Edmund Vestey

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Businessman and owner of Assynt estate

Born: 19 June, 1932, in London.

Died: 23 November, 2007, in Norfolk, aged 75.

EDMUND Vestey was a member of one the wealthiest families in the UK and was closely involved with the management of the Vestey businesses for half a century. He ran their Blue Star Line division and, with considerable foresight, oversaw its modernisation and containerisation: a policy that greatly assisted in the transport of meat from their ranches in Argentina and Australia. Dewhurst, their nationwide butcher shops in the UK, was a hugely prosperous business. The Vestey fortunes were, however, somewhat tarnished in the Eighties when they invested in property just before a slump and assets had to be sold. Controversy hit them in 1980 when it was revealed that the family had paid virtually no tax for the previous 60 years. It was a perfectly legitimate loophole but was widely criticised.

Vestey also owned the Assynt estate in the West of Scotland, which had been in the family since the 1930s, although part had been sold some years previously to a property speculator. That land was resold and is now owned by the Assynt Crofters Association. In 2004, he decided to put 40,000 of the 100,000 acres on the market with an asking price of 3.5 million. It is one of the most beautifully situated estates in Scotland - comprising valuable fishing and hunting land plus the glorious peaks of Suilven and Canisp. At the 11th hour, the Scottish Executive instructed the agents to suspend the sale under the terms of the new land-reform legislation. There were many complications during the sale: it was the first large land sale to community ownership and it was an undoubtedly emotive and sensitive local issue. The Glencanisp and Drumrunie Estates were bought by the community group, the Assynt Foundation, in 2005.

Vestey owned much of the picturesque village of Lochinver and over the years had invested much in improving the sporting facilities. He was always concerned for the welfare of the area, notably developing the trout fishing, especially on the rivers Kirkaig and Inver. Vestey was devoted to Assynt and its people; once refusing a development of some houses, he said: "I have refused one or two cases for houses that seemed rather unsuitable places for them to be. The area is a wonderful, wild wildness and it's greater and more important than any of us."

Edmund Hoyle Vestey, the son of the chief executive of the family firm, was educated at Eton and served with the Queen's Bays. He joined the firm working firstly in their headquarters in London's Smithfield and then in various divisions. In 1971, he was appointed managing director of Blue Star Line. It was a post he held for 25 years and which saw the shipping industry change radically. Vestey realised that containerisation and fast loading would fundamentally alter the working practices of the industry and he had to face sharp trade union resistance in his desire to modernise the Blue Star Line. Many strikes and acrimonious disputes disrupted the docks throughout the Seventies, but Vestey remained steadfast that the changes had to be seen through. In 1981, he was president of the General Chamber of British Shipping.

But that was a controversial appointment as the news broke that the family had paid minimum tax for some 60 years through trusts in Uruguay and Paris. Vestey made things worse by ruefully commenting: "We have certainly kept to the letter of the law. Let's face it, nobody pays more tax than they have to. We're all tax dodgers, aren't we?" The press and the public were appalled and the loophole was closed in 1991.

Their fortune had certainly grown considerably and conservative estimates in the Eighties suggested it stood at 2 billion. But the Lloyds crisis and the recession of the early Nineties hit the company's affairs severely. One of its principal operating divisions, Union International, had diversified into property and pharmaceutical products. Although Vestey had passed the management of Union's affairs to his son Timothy, he was caught up in a crisis when it transpired the company had debts of 430 million. Severe financial restructuring took place and Union went into receivership. Amidst considerable family acrimony, the Dewhurst chain and the Blue Star Line were sold in 1995.

But Vestey was still a wealthy man - he remained a director of the parent Vestey Group until 2000 and personally owned prime property around the world.

He owned the Thurlow Estate, in Suffolk, and was, with his wife, joint master of the Thurlow foxhounds. He was Master of the Foxhounds Association in 1992 and in that capacity lobbied the government concerning its policy on hunting. Vestey remained reasoned, courteous and calm throughout this extended and often heated debate.

Another major asset was a farm at Ormiston, near Hawick, which is managed by his fourth son. Like his father, he is a keen hunter with the Jedforest hunt, of which he has been master.

Vestey preferred to remain out of the limelight. The fact that, through his business and hunting interests, he was often forced into the public gaze did not give him pleasure. The Vestey wealth was considerable - until the Nineties the family were second only to the Queen in the Rich List. Their fortune was adroitly summed up in Phillip Knightley's book The Rise and Fall of the House of Vestey. "They did not live on the income; they did not live on the interest from their investments; they lived on the interest on the interest."

His wife, whom he married in 1960, died last year. He is survived by four sons.