Lord Steinberg: Bookmaker who left Belfast after being shot by the IRA and became a Tory grandee

Leonard Steinberg's eventful life took him from running an illegal backstreet bookies in Belfast to a seat in the Lords and high position in the Conservative party. Along the way he made a fortune, and was shot by the IRA. He became one of the grandees of the British bookmaking industry, building the Stanley Leisure Group into a concern with more than 600 betting shops and almost 50 casinos. He once said, probably with affected modesty, that he was not a great businessman but was "a great contacts man". None the less, his business acumen propelled him into the Rich List with a personal fortune of up to £100m.

The man who was to be ennobled as Lord Steinberg of Belfast was born in the city in 1936, the grandson of immigrants who had arrived there after fleeing persecution of Jews in Latvia. His father, a one-time salesman, built up a cluster of small concerns which included an opticians' workshop and a milk bar. Behind the milk bar he ran a discreetly placed illicit betting shop: working-class Belfast had an appetite for gambling, but for years this was banned.

Leonard Steinberg planned to be an accountant but when his father died it fell to him, at the age of 18, to run the family concerns. "I was the eldest, so it was me who had to try to be the meal ticket," he recalled.

"I was left to bring up two brothers and a sister as my mother's sight was very bad. I wanted to continue with my father's business but we had no management structure and I closed it after four months. We had a milk bar and an illegal betting business. We expanded the milk bars but an employee robbed me of £3,000 and so I concentrated on the betting side."

When bookmaking was legalised Steinberg built up more than a dozen shops under the name Stanley Ltd, an anglicised version of the family name which his father had sometimes used. When the Troubles broke out in the late 1960s he was a substantial enough figure to attract the attention of the IRA which, in common with other groups, attempted to collect "protection money" from companies and individuals. In 1977, when Steinberg refused to pay up, a gunman appeared on the doorstep of his north Belfast home and shot him in the leg.

"At that time there was no great difference between the IRA and the extremists on the Protestant side," he said in later life. "They were all at the protection racket. We refused to pay."

The incident was one of a series which led to some members of Belfast's Jewish community to move out of Northern Ireland. In 1980 one of Steinberg's friends, the jeweller Leonard Kaitcer, was abducted by gunmen who demanded a ransom of £1m. They killed him, leaving his body in a republican area.

Years later, in conversation with peers in a Lords tea-room, Steinberg was asked if it was true he had once been kidnapped."I was never kidnapped," he replied. "I was only shot."

After his shooting Steinberg left Belfast and moved to Manchester, where his business flourished. "One of the reasons we built up so successfully was that Hills, Ladbrokes and Coral did not take us too seriously," he was to say. "They had the pick of the estate in those days and we started at the bottom end."

Snapping up some unwanted premises in the years that followed, he built the Stanley firm into Britain's fourth largest bookmakers, with 640 shops and dozens of casinos, in all employing 7,000 people. He floated Stanley on the London Stock Exchange in 1986, and 13 years later acquired Crockfords, the world's oldest private gaming club.

All of this was achieved without undue flamboyance. As the Racing Post once wrote of him: "Steady rather than a showman, an entrepreneur of patience rather than impulse, there is a reserve about him that is reflected in his company's unostentatious rise to eminence."

In 2005 and 2006 he largely cashed in his chips, selling off most of his interests and collecting winnings which approached £100m. He used his money to buy a Bentley, an Aston Martin and other exclusive vehicles.

One interviewer noted that when he spoke of his cars he "shifted in his chair with glee, his eyes sparkling and a grin creeping across his face."

He was also a stamp collector at the very high end of the market: "I have a block of four penny blacks in brilliant condition – they're really top," he once enthused. "The whole secret is to collect things you really like." His art collection was so large that it completely filled both his home and his company headquarters, so that the overflow had to be housed in a gallery.

Steinberg was noted for his philanthropy in both Jewish and other causes, heading up many organisations such as the Jewish Federation. Earlier this year he helped set up a Friends of Israel society in Belfast. He was also a lifelong supporter of the Ulster Unionist cause.

A member of the Conservative Party for decades, he was both a significant donor and one of its treasurers, becoming a Tory life peer in 2004. In a tribute David Cameron described him as "a good friend to the Conservative party, who regularly offered me sage advice and words of wisdom." Another of his interests was cricket: he was president of Lancashire county cricket club, where for 30 years he was an enthusiastic member and highly effective fund-raiser.

Even though he had left Belfast in such unfortunate circumstances he retained an attachment for Northern Ireland. He illustrated this both by incorporating Belfast into his title; and, though he crossed the Irish Sea more than 30 years ago, he never lost his Belfast accent.

Making his maiden speech in the Lords, he outlined some of his interests, some of which he evidently regarded as less than universally popular. "In Northern Ireland I joined the Ulster Unionist Party," he said. "When I emigrated to Manchester I became a member of the Conservative Party. Along the way I became a bookmaker and an ardent Zionist." He added wrily: "Therefore noble Lords can well imagine the heavy burden that I have had to bear."

David McKittrick

Leonard Steinberg, bookmaker: born Belfast 1 August 1936; cr. 2004 life peer; married 1962 Beryl Cobden (two children); died London 2 November 2009.

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