Earl pays rare visit to estate

The fifth earl of Stradbroke was on his deathbed when he told his eldest son to have nothing to do with the Henham estate. He told him to go back to Australia and sell it, adding: "Don't go near it.

The fifth earl of Stradbroke was on his deathbed when he told his eldest son to have nothing to do with the Henham estate. He told him to go back to Australia and sell it, adding: “Don't go near it. It has caused nothing but bitter family feud and disappointment.”

The sixth earl, who prefers to be known as Keith Rous, took half the advice. He did indeed return to Australia, his homeland since the age of 19, and has never lived at Henham, near Beccles. He even put it on the market in 2003, but the sale never went ahead. Now on a rare visit to England, he says things have turned the corner and that his son's management, plus planning permission for a £60m-plus hotel and apartments, have saved it from being broken up and sold.

The earl, who famously changed the family motto from “Je vive en espoir” (I live in hope) to “We fight like lions and breed like rabbits” came into his estate and title rather rapidly. In 1983 the fourth earl died, only for the fifth earl to follow him just four days later. Mr Rous had to fight his uncle's grandson in the courts for the estate, having first challenged him to a duel - a dispute that followed on from one between his father and uncle which saw the Georgian hall pulled down in 1953.

He recalls: “When granddad died in 1947 the family just exploded in a bitter fight that went on till 1953. I think Dad was arrested for poaching Uncle John's pheasants at one point.”

Now his son Hektor - his eighth child of 15, the oldest by his second wife - manages the estate while Mr Rous senior gets on with managing his extensive farming and property development interests in Australia.

Speaking at Hektor's home on the estate, he said: “What has saved this place is Hektor. The last [the fourth] earl through no fault of his own didn't have the will or the money. No repairs were done virtually between 1947 and 1983. The place was a basket case. I had huge death duties to pay. We had huge repair bills. Still have.

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Three things - Hektor, Melvin Benn (managing director of Latitude festival organisers Festival Republic, formerly Mean Fiddler) and getting the planning permission - have saved the estate from being broken up.”

Mr Rous has not been in England for 15 years. The main reason is his youngest son Ramsar, who was born on the last visit in 1992. He is severely autistic and needs stability, his father says. The other reason was what he calls “a stupid accident” three years ago, a huge electric shock that knocked him unconscious and took two years to get over.

“I touched a wire in an electric fence that hadn't been earthed. It could have been instant death. The doctors wanted to do heart surgery but I don't like invasive surgery. I thought I would try to get better myself.”

Miraculously he recovered, and now says he is well again, although the doctors still like him to take it easy. He has never exactly done that. The eldest of 17 children his father had by many different women, he started a business breeding and selling ferrets when he was six.

As a child in London in the second world war his grandmother would send him out to pick up the lead that had been melted by falling bombs, and they would sell it to the rag and bone man. His parents having divorced when he was two, he lived in 17 different homes in the first 17 years of his life, and went to boarding school from the age of six.

He failed the entrance exams for Eton three times, and his dyslexia meant that he could not read or write until he was 13. His mother managed to get him into Harrow by dint of knowing a housemaster, but he was expelled at the age of 15 for taking bets from the other boys.

That was the end of his education, but he was making plenty of money buying and selling cars, far more than he made from his £1 a week job at an auction house in Norwich.

He tried to emigrate to Argentina when he was 13, but could not get a passport because his parents would not both agree to the plan. Instead he made it to Australia at 19, paying £346 - a fortune in 1957 - for a first-class ticket.

He says the estate's future lies in the hotel and apartments, and says falling income from agricultural rents made action necessary. He wants the development to use modern technology, and be as environmentally friendly as possible. He is even thinking of building a wind farm in Australia, but quickly adds: “I don't think we would get away with it in Suffolk!”

“We will be looking for a developer who wants to take over the building. Hektor and I don't have that level of expertise. We would welcome a major hotel chain to take it over. I am sure it will be a wonderful thing for Suffolk.”

With income from the development he wants to finish repair work on the estate. There are 16 houses, some of which have already been restored, and a further five three-bedroom homes to be built. A further 200 acres of arable land from the 3,700 acre estate will be added to the 815-acre park.

He said: “It is looking far better than it did in 1983.I have been on a lot of English estates and of all the Repton parks I have been to this has got the most potential.

“People probably think the estate owner's life is one of luxury. It is not. An estate owner in England has to work very hard.

“I look forward to returning in years to come and seeing this.”

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