Sir Sam Whitbread, last family chairman of the brewer, who hastened the company’s move from beer to leisure – obituary

Sam Whitbread
Sam Whitbread

Sir Sam Whitbread, who has died aged 85, was the last family chairman of the brewery business founded by his 18th-century forebear and transformed, in modern times, into a hotel and leisure group. He was also, as his father and grandfather had been, a long-serving lord lieutenant of Bedfordshire.

Whitbread & Co dated its origins to 1742, when Samuel Whitbread I (1720-96), a native of Cardington in Bedfordshire, acquired breweries in Old St and Brick Lane in London.

In 1750 the enterprise moved to its more famous site at Chiswell St in the City – which became the world’s largest brewery, a pioneer in the use of steam power and in 1796 the first to produce more than 200,000 barrels of beer a year.

In the mid-20th century, Whitbread & Co merged with several regional brewers and offered a shareholding “umbrella” to others to protect them from unwelcome takeover bids during a spate of industry consolidation.

But by the time Sam Whitbread became chairman in 1984 – succeeding Sir Charles Tidbury, who had married a Whitbread niece – the company’s transition away from beer had begun.

Whitbread with a dray horse, 1990s
Whitbread with a dray horse, 1990s

The Chiswell St brewery had been redeveloped as a banqueting venue in the mid-1970s and the acquisition of Long John whisky heralded a broader product portfolio. During Sam Whitbread’s tenure, change continued apace with the addition of chains of Threshers off-licences, Pizza Hut and Beefeater Inn outlets and the acquisition of the Beefeater gin brand – though the spirits division was sold off to Allied Distillers in 1989.

When Sam Whitbread left the chair in 1992 – the company’s 250th-anniversary year – it also faced having to sell off more than 2,000 pubs to comply with “beer orders” imposed by the Monopolies & Mergers Commission to diminish the “tied” trade and offer customers wider drinking choices. By 2001, when he retired from the board, Whitbread plc was ready to sell all its remaining brewing and pub interests, to focus instead on hotels, eateries and café chains.

Samuel Charles Whitbread was born into the seventh generation of the brewing dynasty on February 22 1937, the son of Major Simon Whitbread and his wife Helen, née Trefusis. Sam grew up at the family home of Southill in Bedfordshire with his younger sister, Elizabeth, and was educated at Eton and Cambridge before inheriting the estate when he was 25.

Dating from the 1720s, the mansion of Southill Park had been acquired by Samuel Whitbread I in 1795 and remodelled for his son by the architect Henry Holland. Nikolaus Pevsner, in The Buildings of England, described it as “one of the most exquisite English understatements… so refined and reticent.”

With his wife Jane, Sam restored the house to former glory, cared meticulously for its contents and took tenanted farms in hand to form a modern estate enterprise – which in 1989 won the Bledisloe Gold Medal for Landownership, the judge commending “a marked concern for the welfare of those who live on the property…[and] a willingness to share the resources of the estate with them for the benefit of the whole.”

Whitbread: unassuming and generous
Whitbread: unassuming and generous

Whitbread served as President of the Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire Country Landowners’ Association as well as the East of England Agricultural Society. He was patron of the British Sporting Art Trust and played a leading role in the restoration of Moggerhanger Park, the most complete surviving example of the work of Sir John Soane.

He was a Conservative county councillor for Bedfordshire from 1974 to 1982 – chairing the leisure committee and earning the nickname “Gentleman of Leisure” from Labour opponents – and was also a magistrate, high sheriff of the county in 1973-74, and a supporter of innumerable local charities. He served as lord lieutenant from 1991 to 2012, his father having held the post from 1957 to 1978 and his grandfather (another Samuel) from 1912 to 1936.

Though he joined the Whitbread board as a non-executive director in 1972 (and was also later a director of Sun Alliance assurance), Sam Whitbread was a farmer at heart – observing modestly on becoming chairman that he had moved from employing 40 people to 30,000 and that there were “a lot more noughts at the end of all the figures”. He was proud of helping to develop the “Whitbread Way” of looking after employees and customers.

As a countryman he had a passion for shooting, stalking and all aspects of wildlife conservation. He was also a talented photographer, watercolourist and pianist. Unassuming and generous, he was a charming host at Southill and at the family’s house in Scotland.

In 2007 he published a family history, Plain Mr Whitbread – praised as “masterly” by Sir Max Hastings – its title referring to the fact that at least two of his ancestors had been offered peerages but turned them down.

Sam Whitbread was appointed KCVO in 2010. He married Jane Hayter in 1961; she survives him with their three sons and a daughter.

Sir Samuel Whitbread, born February 22 1937, died January 17 2023