Friday 12 August 2016

Britain is no longer and never was a country for the scarce old Gerald Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster

Gerald, who has died at the age of 64 came from the wealthiest family in Britain and although that position has now slipped slightly, with assets worth £9.3 billion, he was still considered the third richest person in Britain. His family went back a long way. In 1066 his ancestor, Hugh Lupus, crossed the Channel and took part in the conquest of Saxon Britain with the Norman, William the Conqueror. As the the King’s head huntsman his title was 'Grand Veneur', but because he was a large man, he was nicknamed 'Gros Veneur', Hence the family name of 'Grosvenor'.

He was given confiscated Saxon lands in Cheshire in return for an obligation to protect the region from the Welsh. It was,however, the profitable marriage of one of Gerald's ancestors in 1677, that secured boggy farmland in what became the Mayfair and Belgravia areas of London that really cemented the family fortunes.

He still owned Grosvenor Square, where he was the landlord of the American Embassy, part of Oxford Street and, in addition, he also owned estates in Oxfordshire, over 10,000 acres around the country seat at Eaton Hall, 110,000 acres in Sutherland, and shopping malls and other property as far afield as Los Angeles and Australia.

Gerald began life in 1951, brought up in a remote part of Northern Ireland on a farm with his two sisters in what he once called, a “Swallows and Amazons childhood” and where "Popping down to the corner shop to buy sweets was a bit of a safari. It was a wonderful foundation for life. I am a country person by birth and inclination."

It was not to last and at the age of 7 he was sent to Sunningdale Prep School, near Ascot in England and at 13 was packed off to Harrow Boys' Public School where he was a boarder, which he hated, recalling : “I was not motivated at school. I was unhappy. I never applied myself. I found it very difficult to make friends,” He remained convinced that its single-sex education was the reason why he was terrified of women. A schoolboy footballer, he had trials for Fulham FC, but his father, the 5th Duke, disapproved on the grounds that there was too much kissing on the pitch and nothing came of it.

He was keen to be an Army officer, but failed the entrance exam to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst and his subsequent inability to gain a commission in the Army confirmed his view of himself as a failure. ‘At that moment all my wealth counted for nothing. I was fragile and, although never suicidal, I recognised something was desperately wrong and that I needed to do something fast.’

He refused medical help and he decided to treat his depression in his own way and went for three months to Madrid, a city he had always loved where he 'walked a lot, thought and read. Through sheer willpower I started to recover and was back on the road in six months. I still don’t understand why it happened to me, and I don’t dwell on it because conditions of the mind are complex. But I learned never to be ashamed of what I went through and, most importantly, it gave me an empathy with people in trouble.’

Eventually, he worked his way through the ranks to become a Major-General and then Commander-in-Chief of the Territorial Army's 38,500 part-time soldiers, with a desk at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall. A friend recalled : "He was proud of this because it was something he himself had earned. He believed it had nothing to do with him being a duke.’

In 1998 he had a nervous breakdown caused by the stress of business and public appearances. “Given the choice I would rather not have been born wealthy, but I never think of giving it up. I can’t sell it. It doesn’t belong to me,” he told an interviewer, adding, when he appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1995 :

“In the context of eternity, if I am lucky I might live 70 years, but this estate has been with us for 3, 4, 5, 600 years. I am only a mere flicker in the process of time. It is what I do with it, rather than what I am worth, that I believe is more important.”

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