To say that Gerald Grosvenor was born with a silver spoon in his mouth would be an exaggeration. But the estates he inherited from his father in 1979 when he became the 6th Duke of Westminster certainly furnished the equivalent of many canteens of silverware.
Through recent generations, his family had always been regarded as the wealthiest in Britain and although that position has now slipped slightly, the Duke, who has died suddenly aged 64 after being taken ill at the Abbeystead estate, one of his properties in Lancashire, was still considered the third richest person in Britain. Earlier this year, his wealth was estimated at about £9.3bn.
That wealth was built partly on investments, but mainly on property across Britain, Europe, the US and the far east, and especially in central London. The Duke’s ancestor Hugh Lupus – the king’s head huntsman or grand veneur, a tubby man nicknamed gros veneur, from which derived the family surname – came across with William the Conqueror and was granted a chunk of Cheshire to protect the region from the Welsh. But it was a profitable marriage in 1677 that secured boggy farmland in what became the Mayfair and Belgravia areas of London that really cemented the family fortunes.
They still hold 300 acres of it, including Grosvenor Square, where they are the landlords of the American embassy, part of Oxford Street and other now desirable addresses, many bearing family names. There are also estates in Oxfordshire, Cheshire – 10,872 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.
Yet the 6th Duke’s great wealth appeared to be more a responsibility than a pleasure to him. He suffered from depression and in 1998 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.”
Unlike some of his predecessors, such as Bendor, the 2nd Duke, who lavished diamonds on his lover Coco Chanel and wanted Britain to ally with Hitler, the 6th Duke gave to and supported a string of charities and other worthy causes – £500,000 to farmers hit by the 2001 foot and mouth crisis, for instance – and served diligently on the boards of many military and other charities, including Emmaus, for the homeless, for more than 40 years.
As he confided on the BBC programme, however, he found a private plane handy for hopping from Cheshire to his office in London and he and his wife did not hesitate to rebuild Eaton Hall in the French chateau style less than 20 years after it had been rebuilt “like a 1960s Inn on the Park” by his uncle – the family have a penchant for that sort of thing, having enlarged the house three times in the 19th century alone.
Gerald Grosvenor came into the line of succession only because the 3rd Duke was childless and the title passed to a cousin, who became 4th Duke in 1963 and then, when he died four years later, to his younger brother, Gerald’s father, Robert Grosvenor, who farmed in Northern Ireland and lived on an island in Lough Erne. He was the Ulster Unionist MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone until he succeeded as 5th Duke, and was married to Viola Lyttelton, daughter of Viscount Cobham.
Their son had an idyllic childhood on the farm, interrupted when he was sent to a prep school at Sunningdale in Berkshire at the age of seven and then to Harrow, which he left with two O-levels, in English and history. “I was not motivated at school. I was unhappy. I never applied myself. I found it very difficult to make friends,” he said. “I did not need O-levels to lead, to have judgment, to make decisions and to be decided.” Nevertheless, in later life he would serve several universities, as pro-chancellor of Keele, then chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan and first chancellor of Chester.
He learned of his likely inheritance only when his father told him at the age of 15. “It almost made me run for the door, slam it and keep running,” he said. “The implications were daunting. In Ulster I was called Gerald all my life and there was no question of titles, ‘Your Grace this, Your Grace that’. I find it very embarrassing when people ask what they should call me – then, I stumble.”
Although he had to start learning the management of the family estates instead of taking up an army career as intended, Grosvenor did serve with the Territorials, in the Queen’s Own Yeomanry cavalry regiment, rising through the ranks, attending the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and eventually becoming a major-general and assistant chief of the defence staff with responsibility for the army reserves and cadets.
In 2007 he stood down after he was named as a user of a New York escort service called the Emperors Club – he resigned his chairmanship of the Grosvenor Group, the family estates’ holding company, at the same time – though he subsequently rejoined the Territorials once more, as a trooper in the ranks, for a further five years. His last project was raising money from wealthy corporate and individual donors for the building of a £300m rehabilitation centre for psychologically damaged servicemen near Loughborough.
The Duke’s attitude to his property empire was one of noblesse oblige: when Westminster council proposed selling off a housing estate in Pimlico, intended by his ancestors specifically for the use of the working classes, he took the council to court (Westminster claimed that the working class no longer existed) and won. But he resigned from the Conservative party in 1993 over its leasehold reform legislation, giving long-serving tenants the right to buy their properties. It was, he told Desert Island Discs, the thin end of the wedge, equivalent to the taking of one owner’s property for the benefit of another: “I had to leave because of my own conscience. I took a moral stand.”
In 1978 he married Natalia Phillips – a descendant of the Russian author Pushkin and Tsar Nicholas I. She survives him, along with their three daughters, Tamara, Edwina and Viola, and a son, Hugh, who succeeds to the title.
• Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, 6th Duke of Westminster, landowner, born 22 December 1951; died 9 August 2016
• This article was amended on 12 August 2016. A reference to the Duke of Westminster’s wealth having decreased as a result of movements in share prices since the EU referendum result has been deleted. While they declined initially, by the time of his death share indices stood higher than they had before the referendum.