Dowry – that’s a word you don’t hear much these days. Back in the age of dynastic betrothals made as business deals between wealthy families, dowries counted for a lot. In 1677, what eventually became the mother of all dowries was delivered by Mary Davies, a twelve-year-old heiress who brought to the marital table some undeveloped marshland in central London. Her husband-to-be was Sir Thomas Grosvenor, a 21-year-old Cheshire landowner and future MP for Chester. Mary Davies’s dowry included around 100 acres in a disreputable neighbourhood primarily known for its ancient fair held every May, which attracted the kind of debauched rowdiness later portrayed in paintings by Hogarth; the remainder of the land she’d inherited encompassed half a square mile stretching from Hyde Park to the Thames. The Grosvenor Estate was developed by the couple’s children after the relatively early deaths of their parents, and is now better known as Mayfair, Belgravia and Park Lane. Over 300 years later, Mary Davies’s marshland is now the most prized real estate on the planet.
It may seem somewhat anachronistic in the twenty-first century, but the most expensive areas of London largely remain in private hands, still owned by families that purchased the land three or four centuries ago. These areas were developed and built upon in the subsequent decades following their original purchase and were gradually transformed into some of the country’s most exclusive residential districts. It’s no wonder the families that originally owned the land have held onto it. The Grosvenor family, along with the Cavendish’s, the Bedford’s and the Cadogan’s, were prominent landowners during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the head of the Grosvenor family was elevated to the upper echelons of the peerage by Queen Victoria, who created the Dukedom of Westminster in 1874. The sixth holder of that title passed away from a heart attack a couple of days ago at the age of 64.
The late Lord (Patrick) Lichfield once remarked that the aristocracy are made of tough stuff, and the twentieth century saw them receive their greatest challenges. After hundreds of years in which they had essentially governed the nation, times had changed and power was no longer a given. The increased death duties levied upon the richest families in the country following the Second World War saw the demolition of hundreds of great country houses the aristocracy could no longer afford to run, robbing the British landscape of some of its most beautiful residences. Those that survived had to be adapted into tourist attractions, opening their doors to the public and creating the industry of the stately home in the process, something that helps maintain the astronomical upkeep of such houses. As caretakers of what are undeniably amongst this country’s architectural jewels, they haven’t done a bad job.
By all accounts, the Sixth Duke of Westminster was in possession of the one factor inherited wealth can imbue in the best of men that is often absent from self-made barrow-boys such as Philip Green and Mike Ashley – class. Gerald Grosvenor had an estimated fortune of £9.35 billion, making him the third richest man in Britain and relegating the likes of David Cameron or George Osborne to mere wannabes. But it would seem he had a degree of humility about him sorely lacking in those who seek to buy their way into high society and mistake material goods for greatness.
The genuine aristocracy probably have more in common with the ‘common man’ than they do the aspiring middle-classes and the social-climbing self-made men, both of whom look down on the ranks they’ve risen from with a contempt that is absent from those who’ve never belonged to them. Being born at the top means there’s nowhere to aim for, just as many born at the bottom remain there because they feel they can rise no higher; this seems to breed a shared absence of ambition that social climbers find incomprehensible. Consequently, the two social demographics within British society that know how to have a good time and don’t get hung up about it emanate from the polar ends of the social scale.
Although he attended Harrow, Gerald Grosvenor didn’t fit in on account of the Irish accent he had acquired though being raised and initially educated in County Fermanagh; he turned to the army and eventually reached the rank of Major General, finally retiring from military service in 2012. The land he inherited upon ascending to the title of Duke in 1979 included Liverpool city centre; Liverpool was a beneficiary of his philanthropy, and it is testament to the kind of aristocrat he was that he saw fit to use his considerable wealth not to open a dozen bank accounts in the Cayman Islands, but to donate handsomely to charities and, for example, to aid struggling farmers during the devastating foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001.
It’s the easiest reaction in the world to sneer at the lucky few who are born into the kind of privilege the late Duke of Westminster was born into; but none of us ask to be born and none of us can measure our own origins until we are exposed to the origins of others. That some decide to benefit the less fortunate by employing their vast wealth in ways that Flash Harry’s with a heavily-advertised Rolls Royce in the garage or a yacht in Monaco regard as anathema is to their credit. If we are to have riches in the hands of the few as opposed to the many, I would rather it be in the hands of Gerald Grosvenor than the former head of BHS any day.
© The Editor