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August 31, 2006updated 01 Feb 2016 12:16pm

Road to Super-Ruin

By Clive Aslet

Clive Aslet on billionaires who hit the buffers and other things that go bump in the night

Clive Aslet on billionaires who hit the buffers and other things that go bump in the night

‘They all seemed to divide the world into two classes of people,’ wrote Dickens of some city types in Our Mutual Friend. ‘People who were making enormous fortunes, and people who were being enormously ruined.’

In the age of super-wealth, there should perhaps be an equivalent term – super-ruin? – for what happens when it all leaches away. I don’t want to send a shudder down your spine, dear reader, secure in your possession of mansions, yacht and private jet. But more than one angel has fallen recently.

The 3rd Baron Hesketh has left Easton Neston, the Baroque palace in Northamptonshire where his family had lived since the 18th century, after a spectacular sale; it is not know how much remains from its proceeds once debts have been cleared.

Conrad Black, former owner of The Daily Telegraph, among other newspapers, faces trial for fraud. Yet, it was not long ago that this extravagant party giver was living happily in the land of hyperwealth, his life of power and influence operating according to different principles from those ordinary families.

Both Hesketh and Black started life with every conceivable advantage that heredity could offer, including sizeable fortunes. Both could end it with those fortunes considerably diminished, or worse.

To what American tax avoider Leona Helmsey misguidedly called the ‘little people’, it may be difficult to conceive of inheriting great wealth. But then to lose it all exceeds the bounds of imagination altogether.

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How can it happen? The 18th century painter William Hogarth could have told us. Like Dickens, he was the son of a father (a Latin teacher) who had spent several years imprisoned for debt. Perhaps that is why he grew up to have such a robust understanding of the workings of the world, including the importance of money.

In the first of the eight paintings that make up The Rake’s Progress, we see Tom Rakewell being measured for the travelling clothes in which he will set out for the capital; by the last, he is in the terminal stages of syphilis, having lost everything through the 18th century equivalent of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (the roll in this case being that of dice).

The moral is stark. It may be that nobody now ends, like Rakewell, in Bedlam, with gentle folks taking an afternoon’s amusement from gawping at the madman; Aids has replaced syphilis as the most dreaded sexually transmitted scourge. But parents still look at the canvas and shiver.

Like the poor, rakes and wastrels are always with us. Gambling has always provided an expressway to fortune loss. Consider the sombre words of The Sporting Magazine on the death of the dissipated 4th Marquess of Hastings in 1868. Only 26, he had ‘frittered away two fine family estates’, prompting the reflection that: ‘Betting is said to be the touchstone of an Englishman’s sincerity, but the marquess, a craving for the odds had become a passion, or even a disease.’

How ‘Lucky’ Lord Lucan and his set would have sympathised. The 7th Duke of Leinster, who married four times, gambled his way from Palladian mansions in Ireland to a Pimlico bedsit, owning little more than his socks at the time of his suicide in 1976.

Then there are the temptations unknown to Hogarth. Stagger forward the late 7th Marquess of Bristol, who had lost everything by the time of his death, aged 44, in 1999. Like his father, who served three years for theft in the 1930s, Johnny Bristol considered himself above the ordinary laws of morality, and would lurch from his monogrammed helicopter with his face covered in cocaine.

His forebear, the Earl-Bishop of Derry, who built the family seat of Ickworth in Suffolk, made the plumpest parsons of his see race through a bog in pursuit of a particularly rich living, only to give it away to someone else.

Bristol inherited the cruel sense of fun, insisting that a female American guest row out into the middle of the lake at Ickworth in a rubber dingy, which he punctured with an air rifle. Tears come to the eyes of furniture historians when they recall his blasé treatment of antiques.

As a spendthrift, Bristol stands in the tradition of the ‘Dancing’ 5th Marquess of Anglesey, the homosexual descendent of Wellington’s cavalry commander at Waterloo. Loaded with jewels, he fluttered in front of an audience of local Welsh tenants and tradesmen in a fin-de-siecle Butterfly Dance, which he then, at enormous expense, took on tour.

In 1904, his trustees took over his affairs and there began a 40-day series of sales, during which jewellery, motor cars, yachts and even a collection of pedigree dogs went under the hammer. His personal wardrobe alone occupied three days. ‘Such pyjamas! And such nightshirts!’ gasped one eye-witness.

‘There were 30 suits of the finest silk pyjamas, some splendid black silk shirts – 24 suits of fancy silk pyjamas and jackets; and still the cry was – They come!’

After the sale, Anglesey left for France and died at Monte Carlo, aged 30, the next year. There are still plenty of silver spoons which vanish down the waste disposal unit of life. But take a deep breath and stay calm.

Exotic holidays, expensive houses, the occasional vice or other self-indulgence – these are nothing to the cost of maintaining a household full of liveried footmen, as would been de rigueur for the rich of other centuries.

In the egalitarian 21st century, social aspirations come relatively cheap. That is why super ruin is such a spectacular phenomenon. It doesn’t happen very often. Sleep tight.

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