Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Bill Birch Reynardson 1923 - 2017

Bill Birch Reynardson

This post is about Bill Birch Reynardson (1923 - 2017), who was the 'original cause' of my joining Thomas Miller, and in my subsequent 39 year career in the City and was both a mentor and friend.

Bill and my father Patrick were close friends of Colin Balfour and were shooting with him one day in the autumn of 1966.  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' liability mutual or 'P&I Club' and were highly successful, and the firm was known as one of most 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 the 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*.

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). Stephen James, who later became chairman of Thomas Miller, recalls that at his interview with Bill, he was asked, in all seriousness, if he had 'private means' - which was perhaps to Bill a reasonable question as the starting salary was 'only' just over £1000 a year, but we thought it was very decent indeed. 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 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), where met some impressive characters like Dr Hrvoje Kacic and of course I also got to know them well. Later on we visited India, Iran and Iraq, but it was to Yugoslavia we went most often and we also dealt with their shipowners' annual renewal as well as their cases. When travelling with Bill and Nik in 1973, my wife Prue began complaining of the local smells and was unable to eat much. Bill immediately deduced that she was pregnant, a state that was confirmed by a visit to the local hospital.

Bill was a good lawyer and negotiator and was consummate at large international gatherings. He was for many years vice-president of the CMI (Comite Maritime International) from which new international shipping laws emerged. When the Torrey Canyon spilled 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 Devlin 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 to 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. In this photo we are at the top of the Palace Hotel giving lunch to a Japanese lawyer and his colleague. The lawyer was a crucial link to the top echelon of the Japanese shipping line NYK and was a good friend as well. The photo includes Terence Coghlin, who was revered in Japan, as well as a young Nigel Carden who looks after our Japanese business now.

Bill knew how to travel in style: we went to the races in Baghdad (Bill in an 'owners' grey flannel suit with brown trilby), and took time out of a visit to Tehran to see Persepolis the year after the Shah's incredible party, coming home via Rome. At the Taj in Bombay, Bill would invite the senior figures in the industry to dinner in his suite. They all came. He made particular friends with the eminent Indian lawyer, S.Venkitsewaran (known to all as 'Venky') who remained a most valuable friend to the firm (and me) thereafter.

Bill presided over the expansion the firm in the 1980s and several new Clubs and businesses were started, including the Bar Mutual which insured the members of the bar in England and Wales against professional negligence. He put me in charge of one that started in 1984 - Transport Intermediaries Mutual (the brainchild of Francis Frost) - and supported me against those who thought I should have stayed in the main P&I business. But TIM was successful and by 1993, having completed a merger with a competing mutual making the combined entity ITIC the largest insurer of such risks in the world, I returned to P&I.

Bill retired in 1992 and was made a CBE. He 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. He had always been a consumate countryman and sportsman and rode to hounds until late in life (before being nearly killed when his horse fell when out hunting), and was chairman of Garsington Opera for years as well as Les Azuriales Opera. He was very well-connected both in the City and society generally. His lovely 7 acre garden at Adwell was being constantly expanded and is open annually for charity.



Bill always dressed well but was of the school that allowed clothes to be correct for the occasion but never flashy. At one point I had had a suit made that was rather too tight-fitting. On appearing in it for the first time, Bill's laconic comment was simply 'It faut suffrir pour etre belle'.... He was also traditional in his artistic and architectural tastes, and once asked me as we passed the 'new' Lloyd's building whether I liked it. 'Yes, quite', I replied. 'You're a pseud,' he said - but he had the hall at Adwell painted a marvellous bright peach that was much admired.

Bill was one of the most charming men of his generation and was at ease with people from all walks of life and all nationalities**. As with my father, one could say that he was loved and admired as much by women as by men. In later life he wrote a private memoir, 'Letters to Lorna', in which he described his early life (Eton, Oxford, the War - he was wounded in Italy) - back to Oxford) through the letters he had exchanged with a dear friend in Scotland.

He was a marvellous raconteur and had an enormous fund of stories which often involved well-known people. There was however plenty of steel under the velvet glove and he was equally able to steer a large gathering of shipowners as well as the varied characters in his partnership. And despite his rather grand background, he also knew when to save money. When there was a downturn in the shipping market in the mid-80's, he sold the flat in Victoria that went with the job of senior partner, and gave up the firm's butler and chauffeur as well as the weekly seats at Covent Garden. He even decreed that business lunches in the office should be 'dry' - for a while.

Bill with Sir Peter Miller, the chairman of Lloyd's,  at John Shearer's funeral 2010


Bill sadly lost his dear wife Nik in 1997 and lived the last twenty years alone, moving from the big house to the Garden House where he was was looked after by his housekeeper Lorrie. Nik, Juliet, Clare and Tom and their families are pictured here at Adwell in 1995.

In 2014, Bill gave a lunch at his club for those he had recruited to Thomas Miller. He was suffering from pneumonia at the time and was attended by his daughter Clare, but a it most enjoyable reunion for all of us (see photo). After that he still came to the Thomas Miller Carol Service and was at Mark Holford's retirement in 2015, but remained more and more at home at Adwell.

* In both these cases the shipowners were insured by a specific part of 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 P&I Club did cover 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.

** A vignette will put Bill's social life 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 Margaretha and John Ambler, Lord Carrington and his wife and one of the Swedish princesses, who was my age. I very much enjoyed the evening but have never encountered one quite its equal since.


Return to Archive Index 
Return to Thomas Miller

SaveSave