Saturday 18 November 2017

Obituary: The Duke of Westminster

Irish-born billionaire landowner who managed his family's vast estates wisely and was offered a trial by Fulham FC

Duke Special: Penny Lancaster and Rod Stewart meeting the Duke of Westminster at the Royal National Institute of the Blind gala dinner at the Dorchester Hotel, London. Photo: Myung Jung Kim/PA Wire
Duke Special: Penny Lancaster and Rod Stewart meeting the Duke of Westminster at the Royal National Institute of the Blind gala dinner at the Dorchester Hotel, London. Photo: Myung Jung Kim/PA Wire Newsdesk Newsdesk

The 6th Duke of Westminster, who died last Tuesday, aged 64, was Britain's richest aristocrat, with a fortune estimated at more than £8bn (€9.3bn), based on an inheritance of 300 acres of Mayfair and Belgravia.

In later life, he lamented the fact that the accident of inheritance had taken him away from the placid life of an Ulster beef farmer like his father.

The Duke owned the freehold of much of London's most expensive real estate, including Grosvenor, Belgrave and Eaton Squares, and such landmarks as the Connaught and Lanesborough hotels and the American embassy - which paid him a rent of one peppercorn a year.

However, his beginnings were quite different.

Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor was born on December 22, 1951. He was the only son of Lt-Col Robert Grosvenor, Ulster Unionist MP for Fermanagh and County Tyrone and one-time parliamentary private secretary to Edward Heath. His mother was Viola Lyttleton, daughter of the 9th Viscount Cobham. The family home was a farm on the island of Ely on Lough Erne, near Enniskillen.

Gerald enjoyed what he once called a "Swallows and Amazons childhood" with his two sisters. Having failed to gain a place at Eton he was despatched to Harrow, which he hated, leaving with only two O-levels. His talent was for sport, but a suggestion from George Cohen, manager of Fulham FC, that he should have a trial to join the club was vetoed by Col Grosvenor on the grounds of too much kissing on the pitch.

Gerald's real ambition was to join the 9th/12th Lancers, but he was already under pressure to take the reins of his inheritance. At 19, he assumed responsibility for the management of the family's vast estates and business.

The estates dated in origin from shortly after the Conquest, when William I granted lands in Cheshire to Hugh Lupus, "le gros veneur" or chief huntsman, with instructions to keep the troublesome Welsh borderers under control. The Duke's direct line of descent traced from Robert le Grosvenor, who was granted the manor of Budworth in Cheshire in the 1170s. The Eaton estate was acquired by marriage in the mid-15th Century, and Richard Grosvenor, the first MP in the family, was created a baronet in 1622.

It was in 1677 that Richard's 21-year-old great-grandson Thomas married 12-year-old Mary Davies, sole heiress to the manor of Ebury, 430 acres of marshy farmland covering the area which now lies between Knightsbridge and the Thames and between Park Lane, Oxford Street and Bond Street. The estate had been bequeathed by Hugh Audley, a city lawyer, to his nephew, Alexander Davies, a clerk who died in the plague of 1665; Davies's widow set out to sell their child Mary's hand in marriage to the highest bidder, gaining £5,000 for herself from Grosvenor.

Though the land was still largely open fields, its potential was apparent; once the building of Mayfair began in 1720 - Belgravia and Pimlico were 19th-century developments - the Grosvenor fortune began to multiply. By the 1890s, the annual rent roll of Mayfair alone amounted to £135,000 (€156,000), and the family was one of the richest in Europe.

As its wealth increased, so did its status: the barony of Grosvenor was created in 1761, the earldom in 1784 and the marquessate of Westminster in 1831. Finally, in 1874, the 3rd Marquess - a Knight of the Garter and former Liberal MP for Chester - was created the 1st Duke. It was the last non-royal dukedom to be created.

The 2nd Duke (grandson of the 1st) was the legendary "Bend Or", an arrogant grandee, lover of Coco Chanel and tireless womaniser, four times married, who represented the apotheosis of flamboyant ducal style during the inter-war years. But his only son died in childhood, and in 1953 the dukedom passed to another grandson of the 1st Duke - William Grosvenor, a bachelor of diminished mind who lived in a bungalow at Whitstable and bred poultry.

This brought into the line as 4th Duke yet another grandson (by the 1st Duke's second marriage), Colonel Gerald Hugh Grosvenor, who had no children, and as the 5th, in 1967, his brother Colonel Robert Grosvenor.

Provision had been made in the 2nd Duke's will for the likelihood that young Gerald would eventually inherit. The Pimlico portion of the estate having been sold to pay death duties, the bulk of the remaining fortune was placed in trusts entailed to him, bypassing his three predecessors. The weight of his future responsibilities did not sink in until he was 15, when his uncle, the 4th Duke, died and "everyone started to treat me differently".

By 1970, his father had become ill, and it was apparent that Gerald would have to take complete control. The property crash of 1973 provided his first test, and instilled in him the need for tough management and long-term strategy. When he inherited the dukedom in 1979, the estate was in debt and liable for another heavy tranche of death duties. But shrewd investment by the young duke and his advisers combined with lower tax rates and the property booms of the 1980s and early 2000s to turn it into a treasure chest.

During World War II the landscape of Eaton Hall - set in 11,000 acres just outside Chester, where the Duke sent his children to local day schools - had been used by the Army for officer training, and afterwards it was too dilapidated and impractical to maintain. The house was demolished, all except its clock tower, chapel and stable yard, and was replaced in 1973 by a modern, flat-roofed structure in concrete and marble - compared by critics to a county ambulance headquarters and dubbed the 'Inn on the Park' by the Prince of Wales (who also observed that the Duke "employs more butlers than I do").

Rather than rebuild Eaton Hall, the Duke eventually added a pitched roof and sandstone cladding: "The overall effect," noted Burke's Peerage, "is curiously Germanic".

Business was always a lower priority for the Duke than his military and charitable duties and most of all, his family life. Fast cars (he had a notorious driving record) and a private aircraft enabled him to spend as much time as he could at home atof Eaton Hall.

Under his leadership the Grosvenor Estate imposed rigid rules on tenants to preserve the cream stucco uniformity of Belgravia, and the Georgian brick terraces of Mayfair. It was also notably businesslike when it came to setting rents. Besides its London holdings, the Grosvenor empire included shopping centres throughout Britain - in recent years he transformed the centre of Liverpool (and the city's fortunes) by pouring millions into developing the shopping complex known as Liverpool One. The development is said to attract 28m shoppers annually.

There were also commercial properties in the United States, Canada and Australia, and a variety of other investments in Europe and the Far East.

The empire's total value was the subject of annual guesswork by the compilers of UK 'rich lists', in which the Duke rarely dropped out of the top five.

The Duke, a chain-smoker, worked and travelled incessantly, and in later years suffered bouts of depression, a problem which was exacerbated by reports in newspapers that he had employed the services of prostitutes.

His most satisfying escape from ducal responsibilities came as a long-serving Territorial Army officer. He spent at least one weekend a month on exercise among soldiers from the north of England who treated him, to his relief, as they would any other officer.

Fond of Churchill's remark that "the only time the Grosvenors were any good was when they were at war", he rose to command the Queen's Own Yeomanry, and in 2000 he was promoted to brigadier.

In 2004 he was appointed to the new post of Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff (Reserves and Cadets), with promotion to Major-General. In 2011, he was appointed Deputy Commander Land Forces (Reserves) before retiring after 42 years' service in 2012.

His many charitable interests ranged from the NSPCC to the Royal London Hospital.

Deeply concerned about land conservation and other rural issues, he rescued the Soil Association from financial difficulties and was a major backer of the Countryside Movement.

He married, in 1978, Natalia, daughter of Lt-Col Harold "Bunny" Phillips and a grand-daughter of Maj-Gen Sir Harold and Lady Zia Wernher, of Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire; Lady Zia was in turn the daughter of Grand Duke Michael of Russia. The Duke and his Duchess had three daughters and a son, Hugh, styled by courtesy Earl Grosvenor, who was born in 1991 and now succeeds to the dukedom and the other peerages.

© Telegraph

Promoted Links

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

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in World News