Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

de Bernales, Claude Albo (1876–1963)

by John H. Laurence

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Claude Albo de Bernales (1876-1963), mining promoter and investor, was born on 31 May 1876 in London, only son of Major Manuel Edgar Albo de Bernales, and his wife Emma Jane, née Belden. His mother was American and his father Basque. Educated at the Free Grammar School, Uppingham, Rutland, in 1891, in Paris where his parents lived, and at the University of Heidelberg, he did not graduate, but migrated to the Western Australian goldfields in 1897.

Arriving at Coolgardie with £5, he borrowed £50, moved to Kalgoorlie and sold machinery. Handsome, tall (approximately 185 cm), alert, proud of his origins and always expensively dressed, he dominated any assembly of men, free and easy miners or conservative bankers. His appearance was a major asset. Even on the dusty goldfields, cycling from mine to mine, he always carried a clean collar and shirt and changed before calling on the managers.

On 19 May 1903 at Kalgoorlie, de Bernales married Bessie Picken Berry (d.1927). His salesmanship and charm soon brought modest wealth and in 1909 he became managing director of the Kalgoorlie Foundry, a major supplier of mining plant. He became a director of Hoskins Foundry, Perth, in 1912 and settled there in 1915, becoming a lavish spender with an elegance to which most West Australians were unused. It was around this time that he began to sign with surname only. His rapid rise demonstrated his ability to find and use the best talents available. Premier Philip Collier reportedly said that if he saw de Bernales alone, the latter would emerge with all the State's assets at his disposal.

As a member of the Kalgoorlie Chamber of Mines in 1911-13, de Bernales began his career as a mining promoter. With mining engineer Henry Urquhart, he acquired a number of leases at Wiluna, 300 miles (483 km) north of Kalgoorlie. The ore was impregnated with arsenical pyrites, but a successful flotation treatment was devised. De Bernales went to London in 1926 and raised £1 million to work Wiluna mines. A later issue of promissory notes for £300,000 was backed by the State government. When the mine opened in 1931 it created a new community of 10,000 and within four years produced gold worth £3 million. Serving as a spur for the revival of other gold mines, Wiluna eventually earned £12 million.

As the Depression deepened, de Bernales launched his gold bonus campaign, which eventually won a Federal bounty of £1 an ounce on gold produced in excess of the 1928-30 average. By the time that the Gold Bounty Acts became law in 1930 and 1931, the collapse of the exchange rate had raised gold well beyond the rate of bounty paid. The campaign showed de Bernales as an organizing genius: there were few prominent people in all sections of the industry who did not endorse it.

To provide the base for his plans, de Bernales next induced the government to reserve huge auriferous areas. In 1932 he went to London, which he made his base, formed twelve new companies and sold gold leases to each in return for shares with a face value of £1,261,000 issued to his family and friends. These transactions convinced investors that the companies were busily opening new mines. In 1933-35, he floated eight further companies with a nominal capital of £6,110,000—a major factor in the inflow of overseas capital for Australian mining. His most prestigious coup came in 1936 when he won control of Great Boulder Proprietary Gold Mine, one of the oldest and richest mines of the 'Golden Mile'. A few of his companies or their subsidiaries were also able to participate in new gold fields at Yellowdine and Marble Bar.

De Bernales's mining empire was one vast interlocking organization. Some of the companies failed but his proportion of successes was better than average for the industry. He received £1 million from his London flotations, a fourth in cash, the rest in shares. He had visited Western Australia in 1935-36 with ex-governor Sir William Campion, and a co-director, and was hailed as the State's greatest ambassador. While there he acquired properties in Melbourne and Perth and launched his flamboyant mock-Tudor shopping arcade, London Court, which is still a feature of Perth. His personal office in London House, Murray Street, was decorated sumptuously, as was his mansion in Roehampton, Surrey, England.

The empire began to crumble early in 1939; underground opposition from powerful financial institutions was a factor. Some shareholders in Great Boulder Proprietary Gold Mine accused de Bernales of mismanagement. Though the Beaverbrook press attacked him, he was supported by leading mining men and most newspapers. In July, however, the London Stock Exchange suspended trading in seven of his companies without giving reasons. This action, the war and the antagonism of financiers forced his companies into liquidation. Then a body of shareholders in Great Boulder Mining and Finance Ltd sought to recover their investment. The case dragged on for ten years and was finally settled for £125,000. In 1947, he was found liable for British income tax on a profit of £1,382,000 from share dealings. In 1945-48 his affairs were investigated by detectives for the senior official receiver. Despite the attorney-general's decision that there was a prima facie case that an offence had been committed, action against him was deferred because of his weak heart. He became a recluse in his house at Selsey Bill and died on 9 December 1963. He was survived by his second wife Helen Florence Berry, née Alger, a widow, whom he had married at St Phillip's Church of England, Cottesloe, Perth, on 5 February 1930 and by two daughters of his first marriage.

De Bernales was a legend, larger than life: by personal magnetism and financial acumen he won concessions and became wealthy. His ability to attract new capital and his self-confidence transformed the Western Australian mining industry in the 1930s. In his ten most successful years gold production in the State increased from £1,600,000 to £11,800,000 and employment in the industry quadrupled. It was not for nothing that he was known as 'the man with the Midas touch'.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blainey, The Rush that Never Ended (Melb, 1969)
  • G. D. Snooks, Depression and Recovery in Western Australia, 1928/29-1938/39 (Nedlands, 1974)
  • Western Australian Mining and Commercial Review, 3 Aug, p 17, 21 Dec, p 14, 1935, July 1936, p 152
  • Golden West, 1937-38, p 25, Western Argus (Kalgoorlie), 1 Mar 1921
  • Times (London), 29 Apr 1952, p 7, 23 May 1952, p 4, 13 Dec 1963, p 9
  • Daily News (Perth), 25 May, 26 Oct 1935, 29 Aug, 21, 23 Sept, 12 Nov, 28 Dec 1940
  • West Australian, 10 Dec 1963
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Jan 1949.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John H. Laurence, 'de Bernales, Claude Albo (1876–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/de-bernales-claude-albo-5935/text10117, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014