Eric Elstob

Financier and champion of Christ Church, Spitalfields
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The Independent Online

Eric Carl Elstob, financier, writer and conservationist: born Hawkhurst, Kent 5 April 1943; joint manager, Foreign & Colonial Investment Trust 1973-95; died London 28 October 2003.

Eric Elstob was a financier, conservationist and social historian. For over a quarter of a century he was a director at the investment trust group Foreign & Colonial, and he gave a vivid account of post-Communist European reunification in his 1997 book Travels in a Europe Restored 1989-1995. He was also at the helm of the restoration of the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor's most significant church, Christ Church, Spitalfields, in east London.

In 1974 Elstob had purchased a house in Fournier Street, Spitalfields, an early Georgian building first used by Huguenot weavers, which lay in the shadow of Christ Church. In the house next door, "Art for All" had already been established by the visual artists Gilbert and George. "All" in the vicinity included the conceptual artists Langlands and Bell, the poet and playwright Rodney Archer, the theatre historian Geoffrey Ashton, Denis Severs - epic conveyer of the imaginary Jarvis family at No 18 Folgate Street - and the Argentine painter and set- designer Ricardo Cinalli.

Cinalli embarked with Elstob on the restoration of his four-storey "rag trade" house. Elstob's Nordic-English outlook complemented Cinalli's temperament, and together they achieved their vision of a unique house. The previous owner had kept a pair of greyhounds on a double bed with a pink counterpane. Elstob's own aesthetic was Spartan: his bed teetered on pallets garnered in the fruit market.

Elstob's house backed onto the church primary school, of which he later became governor, and the Seven Stars pub, home to lethargic strippers. Spitalfields was predominantly Bangladeshi, with a Jewish and East European diaspora, a vibrant rag trade and Spitalfields fruit market. Pubs were licensed through the night for market porters; Phyllis and Clyde's Market Café, where Gilbert and George had painted the kitchen floor, opened at 3am.

The remarkable Christ Church towered above. In the 1950s the church had been threatened with demolition, but growing recognition of the importance of Hawksmoor's work saved it and in the Sixties the roof had been repaired. Its Rector from 1974, Eddie Stride, was soon convinced of the significance of this church in an impoverished area. He ran a homeless men's refuge in the crypt; its most charismatic tenant, "Banjo" (James Cross), had a police record for stealing a lifeboat from Birkenhead and sailing it up the Thames.

The Friends of Christ Church, Spitalfields was founded in 1976 and Elstob became Treasurer. Research and building work began and in 1977 the Friends launched an annual music festival, under the direction of the conductor Richard Hickox. This was the progenitor of the Spitalfields Festival.

The restoration of Christ Church was an enormous task but Elstob was a prudent, astute treasurer, handling scarce funds. His careful management for 25 years, for which he was appointed chairman in 1996 and president in 2002, has ensured that the Friends, while still fund-raising, should complete restoration of the church next year.

Eric Carl Elstob was born in Hawkhurst, Kent, in 1943. He was the only child of a Royal Navy captain, Eric Elstob, and his wife Signe Ohlsson. His mother was Swedish, from the southern coastal town of Ystad. His father died when Eric was six and in 1952 Signe, a physiotherapist, moved with her son to Bath, running a practice from home and supplementing her wage with hospital employment.

Following prep school at Hawtreys, Wiltshire, Eric Elstob attended Marlborough, like his father before him. He excelled at languages, literature and boxing. He continued to be athletic; in 1995 he scaled the Andes and, sporting an array of herringbone jackets, tweeds, plus-fours and green military socks, he walked in many countries. He later smoked a pipe (except in Lent). He observed many saints' days and had a store of folklore kept, like much of his business work, in his head.

At 15, meeting his guardians in the old United Services Club, he told one of them - an admiral - that he would not follow his father into the Navy. At 16 he won a scholarship to Queen's College, Oxford, and graduated with first class honours in Modern Languages in 1965. That summer he visited Greece, and recited a Shakespeare sonnet, "Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame", at Epidaurus, at the temple erected to Dionysus.

As undergraduates, Elstob and his schoolfriend Richard Barber (the future historian and Elstob's publisher at the imprint Boydell & Brewer) travelled in Sweden with the future Conservative minister Tim Boswell. Barber remembers:

Elstob instructed us that when drinking a toast in schnapps before dinner, the glass should be lowered when empty opposite where the second waistcoat button would have been. We duly did this at one house, and our host laughingly exclaimed "You can't all three of you have been in the Swedish navy."

In 1965 Elstob joined Foreign & Colonial Management in London and by 1969 was appointed a director. Linguistically gifted, with Latin, Greek and some Provençal alongside French, German, Swedish and English, he was drawn to international financing. After a rocky start, Foreign & Colonial's operations in Japan flourished and in 1972 Elstob helped establish the GT Japan Investment Trust.

He was pre-eminent in researching Far Eastern economies and trailblazed Foreign & Colonial investment policies in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand. Until 1995 he was a joint manager of the Foreign & Colonial Investment Trust. This was a golden era of performance for Foreign & Colonial, which became the largest investment trust in the UK.

Elstob's mother had resettled in Sweden in 1966, and died two years later. He had been her close confidant and her death was painful for him to overcome. He maintained close ties with his Swedish relatives and in honour of his mother founded the Signe Trust, slanted to help the young, the arts and the artisan. In 1979 he published a lively account of Sweden's past, Sweden: a traveller's history.

The late 1980s brought Elstob personal and business difficulties, and were a lonely time. More gentle was his post as Treasurer to the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks. He was also trustee at St Andrew's, Holborn. In 1989 he was diagnosed with cancer but he fought it stoically.

In the spring of 1990 he drove to Eastern Europe. Over the next five years, with petrol cans and a tent in the boot, he sought to see for himself how the economies could withstand change after Communism. The resulting John Buchan-esque book, Travels in a Europe Restored, was by turns dark and wry.

Elstob continued to travel widely for business and pleasure, ably assisted by his companion Eva-Lena Ruhnbro. He holidayed in Ystad annually, and returned often to his childhood house in Bath, where time was slower. He maintained and developed eclectic passions: blackberry crumble, skiing, trekking, Ealing comedies, schnapps, cats and kayaking. A fine-looking man, with a hunting-dog face, he was brave and uncomplaining.

Nicholas Johnson

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