With its elegant panoramic windows and potted palms, the conservatory in London’s iconic Ritz hotel has long been the place to be seen.
But recently it seems it has become a place to be heard.
Not the conversations of guests — perish the thought. But in a bizarre development in the lifelong partnership of The Ritz’s owners, the multi-billionaire Barclay twins, one brother’s family has apparently been bugging the other.
It is surely the most unexpected of all the twists and turns that have shaped the near 70-year collaboration of the knighted businessmen Sir David and Sir Frederick.
Born in Hammersmith to Scottish parents who had eight other children, they started out as 16-year-old painters and decorators. Today with a privately owned empire that encompasses shipping, retail and The Ritz, as well as the Telegraph media group, they are worth some £3 billion.
And as the High Court heard this week, Sir Frederick (left), the younger by ten minutes, has been secretly bugged by Sir David’s (right) sons and grandson for several months
Since both are well into their ninth decade, it seems no time for the brothers — indeed, twins so identical that people could mistake one for the other — to fall out. But as one family source puts it, ‘it’s a feud’.
And as the High Court heard this week, Sir Frederick, the younger by ten minutes, has been secretly bugged by his twin’s sons and grandson for several months. The bugs — described in court as ‘an elaborate system of covert recordings’ — were allegedly placed in the hotel conservatory, near one of Sir Frederick’s favourite spots where he enjoyed cigars and talking to his only daughter Amanda.
The heart of this gripping family rift involves the disposal of key assets in their empire. The private family company includes Very, the catalogue retailer formerly known as Shop Direct, Yodel the delivery company, the newspapers the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph and, of course, The Ritz, which they bought 25 years ago for £75 million.
A deal is understood to be on the table in which a Saudi private investment company would buy the historic hotel on the edge of Green Park for £750 million. But family sources tell us that Sir David does not want to sell, even though its profits in 2018 fell from £13 million to £7 million.
Matters are also said to be complicated by Sir Frederick’s divorce from his Japanese-born wife Hiroko, 77.
The words inheritance as well as family trusts have certainly been heard a lot recently in family circles. This is hardly surprising as the twins will reach the age of 86 in October.
The Barclay twins’ company includes Very, Yodel the delivery company, the newspapers the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph and, of course, The Ritz (pictured), which they bought 25 years ago for £75 million
For his part, Sir David, who divides his time between a mock Gothic castle on the tiny Channel Island of Brecqhou and Monaco, has never countenanced retirement — describing it to friends as ‘God’s waiting room’.
The reclusive Sir Frederick, on the other hand, has been, as he puts it, ‘mostly retired’ since his late 70s. He is said not to have been directly involved in the business for more than 20 years.
The next generation have, meanwhile, already become deeply embroiled in the network of family companies that extend to offshore bases in Jersey, Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands.
Sir David has four sons and nine grandchildren. The eldest Aidan, 64, — ‘my Aidan’ as Sir David refers to him — has been managing the UK businesses. Then there are Howard, 60, Duncan, 59, and Alistair, 30.
It is Aidan, Howard and Alistair, together with Aidan’s son Andrew, 28, who are the alleged parties to the bugging. They eavesdropped on their uncle, it is said in the family, because they disagreed with the way Sir Frederick was going about holding talks with potential buyers.
And crucially, their side of the family claims, because of his habit of talking to strangers whom he meets in The Ritz, where he spends much of his time when he isn’t in Monaco.
The feud has pitted cousin against cousin as well as brother against brother. As Desmond Browne QC, representing Sir Frederick and his 41-year-old daughter Amanda, told the High Court: ‘We all remember Tolstoy saying “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.’
‘Here, children of Sir Frederick and Sir David have been at odds concerning the family trusts — and cousin, sadly, has been pitched against cousin.’
Indeed feud is hardly strong enough a word to describe the toxic atmosphere that separates the twins once seen as inseparable.
‘They look alike, talk alike but they are as different as chalk and cheese,’ says one family figure. ‘It’s really quite dreadful. Heaven knows how it will all end.’
The family spectacle unfolding in the High Court has all the bitterness and drama of the huge Amazon Prime hit Succession, in which members of a media empire battle over its control.
Desmond Browne told the court: ‘The matter came to light when the first defendant (Alistair Barclay) was filmed late on the night of January 13 handling the bug placed in the conservatory at The Ritz which was known to be often used by Sir Frederick.’
Frederick Barclay claims his three nephews and great nephew were parties to the recording of their private conversations over several months. He and his daughter are bringing a legal action alleging misuse of private information, breach of confidence and breach of data protection laws against their four relatives and Philip Peters, who holds a number of board positions in the Barclay group of businesses.
Recent corporate changes have fuelled fears on Frederick’s side of the family that they are being sidelined. In January, just a week after the bugging was discovered, Amanda and an associate were removed against their will as directors of six Ritz companies. They were replaced by Aidan, Howard and Mr Peters.
Together the brothers rode out the Seventies property crash to emerge in the Eighties stronger than ever, acquiring a retail chain, newspapers and ultimately The Ritz (pictured)
Court documents revealed that transcripts had been made of the recordings and the family members then used the encrypted WhatsApp messaging service to discuss what was said between Sir Frederick and his daughter.
As the judge Mr Justice Warby noted: ‘There is ample evidence at this stage to suggest that the bugging of conversations at The Ritz yielded a wealth of confidential business information, and personal information of a confidential and private nature which, on the face of it, the claimants (Sir Frederick and Amanda) are entitled to protect from unauthorised use or disclosure.’