Has The Lady run out of luck? Feud threatens to sink magazine

The toxic mother-son feud threatening to sink one of Britain’s oldest magazines: Shock £12.4million sale of The Lady’s historic offices has left its still formidable matriarch in utter despair – and fearful the end is nigh

  • The Lady’s Bedford Street offices in Covent Garden were sold for £12.4million 
  • Ben Budworth sold them after buying them from his elderly uncle Tom Bowles 
  • Ben’s mother Julia Budworth didn’t have a clue the offices were to be sold

For well over a century, it has stood as a bastion of good manners and proper behaviour.

Famed for its classified adverts and illustrious past contributors including Nancy Mitford and Lewis Carroll, The Lady remains the first port of call for anyone seeking domestic staff. Indeed, the Prince of Wales and Queen mother are said to have used it.

In short, ‘The Old Lady of Bedford Street’ — a phrase coined by the witty George Bowles, son of the colourful politician and founder of Vanity Fair, Thomas Gibson Bowles, whose distinguished family has run the magazine since 1885 — is as synonymous with Englishness as leather on willow. Or was.

For ‘The Old Lady’, who survived two world wars and the hardship of the Depression, will soon be out on her ear after her splendid Bedford Street offices in London’s Covent Garden were sold for £12.4 million by Mr Bowles’s grandson Ben Budworth — 18 months after he bought the building from his elderly, unmarried uncle Tom Bowles for £6.2 million, the market value according to Tom’s own valuers.

Ben Budworth, pictured with The Lady’s managing director, Helen Robinson, outside Bylaugh Hall

Ben’s mother, Mrs Julia Budworth, has barely slept a wink since the building, immortalised in P.G. Wodehouse’s Carry On, Jeeves as Milady’s Boudoir, went under the hammer two weeks ago.

She didn’t have a clue the offices were to be sold, leaving staff at the magazine, which has graced the drawing rooms of some of the finest English homes for generations and has a weekly circulation of 28,537, wondering what the future holds.

For Ben, 54, who took control of the family business after Mrs Budworth installed him as managing director of The Lady in 2008, hasn’t spoken to his mother for the past three years.

Neither does he seem to have any intention of sharing the fortune he has made on the building with his family. It has left Mrs Budworth despairing at her ‘dotty’ (her word) son’s behaviour.

‘It’s a tragedy, a crashing tragedy,’ she says. ‘Ben’s three brothers (Richard, William and Adam) are disgusted and traumatised. They keep saying: “I can’t believe our own brother would do this.”

The offices of The Lady magazine in Covent Garden, London, which were sold for £12.4 million by Ben Budworth

‘Richard doesn’t want to be in the same room as him. I doubt I shall ever see him again.’

At 86, Mrs Budworth, a cousin to the Mitford sisters, has a sharp mind and a ready wit.

A widow since her husband David was killed in an air crash in 1974, sadly followed 18 years later by her middle son Alexander, who suffered from epilepsy, she is from a generation that soldiers on. You sense, though, meeting her in the drawing room of her home near Stowmarket in Suffolk, this is blow from which she is struggling to recover.

‘Ben said himself at one board meeting: “The Lady is a family business, the buildings have been family buildings for years.” We trusted him. Why wouldn’t we? There’s never been any great schism in the family.

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‘Ben was always a rather jolly, generous boy. But I wouldn’t have put him there, in the manager’s chair, if I’d had the faintest idea any of this would happen. I think we’re all in a state of semi-astonishment and shock, including the staff.’

Mrs Budworth is worrying herself half sick about the understandably anxious workers, some of whom have been at The Lady for 40 years. Her father begged and borrowed during the horror of the Depression to keep the magazine afloat so his staff had jobs.

Ben — who according to his mother ‘hasn’t got an exam to his name but is highly intelligent’ — now lives with his long-term partner, and The Lady’s managing director, Helen Robinson, in a £1.9 million stately pile, Bylaugh Hall in Norfolk, where he keeps his privately owned helicopter.

Since offering voluntary redundancy to many employees, including editorial staff, the cleaners and the 80-year-old telephonist, last month, Ben has said that future staffing arrangements are ‘under consultation’, but that The Lady ‘is set for a happy, continued, somewhat more modern life’.

Ben’s mother, Julia Budworth, has barely slept a wink since the building, immortalised in P.G. Wodehouse’s Carry On, Jeeves as Milady’s Boudoir, went under the hammer two weeks ago

‘They haven’t got a clue what’s happening,’ adds Mrs Budworth. ‘It’s a dreadful way to behave. I dread to think what my father would say. He was so dutiful to the staff.’

She and her sons sold their shares to Ben eight months ago when they were advised the company had a debt of £1.2 million. Facing a threat of liquidation, under sole ownership The Lady Limited could be presented more favourably to investors as free from share dispute.

Never for a moment did Mrs Budworth imagine he’d flog the building, which, although not owned by The Lady, is part of the magazine’s rich history. It’s the loss of this building that really hurts, she says.

‘I have very jolly memories,’ she says. ‘My father took it over in 1922 when his father died. The Lady wasn’t doing brilliantly in the Twenties because there was a terrible crash but he kept it going because he worried about the staff as much as anything else.

‘That’s why they lived over the shop because they had very, very little money. You’ve no idea how crummy Covent Garden was in those days or how sooty London was.

‘My poor mother used to say you would wipe the soot off the windowsills in the morning and by the afternoon they were just as black again.’

Ben Budworth, 54, took control of the family business after Mrs Budworth installed him as managing director of The Lady in 2008

She adds: ‘My father was very proud of The Lady. He loved it in a way, but he wasn’t a woman for God’s sake so he got the best editor he could, Nora Heald who’d been editor of The Queen, a grand magazine in those days, and he let her do her own thing.

‘Then, of course, the war came and everybody was very pleased to have The Lady because of the rationing. The magazine was a very good marketplace, but we weren’t allowed to keep any profits as there was excess profits tax. We made big profits but they all went to the taxman.

‘We had a lovely party at The Savoy for the staff as soon as we had some money. Tommy Cooper, my father’s favourite conjuror and comedian, provided the cabaret.’

Mrs Budworth softens as she talks about these happier times. She remembers her father, whom she adored, as a man of irrepressible cheerfulness and kindness who would no more have sold his family down the line than failed to doff his hat to a lady.

‘Everybody at The Lady admired him very much. He was always extremely courteous to all of them.

‘Everybody said: “He makes you feel you’re the Queen.” His office was beautiful with a French desk and a looking glass — and with a roaring log fire. We used to have tea there.’

Her face sets in a frown. For it was in those offices that the then editor, Boris Johnson’s sister Rachel, complained The Lady was ‘a piddling magazine that nobody cares about or buys’ in front of a Channel 4 crew filming the documentary The Lady And The Revamp. Rachel, who last week stripped off on Sky News to make a point about Brexit, was Ben’s first appointee as editor.

He took over the running of the magazine in 2008 when his uncle Tom, who inherited a majority shareholding in The Lady from his father, was considering closing it.

‘He had the lion’s share and I had the mouse’s share — two-sevenths,’ says Mrs Budworth. ‘The Lady was still earning a bit of money. We weren’t bust. So when he spoke about closing it I looked at the boys and said, “Shall we take it on and see how it goes for a year or two?” His heart was never really in it.’

Mrs Budworth’s heart was. She invested £500,000 of her own money in the magazine and gave 20 per cent of the shares to each of her four sons.

Ben Budworth and Rachel Johnson pictured at the book launch party for Diary of the Lady

‘We arranged for Ben to have a bit of a salary to stay alive, £40,000, which is not great pay but The Lady wasn’t doing terribly well.

‘He hadn’t got a wife or children, so I didn’t think he’d starve. He accepted that quite happily. It’s as much as he’d have got as a helicopter pilot, which is what he was going to do alternatively. It went well for the first six months.’

Each Saturday, Mrs Budworth spent an hour on the phone to her son going through the week’s edition, which worked well. ‘He was very glad, I think, to have my opinion as an ordinary Lady reader. It was a rather dreary magazine when Tom was running it.

‘I wanted to shake up the fashion, put in classic clothes our readers would like rather than dowdy ones. It needed to be a bit jollier.

‘Ben began to get the idea of what was needed, so the calls gradually tailed off. We’d improved it quite a bit and then the dreaded Rachel came on board.’

Mrs Budworth mentions Boris’s sister with the look of someone chewing on a lemon. ‘I took a back seat quite happily. It was all right until the stupid film (in 2010), which they messed up good and proper. Maybe it was good publicity saying what a rubbish magazine The Lady was. I don’t know.’

In 2012, Ben began a relationship with his then head of sales, Helen Robinson. The same year he told the family at a board meeting The Lady was in debt to the Inland Revenue to the tune of £91,000.

Mrs Budworth recalled how the family were facing a ghastly situation, with the ‘Inland Revenue people coming in and taking the pictures off the wall’ unless someone could come up with the money ‘in a matter of days’. Ben told a board meeting how he’d tried to find reinvestment for the magazine, which he was only able to secure if he was a controlling shareholder.

‘Both my sons Richard and Adam are barristers. They said they couldn’t see any other way out, so we agreed to give him control. The boys were shattered. There was a froideur for about a year and that’s when he really went to town.’

Mrs Budworth and her sons sold their shares to Ben eight months ago when they were advised the company had a debt of £1.2 million

Ben bought the London property in September 2017 after taking out a £7.4 million short-term loan. There were reports about transforming the magazine’s headquarters into restaurant and retail space, with offices and residential space above. When the loan fell due in January only a pre-application for change of use had been lodged with the Westminster planning department.

‘I suppose Tom had to leave the building to somebody — the death duties would have been appalling — and Ben was always there, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

‘I think it will dawn on Tom eventually what a ghastly mess he has contributed to. To hand it over to Ben and not all the brothers was incredibly stupid, but I didn’t necessarily think Ben would sell the building straight away.’

Mrs Budworth learned about the sale from a family friend of many years. ‘He was so outraged he rang me up. I was horrified.’ She shakes her head. ‘Everyone to whom I’ve told this merry story is gobsmacked, to put it plainly. They can’t believe it’s true. I suppose, neither can I. It’s too much.’

None more so, she fears, than for The Old Lady of Bedford Street herself and, of course, her very honest readers.

Talking from his country pile in Norfolk, Ben is unrepentant. ‘Let them be fed up,’ he says. ‘They can bleat as much as they like. They might have a foot to stand on if I had inherited it (the building) or it had been passed to me, but it is absolutely none of their business.

‘The price it actually sold for is neither here nor there. A building is only worth what someone is prepared to pay for it.

‘I was prepared to pay my uncle £6.2 million. Capco [the property company Capital and Counties] who have bought it were prepared to pay £12.4 million.’

And what of the future of The Lady magazine? ‘I’ve tried to make clear The Lady and The Lady building are two different entities. The scandalmongers are running around saying because The Lady building is being sold, that’s the end of The Lady — far from it.

‘If anything, it’s now in a much stronger position to go forward in that we’re leveraging the brand.

‘We going into training up here in Norfolk and The Lady is set for a happy, continued, somewhat more modern life.’

‘The staff we need to be based in London will be based there and other staff as necessary will be hired in Norfolk. Also, there’s a fair amount of work these days that can be done remotely.

‘I have every intention of keeping The Lady going, building it and going from strength to strength.’

And his mother? Will he rebuild his relationship with her? After all, their estrangement is hurting her enormously.

‘It probably is,’ he says. ‘It’s a terrible shame and it’s so sad all around. I think any sensible person would look at this and say: “There’s more to this story than meets the eye.”’ Such as?

‘I think that’s as far as I’m going to go, except to say my mother is my mother and they don’t make them like that any more.’

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