Sir David Barclay: From oddjob man to billionaire who bought The Ritz

From oddjob man to billionaire who bought The Ritz: It’s an astonishing story of ambition, power… and family rivalry. ROBERT HARDMAN details how David Barclay, who has died at 86, rose to be one half of Britain’s ultra-secretive media mogul twins

  • Sir David Barclay built his business empire with his identical twin Sir Frederick
  • The media mogul who was among UK’s richest died aged 86 after a short illness
  • London-born Sir David invested in hotels before expanding to shipping and retail

His was the ultimate Thatcherite success story, even if Sir David Barclay did his level best to prevent anyone from telling it: the workaholic boy from the back streets who left school at 14 and who, with his twin brother, built one of the great business empires of his time.

It encompassed great hotels, shipping fleets, breweries, a fortified island retreat — and the Daily Telegraph.

So when, in the twilight of her life, Lady Thatcher needed a helping hand, Sir David Barclay and Sir Frederick were more than willing to help.

Not only did they bankroll their heroine, but they ensured that she spent her final days in a suite at their grandest address, London’s Ritz Hotel, before her death in 2013.

Now, after a brief illness, the famously reclusive Sir David has himself passed away at the age of 86. He leaves a widow, four sons and nine grandchildren.

JPictured: Joint owners of the Daily Telegraph Sir David Barclay (left) and his twin brother Sir Frederick after receiving their knighthoods from the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2000

Sir David Barclay with his then-wife Zoe Newton with their new born baby Aidan in 1956

He also leaves a twin brother from whom he was inseparable for most of his life, until a bizarre and painful rift towards the very end.

The details of that, however, remain opaque, as does so much about Sir David for the simple reason that he preferred it that way.

For years, he refused to submit any information to Who’s Who. Even today, his entry — like that of his twin — contains no details of any parents, wives (he would have two), children, hobbies or even his date of birth.

It simply lists a string of directorships, along with the honour of which the brothers were most proud.

In 2000, they both went to Buckingham Palace to be knighted by the Queen for services to charity. They had never trumpeted their philanthropy, but it ran into tens of millions.

The occasion was memorable for two reasons. First, it meant a rare sighting of them together (wearing identical purple ties).

The Barclays bought a joint home on the rocky outcrop of Brecqhou, off the Channel island of Sark. They had bought the island for £2.3m in 1993, building a fortress like neo-Gothic mansion

Second, the Queen performed the only double-knighting in living memory. Rather than queue one behind the other, both Barclays were allowed to kneel side by side to receive the accolade.

It was, perhaps, the high point of their partnership. A decade later, cracks began to appear, culminating in last year’s astonishing courtroom stories of bugged conversations and a toxic feud between the younger generations of the Barclay dynasty.

The rift followed a decision by Sir David’s sons to sell the Ritz to a Qatari sheikh. This ran against the wishes of Sir Frederick and his daughter, who believed a better deal could be struck than the reported price of around £750 million.

The fact one of Sir David’s sons had bugged many of Sir Frederick’s conversations made things more poisonous.

Though I understand that the brothers had some sort of reconciliation shortly before Sir David’s death, it meant an unhappy final chapter to his life.

Yet it was not one entirely unfamiliar to a man who filled a library with leather-bound copies of all the legal actions he pursued in life. It is a big library.

The Queen with David Barclay (centre) and Frederick Barclay (right) at the opening of the new headquarters of The Scotsman Publications Ltd in Edinburgh

David Rowat Barclay was born in Hammersmith, West London, on October 27, 1934, ten minutes ahead of Frederick.

During wartime evacuation, the twins showed an early talent for business by charging farmers to look after their bicycles on market day.

They were 13 when their father, a Scottish-born travelling salesman, died, leaving behind ten children.

David initially found work in the accounts department of General Electric before turning his hand to odd jobs and, with Frederick, a failed corner shop business.

In the early 1960s, they set up an estate agency in London’s Notting Hill, then nothing like the chi-chi banker enclave of today.

At the same time, David met and married Zoe Newton, a model, with whom he had three boys (divorced in the 1980s, he would have a fourth son by his second wife).


Barclays bought the Telegraph in 2004 which would grow to be a source of disagreement between the brothers as Sir David loved it while Sir Frederic saw it as a costly vanity project

By the early 1970s, the brothers had a stable of 15 hotels, including one on Park Lane. Indeed, their careers were starting to mirror a marathon game of Monopoly.

There was near-ruin during the slump of 1974. Yet they managed to expand the hotel empire still further.

By the time Mrs Thatcher was in Downing Street, they were keen to upgrade. Their 1983 purchase, for £47 million, of Ellerman, a shipping and brewery conglomerate, would see them promoted to the corporate first division.

The timing was spot-on, feeding a new, insatiable City appetite as they flogged off the pub side of the business for five times the purchase price.

By the 1990s, they were spending much of their time in Monaco, where they kept a yacht, Lady Beatrice, named after their mother.

Together with identical twin Sir Frederick Barclay (right), Sir David (left) launched a business empire making him one of Britain’s richest men with an estimated shared wealth of  £7bn

There they lent support to another expat dynamo on the up, one Philip Green, as he was building his fashion empire. All along, they adhered rigidly to that lifelong mantra: no publicity.

It was at the same time that they made two decisions which set them apart from the usual Rich List fodder.

They bought a 160-acre Channel Island, Brecqhou, and proceeded to build a fairytale fortress worthy of a James Bond film into its weather-beaten rock.

They also laid the foundations of a new media empire. This began modestly enough in 1992 with the purchase of the European newspaper, followed by The Scotsman and Sunday Business.

However, they would advance to Fleet Street’s top table in 2004, beating off plenty of competition to acquire the Telegraph group for a hefty £665 million.

It would grow to be a source of some disagreement between the brothers. Whereas Sir David always loved the newspaper side of the business, Sir Frederick was said to regard it as a costly vanity project. He was more interested in hotels.

Though they would end up with a portfolio stretching from the Mirabeau in Monaco (where both were honorary ambassadors) to Claridge’s, there was one unrivalled crown jewel in their collection: the Ritz.

Bought in 1995 for £75 million, it was the Ritz where they loved to entertain friends such as Lady Thatcher. And it was the Ritz which, ultimately, drove them apart.

‘In all my dealings with him, I never found Sir David anything other than fair and decent,’ says ex-editor and TV presenter Andrew Neil, who worked with the brothers for 25 years.

‘To be honest, I never imagined anything could possibly come between them. So it is good to know that they had some reconciliation.’

So did they finally patch things up? We will probably never know. Indeed, you can almost hear, from the hereafter, a celestial: ‘No comment.’

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