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25 October 2023

How the Barclay brothers built and wrecked an empire

The twins accrued hotels, newspapers and a fortress on their own island – then their fortune vanished.

By Pippa Bailey

In the summer of 2022, the Sunday Times Rich List billionaire Frederick Barclay, then 87, appeared at the High Court, accused by his ex-wife of contempt for failing to pay out on their £100m divorce settlement. Frederick’s nephews, the sons of his twin brother David, had more lawyers in the courtroom than either their uncle or aunt, and attempted – unsuccessfully – to prevent proceedings from being reported. This was typical of the family, who were notoriously publicity-shy. “After a lifetime of secrecy,” writes Jane Martinson in her account of the twins and their business dealings, “suddenly stories of family fallouts and crises filled the pages of the newspapers.”

The court’s problem was that the Barclays’ business network was so complex that no one seemed to understand it, even within the family. “The case kept coming back to two issues: the search for huge sums of money in ownership structures that were still entirely opaque, and the search for the ultimate controller.” This is a problem for Martinson, too, for though You May Never See Us Again follows the leads as well as any detective, the whole picture feels tantalisingly just out of view. The problem, Frederick told the judge, wasn’t that he was unwilling to pay, but he was unable to. One half of a partnership once said to be worth £6bn now claimed to have no money. Where had it gone?

David and Frederick Barclay were born on 27 October 1934 to Beatrice, already a mother to three children, and Frederick Snr, a travelling salesman who died when the twins were 13. The family of seven squeezed into a two-bedroom flat in Shepherd’s Bush, west London. David, ten minutes older than Frederick, was “always the more dominant twin”. They were mirror twins, one left-handed and the other right, and dressed identically; outsiders relied on the side of their parting to tell them apart. Fond of Windsor-knotted ties and cutaway collars, they looked, said one colleague, “like wide boys and spies”.

“The story of how the Barclay brothers made a fortune is not just a rags-to-riches success story, but the story of modern Britain,” writes Martinson. On leaving school they worked in the accounts department of the General Electric Company and for Schweppes, before getting into property in the 1950s. How they did so is unclear: their start in business is “possibly the murkiest period” in the twins’ lives.

The brothers were “shrewd and hard-working, but they also benefited from the most astonishing boom in London property prices”: David once said a building he bought in 1961 for £5,000 was valued at £25m by 2019. Still, the pace at which the Barclay empire grew was remarkable; by the late 1970s they had bought and sold 15 hotels in just over a decade. The brothers acquired property, Martinson writes, “with the speed with which most people buy coffee”. One tale from this period illustrates their love of a deal. Frederick was working in the twins’ estate agency when a woman came in looking for a house on a particular road in Notting Hill. There was nothing on the street on the books, but still Frederick showed her a property there. “The woman was delighted and paid over the odds to be able to move in so quickly. Frederick had just sold her his brother David’s house without telling him first.”

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[See also: Rupert Murdoch’s portrait in the attic]

You May Never See Us Again recounts how, over six decades, the Barclays built a portfolio of luxury hotels – the Ritz and, briefly, Claridge’s among them – shipping, shopping, newspapers and energy. They invested in Philip Green’s purchase of the conglomerate Sears, kick-starting his career as the self-styled “King of the High Street”, and bought the European newspaper from the wreckage of Robert Maxwell’s empire (an unlikely choice for two Eurosceptics). Deals were often done outside official channels and involved a large amount of borrowing. Their network of linked companies, “like a series of blank-faced Russian dolls”, was complex and they gained “a reputation as secretive asset-strippers”. Martinson traces all this with diligent detail, though sometimes at the cost of pace.

The twins had an affinity for Margaret Thatcher, with whom they shared a hatred of big government and high taxes. They were introduced to her by the Conservative Party treasurer Alistair McAlpine. In 1990 when Thatcher, ousted from No 10, had, according to an adviser, “no money in the bank”, they provided her with a former house of David’s on Chester Square, Belgravia. After she was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, they offered her a suite at the Ritz, where she lived until her death. She contributed five-figures to the bill; the Barclays covered the rest. Thatcher’s 1986 City deregulation “led to a fundamental change in society in which making money – lots of it – was increasingly celebrated”. But before this her government also removed restrictions on the amount of money that could be moved abroad. To their complicated network of UK-based businesses, the Barclays added offshore parent companies to which profits could be passed by way of inter-company loans, resulting in tax benefits.

The purchase in 2004 of the Telegraph Media Group (TMG) – for £665m at a nine-way auction, after an initial closed deal of £260m was blocked in court – brought them into contact with another future prime minister: Boris Johnson, then editor of the Spectator. Johnson, who “threw his arms up and twirled in the glare of publicity” was “everything that the Barclay brothers… were not”, but they agreed on Europe. At the helm of the Telegraph, the Barclays became the “press barons of Brexit Britain”. In the early hours of 24 June 2016, Frederick celebrated with Nigel Farage.

In the Ritz and the Telegraph, the twins owned two “great monuments to wealth and power”, but it was for another purchase that I first learned their names.

On 26 August 1993 Country Life printed a listing for a “small private island”. “The words ‘Tax Free Status’ were highlighted in bold.” The island was Brecqhou, a 74-acre rocky outcrop off the coast of Sark – where my grandfather had lived until his death. The Channel Islands are subjects of the British Crown but financially and politically independent. In the Nineties, Sark was best known for the “Sark Lark”, in which locals were paid a fee to be named directors, giving businesses tax-free status; a 1998 report into the scandal found around 15,000 directorships on an island of 575 people.

The feudal system still in place on Sark in 1993 dated back to the 16th century, when Elizabeth I sent Helier de Carteret, the first Seigneur, along with 40 men, to protect the island. The Seigneur gave each of them a parcel of land and a seat on a governing body, the Chief Pleas. When the Barclays bought Brecqhou they gained a seat on the Chief Pleas, but found themselves unwilling subjects of this archaic system of governance.

The fortress the Barclay Brothers erected on Brecqhou, with its 100ft walls, turrets and crenellated ramparts, was the largest private house built in Britain for 200 years. Chinook helicopters airlifted in cranes and diggers, and 90,000 tons of concrete, steel, granite and marble were shipped in. A new water treatment plant, waste disposal system and power station were installed, along with postal, fire and medical services. More than a thousand workers laboured day and night under floodlights, disrupting nearby Sark, which has no street lights and is now a designated dark sky zone. The finished house had an 80m-long banqueting room and a library with a hand-painted ceiling based on the Sistine Chapel. Admission was through oak doors etched with the Barclay motto: Aut agere aut mori, “Either do or die”.

“It would take an entire book to detail all the legal actions launched on Sark and its inhabitants,” writes Martinson – though she has a good go. The “legal onslaught” was a particular obsession of David’s, and “did not really stop until he died 25 years later”. Actions ranged from an attempt to win Brecqhou’s independence from Sark to a legal letter sent to 72-year-old Jennifer Cochrane, who produced the parish newsletter from her living room.

In 2007 they started buying property on Sark, including four of six hotels. By the end of that year they owned a quarter of the island’s freeholds. One local called it a “financial blitzkrieg”. At one point David wrote to the Seigneur and offered to buy his fief, lease and title (the position is inherited but can be sold with the permission of the Crown). When Sark held its first elections in 2008, the Barclays backed nine candidates; not one of them was elected. The next day, they sacked all 140 islanders working in Barclay-owned businesses, only to later rehire them. By 2019, when I attended my grandfather’s funeral on Sark, only one Barclay hotel remained open. Two years later, David was buried on Brecqhou. Frederick did not attend the funeral.

[See also: How the centre right was lost]

Although their fifties were a successful decade for the twins, David’s health began to decline, and so thoughts turned to succession. While Frederick had just one daughter, Amanda, David had four sons, several of whom had roles in the business, and he felt their share should be greater. During an acute period of illness, David pushed Frederick to agree to give David’s sons half Frederick’s share in the business, leaving a quarter of the total for Amanda. Frederick later said he felt “forced” into this and that it was the greatest regret of his life.

The Barclay brothers had survived the property and secondary banking crisis in the 1970s and the 2008 financial crash. Still, the credit crisis made public the recklessness with which financial institutions had lent to property speculators, and banks became more cautious. By 2011, the family’s delivery business, Yodel, was losing more than £1m a week. Six years later, they lost a case against HMRC for VAT overpayments that they had hoped would be worth up to £1.25bn. In the 18 months following the ruling, £340m was taken from offshore assets and funnelled into UK businesses; money was starting to flow the wrong way. The PPI scandal cost them, too: Littlewoods, their catalogue shopping company, had to pay more than half a billion pounds in compensation between 2015 and 2021. TMG’s operating profits fell from £51m in 2015 to just £7.8m three years later.

Frederick and Amanda, worried for their financial futures, began to ask how much debt there was and where it was owed. In 2020, with the family divided over what to sell to pay off their borrowings, David’s youngest son, Alistair, planted a listening device in a private room at the Ritz. It recorded 94 hours of meetings between Frederick and his bankers, lawyers and daughter over two months. Shortly after Frederick began legal proceedings against his nephews for the privacy breach, they sold the hotel to a Qatari royal for £800m. That same month the UK went into lockdown. The two brothers never saw each other again.

Summoned to the High Court in the summer of 2021 to testify about Frederick’s finances, David’s eldest son, Aidan, said: “I have quite a few restrictions on me from a banking point of view about what I can pay out. At the moment it’s difficult.” It was an uproarious understatement. Lloyds, unable to recoup the Barclays’ £1.6bn debts, had seized control of the Telegraph.

David and Frederick Barclay stood atop the shifting tectonic plates as modern Britain took shape around them, riding out scandal, boom and bust in a developing world of offshore accounts and cheap money. Ultimately, it was their great wealth that tore down the veil of secrecy behind which they had long hidden, a poisonous family feud made public.

The court found that lawyers for Frederick’s ex-wife had failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he had the means to pay. The judge could not say where the money was held, or if it existed at all. Nor can Jane Martinson, or, it would appear, any of the Barclays. Perhaps all that is left of it is a fortress on a rocky outcrop in the English Channel.

You May Never See Us Again: The Barclay Dynasty – A Story of Survival, Secrecy and Succession
Jane Martinson
Penguin Business, 320pp, £25

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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Fog of War

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