The death of the sixth Duke of Westminster at the age of 64 the estate passes to his 25-year-old son Hugh
In 1677, Sir Thomas Grosvenor married the 12-year-old heiress Mary Davies and came into possession of 500 acres of swamp, pasture and orchards to the west of London. More than 330 years later, a majority of those 500 acres remain in the possession of Sir Thomas’s family. Now, however, they are part of London’s most exclusive districts and the core of a property empire worth billions that stretches around the world.
With the death on Tuesday of the sixth Duke of Westminster, Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, at the age of 64, the vast Grosvenor estate passes to his 25-year-old son Hugh, who inherits one of London’s remaining great landed estates — albeit one that underwent fierce modernisation during his father’s era.
“For a family that did not need to set themselves up as a professional business, they did an amazing job of creating a very powerful brand — and the legacy of much of that would be down to the late duke,” said Toby Courtauld, chief executive of the listed property company Great Portland Estates.
“That will be an enduring legacy. He has created an exceptionally high-quality real estate business.”
The Grosvenor family’s history began with the arrival of Gilbert le Grosveneur — a surname meaning “master of the hunt” — in 1066 with the Norman conquest. This led the late duke, speaking to an FT reporter in 2004, to give the following advice to young would-be entrepreneurs: “Make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror.”
A descendant married the heiress to the Eaton estate near Chester, which became the family seat, in the 1440s; in 1634 the second baronet, Richard Grosvenor, acquired valuable Welsh mineral and mining holdings.
The estate was imperilled during the English Civil War when it was sequestered after the Grosvenors supported the king, but they reclaimed it through payment of a fine and soon after Sir Thomas made his auspicious marriage to Mary Davies. “We have a very strong survival instinct,” Gerald Grosvenor told the FT. “We have been pursued by every single government and, prior to that, Cromwell had a damn good go at us. The great thing is that we have kept our heads on our shoulders.”
In the 1700s the family began developing the London land as a desirable residential area known as Mayfair, centred on Grosvenor Square, which is for the time being the site of the US embassy. Later the family’s surveyor set out plans for Belgravia.
Gerald Grosvenor, born in 1951, only found out that he would inherit the estate when he was 15, after his father came into the title unexpectedly. He had early ambitions to be a professional footballer and then longed for a military career, an urge he satisfied through 42 years in the Territorial Army.
He told an interviewer at the Independent newspaper in the 1990s that his youthful weakness had been cars — “I had an appalling series of high-speed car crashes”.
Despite this — and although he managed to get only two O-levels during his time at Harrow school — he showed an early tendency to take the real estate business seriously, working in a central London property agency to learn about the market.
The Grosvenor estate had already begun expanding internationally, with a development in Vancouver, by the time Gerald became involved in the 1960s as his father became ill. But at that time, he later said, the estate was “in bad shape”.
Today the group runs £13.1bn of assets — including those handled for third parties — and of its £6.7bn property portfolio, more than half is outside Britain and Ireland. It is active in 60 cities, employs 567 people and directly owns 1,550 properties, with a specialism in urban regeneration.
It has been credited with a series of shrewd market calls, including stepping back from the luxury housing market in 2014 because of concerns over pricing; prices in that segment have been on the decline since.
By that time, the sixth duke — who always left day-to-day running to a series of chief executives — had taken a back seat, stepping down as chairman of its property business in 2007. He once said he would rather have been born as Joe Bloggs. “Given the choice, I would rather not have been born wealthy, but I never think of giving it up. I can’t sell. It doesn’t belong to me,” he said.
But many in the industry credit him with the professionalisation of the group, which unlike other family offices has chosen to operate as a public brand and to regenerate already lucrative slices of real estate, such as Mount Street in Mayfair. Still a private company, it took on a corporate structure as a group of regional businesses in 2000 and began publishing annual reports and accounts.
Close to the duke’s heart was the group’s nearly 165,000 acres of rural land, especially the Eaton estate; Wheatsheaf Holdings, based there, made investments in technology and clean-energy businesses trying to make agriculture more sustainable. Its Cogent Breeding business is the UK’s biggest bull stud and sends semen to 40 countries.
The late duke was reckoned to be the 68th-ranked billionaire in the world — third in the UK, and one of the richest aristocrats anywhere. He was also a close friend of the royal family; his widow, Natalia, is a godmother to the Prince William and his only son Hugh, is Prince George’s youngest godfather.
Yet he was also known for his philanthropy and commitment to social housing: he took Westminster City Council to court, in a case known as Westminster v Westminster, in 1990 to ensure a group of homes on Grosvenor land would remain socially rented rather than being sold.
“One of the great things that Grosvenor have done is keep their philanthropic view about balanced communities and doing something for the heart of our city — keeping people there who work there and have roots in the community,” said Stephen Howlett, chief executive of Peabody, a housing association that runs 500 socially rented homes owned by Grosvenor.
But the group is also known as a tough commercial operator that rarely, if ever, sells the freeholds of its land — a policy that led to friction with the US embassy in Grosvenor Square, which is now moving south of the Thames.
At 25, the new duke is even younger than his father was when he took over the estate. Under the English common law of primogeniture, Hugh Grosvenor inherits the title rather than any of his three sisters and the estate — held in trust for the benefit of the family — is passed on intact; it sits beside the Crown and Cadogan estates as one of the landed estates that have endured through the centuries.
Hugh’s father is expected to have carried out enough tax planning to avoid the fate of the second duke, who died in 1963 leaving the estate to absorb an £11m death duty bill — £200m in today’s terms, thought to be the largest sum ever paid as an inheritance bill.
In 1992 the late duke said of his son: “My main object will be to teach him self- discipline and a sense of duty. He has been born with the longest silver spoon anyone can have, but he can’t go through life sucking on it. He has to put back what he has been given.”