Sir Ernest Cassel (1852-1921) was a German-born banker raised in the Ashkenazi Jewish faith who arrived penniless in Liverpool aged sixteen in 1869 and rose to become King Edward VII’s financial adviser and trusted friend. Cassel was one of the most astute financial minds of his generation and showed early promise clerking for an Anglo-Egyptian bank in Paris where he became mentor of revered European banker Baron Maurice de Hirsch. Hirsch secured Cassel a position in the London merchant banker Bischoffsheim and Goldschmidt when the Franco-Prussian War necessitated a swift exit from Paris.
Cassel’s investments were risky, bold and successful earning him a salary increase from £200 to £5000 within a year at Bischoffsheim and Goldschmidt. Before his thirtieth birthday, he was said to have accrued a personal fortune of £150,000 investing in Siberian gold mines, American railways and ore mining in Sweden. In 1878 Cassel married Annette Maxwell for whom he converted to Roman Catholicism and became a natural British citizen. They had a daughter, Maud, but Annette died three years later of tuberculosis and Cassel never remarried. The Prime Minister’s wife Margot Asquith described him thus: ‘a man of natural authority, dignified, autocratic and wise with the power of loving those he cared for’. Asquith thought him kind but cold with no small talk or gossip.
Cassel’s modus operandi was to avoid investments in the UK in favour of overseas propositions with higher risk and highest return such as Mexican railways, mining and transport infrastructure in China and gold and diamond mining in South Africa. What became known as the ‘Cassel greasing system’ constituted personal loans to powerful people such as the Khedive of Egypt to whom he loaned £500,000 in return for land concessions.
Social climbing was a necessary occupation to gain access to the highest spheres of influence in world finance. Cassel’s wealth opened the doors to English aristocratic society and he cultivated friends in high places on the hunting field, at shooting parties, on the racecourse and at the card table. He owned and bred racehorses at his stud Moulton Paddocks in Newmarket and became friends with Prime Minister Asquith, Lord Randolph Churchill and his son Winston. Baron Hirsch, who was the Prince of Wales’s financial adviser, introduced Cassel to the future King Edward VII in the 1890s.
When Hirsch died in 1896, Cassel took over the Prince’s private investment portfolio; an arrangement sweetened by Hirsch’s final instructions for £300,000 worth of loans to the prince being written off on his death and Cassel’s guarantee that any losses accrued by ‘Bertie’ be underwritten by the banker. The Prince of Wales and Hirsch were similar in personal appearance hence the society jest in referring to them as ‘Windsor Cassel’. So close did Cassel become to the prince that when Bertie asked courtier the Marquis de Soveral ‘have you seen The Importance of Being Ernest?’ de Soveral replied, ‘no Sir, but I have seen the importance of being Ernest Cassel’.
Edward VII’s biographer Christopher Hibbert wrote in 1976, ‘Cassel was careful to join the right clubs and was indefatigable in his pursuit of British as well as foreign decorations…It was felt that, except when he was on the hunting field or inspecting his horses, Cassel’s attention never wandered far from the world of finance, international loans, of percentages and profits. Yet unlike most men of comparable riches, he derived as much pleasure from spending money as in amassing it’.
As Hibbert suggest, Cassel was rewarded for supplementing the Prince of Wales’s private income with honours that rained down on him when the prince became King Edward VII in 1901. Cassel was awarded the monarch’s Royal Victorian Order in 1901 and was made a Privy Councillor in 1902. The King’s patronage ensured his membership of the Jockey Club and his international investments earned him orders from Germany, Sweden, France and Japan. King Edward VII was a sybarite and rather liked wealthy friends who could entertain royally and also accommodate his mistress Mrs Keppel. In addition to his mansion Brook House on Park Lane, Cassel would billet Mrs Keppel at his Villa Cassel in Switzerland, his Paris apartment at No 2 Rue de Cirque and his Villa Eugenie in Biarritz.
In return, King Edward VII was a witness at the wedding of Cassel’s daughter Maud to MP Wilfred Ashley in 1901 and stood as godfather to his granddaughter Edwina who would become the last Indian Vicereine and Countess Mountbatten of Burma. As Hibbert writes, ‘the sum of money that Bertie owed to Ernest Cassel has never been fully calibrated but Cassel’s role in underpinning the Edwardian monarchy was incalculable’. Cassel was one of the last people called to Edward VII’s deathbed on the 6th of May 1910.
When the king died, Cassel handed an envelope containing £10,000 in cash to courtier Francis Knollys saying it was interest owed to the late king but the funds were tacitly understood to be intended for Mrs Keppel. It was thanks to Cassel’s investments that Mrs Keppel could move into the palatial No 16 Grosvenor Street after the king’s death and live in the manner she had grown accustomed to. Sir Ernest Cassel died in 1921 at Brook House, Park Lane, and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery. His estate was probated at £6 million (£225 million today).