Harry Hyams, last of the household name developers.

FORTY YEARS AGO…

My first visit to the home of Harry Hyams was in the early Seventies. Ramsbury Manor is quite a sight: the Grade I listed Queen Anne mansion, built in 1680, sits in four hundred and sixty acres of Wiltshire parkland through which the River Kennet flows. I sputtered up the looping driveway in a tiny, red Hillman Imp and parked beside the garage. The tin can of a car was supplied by Wimpey to allow me to tour building sites: in this case to tot up the costs of tending the house and gardens of Britain’s most famous developer. Hyams had paid £650,000 for the manor in 1964, a record sum at the time.

Stainless steel drip trays lay under a powerful sports car and a gleaming limousine; alongside sat a Ski-Doo. The white-tiled garage was as spotless as an operating theatre. Formica-lined birdhouses sat in the grounds, providing shelter to a flock of pink flamingos. Beside the river, a revolving oak hut gave protection from variable winds to anglers fishing in the Kennet. That was my first introduction to the great riches that property can bring. I never saw Hyams in person: I only got as far as the servants’ quarters. The sole evidence of the man himself was his looping signature on cheques paying for the work.

Oliver Marriott describes the reclusive figure in his 1969 book, The Property Boom, as “the daddy of all developers”, adding: “He was a rather tall, extremely elegant figure with a black Spaniard’s beard, neatly trimmed. In a quiet way, Hyams was the living legend of the property world.” He was still a living legend at the end of 2012, when the eighty-four-year-old remained lord of Ramsbury Manor. But the visibility of the man who would (allegedly) sue you for suggesting he left the Centre Point building on Oxford Street deliberately empty had almost faded by the time I reached EG in 1997. 

All I remembered was that George Wimpey had built the thirty-five-storey tower in the late Sixties, and that Hyams was on the board of what was then one of the world’s largest contractors. Wimpey held a forty percent stake in Oldham Estates, a shell company Hyams bought in 1959 entirely because it was listed on the Oldham stock exchange (which did not shut down until 1965, believe it or not). By 1966, the value of Oldham’s assets had risen from £22,328 to £38,978,403. Marriott estimates that during those seven years Hyams made a £27 million fortune, which is equivalent to £411 million at 2012 prices.

Hyams flared briefly into public consciousness in 2000 during the contentious taking-private of publicly listed MEPC, in which he held a small stake. Then he hit the headlines again in 2006, when Ramsbury Manor was burgled and millions of pounds’ worth of antiques were stolen. Back in 1999, I received a letter on handcrafted paper from the great man himself. The millennium was approaching, and EG was preparing a special supplement. Might this most legendary of developers break his silence, I had enquired. Perhaps specially for an ex-Wimpey surveyor who remembered sending him bills for flamingo houses and a circular oak fishing hut? A wry “No” from the Howard Hughes of property was the response.

Hyams is the last of a trio of post-war developers well known to the general public; Jack Cotton and Charles Clore being the other two. I recall as a child seeing newspaper headlines in the Fifties containing the names of Cotton and/or Clore as if no explanation were needed. Developers luxuriated in public approval from the early Fifties until the late Sixties, as Britain rebuilt itself after the war. This was the era of new towns, new city centres – a mood well captured in the The Power Game, a TV series starring Patrick Wymark and Peter Barkworth that ran between 1965 and 1969.

Taken from Chapter 7 of Planet Property www.planet-property.net