As one of the richest men of his day, Sir Ernest Cassel left a lasting mark on Britain’s history. He was a generous philanthropist, a wildly successful businessman, a close friend of royalty, and recipient of numerous honors and distinctions. Few would have expected such a legacy from a young, penniless German immigrant.
Ernest was the youngest of three children born to Amalia and Jacob Cassel. He was born on March 3, 1852, in Cologne, Germany. His father owned a small bank, and Ernest received a standard education up until the age of 14. At 14, he quit school and started an apprenticeship under J.W. Eltzbacher, a local banker who specialized in financing foreign business and large industrial ventures. Ernest had a natural knack for business, and with his outstanding capacity for hard work he quickly learned the ropes in the world of finance.
Shortly before his seventeenth birthday, Ernest set out for England. He arrived in Liverpool penniless, but with plenty of ambition. He quickly found a job working for a firm of grain merchants where he was paid £2 a week.
His true gifts lay in the world of banking, and he was soon working in Paris for a bank. His stint in Paris was short lived though, as the Franco-Prussian War soon broke out. Since he was born in Prussia, Paris was no longer safe for him, and he was forced to return to England where he soon found work in a London bank.
He began working as a confidential clerk for Louis Bischoffsheim in the financial house of Bischoffsheim and Gildschmidt. He became a fast friend of the Bischoffsheim family, and this led to rapid promotion through the ranks of the financial firm. By the time he was 22, Ernest was managing the bank at a salary of £5000 plus commission.
In 1878, Ernest was married to Annette Mary Maud Maxwell in a ceremony at Westminster. They had one child – a daughter, who they named Amalia Mary Maud Cassel. Tragedy struck before long, when Annette contracted tuberculosis and died within three years of their marriage. Ernest’s widowed sister and her children soon came to live in London, where she helped to run the household and look after little Amalia.
Despite Ernest’s personal losses, he prospered in the offices of Louis Bischoffsheim and in 1884 he began putting together his own financial deals. He developed business ventures in Turkey at first, and soon had substantial ventures in Sweden, South America, Egypt, South Africa, and the United States. By 1898, his independent business was so successful that left Bischoffsheim and Gildschmidt to open his own offices.
Ernest developed a friendship with Lord Willoughby de Broke and they jointly started a stud farm for breeding race horses. They began racing their bred horses, and it was at the tracks that Ernest met the Prince of Wales (soon to become King Edward VII), and a fast friendship formed between them.
Ernest Cassel received a number of public recognitions as well as foreign decorations. The first was the K.C.M.G. awarded by Queen Victoria for his importance in the financial world. King Edward awarded him the further distinctions of K.C.V.O., G.C.M.G., G.C.V.O., G.C.B., and a privy councillorship.
Throughout his lifetime, Sir Ernest Cassel gave away nearly £2 million to public works and charities.