Barney Barnato’s legendary grand-daughter


Barney Barnato

As South Africans many of us are familiar with Barney Barnato, the diamond and gold mining tycoon made rich in South Africa.  His legacy carries with it a rags to riches story in Kimberley, when he joined the diamond rush with barely a penny, he was so broke he had to walk the last leg to get to Kimberley.

What follows is a stella consolidation of mining plots, and he was best known for his competition with Cecil John Rhodes for overall control and consolidation of all the Kimberley diamond mines.  Rhodes’ cheque to Barnato to buy him out is in the economic history annuals as the biggest single instrument to settle a purchase, it made him a mining tycoon, and he was again at it making millions on the Rand’s Gold Mines in the Transvaal.  He even had enough financial clout to threaten Paul Kruger and his Transvaal government not to execute members of Rhodes’ failed Jameson Raid for treason, and won the day.

His mysterious death on the 14 June 1897 whilst on passage from South Africa to the United Kingdom carries with it all the intrigue of murder versus suicide, he ‘fell overboard’ and his body was later recovered.  The interesting part for this story is where his millions went.

So how was this great personal wealth generated by South African gold and diamonds spent, how do we as humanity benefit from Barnato’s legacy today?

Woolf Barnato 

Happily some of this financial legacy ends well, a significant part of the Barney Bernato estate went to his son, Woolf Barnato, who used part of the multimillion-pound fortune he inherited at the age of two, to become a pioneer racing driver in the 1920s.


Woolf Barnato

Woolf was one of the so-called Bentley Boys he pioneered racing engineering and speed.  He even went on to achieve three consecutive wins out of three entries in the 24 Hours Le Mans race.

During the war, from 1940 to 1945, Woolf Barnato was a Wing-Commander with the Royal Air Force responsible for the protection of aircraft factories against Nazi  Luftwaffe bombing raids.

This racing fuelled jet setting son of Barney, transferred his passion for pushing speed limits, record-breaking and the fearlessness needed to do it to his daughter, Diana – and it is here, in the grand-daughter of Barney that the Bernato legacy really shines through.

Diana Barnato Walker MBE FRAeS

Diana Barnato was born on 15 January 1918, she was destined to become a pioneering female aviator.  Diana Barnato and her sister, Virginia, enjoyed the pleasures of high society, though Woolf separated from their mother when Diana was four.

While their mother brought the girls up she maintained an amicable relationship with their father. Diana was educated at Queen’s College in Harley Street, London, until 1936, when she came out as a débutante and ‘did the season’ having been presented to King Edward VIII at Buckingham Palace.

From an early age, she became interested in aircraft and at age 20 she decided to become a pilot. Her initial training was in Tiger Moths at the Brooklands Flying Club, the aerodrome being located within the famous motor racing circuit in Surrey. She showed a natural aptitude for flying and made her first solo flight after only six hours of dual instruction.


In terms of family she had some legacy, as we know Diana’s father was Woolf Barnato (1895-1948), he eventually became the Chairman of Bentley Motors and his first wife was Dorothy Maitland Falk (1893-1961), an American from White Plains, New York, who were married at the Ritz Carlton in London.

As we know her paternal grandfather was Barney Barnato (1851–1897) and her maternal grandparents were American stockbroker Herbert Valentine Falk and Florence Maude Whittaker. While married from 1915-1933, her parents had two children, Virginia Barnato (1916-1980) and Diana.

Red Cross Service during World War 2 

Soon after the outbreak of World War II, Diana volunteered to become a Red Cross nurse. In 1940 she was serving as a nurse in France before the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk and later drove ambulances in London during the Blitz.

One of the ‘female few’: ATA Service 

In early 1941 she applied to become one of the first women pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and successfully took her initial assessment flying test at their headquarters at White Waltham, Berkshire, on 9 March 1941 with the ATA’s Chief Flying Instructor, A.R.O. Macmillan, in the Tiger Moth’s rear seat.

Diana was admitted to the ATA’s Elementary Flying Training School at White Waltham on 2 November 1941. After a lengthy period of intensive flight instruction and tests in primary training aircraft, she joined her first ATA Ferry Pool (FP), No.15 FP at RAF Hamble, Hampshire, on 9 May 1942. She soon began to deliver low-powered single engine aircraft from factory or repair base to storage units and RAF and Naval flying units.


Further advanced training permitted her to deliver several hundred Spitfires, Hurricanes, Mustangs, Tempests and other high performance fighter aircraft. After yet further training, Diana became eligible to deliver twin-engined aircraft and delivered Whitleys, Blenheims, Mosquitos, Mitchells and Wellingtons, normally flying solo when doing so. She continued intensive flying with the ATA until the organisation was disbanded in late 1945. By that time she had flown 80 types of aircraft and had delivered 260 Spitfires.

The ATA’s pilots ferried all types of military aircraft, from trainers to bombers, from factories to RAF stations or from maintenance units to squadrons. They had minimal pilot’s notes and no radios, and often flew in marginal weather conditions. 

Diana had her share of incidents. While flying a Supermarine Walrus air-sea-rescue amphibian, her least-liked aeroplane, from Cosford to Eastleigh on 19 September 1944, the windscreen was obscured by oil from the failing engine as she approached the Southampton balloon barrage at 1500 feet. Without power she could only push down the nose to prevent a stall and make a steep descent into the sea fog. Luckily she missed the balloon cables and emerged from the cloud a few feet above Eastleigh’s grass airfield.

Three weeks after Barnato first met the battle of Britain fighter ace Squadron Leader Humphrey Trench Gilbert in 1942 they became engaged, but days later he died in a flying accident. Two years later, on 6 May 1944, she married another pilot, Wing Commander Derek Ronald Walker, and was docked three months’ pay for making an unauthorized honeymoon flight to Brussels four months later in a Spitfire, accompanied by her husband in another. Derek Walker was killed in a flying accident shortly after the war’s end, on 14 November 1945.

Diana vowed never to marry again. For 30 years she was the lover of Whitney Straight, also a pilot and a pre-war champion racing driver, like her father. In 1947, the couple had a son and named him after his great-grandfather on his mother’s side: Barney Barnato Walker.

As part of the ATA Diana would have stood shoulder to shoulder with another famous and remarkable South African pioneer aviator Jackie Moggridge, for more on her, follow this link South African Battle of Britain Heroine -Jackie Moggridge

Women’s Junior Air Corps

After the war’s end, Diana continued to fly and gained her commercial flying licence. For many years she was a volunteer pilot with the Women’s Junior Air Corps (WJAC), later the Girls Venture Corps Air Cadets (GVCAC), giving flights to air-minded teenage girls to encourage them to enter the aviation industry. Here she accumulated many happy hours in the corps’ Fairchild Argus and Auster aircraft. 

On 11 July 1948, at White Waltham aerodrome in England, she had just taken off in a newly acquired Argus aircraft for the Air Corps when it burst into flames. Rather than bale out and lose a valuable aeroplane, she switched off the fuel and glided back to the airfield, where the flames were put out.


Diana Barnato Walker receiving the Lennox Trophy from Lord Brabazon, 1963

In 1963, for her work with the corps, she was awarded the Jean Lennox Bird trophy, presented annually to a British woman pilot.

Air Speed Record 

On 26 August 1963 she flew a Royal Air Force English Electric Lightning T4 to Mach 1.6 (1,262 mph or 2,031 km/h) after convincing the Air Minister to let her fly it with Squadron Leader Ken Goodwin as her check pilot, and so became the first British woman to break the sound barrier. She also established by this flight a world air speed record for women.


Shortly after her record-breaking flight in 1963, Diana was found to have cancer, and subsequently had three operations, ultimately winning the battle against the ‘Big C’.


Diana Barnato Walker was awarded the MBE in 1965 for services to aviation, and was a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. In later years Diana Barnato Walker took up sheep farming and was master of the Old Surrey and Burstow foxhounds for thirteen seasons, while continuing to fly for the Women’s Junior Air Corps (renamed in 1964 the Girls’ Venture Corps). She also became commodore of the Air Transport Auxiliary Association. She died of pneumonia on 28 April 2008 aged 90 in a hospital near her sheep farm in Surrey, and was survived by her son, Barney.

There you have it, Barney’s decision to break the family poverty cycle and make his fortunes in South Africa has ultimately left us with a person who pioneered female equality and has become an icon for many women, especially those who have entered the field of aviation – what a wonderful journey we weave.


Researched by Peter Dickens, main source and extracts from Wikipedia.

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