Lord Cadogan – A new chapter

Lord Cadogan has passed the chairmanship of the family business to his son, Viscount Chelsea, and accepted a new role as Life President.

Erik Brown talked to him about his 30 years at the head of one of London’s great estates

LORD CADOGAN slips into story-telling mode within three minutes of the interview starting. It is one of his gifts. He is a natural raconteur and the stories – delivered in that familiar sonorous tone – flow easily.

He talks about his time as chairman of Chelsea Football Club, during the days when there were pitched battles between the supporters of rival teams, and how he got “the villains” in a pub and quizzed them on what had gone wrong.

He talks with passion about the restoration of Holy Trinity Church and the redevelopment of a redundant Christian Science Church into Cadogan Hall, one of London’s leading concert halls.

And he talks about the Chelsea of his childhood, the estate manager “Robbie” Robertson – who was effectively his guardian in England – and, with great affection, of his late father: “I don’t think I ever once had a major confrontation with my father about anything”.

He tells his stories with the same quick wit and mischevious humour that has made his speeches legendary and popular.

At one point he tells me – with a smile – that when he was asked questions about leasehold reform he was correctly quoted as having said: “I am not going to stand here and kick against the pricks.”

The quotation may have been biblical (Acts 9:5) and an astute reference to the harm one can do to oneself by resisting authority, but – for those who have missed it – it is also a deliberate and quite typical double entendre.

Lord Cadogan became a director of the family business in 1958, when he was 21. In doing so, he briefly signed away all of his rights to the Cadogan estate.

It was a technicality, of course. The trust established by his great grandfather – the 5th Earl Cadogan – had proven unworkable and giving up his rights, however fleetingly, allowed what is now known as the 1961 settlement to be established.

“It gave my father freedom for the first time, not having to answer to the trustees for everything, and it gave him a chance to spend much more time in Scotland. My father then, quite rightly, said: ‘Well, it’s really yours, old boy. You get on with it.”

Lord Cadogan was working in the City of London, at Schroders, at the time and it was decided that he would stay there until 1974 when his father was 60.

“I came back here and really took over from him at what was probably a very opportune moment because that was the time that the estate was having to change its direction anyway because of the introduction of the Leasehold Reform Act,” he says.

That was in 1974. Lord Cadogan formally took over as chairman in 1982, when the Cadogan Estate was valued at somewhere between £300 million and £400 million. Today it is valued at more than £3 billion.

In three decades at the helm of the Cadogan family business, Lord Cadogan has also seen his personal income taxed at 112 per cent when Denis Healey was Chancellor of the Exchequer, his removal as a hereditary trustee of the Natural History Museum (founded, like the British Museum, on the collection of his ancestor Sir Hans Sloane) under Harold Wilson’s government and the erosion of Cadogan’s residential estate in Chelsea as a result of the leasehold reform acts, which in certain circumstances give long leaseholders the right to buy.

“I have always adopted an attitude that we have to manage this operation as best we can within the framework of the law as it is at any one moment,” he says. “So we do. When the Leasehold Reform Act was introduced, I said, ‘Let us not just sit down and cry about it. Get up do something about it, you know. Be creative’.”

So, have all of London’s great estates been forced to modernise, I ask.

“We have in the sense that the system – the law, the government – has required us to, because if we don’t we would just go, you know. They’d get rid of us,” he replies.

We are chatting in his new office at the HQ, 18 Cadogan Gardens. Even sitting, he is a big man: he towers over most people, and at 75 there is still a twinkle in his blue eyes.

At one point, he mentions flying himself back from Cambridge to Oxford. “I didn’t know you flew,” I say, surprised. He answers, smiling: “I started flying when they began charging me for my dog on the train, and not allowing me to have it with me.”

During his tenure as chairman, Sloane Street and Sloane Square have been transformed, the former Christian Science church in Sloane Terrace has become Cadogan Hall – one of London’s leading concert venues and clearly a particular passion – and the old Duke of York’s barracks has been regenerated to create the multi-award winning Duke of York Square with its cafés and fashion boutiques.

These are all among the highlights of Lord Cadogan’s career, developments of which he is clearly proud.

“The most pleasing thing about Cadogan Hall from my point of view,” he says, “and this is where I can cock a snook at anyone who has criticised me for it, although it does cost an arm and a leg, is that 50 per cent of the seats for each concert go to locals – people who live in the area – which I think is a redeeming feature. They all love it.”

Development is not always welcomed, however, and Lord Cadogan admits that he has found some of the opposition dispiriting.

Sometimes the attacks have been personal. One resident, a protected tenant on low rent, objected so much when the local authority rent officer increased the rents that he launched a fly-posting campaign comparing Lord Cadogan to slum landlord Peter Rachman (although, Lord Cadogan chuckles, he spelled Rachman wrongly).

That campaign came to an end after Lord Cadogan caught the culprit trying to stick a leaflet on his own front door.

“I caught him red handed,” he says. “He got the shock of his life because he wasn’t very tall and I am. I said, ‘take that off at once’.”

Even so, Lord Cadogan has a keen interest in maintaining a thriving, mixed income community on the Chelsea estate and he is firmly against wealthy “non-doms” buying up Chelsea property as an investment.

“The place immediately becomes totally impersonal,” he says. “And quite frankly the traders suffer.”

So, I ask, what does your future hold?

“My main thing,” he says, “is that I’m retaining the churches.”

The Cadogan family – or, more precisely, the Lord Cadogan of the day – is patron of four livings in the parish of East Chelsea: St Luke’s, Chelsea Old Church, Christ Church and Holy Trinity, which now brings with it St Saviour’s near Harrods.

Responsibility for those livings – which has included appointing priests – was given to Lord Cadogan by his father way back in the late 1970s. A decade earlier, the Cadogan family had set up The Cadogan Charity to provide “a Christmas bonus” for the churches and a reserve fund to preserve the fabric.

That charity, which now extends its reach to cover Royal palaces and the Natural History Museum, is currently paying for the refurbishment of the organ at Holy Trinity on Sloane Street, a substantial undertaking.

Apart from the churches and the charity, Lord Cadogan says he’ll be keeping “a weather eye” on the estate. He doesn’t plan to attend executive meetings any longer but will stay in touch with activity through chief executive Hugh Seaborn and the team at Cadogan.

He adds: “They’ll come in here as fast as they want if they want to pick my brains, and I’ve said and always say, ‘you’re welcome’. But I’m not a signatory any more.”

He will also continue his involvement with the Natural History Museum, which was a kind of childhood playground. Because his father was an hereditary trustee, Lord Cadogan was allowed to wander around it when it was closed.

Appropriately, it was in the dinosaur hall at the Natural History Museum that in March Lord Cadogan said farewell to an audience of friends and business associates.

Famously dismissive of “political correctness”, Lord Cadogan’s speeches are always a joy, full of earthy humour and well-meaning jibes.

“The fact is,” he says, “that you have to be very careful if you get up and say anything in public that could be remotely regarded as derogatory of anybody in the room.”

He pauses and then adds, with a chuckle: “You know that I’m not too careful about these things. But I say them in good spirit, and I haven’t been sued. Yet.”

At the farewell party, it was Lord Cadogan’s son Viscount Chelsea who rose to his feet first, delivering a provocative, funny and beautifully-paced introduction to his dad – who was as delightfully irreverent as ever.

As the audience burst into applause, I heard somebody behind me say: “They’re a great double act, aren’t they?”

Lord Cadogan