11 August 2016
Remembering the Duke of Westminster
An obituary of the late 6th Duke of Westminster
Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor 6th Duke of Westminster KG CB CVO OBE TD CD DL (22 December 1951 – 9 August 2016) led a full life. He was a passionate country man, committed soldier, an excellent shot, a true entrepreneur and, importantly, he went out of his way to be courteous and humorous with all people, regardless of status or wealth.
Distinctly down-to-earth the Duke of Westminster was rarely seen without a Diet Coke and a cigarette (later electric). Not much of a sleeper, one might expect emails from him at any hour of the night and an average week would see him up and down from home in Chester to London and all over the world to visit soldiers, businesses, charities and rural estates while representing and promoting numerous organisations.
His birth in Northern Ireland in December 1951 was a celebrated occasion (his father being the last direct male descendant of the 1st Duke of Westminster). In his own words “his childhood was idyllic” growing up with two sisters Leonora and Jane. His parents, whilst loving and attentive, had both played their part in the Second World War and like many aristocratic families at that time had little idea of how to bring up children. However the children were not materially spoiled or over-cosseted by their parents. They employed a tyrannical nanny, who took any opportunity with Gerald not “to spare the rod”. Despite this Gerald and his sisters enjoyed much happiness and freedom playing in the islands of Lough Erne.
It was here that he learned to fish and to shoot at his father’s side. Gerald’s father served as Member of Parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and spent a good deal of time during Gerald’s early childhood at the House of Commons. During these frequent absences Gerald was taken under the wing of the estate gamekeeper, Wesley Scott with whom a deep friendship grew and this countryman’s earthy wisdom and knowledge was imparted to Gerald at an early age. An empathy with country folk and a deep understanding and love of the natural world shaped his views thereafter.
This idyll was rudely interrupted at the age of eight when he was sent to boarding school for which he was little prepared. He was schooled at Sunningdale and then Harrow. It served to teach him that if you are happy and placed in a sympathetic environment you will learn. Unfortunately, his time at school was not happy. Speaking with a “broad Irish” accent he did not settle easily and his unhappiness at school was in direct proportion to his lack of achievement in the classroom, where he found little of relevance, other than History and English. Ironically, and despite the unflattering remarks on his school reports, by the end of his life he had accumulated seven honorary degrees, which reflected the time and patronage he gave to education in the North West of England.
He was a natural sportsman and as a youth excelled on the football pitch with an ability to strike the ball equally well with either foot but was discouraged to pursue this further by his father. He was also a good cricketer but his abiding love was for country sports and he was acknowledged to be one of the finest shots in the country.
When Gerald was 16 a Daily Mail reporter visited his school. The 4th Duke had died and the title was passed to his brother, Robert, Gerald’s father. This meant that Gerald inherited the courtesy title “Earl Grosvenor”. It was the first he had heard of it and immediately rang his father asking what it was all about. The reply was “Ah yes, we need to talk about that!” It was a double blow for Gerald who adored his uncle, but also realised that his life was to change forever.
On leaving Harrow he went travelling with his good friend Johnny Hesketh. Gerald’s parents had always kept their children’s feet firmly on the ground. When Gerald and Johnny were in Iran, Gerald found a carpet he particularly liked. He sent a telegram to his father “Found exquisite carpet, send money” – his father replied – “Wrap carpet round head, have both examined”.
On his return he started training for his impending role within the Grosvenor Estate and he threw himself into learning everything he could about the property business and the intricacies of the Grosvenor Estate. He travelled in Canada, America, New Zealand and Australia, where in 1975 he bought a 10,500 acre Estate in New South Wales known as Bull’s Run and learnt to manage land and run a farm of his own.
In 1978 Gerald married Natalia Phillips, daughter of Lt Col Harold Phillips and Gina, grand-daughter of Sir Julius Wernher. Gerald and ‘Tally’ were married at Tally’s family home, Luton Hoo and they spent their honeymoon at Bull’s Run in Australia. Their marriage represented the dawn of a new era in the history of the Grosvenor family – a modern family with Tally at its very heart.
Gerald inherited the dukedom from his father in 1979. The property crash of the early 1970s and the heavy mortgaging of the London Estate to pay death duties had left the business in dire straits. Along with the 120 hectare London Estate that came into the Grosvenor family in the 17th century, Gerald inherited the heavy burden of responsibility, which was to breathe life and purpose back into the Grosvenor Estate. He also inherited two inestimable qualities from his father, a sense of duty and a keen appreciation of what was right and fair. These two qualities stood him in good stead in his business dealings over the years.
He wisely surrounded himself with excellent people who worked closely together to encourage his involvement in the business and to support him in the role of Chairman, but it was his own youth and enthusiasm that provided the impetus to drive the Grosvenor Estate forward to become one of the largest and most entrepreneurial privately owned international property companies in the world. His openness coupled with a natural charm endeared him to many. Laughter was never far away in any conversation and many were the times when a joke relieved the tension at a difficult meeting or in an awkward situation.
Like many of his forebears he was an accomplished soldier. In April 1992 he took Command of his regiment the Queen’s Own Yeomanry based in Newcastle. He thought this to be the pinnacle of his Army career, instead it served to fan the flames of his future ambitions in the Army, not for himself, but for the volunteer soldier and the public’s recognition of their contribution.
In 2004, Gerald was made the Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff for Reserve Forces and Cadets. This put him in charge of Ministry of Defence policy for the reservists and cadets of all three armed forces. Having started his military life as a trooper thirty-five years before, he was now promoted to Major General – making him the first reservist ‘two star’ since the 1930s. The combination of his rank and his posting within the MOD enabled him to achieve much on behalf of the Reserve Forces during a period that saw a sea-change in their culture: reservists were now expected and wanted to serve on operations.
Not since the Second World War had such numbers been mobilised, firstly to Iraq and then increasingly to Afghanistan. The first decade of the twenty-first century saw the Territorial Army assume an exceptionally high profile. It moved from being a force of last resort to become the reserve of choice in support of regular army operations. Much of this was due to Major General the Duke of Westminster.
As the role of reservists became more and more critical, so did Gerald’s influence on policy within the MoD. Never a man to do things by half, he gave evidence to the Public Accounts Committee in June 2006, worked a five-day week at his desk in Whitehall and utilised almost every weekend in the year to conduct visits to reservists in training or on ceremonial events. He also maintained a thorough knowledge of what was happening on operations, visiting the Balkans and Iraq many times throughout his tenure and travelling to Kabul and Kandahar during the critical planning phase for the intensification of operations in Helmand. He also made trips to Bosnia, Albania, Kuwait, Estonia, Malta and Oman. Despite his punishing programme – often visiting several units in a weekend – he would not allow any of his expenses to be a cost to the taxpayer.
When his term as Head of Reserve Forces came to an end in 2007 he re-focussed his attention on the Grosvenor Estate. No stone was left unturned. He started his quest to perfect each of his rural estates in terms of conservation and productivity. He met staff from each of the businesses and estates and asked them for their thoughts. Collating the information he went about putting in place the systems and procedures to make all staff feel a part of the organisation as a whole. He promoted the importance of the rural estates and the communities which they supported and gave the non-property businesses the confidence to excel.
This was interrupted in 2011 when he was, once again “called up”, taking the new appointment of Deputy Commander Land Forces at a crucial time for the Territorial Army as the MOD published the Future Reserves 2020 Commission’s (FR20) Report. It was a time of huge cultural change for the Army and General Westminster was at the heart of it. He was able to make a unique contribution as one who had more experience of Reserve forces than anyone else in Defence. His appointment was key to providing an experienced perspective in generating the appropriate reserve forces, re-establishing commitment, introducing a reinvigorated recruiting campaign and directing staff effort across the whole Army. His commitment set an example for others to follow. He more than held his own amongst Generals but was equally at home talking with the most junior trooper on the tank park. Soldiers, sailors and airmen of all ranks knew how much he was doing for them and appreciated his commitment and support.
When the Duke left the Reserve Army after over 40 years of service he was very moved by what he had seen in Iraq and Afghanistan and particularly by the very heavy price many young people in uniform had paid for serving the nation. He wanted to do something for them and this quickly turned into the idea of continuing the success of the clinical rehabilitation at Headley Court which was created in 1947 – by simply creating a 21st century version of it on a new site in the middle of England. Along the way the Secretary of State for Defence asked him if he would at the same time 'do something for the nation' – essentially by sharing Defence's renowned expertise in this field – which Gerald agreed to. One thing led to another and by 2011 there was strong support pan-Government for his idea and the concept of the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre was born. Typically, he made the founding gift of £50 million. Other major donors have followed his lead so that his creation is now a year into construction and will open in 2018. This year the rehabilitation opportunities for the nation stemming from the construction of the Defence establishment are being seriously examined with Government – and the Grosvenor legacy here could be even greater than he ever imagined. It is very poignant that he will not see his remarkable initiative turn into a very significant legacy for those who are seriously injured. Many in uniform will hope that the earth lies lightly on this soldier's bones.
His military experience was reflected in Gerald’s approach to the Grosvenor Estate, where his loyalty to his staff, whether a senior executive or a young gamekeeper, was unprecedented and all knew that the Duke would be there to support them when the going got tough. He was a great believer in investing in people; he would present long-service awards, attend retirement parties, speak at staff open days and have lunch with small groups of staff on a regular basis.
Gerald, the countryman, had a natural affinity with the countryside. In 1992 he published a report entitled “The Problems in Rural Areas” highlighting the difficulties being experienced in remote and isolated rural communities. In recent years he lobbied to get “Broadband” access for isolated communities, something he knew to be a commercial and educational lifeline.
He was a man of duty. He was loyal, unforgiving, decisive, stubborn, a fearsome opponent, prejudiced, opinionated and a brilliant strategist. He was a contradiction. He was brave and yet wild horses could not drag him to the dentist. He was both intolerant and open-minded, a loner and the best company, self-indulgent and hugely generous; he could be boastful about small things and unassuming about magnificent things. He would not accept weakness of any kind, particularly in himself, even when suffering with depression he refused to see a doctor and decided to “heal himself”.
He hated the tags “environmentalist” and “philanthropist” believing that caring was a better word and particularly hated those who endeavoured to protect his good name and would thwart their efforts at every turn. Like many who had to grow up too quickly he maintained a childlike quality, a smutty sense of humour, and a great sense of the ridiculous. He never lost his love of the outdoors – a countryman at heart he was never more content than when he was on the grouse moor with a shotgun in hand.
He is survived by his wife Tally, their four children, Tamara, Edwina, Hugh and Viola; grandchildren, Jake, Louis, Zia, Wolf, Isla and Orla. He is succeeded by his son, Hugh who becomes the 7th Duke of Westminster and leaves him a well-ordered Grosvenor Estate.