John Aspinall:

John Aspinall, was perceived as either a magnificently over-lifesized English gentleman, animal lover, gambler and eccentric, or as a distinctly more sinister individual, who would have been quite content to feed his fellow human beings to his preferred species - the ferocious tigers with which he spent his life trying to "bond".
Those in the "pro" lobby pointed to his two private zoos in Kent, Howletts and Port Lympne, which cost him around £4m a year (only about one-tenth of which was recovered by ticket sales) and had a better record of breeding endangered species than many grander and more conventional establishments. They pointed out that in the various gaming clubs he had run over the years, he had probably done more than Karl Marx to bring about the redistribution of wealth and the ruination of the rich.
Those in the "anti" lobby, who regarded James Bond's melodrama villains, Goldfinger and Dr No, as realistic characters in comparison, pointed to Aspinall's catalogue of beliefs - that the world's population would be better if culled by 2bn of the less intelligent; that Hitler was right about eugenics (though wrong about other matters); that everyone should feel himself to be a member of a tribe that was better than any other; that instinct and prejudice were more reliable guides to behaviour than reason; that, as a worshipper of the natural world, he worshipped earthquakes and plagues; and that he would glady sacrifice the life of his own children to save an endangered species.
Aspinall was not a comfortable person to be with or to contemplate, except perhaps for a small coterie of fellow gamblers and financial pirates, who presumably had a clearer idea of when he was joking. Over the years, that coterie included Sir James Goldsmith and Lord "Lucky" Lucan. Aspinall and Goldsmith were rumoured to have been among the council of war which met to consider Lucan's future the day after he had experienced some alleged difficulty with a length of lead pipe and the skull of his children's nanny.
Aspinall's world, though aspiring to the tenets of the jungle, was a hermetically sealed one of port and cigars, in which tigers, apes and gaming chips provided a self-prescribed danger and excitement in a little world surrounded, in his eyes, by the mediocre and mundane. The fact that it was usually his zoo employees rather than himself who were killed or mauled in pursuit of his theory of close "bonding" with wild animals - though he himself suffered in no small measure - was a component of the exotic equation of his life, which appeared to elude any sense of irony he may have possessed.
Both Howletts and Port Lympne seemed to attract human disaster. Aspinall's daughter-in-law, Louise, was bitten by a tiger cub and needed 15 stitches. A boy of 10 had his arm ripped off by a chimpanzee at Port Lympne, and was awarded £132,000 in damages. Bindu, an English bull elephant, crushed a "bonding" keeper to death at Howletts and later Darren Cockrill, who was crushed by an elephant at Port Lympne in February 2001.
In 1994, the local council banned the keepers from entering the tiger cages after one of their number, Trevor Smith, was killed at Howletts - Aspinall threatened to close down both zoos if the ban was enforced, and soon the keepers were back fondling the tigers. Balkash, the offending tiger, was described by Aspinall as coming from a "rather tricky line of tigers, the same line that produced Zeya, who killed two keepers, Stocks and Wilson 16 years ago. One tiger in 12 has this abberant streak. With humans, it is one in three."
Aspinall personally shot the tiger, and some of his detractors might not have been altogether surprised if he had been willing to shoot one in three human beings, though others saw his stance on culling the world population as the fantasising of a rich man who claimed he loved gambling precisely because it offered "excitement and despair".
John Victor Aspinall was born in India, ostensibly the son of Colonel Robert Aspinall, an Indian army doctor who had married a titled woman. It was years before she confessed to John that his real father had been Captain Bruce, of the Lincolns, who had had his way with her under a tamarind tree beside a lake in Uttar Pradesh after a regimental ball.
This evocative revelation did not seem to throw Aspinall. He searched out his real father in an old people's home and supported him for the rest of his life. But it may have added to a sense of the unreality of human relationships. As a boy, he had been thrown out of Rugby for inattention. Accounts of his university career vary, though the majority verdict is that he left Jesus College, Oxford, after faking illness so that he could go to the Ascot Gold Cup instead of completing his exams. He went down without a degree, but won a reputed fortune on the race. He joined the Royal Marines, but was too rebellious to gain a commission.
In the 1950s, he hit on the Flashman-esque expedient of circumventing the gaming laws by running games of chance, mostly chemin de fer, at various private addresses (not covered by the law) in Mayfair and thereabouts. In 1962, when the law was relaxed - very much due to Aspinall's campaigning - he opened the Clermont Club, and profited by the losses of high rollers like Lucan, who could not afford it, and Goldsmith, who could, as well as overseas gamblers from the United States and Middle East.
In the early 1970s, Aspinall sold the Clermont for £500,000 - just before a market crash drove the gamblers away. Then, in the late 1970s, he popped up again with the Aspinall Curzon, backed by Goldsmith, and, in 1987, sold it to Peter de Savary for £90m. With about £20m of the proceeds, he established a trust to fund his two zoos.
Aspinall was probably neither hero nor villain, but simply a wildly out-of-fashion romantic, who saw himself, like everything else, in romantic terms. This did not always sit easily with the reality of his relationships. He was married first, in 1956, to Jane Gordon Hastings, by whom he had a son and daughter. They were divorced in 1966, after which he married Belinda Musker, divorcing in 1972. His third wife was Lady Sarah Courage (neé Curzon), by whom he had one son.
Aspinall sometimes spoke about the children he had "sired", romantically confusing the language of the stable with that of the jungle in which he saw himself bonding with other wild creatures. The injuries sustained indicated that the desire to bond was tragically stronger on his side than theirs.

John Aspinall, Age 12

The Grange, Framfield
Sir George Osbournes house Aspinalls move in 1938 when his mother marries Sir George.

Jane and John Aspinall leaving court after the ‘Common Gaming House’ case of 1958

John Burke and John Aspinall Co owners of the Clermont club, London.

Clermont Club, London (Gaming club) 1962-1972

1973 Port Lympne, Kent. Built and previously owned by Philip Sassoon a British politician, art collector and social host, who entertained many celebrity guests:

Painting of Port Lympne by Winston Churchill

John Aspinall’s Obituary

Last Updated: 10:28PM BST 23 Aug 2001
Gambler and zoo owner who treated his wild animals as friends and stayed loyal to Lord Lucan's memory
JOHN ASPINALL, who has died aged 74, made a fortune out of running casinos and spent it in the creation of two zoos: at Howletts, near Canterbury, and at Port Lympne, near Hythe.
Aspinall's whole life was dangerous and controversial, and in the popular press there was much speculation that he had aided the disappearance of his gambling crony Lord Lucan. But by far the most important part of his career was his work with animals.
He insisted on treating them not as beasts to be exhibited, but as friends to be pampered. He ensured that they should have adequate space to live in the same kind of groupings as in the wild, and took the greatest trouble to reproduce the variety of their natural diet. His gorillas, for example, were given all kinds of berries, and treats such as roast meat on Sundays and chocolate bars.
"Aspers" himself, determined to annihilate the gulf between the species, delighted to romp with tigers and gorillas. His keepers, usually chosen without reference to qualifications, were encouraged to behave in a similar manner. In his book The Best of Friends (1976), Aspinall insisted on the individuality of animals: "There are bold tigers and timid ones, honest tigers and treacherous ones, predictable and unpredictable, noisy and silent, hot-tempered and good-natured."
He himself was an excellent judge of his charges. A Passion to Protect, a film about his work, showed him having his eyelids delicately picked by the gorilla Djoun; receiving newly-born tiger cubs dumped in his lap by the mother; and being surrounded by an affectionate wolf pack. Of his 30 best friends, he once remarked, more than half were animals. In 1993 he was perfectly happy that his grand-daughter should play with gorillas; indeed, he remarked, "I'd rather leave them with gorillas than with a social worker."
While experts were initially sceptical of his approach, they were eventually obliged to admire his remarkable run of breeding successes. Until 1956, no gorilla had ever been born in captivity, and not many more were added in ensuing years. Yet after 1975, gorilla births were common events at Howletts, and eventually passed the half-century mark.
Aspinall also bred hundreds of tigers, including the first Siberian tiger born in Britain. More than 50 other species profited, including the first snow leopard born in captivity; the first honey badger to be bred in a zoo; the first fishing cats in Britain; the first Przwalski's horses for 30 years.
But these triumphs were overshadowed by the deaths of five keepers: two killed by the same tigress in 1980; one crushed by an elephant in 1984; another savaged by a tiger in 1994; and the last trampled by an elephant earlier this year. There were also occasional maulings: of the 12-year-old Robin Birley in 1970; of the model Merilyn Lamb in 1969; of a volunteer at Port Lympne in 1994.
Though Aspinall succeeded in warding off attempts by the Canterbury Council to enforce more orthodox methods of husbandry at Howletts, these accidents evoked criticism which portrayed him as a playboy living out his fantasies. Such attacks were the more virulent because of the provocative manner in which Apsinall set forth his own views. In his mind there had once been a golden age in which animals and humans had been equal. Mankind, though, had launched a vicious campaign against the beasts and Aspinall saw it as a duty to fight for the victims.
He castigated the human race as a species of vermin, and positively welcomed natural disasters as a means of reducing the plague of homo sapiens. He would gladly end his own life, he declared, if he could take another 250 million with him. There was something to be said, he felt, for Hitler's ideas about eugenics. "Broadly speaking," he said, "the high income groups tend to have a better genetic inheritance."
Aspinall's special antipathy was clever women of Left-wing views; they made him fume. His quasi-fascist views earned him obloquy, and tended to obscure the extraordinary nature of his achievement. By 1996 his two zoos contained 1,100 animals, and cost £4 million a year to keep, of which the public contributed a mere £330,000. The task of providing the remaining funds left Aspinall quite undaunted. His panache and self-belief always allowed him to live entirely on his own terms.
John Victor Aspinall was born in Delhi on June 11 1926. His father, supposedly, was Robert Aspinall, a surgeon; his mother, née Mary Grace Horn, was sprung from a family resident in India for four generations. John was the second, and very much the favourite son. Later he gave out that, at 26, he had discovered his true father was a soldier called George Bruce, and that he had been conceived under a tamarisk tree after a regimental ball.
John was largely brought up by an ayah, and in early years was more fluent in Hindustani than in English. At six, he was sent back to prep school near Eastbourne. In 1938, Aspinall's mother, now divorced, married George Osborne (later Sir George, 16th Bt), who paid for John to go to Rugby. There he made the rugger XV, but his boisterous bolshiness caused the school to suggest in 1943 that he might not want to return for the next term. The most influential event of this period was his reading of Rider Haggard's Nada the Lily, which sparked a lifelong obsession with the Zulus and tribalism.
After Rugby, he spent three years in the ranks of the Marines. Afterwards he went up to Jesus College, Oxford, where he soon discovered that he had a talent for gambling. He risked his entire term's grant (£70) on a horse called Palestine in the 2,000 Guineas; it won, albeit at very short odds.
At Oxford he made friends who would prove vital to his later life, notably the Goldsmith brothers, Jimmy and Teddy, and a fellow gambler, Ian Maxwell-Scott. When his final exams beckoned, Aspinall preferred to attend the Gold Cup at Ascot.
At that time it was not permitted to hold games of chance regularly at the same place. Aspinall therefore began to set up games of chemin-de-fer at a variety of addresses. His charm, admitted even by his enemies, attracted such players as the Duke of Devonshire and the Earl of Derby, while his entertaining was conducted in the most lavish style. With his percentage of the stakes guaranteed, he was soon becoming rich.
He married in 1956, and went to live in a flat in Eaton Place, in which, quite suddenly, he began to instal various animals. There was a Capuchin monkey, then a nine-week-old tigress called Tara, who slept in his bed for 18 months, and two Himalayan bears. Inevitably, the neighbours were disturbed. Seeking for alternative accommodation, he put down a deposit of £600 on Howletts, a neo-Palladian house with 38 acres. A successful bet on the Cesarewitch enabled him to pay off the remaining £5,400.
At the end of 1957 the police raided a gambling party he had organised. The subsequent dismissal of the charges was a virtual admission that private gambling would be sanctioned, and indeed the Gaming Act of 1960 opened the door to casinos. In 1962, Aspinall opened the Clermont Club at 44 Berkeley Square. Though he was in a parlous financial state at the time - and thus allowed Mark Birley to establish the nightclub Annabel's in the basement - he raised £200,000 in loan stock. Membership, limited to 600, included five dukes, five marquesses and 20 earls.
The success of the Clermont Club, and investment advice from Jimmy Goldsmith, enabled him to finance Howletts, and to see off the complaints of angry neighbours. "You are slipshod and impatient," Lord Zuckerman, the doyen of zoologists, told him. But Aspinall was also irrepressible.
In 1972 he sold the Clermont Club to Victor Lownes for £500,000 in order to devote himself to Howletts. By now he was employing six gardeners and 12 keepers; the weekly bill for food amounted to £3,000. The stockmarket crash of 1973 left Aspinall more or less bust, forced to sell pictures and jewellery so that his animals could eat. Yet he still managed to pay out £360,000 for Port Lympne and its 275 acres, neglected since the death of Sir Philip Sassoon in 1939.
These were turbulent times for Aspinall. On November 8 1974, the day after Lord Lucan's disappearance, Aspinall's friends - but not, to Private Eye's cost, Jimmy Goldsmith - gathered for lunch at his house in Lyall Street to discuss what should be done. The tabloids suggested, without a shred of evidence, that they were all privy to dark secrets, and that Lucan might have turned up at Howletts and implored Aspinall to feed him to his tigers.
Aspinall declared on television that if Lucan showed up he would embrace him, but this was no more than the tribal loyalty which he demanded from his friends. Those, like Dominic Elwes, who were thought to have broken the code, were ostracised. Elwes made the mistake of selling a sketch of the interior of the Clermont to the Sunday Times, and when he found himself cut off from the company that he adored, committed suicide. At his funeral Aspinall, while praising Elwes's gifts, referred to "a genetic flaw" - and found himself punched on the jaw after the service.
In 1978 the need for cash forced Aspinall to return to gambling. Within four years the casino he set up in Hans Place was making £8 million a year. He decided to move to larger premises in Curzon Street, and to offer 20 per cent of the shares on the stockmarket. In 1983, he netted £20 million from their sale.
Aspinall and Goldsmith still owned the remaining 76 per cent of the company, though Aspinall's share was made over for the upkeep of his zoos. When the company was sold in 1987, he realised £23 million. But by 1992 he was in financial difficulties again, having lost large sums in Goldsmith's failed attempt to take over Rank Hovis McDougall. In consequence he opened another new casino in Curzon Street in 1992. Within a year it was flourishing.
In recent years he was dogged by cancer. His courage, doubted by none, was exemplified last year by the manner in which he shrugged off a vicious mugging near his home in Belgravia. John Aspinall married first, in 1956 (dissolved 1966), Jane Hastings, a Scottish model; they had a son and a daughter. He married secondly, in 1966 (dissolved 1972), Belinda "Min" Musker, a grand-daughter of the 2nd Viscount Daventry; they had a daughter who died in infancy. He married thirdly, in 1972, Lady Sarah ("Sally") Courage, widow of the racing driver Piers Courage and daughter of the 5th Earl Howe; they had a son.


Jose Maria said...

I work for Mr. John Aspinal at Howletts before it opens to the public as a butler for five years, all I can say it is that he was an inglish gentleman, a genuine animal lover and protector. He did not have many friends, I mean real friends, I remember the two Goldsmiths brothers, Lord Lucan, they use to visit Howletts in many ocasions in the week ends as it was a week end house. He treat his staff with respect, animals keepers, gardeners, houseold staff, and his main worry was the animals. He use to take the gorilas out in what he call it Gorila Woalk and the same with the tigers,I never have any problem with any of them even that I have to serve lunch and dinners with the tigers sleeping in the floor of the daining room and jumpping over them to reach the guest, five wonderfull years at Hawllets of my young boy, my wife, she was the cook, and I, God bless him, a good man. Jose M. Sanchez

Ronnel Sahagun said...

I love and i like to play
gambling all my lifew !

Sam Lloyd said...

Loved reading your aticile, would it be possible for you to add your pictures of Port Lympne Mansion