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Observing the Baring family


The Baring family have a unique place in British society. They are the most successful aristocratic clan in Britain, who through their own talents have set up five quite separate noble houses. You can hold up your hand and tick them off each finger: Ashburton, Cromer, Howick, Revelstoke and Northbrook. They have also bred and prospered, so that through intermarriage they are now related to practically every aristocratic and meritocratic dynasty in the British Isles. So be you Prince Harry, or Richard Ingrams (founder of Private Eye) or the Marquess of Northampton, there will be a Baring great-great grandmother in your bloodline.

But what makes this lofty social eminence of any interest to modern Britain, is that they are also an inspiration. For they are a dynasty of migrants who have become more British than the natives. The first Baring only arrived on these shores in the 18th century, and Johann did not come ashore with his pockets stuffed full of gold, but on the humble task of a young commission agent buying-up Devon wool at auction for North German weavers. But Johann and his children were efficient, honest, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. They learned the language, married locally and went to the same Church as their neighbours and within three generations felt very much at home. One of this early brood was a vicar who wrote Onward Christian Soldiers, another made the single greatest (and anonymous) gift to Cambridge Library. For the Barings had their own style of life, which in a curiously German way was all about the dignity of work, family loyalty, application and discretion. Indeed there is hardly a colourful rake amongst all the hundreds of Barings nor did they breed explorers, show-men, adventurers, orators, naval officers or decadent remittance men.

But this also meant that none of the five Baring peerages were achieved by the usual British methods: through a blood soaked battlefield, a royal bedroom or a political bung. They got there by work and talent. The first Lord Ashburton was a brilliant young diplomat who won over the hostile society of colonial America (after the 1812 war) and was arguably the first to establish the special relationship, sealing a new style of peace-making by taking an American girl home to be his wife. He went on to become Chancellor the Exchequer and his father ran the East India Company. His distant cousin, the first Lord Northbrook was a superb administrator who served as both First Lord of the Admiralty and Viceroy of India, while the first Lord Cromer was the all-powerful British governor of Egypt (having started out as the Controller of Finance) while the first Lord Howick (Sir Evelyn Baring) gave beef to the postwar winds of change by first quelling the Mau Mau rebellion before the British gave Kenya back its independence. The first Lord Revelstoke was head of Barings Bank in the late 19th century, one of generation after generation of the male members of the family who competed for the chance to work as humble pen-pushing clerk in the Bank. No matter that they went to Eton, Oxford and lived in houses that looked like the British Museum. Male Barings could apply for a two-year internship in the Bank after they left university, to train them up in the ways of the City, but only the most clever of the clan were asked to stay on, take up a salary and aspire to a profit-sharing directorship. Very few made the grade, but this internal screening kept the Bank lean, keen, icily discrete and ever more powerful. In its 19th century heyday it managed the purchase of French Louisiana on behalf of the American Republic and the Emperor Napoleon, even though these two principals had recently been at war with Britain. When the Duc de Richelieu thundered out that there are six great powers in Europe: England, France, Russia, Austria, Prussia and Baring Brothers, it was not so outrageous as it sounds. He and the Tsar, just like the Queen and the Saudi Central Bank (in our own day), were both loyal clients of Baring Brothers Bank.

But in 1995 the 233-year-old mothership, Barings Bank on Bishopsgate came crashing to the ground. It was sudden and spectacular when it happened. The world soon got to know about the dangers of the Financial Futures market and a decade later the sound made by the collapse of an invincible-looking international bank became eerily commonplace. But it was, for those in the know, a sad event. The last generation of the Baring family to work there had turned the share-holding structure into a Charitable Foundation which discreetly and professionally pumped millions of pounds a year into good causes.

Barings Bank had gone, and with it the perpetual hub, the treadmill come cash-cow, which for generation after generation had bought together distant cousins to work side by side. But the habits of work, of labouring together as a unit bigger than yourself, of investment in the long term, had not died out. Indeed with the powerful shadow of the family Bank gone, a refreshing spirit of entrepreneurial can-do animated the next generation. So while the 7th Lord Ashburton spent his entire working life at Baring Brothers (after Eton and Oxford) his children went their own ways. His eldest child, Lucy, starting with a tiny antique shop in Putney, has in 25 years later, with her designer husband, built a world leading lighting business, with 26 branches worldwide and hundreds of staff on salary. His youngest child, Alexander, was one of three partners to set up Keo, a documentary film-company, on the back of a decade of experience as a scissor-wielding editor. Keo were stylish and sharp but also championed ethical farming and new models of subsistence agriculture. His elder brother, Mark (the only one to serve in the family Bank) now turned his energy into transforming the Grange from a woodland shooting estate (hitherto supported by an annual Bank bonus) into something both profitable, accessible and relevant to contemporary England. Lord Ashburton’s left-wing, feminist daughter had always been the odd one out, and proved it by becoming an Islington-dwelling, Russian-speaking pyschotherapist – while also slowly building up a publish ing business with her husband. Eland has grown into the worlds largest independent publisher of travel literature. All this energy, different ways of working and different experiences made for lively family gatherings amongst the four Baring siblings. You could always guarantee at least four different political opinions but this also made their collective social landscape vast, literally throwing Princes and paupers together at the annual tented camps they held for their children in the Hampshire woods and watermeadows.

But five years ago something remarkably fruitful emerged out of the customary static of family argument. Maybe all four of them had reached the age of 50-plus and had at last proved themselves apart from each other, and so were now able to work together. Or it may have begun with a remarkably good soil analysis of a pair of chalky fields right on the edge of the estate, which first got them all thinking…It is also true that the heir, the eldest son Mark, had been looking for a way to include his sisters, who as women had never been offered work in Barings Bank or included in the running of the Grange Estate. While by a stroke of good luck at exactly this time, his younger brother had become disenchanted with his urbane life of making films about country-dwellers and wanted to put all this theory into his own life and living practice.

Alexander left London and put himself into agricultural college to learn wine-making. Meanwhile the four siblings pooled together enough cash to set up a Co-Operative and get to work. Fences up first, then the vines, learning as you go, leaning on the advice of friends in the business but buying in expertise when needed. Keep the day job going, as this new venture will need decades of work to make secure.

I also like to think that there is something in their bones, or a lingering gap in their minds. Baring Brothers may have gone, but surely every family needs a business, something bigger then yourself to work hard for, something that you can care for and nurture for the next generation. Something apart from a vote and the contents of your supermarket shopping trolley that you are responsible for.

It is also true, that having owned this patch of Hampshire for 200 years, that this is the first generation of the Baring family who are labouring on their own land. Getting their hands dirty with that grubby chalk soil, getting to know the weather on your face and on your back. Last winter, we all got the 3am call-up. Up and out of our warm, comfortable beds to light hundreds of tallow candles to keep the frost at bay. I have never seen this family as contented and happy, as when they all work together. You can taste that.

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