Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, 1880-1957


Ernest Oppenheimer At the age of sixteen, Ernest Oppenheimer, born and educated in Germany, followed his brothers, Bernard and Louis, to London and into the diamond trade, working for Anton Dunkelsbuhler. He was rewarded for his aptitude and flair when, at twenty-two, he was given the opportunity to set off for Africa, on a three year contract, to represent the firm in Kimberley. He became immersed in the diamond industry and his initial contract lasted a lifetime. When the international slump in 1907 resulted in depression and great hardship in Kimberley, Ernest and his wife, Mary, took on relief work in the town and this prompted Ernest to become involved in municipal affairs and to have a lifelong interest in social welfare. He was Mayor of Kimberley in 1914 when war broke out. Despite initiating a Mayor's War Relief Fund and raising the Kimberley Regiment, Ernest was affected by the anti-German riots in Kimberley after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and he removed his family to England. He was knighted in 1921 for his war services. While in England, his plans to form his own company ripened and, with extensive American backing, he returned in 1917 to Johannesburg, to found Anglo American Corporation of South Africa. In the 1920s he gained pre-eminence in De Beers, and these two companies were the pillars of his business career. He was involved in many diverse enterprises and also served as Kimberley's Member of the House of Assembly from 1924-1938

Sir Ernest had decided during his early years in Kimberley that he would make South Africa his home, contrary to most of the randlords whose home thoughts turned northwards to Europe. So perhaps it is natural that, almost a century ago, he became interested in collecting Africana, so founding The Brenthurst Library.