Lord Denman: Businessman and philanthropist

 

An act of selfless bravery in the Western Desert was to set the course of the rest of Charles Denman's life. He shot three German attackers and escorted a wounded soldier to safety at the Battle of Bir-el Harmat in 1942, winning the Military Cross, and out of the desperate nine-day battle carried an affection for that region that never waned. His experiences heralded nearly 70 years in which he would tirelessly advocate British trade and cultural relations with the world beyond Europe.

From marrying in Cairo in 1943 to being received in his nineties by the Emir of Qatar with a hug as an old friend, Denman considered the Middle East an inspiration for these ideals. Yet his reputation as a man on whom British governments could call for diplomacy, and whom business could trust to get large projects off the ground, was hard-won. The boy who left Shrewsbury School without a qualification to his name began his working life in the 1930s as a lowly jobbing gardener. His illustrious family, of which past generations included a Lord Chief Justice and a Governor-General of Australia, shook their heads about his future.

His academic difficulty would probably now have been diagnosed as dyslexia. Nevertheless, the young horticulturalist had charm and an ability to persevere, and was soon the owner of a small market garden. While working in Cornwall he even found love, meeting Sheila, daughter of a decorated Scots Lieutenant Colonel, who had been left an orphan and was being brought up by cousins. She would later become his wife.

He joined the Territorial Army, the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, and on the outbreak of the Second World War was posted to India and Baghdad before the ordeal that made a hero of him. This was on the evening of 5 June 1942, when a hand grenade hurled from a German armoured troop carrier exploded, wounding both Denman and a private soldier named Kent in their slit trench, Kent seriously.

Denman stayed in his position and dressed Pte Kent's wounds. After nightfall he led the party carrying the casualty 12 miles back through a captured position, going east. He went on ahead to seek assistance when the party could no longer carry Pte Kent. Only after a car of the 3 Royal Horse Artillery picked them up was Lt Denman taken to a field ambulance and his own wound attended to.

"Throughout the engagement this officer displayed the utmost gallantry and devotion to duty with complete disregard of self", the recommendation, signed by General Claude Auchinleck, Commander in Chief, Middle East Forces, says. Pte Kent died of his injuries, but the night-long patience and ingenuity Denman displayed in trying to save him were qualities quickly recognised by others.

Denman attended Staff College, was promoted to Major, and on 11 September 1943 in the cathedral at Cairo married Sheila, with whom he had been reunited when she was by chance posted to Cairo headquarters as he recovered there from his Bir-el Harmat wound. After the war he considered following his father, the MP Sir Richard Denman, first baronet, originally Liberal, into politics; but he failed to take Leeds Central, where he stood in the 1945 general election as a Conservative candidate.

Instead, he entered merchant banking, and on joining C Tennant and Sons Merchants, jumped at the chance for a business trip to the Middle East. Being aged conveniently between generations of the Tennant family, he soon became a director. "He was a real boy scout," a family member said. "He loved people, it didn't matter who they were, from all walks of life; he was interested." Colleagues considered him a fine public speaker and a good listener. He acquired some knowledge of Arabic, and was well-versed in courtesies and customs.

Projects in which he played an important part included the development of the Mahd adh Dhahab ("Cradle of Gold") gold mine in Saudi Arabia in the mid-1970s, and the modernisation of Cairo's water system and sewerage from 1979 onwards by companies including British Water and Wastewater, of which he was a director. To his death he remained President of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, and was chairman of the trustees of the Arab-British Chamber Charitable Foundation, helping Middle Eastern nationals study in Britain.

He spoke in Middle East debates in the House of Lords, telling the House on 15 January 1998: "In the appalling conditions in the Gaza Strip, it was essential to make it possible for the products of Gaza – citrus crops – to get out to the world markets. The first essential was a port and the second an airport... We should take an example from the Second World War and build a temporary port which would, with the help of ro-ro ships and caissons, enable the movement of goods." Denman was a trustee of the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians.

After the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt of 1967, the British government sent him to negotiate with President Nasser of Egypt, the release of vessels including four British ships stranded in the Great Bitter Lake area of the Suez Canal, which was blocked. However, the ships were stuck until the canal re-opened in 1975.

Denman advised the government of Edward Heath – which in 1973 took Britain into the European Economic Community – on trade with the rest of the world. He became a champion for the interests of New Zealand, which risked being shut out by European tariffs, and forged links for its businesses, both with Britain and the Middle East.

He was chairman of the Committee for Middle East Trade, part of the Overseas Trade Board, from 1971 until 1975, and in 1976 was made CBE for his services to export. Denman also inspired the Kuwaiti government's decision to give £1.5m to fund a new wing of the Tank Museum at Bovington in Dorset, as thanks for the expulsion of Saddam Hussein's forces from its territory in the First Gulf War of 1991. The Queen opened the Museum's Kuwait Arena in 2009.

The decision of Tony Blair's government to send forces into Iraq in 2003 greatly upset Denman, as did the long-drawn-out conflict in Afghanistan. So concerned was he to find out about Afghan conditions that he travelled there on the eve of his 90th birthday. He visited Kabul and, with an uncertain local escort following him on his departure, crossed the Khyber Pass.

He reserved a special care for Windlesham House School, a preparatory school which the family allowed to move in to Sir Richard Denman's vast country pile, Highden House near Washington in West Sussex, and for many years served as a governor.

Denman succeeded his father as 2nd baronet Denman of Staffield in Cumbria in 1957, and became the fifth baron Denman of Dovedale in Derbyshire in 1971 on the death of his cousin, Thomas, 4th Baron. Sir Richard's elder brother, Thomas, 3rd Baron, had been Australia's Governor-General from 1911-14, and the first Baron, also named Thomas, Lord Chief Justice from 1832 until 1850. Denman's son, Richard Thomas Stewart Denman, succeeds him.

Charles Spencer Denman, businessman and philanthropist: born Penrith, Cumbria 7 July 1916; married 1943 Sheila Anne Stewart (died 1987; three sons, one daughter); MC 1942; CBE 1976; Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Francis I 2004; died Highden, West Sussex 21 November 2012.

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