That Peter Burgess should have survived well into his ninth decade reflected a strength of character that always defied the odds. Throughout his buccaneering life, he lived dangerously and sometimes perilously near the edge.
Peter arrived at Grafton House in the Autumn Term 1947. Mature for his age and powerfully built, he made an immediate impression at rugby, representing Stowe at all stages as a formidably fast and aggressive flanker. Although a Grafton monitor for two successive years, Peter invariably followed self-appointed laws and like many other entrepreneurial-inclined Stoics impatient to make their own ways in life, left Stowe early. In his case after the Lent Term 1952. He was suspicious of higher education’s ivory towers, yet formulated his own empirical philosophy of life and once contemplated writing a Ph.D. thesis The Limitations of Logic & Reason.
Although in different Houses, our friendship stemmed from a mutual passion for rugby and as members of the 1952 athletics team. Shortly before I left Stowe in July that year, Peter wrote me to suggest that we have a celebratory dinner at Maids Moreton with him footing the bill. Needless to say, it was then strictly against School rules to go out with recently-departed Old Stoics. I had never previously appreciated fine wine or what being a ‘gourmet’ meant until that dinner. Half-way through it, the unmistakable bulk of David Brown, Cobham’s Housemaster and former Scottish international, who ran the Stowe XV, was framed in the restaurant’s doorway. Brushing past our table, Brown eyed us up and down without comment, but left us to finish. The following morning, I was summoned by my own Housemaster, Macdonald, who de-monitored me on the spot.
Initially intending to follow his father into the medical profession, Peter enrolled as a student at Guy’s Hospital that autumn, but soon realised that medicine was not for him. In October he was called up for National Service and though not a particularly keen horseman, enlisted with the 17/21st Lancers, a smart and distinguished cavalry regiment, mainly because they drove large tanks. Fast cars and even faster motor bikes had been Peter’s passion even at school, so the Lancers was just his style.
Charles Owen, a fellow Lancer who first met Peter as Officer Cadets at Mons in January 1954, recalls a death-defying pillion ride on Peter’s Manx TT- model Norton with Peter determined to break the record time from Aldershot to Hyde Park Corner. Later, when tearing through Surrey’s leafy lanes to catch an evening cinema performance at Frimley with Charles again on pillion, Peter jumped the gap between two humped-back bridges at 60 mph, thrice changing-down in mid-air. Both tyres were written off, but miraculously neither Peter nor Charles. When this newly-commissioned pair first arrived at the Lancers barracks at Munster, Charles brought his polo pony: Peter his Norton. He subsequently doubled-up with a beautiful Sunbeam Alpine, a car made famous in the Grace Kelly/Cary Grant film To Catch a Thief. On one occasion, Peter drove Charles several hundred miles from Munster to Copenhagen so that Charles could compete in an International Amateur Steeplechase competition. Charles was desperately trying to reduce his weight, but Peter insisted on stopping every fifty miles at smart hostelries to indulge in gourmet blow-outs.
Peter might have been a bon viveur, but was also ambitious, immensely energetic and hard working. Determined to make money in insurance and become a ‘name’ at Lloyds, he bought a run-down restaurant at 19 Mossop Street, South Kensington and launched out as a restaurateur. In March 1959, he married Nemone Jane Loring, the glamorous daughter of Sir Nigel Loring, the Queen’s Physician. While Nemone decorated 19 Mossop Street with Aubrey Bearsley murals and did much of the cooking, Peter acted as its suave Mine Host and Sommelier. By the early Swinging Sixties,19 Mossop Street had become a mecca for impoverished ‘Bright Young Things’ and made Peter a small fortune, enabling him to become a Lloyd’s name and buy 9 Montpelier Square, Knightsbridge.
Now well established in the City with business contacts in Paris, Peter’s insurance acumen attracted the attention of the Greek tycoon John Spyrdon Latsis. ‘Captain Yannis’ was a brilliant self-made man who had entered the tanker market in 1958 and by the early 1960s had acquired a fleet rivalling that of Onassis. When Latsis went into the oil business with the Saudis, Peter worked for him as an oil trader negotiating multi-million-pound deals from a luxurious Mayfair office, delighted to take on and beat the oil majors at their own game. One such in 1973 involving ICI and naphtha shipments, broke a trading embargo. Latsis won the ensuing dispute at considerable cost to ICI who never forgave Peter for his part in the deal. Now on the crest of a long wave, Peter bought a grand house in Knightsbridge, 15 Brompton Square, in whose garage he stabled half a dozen, mint-condition Harley-Davidsons.
Oil trading remains one of the world’s toughest and most competitive jobs, requiring market expertise combined with exceptional shrewdness, intuition and negotiating skills. Peter fitted this bill exactly for he also had an amazing ability to get on with all manner of people of both sexes. Nonetheless, this frantic life-style put great strains on his domestic life. He and Nemone had two lovely daughters, Lucinda born in 1962 and Grizelda in 1966, but sadly, this once successful marriage had begun to fall apart. After their divorce, Peter married Lea Alves Correa in 1979, a charming and petite Brazilian whose caring, gentle character complemented the harder edges of Peter’s. Their marriage marked a new chapter, enabling Peter to realise his landowning ambitions by buying two cattle-farming estates in Brazil, respectively named Luzelda and Grizinda.
The hurly-burly of oil brokering was never an easy game, but when Latsis re-focused his energies on philanthropic works and donated much of his immense fortune to his Latsis Charitable Foundation – following the precept that ‘wealth is a misery when it doesn’t find the right purpose’ – Peter moved on. From 1976 to 1982, he worked for the American company North East Petroleum establishing close business contacts with many European oil companies and making new friends in the process. Peter never lost his penchant for risk-taking and Tom Pratt, a NEP colleague, recalls how, in order to rescue his Jensen car from a police pound in Hemel Hempstead, scrambled over a ten-foot high security fence and then drove it away.
As Peter approached his fifties, life on the edge was losing its lure and in retirement he was content to play the stock exchange and spend more time in Brazil dispelling the self-description of his being ‘an absentee rancher’. By the1990s a series of debilitating aneurisms took their toll, though he retained his razor-sharp intellect and self-deprecating sense of humour to the end. In her poignant eulogy at Peter’s funeral, Lucinda pictured her father at his Brazilian hacienda: “comfortably seated beside the river, with pipe in mouth, hat on, and fishing rod out … with a lazy alligator patiently waiting for his catches … usually piranhas, which he threw to his new friend”. Peter, the fearless man of action, always had an affinity with animals, particularly in their natural habitat.
Nemone died in 2014 but Lucinda, Grizelda and Lea survive him. I will always remember Peter for his courage and charisma, restless energy and imagination. Also, for his kindness, generosity and loyalty to friends.