Harry Clifton inherited most of Lytham as a young man studying at Oxford and proceeded to squander the equivalent of his £70 million fortune on soothsayers, fake friends – including Evelyn Waugh – and Faberge Eggs. Writer David Slattery-Christy, whose own life has taken him from Oxford to Blackpool, has written a novel about him but tells us how the truth is as outrageous as fiction.
Stories about Harry Clifton, the last Squire of Lytham, began to emerge again when the family seat, Lytham Hall, was opened to the public for the first time just a few years ago. Until then it had always been a private house and, since the 1960s, the headquarters for Guardian Royal Insurance who repossessed it from Harry Clifton to pay back the mortgages. The charitable trust that now operates it, after the money was raised to purchase the remains of the estate, began to restore the interiors and bring back to life the Clifton dynasty.
On a tour one day a guide was imparting information when she suddenly said, quite venomously: “And of course that awful Harry Clifton squandered the family fortunes until there was nothing left!” My ears pricked up at this and my interest suddenly shifted to focus on Harry. I am a sucker for the forgotten and misunderstood and refuse to believe that anyone can do what Harry did without a reason. I was hooked.
In the restaurant the Ritz staff would treat the White Goddess like she really existed while Harry would chat with her for hours over a meal. Amazing what money can buy you!
Little did I realise that Harry was, to be fair, all those things that were said about him, but with good reason at times. He inherited the family estates on the death of his father, with whom he had a troubled and fractious relationship, whilst he was at Christ Church, Oxford. He then systematically began to spend, spend, spend. He deserted his studies and left without a degree from Oxford, as did his family friend Evelyn Waugh. Whether it was permanent suites at the Ritz Hotel in London to excessive gambling and ill-advised get-rich-quick schemes, he showered them all with money – slowly but surely selling off the lands that his family had owned for centuries. The pinnacle of his excess was the acquisition of two Imperial Faberge Eggs in the 1930s.
It was in 1945 that the widowed Violet Clifton claimed that she would never speak to Waugh again after she read Brideshead Revisited. She was convinced that Lady Marchmain was based on her and Sebastian Flyte on her errant son Harry Clifton. She also suspected that other members of her family were used as inspiration. On a visit to Lytham Hall in the 1930s, Waugh wrote to the British socialite Lady Asquith and declared that the Cliftons “were all tearing mad” but added that the fine Georgian Hall had many beautiful features and that he was served the “finest champagnes” and first-class food.
My new novel, Flyte or Fancy, focuses on the relationship between the eccentric Harry Clifton and his volatile relationship with his family as well as his friendship with Waugh. Harry Clifton had been at Downside School in Somerset, prior to going up to Oxford, which was run ruthlessly by Benedictine Monks. His family were staunch Catholics. He had a horrible time there as he hated sports and was lazy and uninterested, but he did acquire a fascination for literature, especially that of the brooding Edgar Allan Poe, and fancied himself a poet – although there is little evidence that he was any good at it.
Interestingly Harry Clifton had rooms at Christ Church, Oxford, where the character in Waugh’s Brideshead also had rooms. The eccentric, spoilt, demanding Harry Clifton was easy to see in the character of Flyte, so it is little wonder that his mother was so outraged on reading the book. It is not hard to thus suspect that Waugh first met Harry Clifton at Oxford, where he was in a homosexual relationship with Alistair Graham. The magnet that drew them together was the remnants of the notorious Hypocrites Club. It attracted those who rebelled and deemed themselves homosexual, lesbian, transvestite or sexually fluid and happy to have sex with anyone willing. Waugh, in a feud with his tutor, haunted Oxford, and the notorious private ‘drinking club’ after his cohort had graduated, in the hope he would allow him to graduate. But he never did.
Harry drifted through life believing that he was an invincible, shrewd business man but all the while he was seemingly taken in by fraudsters and con artistes. While in Los Angeles he was duped into an illegal poker game by Lew Brice, the brother of Broadway and Ziegfeld star Fanny Brice (later immortalised by Barbra Streisand in the film Funny Girl). He nearly robbed Harry of £40,000 pounds before the police arrested him at the bank waiting to cash the cheque.
Increasingly detached from reality he started to rely on soothsayers and mystics to give him financial and life advice. Sadly he was the only one who could actually see them. At the Ritz he dined once a week with the ‘White Goddess’, even reserving a room for her use, all paid for by Harry. In the restaurant the Ritz staff would treat the White Goddess like she really existed while Harry would chat with her for hours over a meal. Amazing what money can buy you!
There is evidence that his mother attempted to get him declared as insane on at least two occasions, but to no avail. No doctor would sign the required papers. She wished that Harry’s younger brother Michael could then take over and save the family estates and fortunes. It was all in vain. Ironically, Harry would outlive all his brothers and sisters.
At the time of his death in 1979 Harry was living at the Emery’s Hotel in Brighton, owned by another soothsayer and friend, so one wonders if his money perhaps paid for it. Living in reduced, almost squalid, circumstances he seemed not recognise old friends when he saw them, and conversely treated strangers as if he had known them all his life. Steadfastly generous, he relentlessly gave away money and precious family jewellery until the end.
Harry Clifton left just under £30,000 in his will. In his lifetime he managed to spend over £3.5 million by ravaging the Clifton estates until there was literally nothing left. That is roughly equivalent to about £70 million in today’s money. His obituary stated:
“Mr. Harry Clifton, Fylde’s most famous landowner, former Squire of Lytham, traveller, gambler and friend of kings has died in Brighton aged 72. The white-bearded nomadic recluse, once one of the richest landowners in the country and until 1937 owner of most of Lytham St Annes died in hospital yesterday, virtually penniless. He had taken ill with a heart attack, the second in a short time, at the Brighton home of his close friend for the last twenty years, Mrs. Margaret Kilner, a soothsayer. Mortem aut Triumphum! (Death is Triumphant!).”
It leaves one wondering if Harry deliberately destroyed his family’s estates and squandered the money because he never wanted anyone to go through what he had suffered – being the heir to such an ancient title and all the pressures and expectations that entailed. They were ones that made him utterly miserable.
David Slattery-Christy is an Oxford born, award-winning playwright and author regularly featured on BBC Radio and TV. He was the Ivor Novello Consultant on Robert Altman and Julian Fellowes Oscar and Bafta winning film Gosford Park. Flyte or Fancy: Evelyn Waugh Meets Harry Clifton on the Road to Brideshead is published by Christyplays Publications. Buy it here.
Main photo: John and Violet Clifton with their three children – with Harry on the right.
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