After building up a substantial retail business, he was charged in 1987 in the Guinness share-trading fraud. He was convicted, stripped of his knighthood and CBE, and was heavily fined; although subsequent judgments from the European Court of Human Rights held that his trial was not fair.
During the Second World War, stranded on the other side of the Atlantic, he enlisted in Canada, where he met his future wife, the singer Roslyn Rosenbaum, and became in 1944 an assistant director of the country's Prices and Trade Board.
Along with his brother Bernard, he contributed considerably to the growth of the family business after the war, with the expansion of branches and the development of a lucrative export division during the early post-war period. This enabled the business to grow rapidly into a large conglomerate of companies called United Drapery Stores, or UDS. By the 1960s, UDS Group had succeeded in taking the lead as the United Kingdom's top retailer, with a 1,300-strong empire of retail shops. Businesses within the UDS conglomerate included; Richard Shops, Allders of Croydon, John Collier, Timpsons, Alexandre Stores, John Blundell Credit Company, John Myers catalogue mail order business, Brooks Brothers, Peter Pell, Arding & Hobbs & Whiteleys department stores, Fifty Shilling Tailors and other department and duty-free stores. The number of men's suits alone sold in all UDS menswear shops in the year ending January 1967 was 1,119,000.
Within Allders alone growth continued throughout the 1970s to such an extent that in 1976 Allders could boast that it had become the third largest department store in the country, beaten only by Harrods and Selfridges. Meanwhile, the UDS Group had entered a new retail arena, that of the duty-free shop, when it acquired the license to open and operate the shop at London's Heathrow airport. Attached to its Allders department store division, and later operated as Allders International, the UDS Group rapidly built up its network of duty-free shops around the world. In 1983, the UDS Group was sold to Hanson plc.
He was charged in 1987 in the Guinness share-trading fraud, along with Ernest Saunders, Gerald Ronson, and Anthony Parnes, and the four men became known as "the Guinness Four". He was convicted but not sent to prison because he was suffering from ill-health. However, he lost his knighthood and was fined £3,000,000 plus £1,000,000 prosecution costs.
British prime minister John Major wrote to Lyons after removing the knighthood in 1991: “It was painful for me to have to recommend that this be done, and I would not have inflicted this on you lightly. But the rules on forfeiture and the precedents left me, I regret, no alternative. May I assure you that the service, which won you the honours in the first place, is still appreciated and will never be forgotten.”
In 1995, on appeal, one count of conspiracy was quashed and his fine was cut to £2,500,000. (The refund cheque of £500,000 was inadvertently made out to 'Sir Jack Lyons', although by then he had lost his title). Lawyers for the Guinness Four said their clients had lost their right to silence because they were compelled to give evidence to Department of Trade and Industry inspectors. The prosecution countered that they should have nothing to hide, and that share markets have been regulated for centuries. Ultimately Lyons, Parnes and Ronson had relied entirely on Saunders whose plans had not been approved by Guinness's board of directors. Appeals by the four in 1991 and 1995 saw their convictions upheld.
When the DTI report was finally published in 1997, the BBC commented:
A third appeal in 2001 held by the European Court of Human Rights had ruled that the defendants were denied a fair trial by being compelled in law to provide potentially self-incriminatory information to Department of Trade and Industry inspectors which was then used as primary evidence against them. This breached their right to silence. The European Court stopped short of ruling that the men should have been acquitted. Parliament has since amended the law, in the light of the appeal rulings, to make evidence obtained under compulsion inadmissible; but also a court can draw adverse inferences if a suspect remains silent.
At the time of the court of human rights verdict, Lyons said: "I welcome this judgment so that I may yet be able to enjoy a little of my retirement without the cloud of injustice hanging over me." The case laid bare the culture among financiers for aggressive dealing and spectacular money-making, and the trial was seen as emblematic of the 1980s culture of Thatcherism. However it was Thatcher's government which supported Lyon's prosecution.
The Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall at the University of York is central to its music department. The department commemorated Lyons's 90th birthday with a special concert and dinner in York Minster on 28 June 2006. Lyons also contributed to the University's Music Research Centre and donated a research scholarship for PhD students.
The Sir Jack Lyons Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music in London was constructed with his donations.
Lyons assisted in funding an exhibition of the works of Jacob Epstein at the Edinburgh Festival of 1961 after being approached by Lord Harewood, the Festival director. When the exhibition closed Lyons purchased some of the sculptures.
The Sir Jack Lyons Charitable Trust, which continues Lyon's philanthropic work, has as its objectives, apart from the arts, concern for the poor, disadvantaged, and under-served; respect for diversity; promotion of understanding across cultures; and empowerment of communities in need.
Lyons married Roslyn Rosenbaum, the daughter of a Canadian surgeon, in 1943. The couple had two sons and two daughters.
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