His large Majolica plate from the service of Isabella d'Este was bequeathed to the Hamburg Museum. A wealthy financier of abnormal intuition and power of memory, combined with German thoroughness of method, Beit had nothing in common with the financial magnate. He was no speculator in any ordinary sense, acquiring property whether on the Rand or elsewhere solely with the object of seriously developing it. He did not gamble, and advice on speculative investments which he always gave reluctantly was far from infallible. Shy and retiring to excess, he was devoid of social ambition, and was little known beyond a small circle of intimates who included men in the high position of Lord Rosebery and Lord Haldane. An active sympathy with every form of suffering and an ardent belief in great causes led him to distribute vast sums of money, but his benefactions were always made privately with rare self-effacement. He was the target through life for much undeserved abuse. The terms of the will give the true measure of his character.

A statue was unveiled at Salisbury, Rhodesia, on 11 May 1911.

[Personal knowledge; private information from, among others, Mr. Otto Beit, Sir Julius Wernher, Bart., and Sir Starr Jameson; Sir Lewis Michell, Life of Cecil Rhodes; The Times, 17 July and 21 July 1906 (account of will).]

C. W. B.