Sir Simon Hornby: Scion of the WH Smith dynasty who revitalised the company in the 1980s

With his commanding height – he stood 6ft 3in – his perfect manners and his tendency to wear slightly foppish clothes, Simon Hornby always looked what he was at heart – a latter-day embodiment of Renaissance Man.

He was born in London, but grew up at Pusey, his parents' lovely 18th-century house in Berkshire, where his father, Michael, kept a stable of high-class hunters, and his mother, Nicolette, created a memorably beautiful garden. His career at Eton was undistinguished – except that he acquired elegant, spiky italic handwriting, taught by the drawing master Wilfrid Blunt. After National Service in the Grenadiers he went up to New College, Oxford, where his main recreation was riding. A good horseman across country, he hunted fearlessly with the Heythrop and with the university Drag Hounds, whose Master, Edward Cazalet, quickly became a close friend.

Pusey was the scene of tremendous summer parties, and of cricket matches between two scratch sides, on which a good deal of money was punted. At the end of one hard-fought game the scorer, Michael Hornby – a man of great precision and business prestige – announced that Side A (captained by Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie) had won by three runs. A recount, however, showed that Side B (captained by Simon) had won by five runs – and the recriminations, imbibing and hilarity which followed were prodigious.

In December 1967 Simon and Edward's sister, Sheran, went off for a holiday in Mexico. They had known each other for eight years, but now suddenly they fell in love and decided to get married the following summer. The wedding took place at the Cazalets' home in Kent, and to it Sheran invited one of her oldest friends, the actress Elizabeth Taylor.

The service was due to start at 11.30am, but because the star was habitually late, Sheran told her that kick-off time was 10.30am. Everyone was amazed when for once she appeared punctually, and no one was more startled than the landlord of the local pub, the Chaser, who suddenly found Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Noël Coward confronting him across his bar in search of an early stiffener.

Simon never had to search for a job, because heredity handed him a central role in WH Smith, the nationwide bookseller, stationer and newsagent, where his grandfather and father had both been partners before him. From a traditional start as a trainee in 1958, and a lowly first post as stationery buyer in the Sheffield wholesale warehouse, he rose through the ranks to become retail director, managing director and chairman.

As the firm's chairman from 1982 to 1994 he sought to energise the sleepy giant by diversifying. At first everything went well, but later some of his projects faltered, and parts of the business had to be sold off. Overall, he was judged to have played a significant role in moving the company forward.

Although he was dedicated to the welfare of the family firm, and gave it his best, he also held an extraordinary range of other appointments – with the bankers Lazards, Pearsons and Lloyds, with the National Trust, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, the Royal Society of Arts, the Design Council, the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts, the Book Trust and the National Literacy Trust. As President of the Royal Horticultural Society from 1994 to 2000 he precipitated a major row by insisting that the Lindley Library be moved from Wisley to London.

He once told a friend that he believed emphatically that people should do what they want in life, "because they'll nearly always do that best and enjoy doing it". He himself, always approachable, flung himself into everything he did with huge enthusiasm. His knowledge of the arts was exceptional: armed with good taste and a first-class eye he became a scholarly expert on the art, culture and history of Venice, knew almost all the major gardens of the United Kingdom and France, read widely and amassed a fine collection of modern watercolours. A generous host, he took a deep interest in food and wine and was a skilful cook, master of many exotic sauces and soufflés.

In private he was no mean entertainer. A wonderful raconteur, and more-than-competent at the piano, he loved performing Gershwin and Kern favourites with Sheran's nephew Hal Cazalet, the opera singer. He could also be persuaded to bring out ridiculous old music-hall turns:

A. I say, I say, I say! My old man's taken some plums down the palace.

B. Woss he done that for, then?

A. Well – don't it say in that old song "Send her Victorias"?

He and Sheran never lived in Pusey itself, which was too large, especially as – to their great disappointment – they remained childless. Instead, they moved into Lake House, a smaller dwelling close by, and there Simon deployed the knowledge gained from his mother to create a stunning garden.

All through his life he was supported by devoted retainers, first by his father's head groom at Pusey, Lennie Demain, who had been evacuated from London with his family during the Blitz and had never returned. A later stalwart was Blondie Bonacker, a former prisoner of war who became the Hornbys' indispensable butler and factotum and married an English wife but never lost his German accent.

One of Blondie's finest moments came at Lake House, when, as the party was changing for dinner, cries of distress emanated from upstairs, where a woman of substantial dimensions had got stuck in the bath. Rushing to her rescue, Simon and Blondie found that she had let the water out and the cry went up, echoing the launch of the Mulberry harbours in 1944, "Turn on the taps and float her off!"

In 1992 the Hornbys moved to the Ham, an 18th-century house on the southern outskirts of Wantage. Here, he and Sheran entertained an ever-increasing mix of friends, to the delight of anyone lucky enough to be invited. Outside, he created another exceptional garden, its acres of immaculate lawn fringed by water and commanding views of the distant Berkshire downs. He put in hundreds of trees, knew the Latin name of every plant he introduced, and constantly experimented to see what species did best in particular types of soil.

His last years were clouded by the onset of Parkinson's disease, and by the progressive deterioration of his eyesight, which made it increasingly difficult, and then impossible, for him to read – an awful deprivation for someone who had spent much of his life surrounded by books. Buoyed up by Sheran's ever-loving care, he bore this misfortune with fortitude, and to the end he drew inspiration from his garden, for in spite of his increasing disability, his love of trees, plants and flowers never waned.

Duff Hart-Davis

Simon Michael Hornby, businessman: born London 29 December 1934; Director, WH Smith 1974-94, Chairman 1982-94; married 1968 Sheran Cazalet; Kt 1988; died Wantage, Oxfordshire 18 July 2010.

Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup