Obituary: John Booth

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The Independent Online
John Sebastian Macaulay Booth, businessman: born London 26 April 1913; managing director, Booth International 1964-80; married 1957 Juno Liddell (died 1968; two daughters); died West Hendred, Oxfordshire 15 July 1994.

WHEN John Booth, managing director of his family tanning business in Nottingham, arrived at work, he would make a point of leaving his car not in the directors' car park, but in the general car park at the far end of the factory, so that he could walk the length of its workshops chatting to individuals on the factory floor. It was a mark of the unconventional style he brought both to his business affairs and to all aspects of his life.

The third generation of Booths in the business, John Booth proved a pioneering figure in the leather and tanning industry. In the Sixties and Seventies he travelled the world as the head of the Booth group of companies, probably the largest producers of leather in the UK, international traders in raw skins, and owners of Surpass, in Philadelphia, the largest goatskin tannery in the world.

The tanneries were part of an extensive business empire which in the pre-war years also included shipping (the Booth Line, based in Liverpool, later sold to the Vestey family) and building interests. The empire's founder was John's grandfather Charles Booth, the philanthropist and author of Life and Labour of the People in London, who contributed largely to the passing of the Old Age Pensions Act in 1908. John inherited from his grandfather and his father, George, a fascination for creative commerce and a feeling for family; and the respect he had for their examples meant that in later life he would go to often extravagant lengths to help or entertain any relation or business connection.

He was born in London in 1913, one of three sons and three daughters of George and Margaret Booth, and into a creative, intellectual wider family (Beatrice Webb was a great-aunt and George Booth's mother a niece of the historian Lord Macaulay). John's father was a senior figure in the family business, a director of the Bank of England and Minister of Munitions during the First World War. His mother, born Margaret Meinertzhagen, was an accomplished amateur violinist. All six children learnt the piano and one other instrument. John studied the clarinet and went on to play in the early seasons of the Glyndebourne Festival.

John Booth was educated at Harrow and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read History and Economics, started the college orchestra and was taught by Maynard Keynes. He was much taken with socialist ideals - as were his contemporaries Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt.

The Booths entertained guests to musical parties at their substantial neo-Georgian house in Kensington, at the top of Campden Hill. (It is now the residence of the South African ambassador.) To visitors it presented a refreshing combination of Bohemianism and Reform Club industrial rectitude.

John Booth's training in the business began in 1934 with four years in Philadelphia sorting goatskins at the Surpass tannery. He returned to England in 1938, and with the coming of war volunteered as a private with the Ox and Bucks and went to France with the British Expeditionary Force, where he remembered taking part in a bayonet charge. After Dunkirk he was one of only two of his battalion to get back to Britain.

After six months' convalescence, Booth joined the Intelligence Corps. By early 1941 he had started work at the Combined Ops Photographic Interpretation Unit at Medmenham, in Buckinghamshire, examining aerial reconnaissance photographs for the Army. He was one of the first such specialists and was sent to help plan the invasion of Italy from north Africa, working long hours to provide back-up for General George Patton's 7th Army. He succumbed to pleurisy and pneumonia in Tunisia and returned to Medmenham after the invasion of Sicily.

During the build-up to D-Day, Booth was assigned to the 11th Armoured Division, and took charge of its air-photo interpretation section. He served the division, under the command of Maj- Gen Pip Roberts, throughout the campaign, from the early battles in Normandy, through the lightning advance to Antwerp and the sweep across north Germany as the spearhead of 21 Army Group, all the way to the Danish frontier. His fellow officers found him a first-class photographic interpreter under battle conditions; shrewd, perceptive, and imaginative.

After the war, Booth went to work at the head office of Alfred Booth and Co - the group holding company which Charles Booth had named after his brother Alfred - where George Booth was chairman. In the succeeding years, John Booth was instrumental in the expansion of the leather trade in East Africa, setting up tanneries and a chain of buying centres to acquire cattle hides, goatskins and sheepskins. Hides were exported to the principal tanning countries and supplied direct to Booth subsidiaries: sheepskins to be made into chamois leather at Abingdon, goatskins to Surpass and to Wade & Co, in Nottingham, cattle hides to Melrose, in Hull.

In 1964, after a family rift, the holdings of Alfred Booth & Co were split into its building concerns, which retained the company name, and the leather businesses. John Booth's cousins kept the building side, while he took charge of the leather.

Booth International was established as a new holding company, with John Booth as managing director; it was floated on the Stock Exchange in 1974. The Sixties and early Seventies were the peak years for the post-war leather industry, when most middle-class women in the Western world owned two or three pairs of court shoes. The decline in demand in the late Seventies required a rationalisation in business which pained Booth deeply. Booth International was merged with Garners, a large tanning group based in Bermondsey, south London, in 1980, when John Booth retired as managing director, and Garner Booth has since merged with Pittards, a Somerset- based tanning company.

Booth was an avid skier and it was on a skiing holiday that he fell in love with Juno Liddell, the daughter of Guy Liddell, deputy head of MI5. Booth had long been a friend of the serene, cello-playing Guy Liddell, while Juno's maternal grandfather, Cecil Baring, had been a family friend of George Booth's, and had handled much of Alfred Booth & Co's banking business at Baring Brothers. They were married in 1957, but Juno died 11 years later, still in her thirties, after suffering from Hodgkin's disease. It fell to John to bring up their two daughters, which he did in a personal and exemplary fashion.

The family lived until the late Seventies in a house overlooking the pepper-pot towers of Southwell Minster, in Nottinghamshire. In the Eighties, John moved first to London and then to Oxfordshire. He was an indefatigable host, and in retirement kept to a strict domestic routine. He would don a kimono at 6.30pm, and mix a Martini. He would regale family and friends with stories, interrupted by lone, sighing chuckles, emitted with eyebrows raised and his head held half back, or approach his father-in-law's old gramophone, with its elegant and enormous horn, and put on a 78: Bernard Miles reciting a comic potted version of Tristan und Isolde, or Fritz Busch's Glyndebourne recording of the overture to Cosi fan Tutte.