Claude Albo de Bernales (1876 - 1963)
Company promoter and financier of WA gold mines.
Claude de Bernales, probably more than any other person, encapsulates the diversity of opinion as to the merits and achievements of entrepreneurs and mining speculators. He also has attained in WA history more generally, a legendary image of success, one given to lavish displays of wealth and opulence and, more problematically, as a colourful character whose entrepreneurial activities did much to stimulate investment in WA mining. If nothing, he was certainly the master of the complex scheme.
Arriving in Coolgardie in 1897, he soon became established at Kalgoorlie where he ran the Western Machinery company. In the course of his machinery dealing and financing, de Bernales obtained control over a number of leaseholds when clients defaulted or could not meet payments. One such was the holding of a Wiluna company. Eventually, these leases formed the basis of the very profitable, large-scale Wiluna Gold Mines, in which de Bernales had a share with overseas companies including Consolidated Gold Fields of South Africa.
De Bernales was much criticised for what others claimed was his practice of 'sitting' on leases awaiting opportune times to promote companies. His capital raising in London in the 1930s also brought him into conflict with others seeking to do the same.
De Bernales also played a leading role in convincing the Commonwealth Government of the efficacy of a gold bonus in the late 1920s. He led several delegations to the eastern states and produced several documents arguing the case for a bonus. His efforts were not without some self interest for any increase in the return on gold mining would make it more likely that de Bernales could proceed with capital raising to resurrect mines that he controlled. In fact, the nature of what constituted appropriate incentives for the gold industry lay at the heart of differences between de Bernales and some of the larger gold producers (particularly in Kalgoorlie). Such companies were not as much interested in raising new capital or company promotion. Rather, they sought assistance in reducing costs on the gold that they already produced and in obtaining assistance to develop ore reserves and seek new deposits.
In spite of his practice in seeking to rejuvenate previously abandoned mines, de Bernales was responsible for advancing development of a limited number of mines, notably those at Wiluna and Yellowdine. He also played an important part in redeveloping Great Boulder in the 1930s, though this may also have been for the benefit and prestige that the company brought to his group.
From 1939, de Bernales' empire began to lose its shine: he faced complaints from disgruntled Great Boulder shareholders who sought to recover their investments in litigation; in July 1939 the London Stock Exchange suspended trading in several of his companies, eventually forcing them into liquidation; Sir William McClintock conducted an extensive investigation for the Board of Trade into de Bernales' Commonwealth Group of companies during 1939 and 1940; and after the war income tax liabilities and the investigation of his company dealings by British authorities led to charges against him. The latter matters were never brought to trial in court.
For much of the post-war period de Bernales remained in England but made a final trip to Western Australia in 1958. He died at his London flat on 9 December, 1963. Much that was disparaging was written about de Bernales, especially in the London Daily Express and Sunday Express newspapers. A fuller picture of the intricacies of his dealings is not likely to emerge until papers from the investigations into his companies are finally released in England. Perhaps the most apt summation of his business dealings was a comment from the West Australian journalist John Laurence who wrote that newspaper's obituary on de Bernales. A commentator on de Bernales and his companies for over 30 years, Laurence believed that de Bernales did not break the law, but noted that "he was good at covering his tracks".
R.T.Appleyard and Mel Davies, 'Financiers of Western Australia's Goldfields', in R.T.Appleyard and C.B.Schedvin (eds), Australian Financiers: Biographical Essays (Melbourne, 1988); Hal Colebatch, Claude de Bernales: The Magnificent Miner (Perth, 1996); P.Bertola, 'Kalgoorlie, Gold and the World Economy', unpublished PhD thesis, Curtin University, 1994; Mines Department of WA, correspondence files.