Thursday 22 March 2018

The €10bn Duke who wanted only to be a beef farmer back in Fermanagh

The 6th Duke of Westminster's inherited fortune weighed heavily upon him

Gerald Grosvenor, the 6th Duke of Westminster, with Queen Elizabeth Picture: PA
Gerald Grosvenor, the 6th Duke of Westminster, with Queen Elizabeth Picture: PA
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

Asked once by a reporter what advice he would give to young entrepreneurs keen to emulate his success, Gerald Grosvenor, the 6th Duke of Westminster, wryly replied: "Make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror."

The third-richest man in Britain - who amassed a €10.4bn fortune before his death last Tuesday at the age of 64 - was clearly an individual endowed with a keen sense of perspective on the concept of inherited wealth.

The Grosvenor family traces its wealth back to the lucky moment when a French ancestor who had helped William the Conqueror invade Britain in 1066 was handed the whole of Cheshire as a reward.

Further south, the jewel in the crown was some 77 hectares of prime real estate in London's Mayfair and Belgravia, thanks to the purchase by his ancestors in 1677 of 500 acres of "swamp, pasture and orchards".

The duke's son and heir, Hugh Grosvenor Picture: PA
The duke's son and heir, Hugh Grosvenor Picture: PA

Amongst the Grosvenor assets are 39,000 hectares in Scotland and 13,000 hectares in Spain, as well as huge swathes of land across the globe.

At present, the business holds property on five continents and reports more than $15bn (€14.2bn) in assets under management, according to Forbes.

Until recently, the Duke even counted a large stake in the Liffey Valley Shopping Centre in Dublin as part of his property empire, having been one of the original developers of the controversial site, which ended up being the subject of a planning tribunal.

But money never interested him and he suffered depression as a result of his gilded burden, once explaining: "I can't sell it, it doesn't belong to me."

The Duke was a close friend of Britain's royals, particularly Prince Charles - despite a scandal in 2007, when the 'News of the World' reported that Gerald was a customer of a high-end escort service in New York.

He found titles "embarrassing" and was simply called 'Gerald' all his life.

His lack of 'notions' sat squarely with his relatively humble upbringing in rural Northern Ireland, where, for the first 15 years of his life, he assumed that he would grow up to become a beef farmer like his father.

Brought up in Ely Lodge, on one of the 365 tiny islands on Lough Erne in Co Fermanagh, his early years had been an "idyllic" existence, he told the BBC's 'Desert Island Discs' in 1995 in a rare radio interview.

Liffey Valley Shopping Centre, in which the duke had a stake Picture: Frank McGrath
Liffey Valley Shopping Centre, in which the duke had a stake Picture: Frank McGrath

There had once been a family castle but it fell into such a state of disrepair that it had to be demolished in 1870. After that, the Grosvenors lived in the relatively modest converted stable block.

"I had a wonderful childhood in Northern Ireland," said Gerald, outlining the 52 miles of lakes, the 365 islands and a peaceful existence consisting of two sisters and his parents.

Enniskillen, the nearest town, was six or seven miles away.

"Popping down to the corner shop to buy sweets was a bit of a safari," he said.

"It was a wonderful foundation for life. I am a country person by birth and inclination.

"I would have been happy and content to live there all my life. I knew what I wanted to be; I wanted to farm and take it all rather gently, I thought."

The duke was taken to boarding school in England when he was seven, where his "broad Ulster accent" was forced out of him by teasing. He left school with scant academic achievements.

At 15, all his expectations changed when his uncle died without an heir and Gerald's father inherited the title - and all it entailed.

On hearing the news, Gerald's first instinct was to "run for the door, slam it and keep running.

"I was brought up in Ulster, where you were treated purely on your own merits," he explained to 'Desert Island Discs'.

"You were treated because of who you are and I was called Gerald all my life."

One of the songs he chose on the programme was the theme to 'Harry's Game' by Clannad - which he selected because "it is full of tragedy and it is the only theme that I think encompasses the tragedy of Ireland so brilliantly. And, of course, the book and film had a tragic ending of great misunderstanding - and that is the story of Ulster."

In 1970, he joined the UK's Territorial Army as a trooper and this military training, together with his staunchly loyalist background, made him a severe critic of the IRA.

A letter written by Gerald in July 1972 to the then British prime minister Edward Heath, outlines his rage over secret talks between the IRA and the British government.

"I told you many months ago that (anarchists) and the IRA have only one object in view and that is the reunification of Ireland at any price, by any means and that is what it is all about," he wrote, adding that he was "frankly dreading" his monthly visit to Northern Ireland "because I shall have to face my friends".

His advice to Heath was to first "destroy the gunmen", saying: "There can be no reconciliation of the communities while they dominate."

He advised Heath to saturate no-go areas with troops - "not just a battalion at a time but a brigade - standing room only," believing it would result in less casualties.

Nevertheless, he struck a note of wisdom when he concluded that no government could impose reconciliation. The only hope was peace which "will ultimately lead to a state of mind wherein both sides will tolerate each other," he said.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News