How an oyster row has family fearing for its home: A woman worth pounds 55m is seeking possession of a modest house to settle a pounds 9,000 debt. Peter Dunn reports

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BRITAIN'S second-richest woman, Charlotte Morrison, hopes shortly to acquire a new property to add to her portfolio of grand estates.

On 27 April at Weymouth County Court, Dorset, Mrs Morrison will apply for possession of a pounds 45,000 three-bedroom semi-

detached former council house on Portland island, Weymouth, to recover a debt of pounds 9,000 owed to her by Neville Copperthwaite after their oyster-farm partnership ended acrimoniously.

Mr Copperthwaite, who bought the house for pounds 11,000 from the local council 10 years ago, no longer lives there. The property, which he used as security against a loan to him by Mrs Morrison of pounds 14,000, is now occupied by his estranged wife, Linda, and her two sons, Luke, 12, and Wayne, 20.

Mrs Copperthwaite says of the long-running saga that could now make her homeless: 'I'm bitter because she's taking it out on us. It's his debt. He borrowed the money from her and it's us that's going to be hurt.'

Mrs Morrison lives at Melbury House, a 16th-century property in Evershot, Dorset, with a deer park and private chapel. The Cattistock Hunt, of which Mrs Morrison, a 38-year-old divorcee, is deputy master, meets frequently on the broad gravel forecourt.

There is no gravelled entrance at 113 Weston Street, perched high on the bleak Portland landscape, but if successful in her court action, Mrs Morrison will be able to take in its dramatic views to the sea across a ravaged prospect of stone quarries.

It may not compare, however, to Melbury - which came to her through her mother, Lady Teresa, daughter of the 7th Earl of Ilchester - or her estates in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. At the age of 15, when her father, the ninth Viscount Galway, died, Mrs Morrison also inherited a large slice of Holland Park in central London, with its handsome Victorian terraces.

Four years ago, her fortune was estimated at pounds 55m. Only the Queen - estimated to be worth pounds 5.3bn - is richer among British women.

Mrs Morrison first encountered Mr Copperthwaite, a diver, when he tried to establish Britain's first lobster hatchery. They founded Abbotsbury Oysters, an oyster farm based on Fleet Lagoon at Wyke Regis, Weymouth. Mrs Morrison had a 75 per cent stake in the farm through her company, the Ilchester Estate. Mr Copperthwaite, as managing director, had a holding of 25 per cent.

Harmony ruled after the first oyster beds were laid in the water in 199l. Mrs Morrison lent Mr Copperthwaite the pounds 14,000 he needed to pay off creditors in the lobster business, which had failed. Mr Copperthwaite then founded the Weymouth Oyster Festival, which was aimed at promoting oysters as more than just an exclusive delicacy.

He was dismissed last Christmas after a disagreement which culminated in him briefly barricading himself inside the oyster farm.

Mr Copperthwaite says the venture had run into problems because accountants from the Ilchester Estate, fearing a deepening recession, had told him to cut oyster-seed planting by half. He claims he ended up being blamed when the farm was unable to meet demand.

'We ended up buying in oysters, and I had to go to Charlotte last August to say 'I told you so',' Mr Copperthwaite said. He claimed that after that, allegations were made about how he was running the business.

Mr Copperthwaite has now started a rival oyster company in the basement of a pub next door to Abbotsbury Oysters, with long- term credit provided by local traders. He said that losing his pounds 15,000-a-year job meant he could no long make the pounds 194 monthly repayments on Mrs Morrison's loan. He is now living with another woman on Portland on income support of pounds 30.50 a week. He said: 'I've got nothing, I'm on the dole. They've got so much bloody money they live in another world. They never contacted me about what plans I'd got for repaying the loan. They've just gone straight to court and the silly thing is I don't even live in the house any more.

'What it comes down to is they're not used to having an entrepreneur working for them, someone who speaks back. They can't handle it when someone stops tugging their forelock.'

When the Independent attempted to arrange an interview with Mrs Morrison, it was escorted out of the grounds of Melbury House by the estate's deer-keeper and head of security. A man answering the phone at the house said Mrs Morrison was away.

Edward Green, agent of the Ilchester Estate, declined to discuss the impending county court action over the Copperthwaites' former council house. He said: 'I don't think it's a matter that can be enhanced in any way by having a general discussion in the media.'

(Photographs omitted)

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