A businessman and naturalist who gave a lifetime of service

Lord Ridley
Lord Ridley

VISCOUNT Ridley has died at the age of 86 after a lifetime of service to communities, charities, business and politics.

Matthew White Ridley, 4th Viscount Ridley and Baron Wensleydale, who died last Thursday, was much liked by people from all walks of life in his native Northumberland where he had long been prominent in local life and held many ceremonial roles.

He served an unprecedented 12 years as Chairman of Northumberland County Council, was Lord Lieutenant of the county for 16 years, Chancellor of Newcastle University for 11, Commanding Officer and later Honorary Colonel of the Northumberland Hussars and patron of innumerable charities.

Though active in the House of Lords in the 1970s and 1980s on matters of local government and defence, as president of the Association of County Councils and of the Council of the Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve Associations, his only national position came when the Queen made him Lord Steward of the Household in 1989, a part-time and largely ceremonial role to which he brought his usual charm and good humour, even when a nervous royal footman spilled hot gravy down his neck at a banquet during a state visit.

Matthew Ridley was born on July 29, 1925, at the family home, Blagdon Hall, the son of the third viscount, and of Ursula Lutyens, the daughter of the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. Lord Ridley was the seventh Matthew White Ridley in succession to inherit the estate. The viscountcy had been granted to Lord Ridley’s great grandfather, the Home Secretary, in 1900, the last peerage granted by Queen Victoria.

Lord Ridley was educated at Eton and briefly at Newcastle University, then Durham University, before going to Sandhurst and joining the Coldstream Guards in 1943.

He went to Normandy in August 1944, just after his 19th birthday, and fought to the end of the war in Germany in the Guards Armoured Division, in command of Sherman tanks.

He took part in the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of Brussels. On April 3, 1945, his tanks gave covering fire in an action that saw the award of a posthumous Victoria Cross to Captain Iain Liddell, who, under heavy fire, disconnected bombs set to blow a bridge over the River Ems. The bridge was captured intact and Liddell survived, only to be killed later by a sniper.

After the war, Ridley went to Balliol College, Oxford, where, despite what contemporaries recalled as a fine brain, he did little work and gained a third class degree in agriculture. He was more proud of his charge sheet, later framed, for throwing a brick at a lamppost to celebrate the birth of Prince Charles. The brick hit a policeman.

In 1952/53 he served as aide-de-camp to Sir Evelyn Baring, Governor of Kenya, where his intense lifelong interest in birds led to a research paper on the diet of the Greater Flamingo.

In 1955, with his wife Anne and the zoologist Lord Richard Percy, he spent six weeks on an uninhabited island in the Seychelles, studying the egg-laying capacity of the sooty tern, whose numbers had been much depleted by the harvesting of eggs for the chocolate industry. Partly thanks to Ridley and Percy’s recommendations to the Colonial Office, sooty tern numbers recovered and have since greatly increased.

Returning to farm at Blagdon, he succeeded his father in 1964 and set about converting farm buildings into workshops, shops, and offices to diversify the estate away from agriculture and create jobs.

He soon entered local politics and was Chairman of Northumberland County Council from 1967 to 1979. In 1974-6 he was appointed by the Labour Government to serve on the Layfield Committee looking into local government finance.

Politically, Lord Ridley was a moderate Conservative, being first elected Chairman with the support of Liberals and Independents. Known for his conciliatory and generous nature, he was just as much at home working with the President of the National Union of Miners to raise funds for the Aged Miners Homes charity (he was one of the few Tories to be welcomed regularly at the Northumberland Miners Picnic and the Durham Miners Gala) as he was for waking planners in the dead of night to rush through a planning application for a pharmaceutical factory near Morpeth lest it go to Wales instead.

He could on occasion be forthright, once criticising the building of the Tyne and Wear Metro system as ‘the biggest waste of public money since the building of the pyramids’.

He created links and school exchanges with local authorities in Prague, brutally terminated in 1968, and the Rhineland. The latter resulted in his being awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit by the German Federal Government.

Lord Ridley served on the boards of several businesses, including Tyne Tees Television and the Northern Rock Building Society, which he chaired from 1988 to 1993.

As Lord Lieutenant of Northumberland between 1984 and 2000, Lord Ridley gained a reputation for his indefatigable championing of community groups, cadet forces and youth work. Among the charities he chaired were the Sir James Knott Trust and the Vindolanda Trust.

All his life Lord Ridley was a passionate naturalist. He ringed, observed and painted watercolours of birds in his youth, and made a particular study of the habits of roe deer, which he loved to stalk, and of salmon, which he loved to catch.

He began what has become an enormous and internationally recognised arboretum at Blagdon, where he collected many hundreds of species of maple, birch, willow, alder, sorbus and chestnut. He was president of the International Dendrology Society, the Natural History Society of Northumbria and the Northumberland Wildlife Trust.

Lord Ridley was created a Knight of the Garter by the Queen in 1992 and GCVO in 1994.

In 1953, he married Lady Anne Lumley, daughter of the 11th Earl of Scarbrough. It was a long and happy marriage, lasting 53 years, and her death in 2006 was a severe blow. They had three daughters, Cecilia Cole, Rose Paterson and Mary James, and a son, Matthew White, though better known as the writer Matt Ridley, who succeeds to the title.

A memorial service will be held at St Nicholas Cathedral, Newcastle, at 2pm on Friday, April 20.