Charles Louis Rycroft (March 21, 1901 - August 19, 1998) was a wealthy English businessman, an important contributor to the development of the Malayan rubber industry, and a major philanthropist and benefactor of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.
Charles Rycroft was the younger son of Yorkshire textile manufacturer and merchant George Henry Rycroft (d: 1950), and grew up in Pudsey between Leeds and Bradford. He had an elder brother Frederick (Fred), and an elder sister Alice Kathleen. After schooling at Giggleswick School to the age of 14, Charles was apprenticed as a plumber. He completed his apprenticeship and went on to work in the family woolen mill business during the 1920s. He spent some time in Belgium at the associate company that worked with the woolen mill. In 1921 the family also acquired the Villa Walburg in the town of Epstein outside Frankfurt in Germany, at which they spent their annual summer holiday until its sale in 1933. Around 1919 George Henry Rycroft, in partnership with a Mr Hartley, purchased a rubber plantation in British Malaya at Perak to the south south east of Penang. The plantation was named Harcroft, this being a combination of Hartley and Rycroft. The eldest son Frederick Rycroft (b: 1894 - d: 1984) was despatched to run the new business, but was recalled in 1922 after a business strategy disagreement with his father. After about two years with a manager running the estate, who was finally sacked, Charles was despatched to Malaya around 1924 to turn round the problems that had caused.
Charles had a flair for business and had soon established a large crepe rubber factory on the estate in order to add value to the raw latex. The crepe rubber was exported to be used mainly for shoe soles. Although the estate was relatively small, the factory purchased latex from surrounding producers and was one of the largest manufacturers of crepe rubber at the time. In 1936, going somewhat against the conventions of the time, Charles married Muriel, a divorcee and secretary, and not one of the landed plantation community.
On the outbreak of hostilities with Japan in December 1941, Charles and Muriel fled the Harcroft Estate and reached Singapore. Muriel Rycroft was lucky enough to be allowed passage on the last ship out of Singapore, which took her to Cape Town. Charles Rycroft had to remain behind and volunteered to help in the fire brigade. The Japanese had not expected to capture Singapore and were therefore unprepared to run the city, with the result that Charles continued in the fire brigade for some months. Eventually, though, he was transferred to the Changi internment camp for civilians (next to the infamous Changi POW camp), where he remained until August 1945. Civilians were allowed one trunk of personal possessions, and Charles demonstrated his forethought by having his trunk full of tinned and dried food, rather than the photos and personal items that most other inmates took. He also followed the advice of the camp doctor to eat the maggots in the food as an extra source of vital protein, rather than pick them out as most others did. Due to these factors and good luck he was one of the relatively few who was still alive at the end of the war. There is a portrait of him by the Russian artist Vladimir Tretchikoff and fellow camp inmate showing his bearded and rather skeletal appearance at the end of the war.
After release it took some time before Charles and Muriel Rycroft discovered that they were both still alive and were able to be re-united and return to the devastated Harcroft Estate and factory. However, it was not long before Charles had everything re-equipped and back in production. Post war business was good enough for him to purchase his first Rolls Royce in 1947. This car was similar to that of the British High Commissioner of Malaya. During the Malayan Emergency Charles had the misfortune to take the same road through the jungle as the Commissioner, but an hour or two beforehand, on October 7th 1951. Communist insurgents had planned to assassinate the Governor and mistook Charles' Rolls Royce for the official vehicle. As a result the car was machine gunned, but the driver had the sense to accelerate and the occupants survived. The High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney, was not so fortunate and was killed when his convoy was brought to a halt by his wounded or dead escorts blocking the road.
The incident convinced Charles that it was time to leave Malaya with the result that the estate was sold, and Charles and Muriel moved to Cape Town. Charles purchased the Baxter family home and mini estate for the then considerable sum of £52,000, and promptly renamed it Harcroft. From then until his death he was officially retired, but in practice worked hard to manage his considerable investments, add to his collections of mostly oriental art, jade and ivory, and to run and embellish the 24 acres of grounds around the house. Amongst the items he collected were two of the four official commemorative paintings done to mark the 1947 Royal Tour of South Africa. One shows the King and Queen in the rose garden of the Gardens in Cape Town with Table Mountain in the background, the other Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret in the vineyard at Lanzerac near Stellenbosch. Following the accession of the anti-British National Party to power in 1948 the government of the Union of South Africa did not want the paintings. The other two belong to Cape Town City Council.
Muriel Rycroft died suddenly in August 1974, an event which was particularly traumatic for Charles. He did, though, recover from his loss and married a long time friend and widow Louise Jackson in 1981. During the 1980s Charles became a friend of Gerald Durrell, and took an interest in the work of the Jersey Wildlife Trust. Charles donated approximately £4m to finance the construction of a new centre in Jersey (including the Harcroft Lecture Theatre), sponsored conservation work in East Africa, and by the 1990s was supporting work on the preservation of the unique flora and fauna of Madagascar.
On his death, from an infection after surgery to fit a pacemaker, the assets of his company (the Harcroft Trust Limited, registered in Jersey) have been administered by his former accountant and advisor Robin Rumboll. The company, now known as the Harcroft Foundation, is largely for the benefit of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. For example the Foundation donated a little under £200,000 in 2006, according to the Durrell Wildlife Trust accounts), but also offers grants to other bodies (contact Mr Rumboll via the Durrell Trust to apply). It is estimated that perhaps £50m has been made available for conservation work as a result.
He was survived by Louise Rycroft, and his nephews Christopher, David and Victor Rycroft, Ian Brunton and niece Maureen Rideout.