This Day in Jewish History

1852: From Rags to the King’s Privy

March 3, 1852, is the birthdate of Sir Ernest Joseph Cassel, a German-born Jew who reached the pinnacle of English society.

Watercolor by Anders Zorn (1860–1920)

Ernest Joseph Cassel was born in Cologne, then part of the Kingdom of Prussia. His father, Jacob Cassel, was the owner of a small bank, from a family that had been involved in finance since the 17th century. His mother was the former Amalia Rosenheim.

Cassel’s education ended when he was 14, when he began working at the Eltzbacher Bank, in Cologne. By 1869, he had emigrated to Liverpool, England, supposedly accompanied only by the clothes he was wearing and his violin. In rapid succession he then took a job with a grain-trading firm in Liverpool, worked in Paris for the Anglo-Egyptian Bank, and then returned to London (after the start of the Franco-Prussian War) and began working with the Bischoffsheim and Goldschmidt Bank.

Very quickly, Cassel’s savvy and diligence paid off, with his saving a Jewish-owned firm in Constantinople in which Bischoffsheim had an investment, and guiding the bank in making further investments in South America and Sweden. In the course of a year, his salary was raised from

£200 to £5,000, and he also earned substantial bonuses.

Both during his time at Bischoffsheim and later, when he was an independent financier, Cassel specialized in organizing the financing of infrastructure, mining and heavy-industry projects. These included iron-ore mining and processing in Sweden, gold mines in Siberia, railroad construction and organization in the United States, and the building of the London Underground. He arranged loans, too, to the governments of Uruguay, Mexico and Egypt. Cassel played a major role in the financing of the Aswan Dam, and helped establish both the Bank of Egypt and the country’s

Agricultural Bank. He also invested significantly in the British arms manufacturer Vickers-Armstrong.

By the time Cassel married Annette Mary Maud Maxwell in 1878 (the same day he also became a British citizen) he had put aside the substantial sum of £150,000. Annette, a convert to Catholicism, died three years later of tuberculosis, and on her deathbed she requested that her husband convert

as well. He did, but did not make much of the gesture, so that it came as a surprise to many when, in 1902, he became a member of the king’s privy cabinet, he was sworn in with a Catholic Bible.

Annette and Ernest had one daughter, Maud, who like her mother, died young of TB, in 1911. Her daughter, Edwina, cared for her grandfather in his final years, and she inherited much of his estate. A year after his death, Edwina married Lord Louis Mountbatten.

Cassel rose to the very highest social circles in Britain. Aside from being a close friend of King Edward VII, as well as his private financial adviser, he was also close with Herbert Asquith, prime minister from 1908 to 1916, and with Winston Churchill.

Cassel is largely remembered for his significant philanthropic works: He provided money for programs for the resettlement of Russian Jews fleeing from persecution, set up a fund for British servicemen and their families, established a school of commerce at the London School of Economics, created a mental hospital in Kent, and organized traveling eye clinics in Egypt.

Villa Cassel, the family rest home he built in Riederfurka, Switzerland, is today an environmental-education center in the Alps.

Ernest Joseph Cassel died at his desk in his home, Brook House, in London, on September 21, 1921. He was 69.

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