They’re building a vest-pocket empire on the Fraser

Annacis was a tiny agricultural island. Then it was bought by the Duke of Westminster, one of the world’s three richest men. Here’s the story of an industrial colossus in the making

CHARLES MARKHAM October 13 1956

They’re building a vest-pocket empire on the Fraser

Annacis was a tiny agricultural island. Then it was bought by the Duke of Westminster, one of the world’s three richest men. Here’s the story of an industrial colossus in the making

CHARLES MARKHAM October 13 1956

They’re building a vest-pocket empire on the Fraser

Annacis was a tiny agricultural island. Then it was bought by the Duke of Westminster, one of the world’s three richest men. Here’s the story of an industrial colossus in the making


With a shining new pair of shears and a gleaming smile for cameramen, Canada’s defense minister, Ralph Campney, one day about a year ago cut a ribbon stretched across a new causeway on the Fraser River. The causeway links New Westminster with Annacis Island, a whale-shaped hunk of twelve hundred acres snuggling against Lulu Island in the main stream.

Campney then led a procession of two thousand dignitaries twelve hundred feet across the causeway. On the island the visitors iistened to the defense minister and others tell how, within twenty years, fifty thousand people would pour across the causeway every morning to work in two hundred and fifty factories worth a quarter of a billion dollars.

The visitors applauded when a short, powerfully built Englishman named George Ridley was pointed out as the brains behind the scheme to industrialize Annacis, hitherto a paradise for ducks and anti-social truck gardeners. Ridley sat in the front rank on a dais. His blue eyes danced behind horn-rimmed spectacles. An enormous grin possessed his ruddy face. But the panegyrics of town planners, economists and the government officials only partly engaged his attention. With half his mind he was communicating with the dead.

If there is a spirit world the ghost of Sir Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, who was the second Duke of Westminster, the third richest man in the world, hovered about the ceremony. Shortly before his death, in July 1953, this story-book British nobleman bought Annacis and through Ridley, his agent, planned to cover it with factories and rent them. This so amazed B. C. businessmen and Ottawa officials that at first they refused to take it seriously.

Ridley, who admits that Annacis was only the last of several startling investments he devised for his late employer, spent the best part of threeq years trying to convince Canadian skeptics that Westminster was quite capable of a multimillion-dollar plunge of this kind. His fortune in real estate and rents had accrued over nine centuries; twenty years was not long to wait for a return on his Canadian investment. He was seventy years old and could hardly hope to live until his investment matured. But he was a Grosvenor, bound by family tradition to increase his inheritance for his heirs and. like all rich Englishmen, aware that capital appreciation over a long period was the only way to defend his estate against taxes and death duties. Moreover, Westminster was anxious to earn dollars for Britain.

Today many of the doubters arc being converted by the island’s signs of industry. Four hundred people are working in twenty rented factories, making products ranging from metal window frames and pleasure boats to garage doors and hospital curtains. Another six factories arc being built and Ridley admits that about twenty additional firms have made “live enquiries.”

The land is being developed in stages of about two hundred acres each (concrete roads, water mains, power lines and railway spurs arc provided), and when one plot is filled with factories another is started. The average factory is six thousand square feet and rents for seventy-five to ninety cents a square foot a year, although some are larger and the owners will build to any specifications for a long-term leaseholder.

Within ten years, Ridley expects, half the island will be covered with factories—about a sixth is developed now—but a rush could shorten that time and a few big factories could crowd the island in a year or two.

Although the duke was anxious that Annacis should encourage British industrialists to open plants in Canada this plan has not yet shown much success. Of the twenty firms on the island only two are British. Six are American, three are Canadian subsidiaries of U. S. firms and the other nine are Canadian.

Here is how the duke’s millions will change a patchwork of bush and farms into a factory city for 50,000 workers

WHEN Dr. Hans Selye published his first report on stress—“the wear and tear caused by life in our body at any one time”—in 1950, the effect in medical circles everywhere was electric. One journal called it “the first important theory of medicine since Pasteur elaborated the germ theory of disease.”

Dr. Selye, who is the director of the Institute of Experimental Medicine and Surgery at the University of Montreal, has been studying and conducting experiments in stress for the past twenty years. He has learned to measure it in specific physical terms and gauge its effects. He has related it to every human process, physical and mental. He sees it not only as the common denominator in all diseases but as the governing force in our emotions and ambitions.

In the accompanying random observations Dr. Selye reflects on human life, on some of its aims and on many of its problems— from the background of a deep and penetrating study of stress.

Ridley and the duke hit the estate like a blitz

"When the time comes to make a concerted effort to bring British industrialists to Canada, I'm sure we shall have no trouble doing so." says Ridley.

Ridley is a natural optimist. Otherwise he would never have succeeded as the duke’s agent. For Westminster was a happy man who liked happy men around him. Moreover, in Ridley he found a man with vision and daring to match his own. "The combination of Ridley and the duke,” says Ridley's secretary, "resulted in a blitz, on the entire estate."

Ridley began in the late duke’s emploi at sixteen as a woodsman's assistant on the Grosvenor estate in Chester because his doctor recommended outside work as an antidote for asthma. He became a forester and in his spare time studied estate management. But the woods could not conceal his ability nor his enthusiasm for his employer's interests. At thirtyfive he became the youngest man to be appointed the duke’s chief agent. Today, at forty-six. he looks a vague but indestructible fifty.

"George has always looked fifty. He has to look fifty to hold that job." says H. E. F. Smith, trade and industry representative in London for British Columbia.

History will probably designate Smith as the man who secured for B. C. Ridley's enterprise and the Duke of Westminster’s fortune. In 1947 Smith began investigating Britain's industrial trading estates-— planned areas for a mixture of light and heavy industry, with factory space for rent.

In Wales, Scotland and the north of England, where the government has sponsored trading estates in depressed areas. Smith's research revealed that the trading estate serves both manufacturer and community. By renting a factory the industrialist can invest his capital in the more productive aspects of his business and the landlord provides roads, water, power mains and pleasant surroundings. Costs are often reduced by co-operation with neighbors. For example, one British handbag manufacturer found that a neighbor who made electrical goods could suppli metal clasps cheaply — without shipping charges.

For the community one advantage is reduced costs on goods manufactured locally as opposed to those that must be imported. Ninety percent of British Columbia's industry is primary. Most of it-raw materials are exported and most of its consumer goods tire imported. The trading estate encourages secondary industry. creates jobs and discourages migration. In one depressed area in the north of England that supported no secondary industry fifteen years ago. Smith found thirty-one small trading estates employing forty-one thousand people.

By 1949 Smith had made his point. B. C. instructed him to invite representatives of a trailing estate near London to plan a development on Canada’s west coast. “Alas,” says Smith, "they got no farther than Ontario. At Ajax, just outside Toronto, they bought three thousand acres and ninety buildings that was a shell-filling plant during the war and today they boast thirty industries. My dream was arrested until George Ridley came along.”

Ridley’s journey to B. C. began one autumn day in 1949 on the eleven-thousand-acre estate of the Grosvenor family near Chester bordering England’s industrial north, where he reported to the duke.

"George,” the duke said, "we must invest money in Canada. That country has a magnificent future. The people are worried about too much American capital.”

Enthusiastic, the duke rose from his chair to prowl the room as he expanded his ideas about Canadian investment. He was a king-size man of six feet two ¡¡itches. He was prepared, he said, to make an initial investment in Canada of fifteen million dollars; it was up to Ridley to persuade the British treasury to release the dollars and to find a way to invest them.

Ridley was used to big assignments but in 1949 it was almost impossible to invest British money in Canada. The socialist treasury would not free dollars, certainly not to Westminster, the most Conservative of Conservative landlords. Nevertheless, Ridley traveled to eastern Canada in the spring of 1950 and attempted to persuade Canadians to exchange a dollar investment for a sterling investment.

"Unfortunately Canadians were not at all interested in sterling.” he recalls. "AH answers were the same: ‘No.' I returned to England discouraged.”

Not so the duke, who refused to listen to "No.” Ridley was soon hunting a new avenue to Canada and his hunt took him to W. A. McAdam, agent general for British Columbia, from whom he learned of Smith’s attempts to start an industrial estate. Until then an industrial estate had not entered Ridley’s calculations. He was primarily interested in a housing development or timber rights.

A bargain of an island

In May 1951, with Smith. Eangshaw Rowland, the duke's director of forestry, and Tom Barty-King. a Grosvenor estate lawyer. Ridley was again on his way to Canada. "The cheapest pulp mill on the west coast was about fourteen million dollars and every industrial site was either too expensive or unsuitable,” he says. At that time the British treasury was allowing some dollar investment but only for a bargain or a quick return. Ridley had been able to find neither and it looked to him as though the Grosvenor fortune was not to be invested in Canada.

He was preparing to go home and admit defeat when he called on Frank Wilson, then secretary of the New Westminster Board of Trade, to ask him to watch for a likely investment. During their conversation Wilson pointed through the window to Annacis Island in the Eraser River. In the light haze the island lay fiat on the water, its belly pale pasture, its back darkly furred with scrub timber.

"I’ve often wondered why nobody seemed interested in that island,” he mused. “I have an idea it’s owned by some Englishman.” Ridley felt a prick of excitement as Wilson added that there was talk of building a causeway connecting the island to the mainland. His excitement mounted at the office of Fred Coulthard. a New Westminster estate agent, who said that half of Annacis could likely be bought cheaply for sterling from Sir Edward Stracey, a mysterious empire builder of Norwich. The other half was owned by Canadians and a discreet man. Coulthard implied, might be able to get that cheaply too.

Less than an hour later Ridley, Wilson. Smith and Coulthard were crawling across the channel to Annacis in a small launch. The boatman was chatty. "Funny thing about that island.” he remarked. "It just lies there. I've got a paper that shows it covered with factories.” The boatman produced a newspaper dated 1906. Its front page was spread with a writer-artist vision of a future industrialized Annacis. When he looked at the paper Ridley felt that the hand of fate was Hinging the island at his head, particularly since it was next door to a city bearing the duke's name. When technical enquiries satisfied him that the soil was sound and the island Hood free he decided to buy it.

1 he first step was taken in England. Sir Edward Straccx had floated a company called the Island Purchase Syndicate during the boom of the Twenties. Sir Edward was now dead and the syndicate moribund, lom Barty-King had no trouble buying Sir Edward's shares from his executors, but the others, sold in small lots, were scattered all over the world. It took nearly a year to trace the owners. Some couldn't remember what they had done with their stock certificates or wouldn’t bother to look for them.

While Barty-King chased after the syndicate. Ridley bore down on the British treasury for permission to export dollars to buy the six hundred acres held by Canadians. His application was llatly refused —Annacis was not a justifiable investnient when the country needed dollars, file treasury withstood Ridley’s argument for a year. Finally, in 1952, they broke down, allowing only enough dollars to buy out the Canadians.

In Canada there were more obstacles. Although most Canadian landowners on Annacis were glad of about two hundred dollars an acre one was not. A Chinese named Soong owned a narrow strip of forty acres that cut the first proposed development area in two. Soong had once had a vision of an industrialized Annacis and he meant to hold onto his property until the dream came true. To all appeals he was polite but obdurate, Soong’s stubborn stand delighted the duke, but it drove Barty-King and Ridley close to desperation. Ridley hatched an alternative plan to skirt his forty acres, making an island on the island.



This one, though very often used, is strictly Speaking, much abused. And girls, if it is 1 rue of you, you'd better sail for Timbuktu. Because 1 caught a bug, and placing it on the Table, attempted to peer into its ear. But as Far as I was tibie to determine, the auricular Appendage of a bug, though admittedly minute, is Far from cute. And to be brief, it’s my belief That this applies to all varieties of vermin.

"The Grosvenor estate is fair and even generous,” says Geoffrey Singer, who succeeded as general agent this spring to leave Ridley free to devote more time to Annacis. "But it will go so far and no farther.” An illustration was the London resident who demanded an unreasonable price for a house the Grosvenors wanted for an apartment-block site. “In the end it cost us more money than if we had pa id his price,” says Singer. “We built two apartment blocks and hemmed him in.” Law Soong avoided a similar fate by capitulating for twelve hundred dollars an acre.

As he worried about Law Soong, Ridley was conducting a second attack on the treasury for permission to export dollars to develop the eastern tip of the island. But not until 1953, after treasury experts had investigated the island's potential for themselves, did he get his green light. Then he found himself up against the Canadian government.

On his way home from Vancouver after deciding to buy Annacis, Ridley had discussed the causeway with C. D. Howe, Minister of Trade and Commerce. Howe had seemed enthusiastic about the plan to industrialize the island and had agreed it might be possible to build the causeway. But now. when Ridley wanted to begin work, Howe wanted more information. Ridley was on a spot. The treasury had promised the first six million dollars only on condition that the federal government built the causeway. Fourteen more months elapsed before Ridley was able to convince the federal government that the Grosvenor estate really intended to cover Annacis with factories.

John Laing and Son Limited, third largest contractors in England with interests all over the commonwealth, took the job of developing Annacis. For one reason, they planned to set up a Canadian subsidiary. For another, they had already built and were operating a large trading estate just outside London. For another, they decided that Annacis was a natural. “There’s only one thing wrong with this island, George,” said John Gregg, an engineer and a director of Laings, when Ridley joined him at Annacis in June 1953 to get his decision.

“What’s that?” asked Ridley, alarmed.

"That we didn't find it first,” said Gregg.

That the Canadian government didn't move with an alacrity to match Laings' is understandable, Ridley feels. "We were probably handicapped by our lack of dollars to set up an organization that would satisfy the Canadian government of our intention to carry out a development scheme on the lines we had outlined.” he says.

In England, the intentions of the Duke of Westminster were never suspect. But Canadians could hardly be expected to understand this, for Westminster was unique in a class that has never existed in Canada and has almost ceased to exist in Europe.

The Grosvenor family was founded nine centuries ago by Hugh Lupus. William the Conqueror's chief huntsman (le gros veneur) who became the first Norman earl of Chester. The fortune was founded in 1677 by Sir Thomas Grosvenor who married Mary Davis, heiress to six hundred acres called Ebury Earm. Today this farm is Mayfair. Belgravia, Park Lane, part of Oxford Street. Pimlico and Millbank—comparable in value to the hearts of Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver, plus slices of the best residential property.

Recently, when lecturing to students of estate management at Cambridge, Ridley showed a film of the Grosvenor London estate, ending with a shot of the Houses of Parliament. "I suppose that's the estate office.” said one of the students facetiously-

Frederick Ellis, financial editor of the London Daily Express, once claimed that Westminster was the third richest man in the world after Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller. But whereas these self-made tycoons fitted perfectly into their robust national economies, Westminster was a misfit—a hereditary landlord who grew rich in social conditions that destroyed his peers, a feudal prince who flourished in an age of socialism, a magnificent anachronism who taught the politicians who sought to destroy him how to do their jobs.

He was a natural target for socialists but he was a hard target to hit for he was an exemplary landlord who spent his money more lavishly than the most wanton administrator of the welfare state. Between 1945 and 1951. when the socialists were in power, he poured seven hundred thousand pounds into properties that yielded less than seventy thousand pounds in rent. In London he built two blocks of flats for the middle-class poor on which the London County Council, fearing he might make hay with the housing shortage, reserved the right to fix rents. The duke thought the council’s figures too high and lowered them by fifty to seventyfive pounds a year. Being a true democrat, he also spent nearly twenty million pounds converting one of London's finest squares into luxury flats for the rich.

After the war, while other great families were falling in ruins, Westminster began to protect himself against death duties by selling blocks of his London property, dutiable at eighty percent, and investing ÍE rural property, dutiable at forty-four percent. He bought eleven estates, increasing his acreage from ninety-seven thousand to one hundred and seventy-six thousand. On these estates he planted fifteen million trees. On one, in the Scottish highlands, where no trees have grown since the ice age. the program was so formidable that even a government would hesitate to attempt it. Thus he became the primary supporter of the socialists’ forestry program, at the same time using it to defend himself against the socialist exchequer. For the government subsidizes forestry with tax relief and death duties are not payable until the crops are harvested. The duke’s crops, mainly hardwood. will not mature for a century.

Operations on a large scale were characteristic of Westminster. In 1914 he went of to the First World War in a chauffeurdriven Rolls-Royce with a machine gun ir the trunk. According to The Times he "fought a private war on the way to the trenches.” In March 1915, like a medieval knight leading his followers, he headed a squadron of armored cars, manned most1\ by his own employees, in a dash across the Libyan desert to rescue sixty British prisoners held captive by Arabs. For this he won the DSO. although his commanding officer recommended him for the Victoria Cross.

Magnificent gestures marked his life. In 1929. after a disastrous Thames flood, he gave the Westminster city council land worth a million dollars and another half million toward rehousing the homeless. For many of the poorest victims he bought new furniture. He hated publicity about his generosity which was as splendid privately as it was publicly. When a favorite waiter in a Paris hotel complained about his employers the duke bought him a hotel. He was painfully shy of strangers and shunned public life. He belonged to only one club which he seldom visited, spoke on only one public platform. in 1929 in support of Churchill, and rarely went out socially.

But he gave magnificent parties. For one he tied two of his three yachts together in Cannes harbor and at another his guests waltzed through the streets of Mayfair between two of his beautiful houses. (He also owned the streets.) His Grand National balls at Chester were legendary. He once hired a special train to transport twenty horses, two hundred hounds and scores of guests to a wildboar hunt in Normandy. "He was happiest of all when he was giving pleasure to others." said Churchill in an obituary tribute.

His thoughtfulness, too, was larger than life. He loved gambling and in the casinos of the Riviera he was noted for his daring. But he never permitted it at his own bridge table in case one ot his guests could not afford to lose.

Sacheverell Sitwell, the author, recalls being with him in a small casino in Egypt where he broke the hank. “Then at once and on purpose he began losing hack the money he had won,” says Sitwell. "Throughout all our friendship he strove not to let me discover that he preferred my brother’s books to mine.”

Even his politeness had a bravura quality. Shortly before his death he missed an unknown woman in the habit of cheering him at the annual Chester race meet. He enquired about her and learned that she was ill. Later his’chauffeur appeared at her door with an enormous fresh salmon. Once in the Sportsman’s Club in Monte Carlo he fell over the foot of an elderly French countess noted for her bad temper. Kneeling, he replaced her shoe and melted her scowl with a perfect apology: T hope I may be forgiven,

madam, for failing to see such a very little foot.”

Matrimonially, too, the duke lived above ordinary men. He was four times married and three times divorced and consequently denied communion in the Anglican church. When he died in 1953 the Bishop of Chester was rebuked in the Church Times for attending his funeral and preaching a memorial service in Chester cathedral. “l et them say what they want,” replied the bishop. “1 make this reply: there was no kinder or more generous man than the duke.”

No employee or home tenant suffered want or illness if Westminster could prevent it. When a scrubwoman at Eaton Hall took sick he sent to London for his own specialist, then rebuked his personal staff for not drawing her condition to his notice earlier. His secretary looked shocked when asked if anyone ever voluntarily left his employ. "Good God, no!” he exclaimed.

Although he was always surrounded by luxuries his personal tastes were simple. Tinned sardines and corned beef were more to his liking than coq au vin and he preferred the bleak Scottish moors to the softer pleasures of London. One of his servants might have scorned the clothes he wore in the country: battered hats, old tweed jackets and trousers that looked as though they had been slept in. He hated new clothes in any setting; in the country he scorned not only the new but the pressed. On the rare occasions when his valet rebelled and pressed his trousers the duke methodically messed them up again before putting them on.

He spent millions as though it was small change but small change was an unexplored mystery. Prince-like he never carried money in his pocket except occasionally for tips. Then, because he knew nothing of the value of small sums, he was likely to give a French waiter fifty francs (fifteen cents). His valet, to protect the Grosvenor honor, always trailed him with a handful of thousand-franc notes.

The duke’s impulsiveness was harrying to Ridley, whose crowded program of estate management was always liable to interruption by a summons. The pretext v/as business but more often than not the duke just wanted Ridley around. In the summer of 1953, after salmon fishing in Norway (one night he caught thirty-three salmon weighing a total of seven hundred and twenty pounds) he sailed for Scotland. Ridley was hurrying north to meet him, unaware that he was answering his last summons. On July 19, 1953, the duke died in his sleep of a cerebral hemorrhage.

He left no direct heir. His only son, Earl Grosvenor, whose christening in 1904 was attended by his godfather Edward VII, died at the age of four after an operation for appendicitis. The title descended to a cousin, fifty-nine-year-old William Grosvenor, an invalid and a bachelor who lives in retirement and raises ducks. He did not inherit the money. "I was provided for during the late duke’s lifetime. He was kindness itself to me,” said the third duke the morning after his cousin's death.

Two younger cousins, Col. Gerald Grosvenor and Col. Robert Grosvenor, inherit the residue of the fortune. Col. Gerald, heir presumptive to the title, is forty-nine, married and childless. Col. Robert, also married, has a five-yearold son, Gerald, who may one day inherit both title and fortune. Neither of the heirs, however, completely control the duke’s legacy. Much of his estate is entailed in a trust controlled by the high court and administered by the late duke’s trustees. Ridley heads these trustees.

However limiting the outcome may be for the duke’s heirs, Annacis will not be affected. In February the Grosvenor Estates in Canada, unable to continue pouring unlimited cash into Annacis until the treasury gets its cut, merged with their contractors, John l.aing and Son. The new company, Grosvenor-Laing Limited, has had offers of backing from financiers all over the world. At this point they are in no need of help.

At the opening of Annacis, Col. Robert and Col. Gerald Grosvenor both joined Ridley in emphasizing that the policies that distinguished their benefactor as a landlord would be followed on Annacis. Each tenant will be able to examine plans of buildings that surround him. The estate will make no change in the development scheme without consulting all tenants affected. So scrupulous was the late duke in this regard that before he gave the city of Chester land for a public park he first obtained permission from all tenants.

Tenants on Annacis, like Grosvenor tenants in London, will also find that part of their rent goes to the upkeep of lawns, flowers and trees. For if Ridley has his way the island in the Fraser will one day be the most beautiful industrial site in Canada. Long before work began he was busy sketching alternative road plans to save the trees. "He devised all sorts of expensive schemes,” says John Gregg of Laings. "We had to fight him off. Finally, to keep him quiet, we let him have his timber lamp posts. We call them George Ridley’s gallows.”

Before he moves in. every Annacis tenant must sign a complicated forty-threesection lease. It deals only briefly with the amount of rental and length of tenure, but spells out in great detail what color buildings may be painted, that billboards are prohibited and where refuse may be dumped. The renting factory manager also must pledge not to permit "any noxious, noisesome, or offensive art” to be practiced on his premises.

This was the late duke’s attitude to his property. His tenants were surrounded by beauty whether they liked it or not. In the village churchyard on his Chester estate where he is buried there is no elaborate memorial. His memorial is the pleasant ways he preserved in the heart of London: the houses that must be repainted every third year; the tidy streets, the acres of well-groomed gardens in graceful squares, the hundreds of fine old trees. Ridley intends that Annacis will become a triple monument: to Westminster’s public spirit, his business acumen and his devotion to pleasant ways. ★