Historical figures without children: Harry Hyams (1928 – 2015)

By Nina Steele 

Harry Hyams was a property developer who was notoriously publicity averse, to the extent that he came to be known as the British Howard Hughes. He is often depicted in the media as a ruthless businessman, prone to lawsuits. Until his death on December 19 2015, and the subsequent bequest he made to the nation, in the form of his rural estate, believed to house some of the most valuable paintings in the world, he was mostly known for the centre point skyscraper, one of the first skyscrapers to be built in London.

Hyams’ notoriety stems primarily from the scandal that followed when the centre point building was completed in 1966. The business model he had adopted for his skyscrapers was to have a single tenant in charge of the whole building, including for maintenance and repairs, as opposed to individual tenants. Unfortunately, finding a tenant for centre point turned out to be quite a struggle, and instead of relenting and letting the building to individual tenants, he chose to leave it unoccupied until 1975, at a time when London was experiencing a housing crisis. That was seen by critics as greed personified; capitalism at its worse. His reputation never recovered.

Was Harry Hyams the ruthless and heartless man depicted in the media, or was he just misunderstood? With news that: “ Hyams, who had no children, stipulated in his will that £450 million of his £487 million fortune should be used to preserve his home for the nation”, many of his critics may now be wondering if they were too quick to draw conclusions about his character.

Yes it can be argued that the fact that he had no children may be the reason behind his bequest, but this isn’t his only known good deeds. As it turns out, his fondness for going about his life in total anonymity also extended to donations he made to various causes he had an interest in. He was reported to have: “made anonymous gifts to football clubs and his parish council”. An avid art collector, he is thought to have: “loaned several masterpieces anonymously to art galleries around the country”. Reports also suggest that: “he owned Turner’s The Bridgewater Sea Piece, one of the artist’s finest seascapes, which has been on loan to the National Gallery for almost 30 years.” He is also reported to have: “earned popularity among villagers thanks to his occasional displays of quiet generosity, including large donations to the church and other local organisations”.

There is no denying the fact that Harry Hyams was a controversial character. Similarly, as a successful businessman, he also showed a unique skill for spotting opportunities and making the most of them. Even though the centre point scandal may never be forgotten, his bequest to the nation will ensure that he is remembered for his generosity, which until now has been totally overlooked.

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