Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Bill Birch Reynardson

Bill Birch Reynardson and Peter Wright (foreground) 

This post is about Bill Birch Reynardson, who was the 'original cause' of my joining Thomas Miller and my subsequent 39 year career in the  City. How this happy occurrence took place was that one of my father Patrick's closest friends was Colin Balfour. Patrick was asked shooting with him one day in the autumn of 1966 and met Bill, who was also an old friend of Colin Balfour's.  They got talking and my father mentioned that I was reading law and intended to practice at the bar. 'I wouldn't do that', said Bill. 'I was at the bar for a while; very dull. I'm now with a firm in the City called Thomas Miller. Tell Herry to come and see me.' Needless to say, we made some enquiries (from the likes of John Colgrave) as Thomas Miller was a firm that no one appeared to have heard of, but they revealed the intriguing information that the Millers (Dawson and Cyril) ran something called a Shipowners' Mutual or 'P&I Club' and were two of the richest people in the City, had racehorses and a chateau in France, and the firm was known as one of most successful and prestigious in the world of shipping law and insurance.  And so I came up from university for a few days and was shown (by Terence Coghlin, another important mentor) the files relating to the current legal 'cause celebre', the 'General Guisan' - otherwise known as 'Suisse-Altantique' -  a case involving the issue of fundamental breach, and another enormous set of files involving an even more important case, the 'Wagon Mound', a Privy Council decision on remoteness of damage, which had been handled by Frank Ledwith. You can imagine how fascinating it was to be suddenly at heart of such momentous legal decisions, seeing how the relevant partners had handled the cases and guided the shipowners concerned in their appeals - with the Club in these cases paying their legal costs*.

Bill lived at Adwell House, an ancient pile in Oxfordshire that had been in his family since the late C17th and was once a Civil War prison. There is a good description of the house and the family's history here. Having joined Thomas Miller in October 1967 I was placed in Frank Ledwith's training room with my colleagues Stephen James, Francis Frost, Christopher Bird and Roger Day, with Nigel Lindrea, who had joined a year earlier, nominally looking after us (but in fact getting mercilessly ragged). Bill was a partner then and so soon was Terence Coghlin, and it was with Terence I initially sat, after the two- year training period, and only later with Bill. But almost immediately, Bill began to take me on business trips, particularly to Yugoslavia, often accompanied by his wife Nik (and sometimes his daughter Juliet), and of course I got to know them well as a result. Later on we visited India, Iran and Iraq, as well as Japan, but it was to Yugoslavia we went most often and we also dealt with their shipowners' annual renewal as well as their cases.

Bill was a good lawyer and negotiator was consummate at large international gatherings. He was for many years president of the CMI (Comite Maritime International) from which new international shipping laws emerged. When the Torrey Canyon spilt its cargo of oil on the Scilly Isles in 1967 and it was realised that there was no international regime to determine who paid for the consequences of an accidental oil spill, Bill got together with Lord Diplock in his kitchen and drafted what became the Civil Liability Convention on which most international oil spill compensation law has been based since 1970.

Bill later became senior partner, and I continued to travel with him in places like Japan, where he used to go off to have dinner with his old friend the ambassador, and I made the rounds of the shipowners. Here we are at the top of the Palace Hotel - where we always stayed - giving lunch to a Japanese lawyer and his colleague. The lawyer was a crucial link to the top echelon of the top Japanese shipping line and was a good friend as well. The photo includes Terence Coghlin who was revered in Japan.

I also learned how to travel: we went to the races in Baghdad (Bill in a grey flannel suit with brown hat and shoes), and took time out of a visit to Tehran to visit Persepolis, the year after the Shah's incredible party, coming home via Rome and staying in the Hassler. At the Taj in Bombay, Bill would invite the senior figures in the industry to dinner in his suite. They all came.

Bill put me in charge of a new insurance Club in 1984, and supported me against those who thought I should have stayed in the main P&I business. But TIM was successful and by1991 having completed a merger with a competing mutual and making the combined entity ITIC the largest insurer of such risks in the world, Herry returned to P&I.

Bill retired in 1992 and was made a CBE. He was a consumate countryman and sportsman and rode to hounds until late in life (before being nearly killed when his horse fell out hunting), was chairman of Garsington Opera for years and was very well-connected both in the City and society generally. His lovely garden at Adwell was being constantly expanded and is open annually for charity.

A vignette will put Bill into better context: his father had made friends in the South of France with the Swedish royals and Bill continued the relationship. One day in 1970 he invited me to dinner at Adwell and told me to stay the night and bring my black tie. It was a fascinating evening as the guest list included the King and Queen of Sweden, Princess Margareta and John Ambler, Lord Carrington and his wife and one of the Swedish princesses, who was my age. I very much enjoy the evening but have never encountered one quite its equal since.

* In both these cases the shipowners were insured by the Club only for their legal costs as the principal losses - time, (in the case of the "General Guisan') can't be insured - and physical damage to the ship itself (in the case of the 'Wagon Mound') is covered by the ship's hull policy). Of course the Club covered a multitude of types of loss to third parties, from oil spills to death and injury to passengers and crew, to cargo loss and damage, fines and penalties and many more esoteric claims.

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