George Reynolds, safe-cracker, chipboard king and football club owner, died yesterday bringing an end to a life that can only be described as colourful. Chris Lloyd reports
OCTOBER 2005 in the crown court on Newcastle’s quayside. George Reynolds, 69, was in the dock, frantically chewing gum, his white shirt - with GR monogrammed on the breast pocket in black - was open at the neck, and his wispy white hair was making a flyaway from the top of his head.
Following the collapse of Darlington Football Club, he had been stopped by police with £500,000 in cash in his Mercedes – cash that should have gone to the Inland Revenue, and he had been found guilty of tax evasion.
The judge rapped twice on the court door like gunfire, took his seat beneath the royal crest and, staring down on the dock, began to announce his verdict.
READ MORE: Former Darlington chairman George Reynolds has died
Mr Reynolds, he said, had come from a deprived background – something of an understatement. He was born in 1936 in Sunderland, the son of a seaman, into such poverty that his mother was forced to put him into care in a Worcestershire institution which likened to a slave labour camp.
He was labelled “backward and mentally deficient” which, in later life at least, would become one of his calling cards, along with his dyslexia.
At 16, he was back in Sunderland and then, said the judge in 2005, he became a “serious villain”. He gained several convictions for minor offences, but in the mid-1960s graduated to safe-cracking, handling explosives, burglary and theft, and his criminal career continued until 1976 when he was imprisoned for theft.
However, said the judge, he turned his life around and came up with a “brilliant idea” which made him a multi-millionaire.
In Durham jail, a priest had suggested to him that he should try to be a businessman as he was clearly no good at crime, and this was the turning point. Once outside, he tried selling ice cream and wood off-cuts until he hit upon that “brilliant idea”: making kitchen worktops.
In Cracked It!, his biography, he explained how: "We are going to do this the complete opposite of everyone else.” Using different techniques to create unique products, he undercut his competition and became a chipboard king, with a £25m factory in Shildon.
He was regularly at odds with all sorts of officialdom – there was a particularly bruising encounter with the Inland Revenue in 1993 – but also had a knack for good publicity. When he bought his key workers expensive Mercedes cars and paid off their mortgages, he was hailed as Britain’s best boss – Oprah Winfrey invited him onto her chatshow in the US to talk of his generosity.
He peaked in the last years of the 20th Century, when the laminate side of his business was sold to an American company, Wilsonart, for £43m. He retained two chipboard mills, said to be worth £150m, plus several other engineering companies, and the Sunday Times ranked him 112th in its rich list with a total fortune of £260m.
He built Witton Hall, a £7m mansion on the edge of Witton-le-Wear, owned a £1.5m house with Spice Girls for neighbours in London, plus a villa in Marbella, and a yacht, a jet and a fleet of cars.
In 2000 in Hampstead, as he was leaving a restaurant with his wife, Susan, and his mother-in-law, he was set upon by robbers which ripped off his £41,000 Rolex watch and wanted his diamond ring. However, he fought back, and with the aid of a binman with a large pole, saw them off. "They met their Waterloo when they singled me out,” he said.
But, having liquidated his assets, it wasn’t just to robbers that he was vulnerable.
In 1999, he was approached about taking over Darlington Football Club, which was on its knees, riddled with debts, didn’t even own its own ground and was about to go out of business unless someone with ridiculously deep pockets could be found.
Mr Reynolds, who wasn’t a football fan, was that knight on a white charger. He bought the club, paid off the debts and aimed for the Premier League.
Initially, he was greeted with adulation, which was probably all he wanted from the deal – throughout his life, after his childhood in cruel institutions, it feels as if he was always trying to buy affection or approval.
But then, as the judge in 2005 trial told him, "you launched into creating the egocentric folly, the George Reynolds Arena, the superbly equipped and appointed stadium of the historic Darlington Football Club".
For a club that attracted crowds of 2,500, he began to build a £25m 25,000 seater stadium on the edge of town. It was superbly appointed – as it rose, he would take visitors on guided tours which went along the marble floors, up in the fancy lifts and finished with the self-flushing urinals.
Enormous friction arose between himself and Darlington council, which was concerned by his abrasive techniques and wished to protect nearby homeowners. He saw the council’s refusal to accept all of his plans for concerts and car boots as officialdom once again trying to stymie him, and his behaviour became more unpredictable.
With the well paid team not yet reaching the premier league, he unveiled Colombian international Tino Asprilla, formerly of Newcastle, as the most unlikely new signing in football history. It didn’t come off; and as relations with players deteriorated, he published their wages and his wife, Susan, suggested that at certain times of the season it was not unknown for footballers to throw matches.
He, and the football club, slipped towards bankruptcy until a consortium of city financers bought him out – the £500,000 he had in the car on the night he was arrested, withdrawn from the Co-op in Shildon, was because he felt he was entitled to the proceeds of the sale of Witton Hall whereas the tax man wanted it to cover arrears.
In that extraordinary case in 2005, his barrister portrayed him as the victim. He was "a man who had a desperate upbringing, whether at the hands of the poverty-stricken East End (of Sunderland) or the institutions in which he found himself. A man who built up a reputation and an empire and then enjoyed wealth.
"Tragically, thanks to Darlington Football Club - football being a sport that he doesn't have the slightest interest in - it's all gone. The house next to the Spice Girls gone, the yacht has gone, the house in the Lake District, gone.
"His burning desire (was) to make this football club the outstanding club of the region.
“He sits a broken man, personally and financially, ruined, in failing health with failing memory."
As he waited to be sentenced, Mr Reynolds was his bullish self, taking well-wishing calls from Sunderland footballers, handing out business cards proclaiming him to be a "convicted safe-blower, ex-merchant seaman, millionaire entrepreneur, maker of money and utter genius", and signing copies of his biography for the policeman who had arrested him. Aged 69, he was expecting a year inside.
The judge, though, did not see that way. He said Mr Reynolds had systematically defrauded the Inland Revenue. "If ever there was a man who knew what his obligations were with regard of his income, I find that man to be you, " he said.
And having run through all the colour of his extraordinary career, he concluded: "The wheel for you has turned full circle, " he said. "This offence is so serious that three years' imprisonment is the very least sentence."
After serving his time, he settled in Neville’s Cross, in Durham, and began new businesses in everything from vaping to holiday pods.
"Me mam always told me," he once said, "that if I fell into the river, I'd come up with a fish in each pocket."
But his irascibility never faded, and only this year he was back in court for harassing a councillor and council officials who had felt unable to acquiesce to his plans. The judge in that case condemned the 84-year-old’s “quite despicable behaviour”.
For all his long criminal record and his history of threats against those who would not bow down to him, his allies talk of the unfailing generosity of man who, despite the toughest beginnings made – and lost – many millions.