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British Industrial History

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Basil Zaharoff

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Sir Basil Zaharoff G.C.B., G.B.E., D.C.L. (Hon. Oxon.)

1849 Born in Anatolia (although his 1933 biography claimed he was born in 1850). He told many different stories in later life about his younger days.

1872 Masquerading as a Russian officer called Prince Gortzacoff, General de Kieff, he went to London, where he married Emily Ann Burrows, daughter of John Burrows, builder, of Bristol.

1872 He was the first man extradited from Belgium to Britain under a new treaty and was prosecuted for embezzlement of merchandise worth £1000 and securities exceeding £6000.

1873 Released on his own recognizance of £100 after offering compensation, he fled in 1873 to Cyprus, where he set up as a storekeeper and boldly unscrupulous contractor.

1877 Started selling armaments for the Anglo-Swedish firm of Nordenfelt in Greece

1881 He settled in the USA and became interested in ranches and railroad-building.

1885 Exposed after a bigamous marriage to an heiress, Jeannie Frances Billings, in New York.

1885 Sold one of the world's first submarines to Greece, he sold two to Turkey in 1886.

The main products he dealt in in the 1880s and 1890s were quick-firing guns.

1888 Engineered Nordenfelt's merger with the rival company of Hiram Maxim; he then visited Russia to sell the new Maxim machine-gun, and then Chile, Peru, and Brazil in 1888–9.

1897 When Vickers, Sons and Co acquired the Maxim Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Co, he was retained by the new combine and then for the next thirty years acted as their "General Representative for business abroad".

Zaharoff was a mountebank who indulged in self-mystification and encouraged fabulous rumours. He lived sumptuously in Paris (with a famous set of gold dinner plate afterwards sold to King Farouk of Egypt),

1908 He took French citizenship and became a shareholder in the Banque de France, one of several banks with which he was associated.

WWI Helped the British government to induce neutral Greece to join the allied cause, and arranged an armistice with Turkey in 1917.

1918 He was created GBE and GCB in 1919: George V detested him and resented his use of titles, which, as a French citizen, were only honorary.

Established Chairs of Aviation in London, Paris, and Petrograd.

1936 Died in Monte Carlo


See Also

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Sources of Information

  • Biography of Sir Basil Zaharoff, ODNB