Rear Window: Why Alan Clark is rich: Three generations prosper on the fruits of the spool

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The Independent Online
HOW DID Alan Clark, the former Tory minister, acquire a castle in Kent, a couple of farms in the West Country, a chalet in Zermatt, 27,000 acres of Highland estate, a fine collection of old paintings and cars, and a reputation for carefree '18th-century behaviour' which was last week embellished with allegations of him exposing himself to a 13-year-old girl? How did Mr Clark come to be worth, by his own estimate, pounds 20m?

Not, as Mr Clark would be the first to confess, by working for it. He inherited the cash from his father, the late aesthete, Lord Clark (of Civilisation). Did the late Clark make his money by trading, say, in artefacts? No, he in turn inherited a fortune from his father - Alan Clark's grandfather - one Kenneth McKenzie Clark. This Mr Clark was certainly not a grafter. He sailed several large yachts and played billiards every night of his life. 'My parents,' wrote Lord Clark in his autobiography, 'belonged to a section of society known as 'the idle rich', and although, in that golden age, many people were richer, there can have been few who were idler.'

The last working Clark was probably this magnificently idle Clark's father, Alan Clark's great-grandfather. He was a thread manufacturer in Paisley - his company's symbol, an anchor, can still be seen on cotton spools - and that is how journalism usually describes the foundations of Alan Clark's wealth: thread, Scotland, property bought from the profits of thread.

Fine, so far as it goes, but Paisley in the last century contained many makers of thread and only two of them - Clark's and the firm it later amalgamated with, J & P Coats - became substantial concerns. What distinguished the Clark family were the usual suspects - acumen and luck.

When William Clark, a farmer on the outskirts of Paisley, died in 1753 he left a widow and six young children. Unable to work the land, they moved to the town. 'Their means were slender but they had a fair stock of that grit which distinguishes the Scottish peasantry, and which is the most valuable asset of our nation,' wrote a Paisley historian 90 years ago. One son, James, started a small business making thread - made then from linen - for Paisley's weaving industry. The thread was sold in skeins, or hanks, which were then wound by weavers and housewives into balls, in the same way that knitting wool is still. Then James Clark's son, another James, hit on the idea of selling the thread, by now made from cotton, ready-wound on spools. He charged a half-penny a spool, repaid when the spool came back empty.

Demand for thread increased enormously with the invention of the domestic sewing machine in the United States in the 1840s. Around the same time came the collapse of the Paisley shawl industry, which had flooded Europe with its machine- made imitations of the original Kashmir pattern. It was simply a whim of fashion. Shawls were out. It meant, however, that Paisley had large supplies of cheap female labour. The Clarks prospered, overcame American protectionism by opening a factory in New Jersey, and by the second half of the century were making profits so large that they could give their native town a new town hall and bequests ranging from bowling greens to the Annie Clark Fund for Incurables.

Clarks joined with Coats in 1896. Their mills covered a hundred acres and burnt 400 tons of coal a day to drive 500,000 spindles. They employed 10,000 in Paisley, mainly women and girls, and another 20,000 in factories in Europe and North America. Girls of 14 earned 6s 6d for a 55- hour week. At the turn of the century the shares were worth pounds 48m on a face value of pounds 11m. But the Clarks bowed out of management. The yachting Kenneth McKenzie Clark sat on the board for two years until his fellow members asked him to choose between sport and business. This brief experience of something approximate to work, his son wrote, 'left an indelible impression on him'.

Money and what it buys - castles, estates, yachts, cars - can free a man from caution and civility. It can make a man bold. It can make him careless. The resulting publicity is sometimes distasteful, but one can always retreat to the fruits of the cotton spool and the lucky coincidence of cheap labour.

(Photograph omitted)