John King, Baron King of Wartnaby

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John Leonard King, Baron King of Wartnaby (29 August 1917 – 12 July 2005) was a British businessman, who was noted for leading British Airways from an inefficient, nationalised company to one of the most successful airlines of recent times. This success was a flagship of Margaret Thatcher's privatisation programme. He was also directly involved with the "dirty tricks" campaign waged by British Airways, against Virgin Atlantic.

British Airways (BA) is the flag carrier airline of the United Kingdom, headquartered at Waterside, Harmondsworth. It is the second largest airline in the United Kingdom, based on fleet size and passengers carried, behind easyJet. The airline is based in Waterside near its main hub at London Heathrow Airport. In January 2011 BA merged with Iberia, creating the International Airlines Group (IAG), a holding company registered in Madrid, Spain. IAG is the world's third-largest airline group in terms of annual revenue and the second-largest in Europe. It is listed on the London Stock Exchange and in the FTSE 100 Index. British Airways is the first passenger airline to have generated more than $1 billion on a single air route in a year.

Margaret Thatcher former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, was a British stateswoman who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 and Leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990. She was the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century and the first woman to hold that office. A Soviet journalist dubbed her "The 'Iron Lady'", a nickname that became associated with her uncompromising politics and leadership style. As Prime Minister, she implemented policies known as Thatcherism.

Virgin Atlantic, a trading name of Virgin Atlantic Airways Limited and Virgin Atlantic International Limited, is a British airline with its head office in Crawley, United Kingdom. The airline was established in 1984 as British Atlantic Airways, and was originally planned by its co-founders Randolph Fields and Alan Hellary to fly between London and the Falkland Islands. Soon after changing the name to Virgin Atlantic Airways, Fields sold his shares in the company after disagreements with Sir Richard Branson over the management of the company. The maiden flight from Gatwick Airport to Newark Liberty International Airport took place on 22 June 1984.


Early life and career

King was born in Brentford, Middlesex. His father Albert had fought in the First World War, and later worked as a postman; his Irish mother Kathleen worked as a seamstress. He was the second of four children. He was reared on a small property attached to a public house in Dunsfold, Surrey. He left school in 1929 at the age of 12 without qualifications and started work in a local factory which produced vacuum cleaners, where his work included machining clamping stays, earning him the nickname "Clamping Stay King". His next job was with local businessman Arthur Sykes, as a car salesman (with duties including re-possessing cars from people who had failed to make the necessary payments) before setting up his own taxi business and acquiring a Ford cars sub-agency and naming it Whitehouse Motors. When the second World War broke out, the motor business folded, but by then King had diversified into more general engineering work and so prospered from defence contracts and making parts for aircraft. He benefited hugely from War Ministry contracts and was able to use rare American machine tools that he acquired under the Lend Lease programme.

Brentford town in west London, England

Brentford is a town in western Greater London, England, the contested county town of Middlesex and part of the London Borough of Hounslow. It lies at the confluence of the River Brent and the Thames, 8 miles (13 km) west-by-southwest of Charing Cross. It has formed part of Greater London since 1965.

Middlesex historic county of England

Middlesex is an ancient county in southeast England. It is now entirely within the wider urbanised area of London. Its area is now also mostly within the ceremonial county of Greater London, with small sections in other neighbouring ceremonial counties. It was established in the Anglo-Saxon system from the territory of the Middle Saxons, and existed as an official unit until 1965. The historic county includes land stretching north of the River Thames from 17 miles (27 km) west to 3 miles (5 km) east of the City of London with the rivers Colne and Lea and a ridge of hills as the other boundaries. The largely low-lying county, dominated by clay in its north and alluvium on gravel in its south, was the second smallest county by area in 1831.

World War I 1914–1918 global war originating in Europe

World War I, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as "the war to end all wars", it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.

After the war King moved to Canada for a time, before returning to England and building a factory on wasteland in Ferrybridge, Yorkshire to establish Ferrybridge Industries. After renaming it the Pollard Ball and Roller Bearing Company and producing millions of ball bearings per year, it grew to become a major operation spanning several continents (the third-largest ball-bearing business in the UK). After being forced to merge the business with another manufacturer, Ransome & Marles, as part of a government reorganisation of the ball bearing business, King sold it for £10m in 1968, netting some £3m personally.

Yorkshire Historic county of Northern England

Yorkshire, also known as Jórvíkskyr by the Norsemen and formally known as the County of York, is a historic county of Northern England and the largest in the United Kingdom. Due to its great size in comparison to other English counties, functions have been undertaken over time by its subdivisions, which have also been subject to periodic reform. Throughout these changes, Yorkshire has continued to be recognised as a geographical territory and cultural region. The name is familiar and well understood across the United Kingdom and is in common use in the media and the military, and also features in the titles of current areas of civil administration such as North Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and East Riding of Yorkshire.

Pollard Ball and Roller Bearing Company with its headquarters at Ferrybridge, West Yorkshire was a manufacturer of ball and roller bearings founded by John King. Formerly it had been known as Ferrybridge Industries and was originally a small family motor repair firm, Whitehouse Motor Industries, Ford dealers. Ferrybridge owned Pollard Bearings Limited.

Ransome & Marles

Ransome & Marles Bearing Company Limited was the owner of a business making ball and roller bearings founded during the First World War to make bearings for aircraft and other engines. Before the war most bearings had been imported and most of those were from Germany.

He became Chairman of Dennis Specialist Vehicles in 1970, and Babcock International in 1972. Babcock was acquired by FKI Electricals for £415 million in August 1987. King, Babcock chairman since 1972, became chairman of the new combined company, called FKI Babcock. He was knighted in 1979, and appointed Chairman of the National Enterprise Board in 1980 and, famously, taking over as head of British Airways.

Dennis Specialist Vehicles automotive manufacturer

Dennis Brothers Limited was an English manufacturer of commercial vehicles based in Guildford. It is best remembered as a manufacturer of buses, fire engines and lorries (trucks) and municipal vehicles such as dustcarts. All vehicles were made to order to the customer's requirements and more strongly built than mass production equivalents. For most of the 20th century Dennis Brothers was Guildford's main employer.

Babcock International British multinational support services company

Babcock International is a multinational corporation headquartered in the United Kingdom. It specialises in managing complex assets and infrastructure. Although the company has civil contracts, its main business is with public bodies, particularly the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence and Network Rail.

Knight An award of an honorary title for past or future service with its roots in chivalry in the Middle Ages

A knight is a man granted an honorary title of knighthood by a monarch, bishop or other political or religious leader for service to the monarch or a Christian church, especially in a military capacity.

British Airways

Dubbed "Mrs. Thatcher's favourite businessman" he was chosen to prepare the loss-making nationalised flag carrier for privatisation. King joined British Airways in 1981 when the airline was losing in excess of £140m a year. By 1989, the airline was making a pre-tax profit of £268m. Some of King's major changes at the airline included removing 22,000 staff members, hiring Colin Marshall as CEO in 1983, removing older aircraft from the fleet, purchasing more modern and efficient airliners, and axing unprofitable routes. Within two years King had replaced over half of the BA board with his own appointees. When BA was privatised in 1987, the initial share offering was 11 times oversubscribed. His compensation as chairman rose from about £250,000 in 1988 to £669,350 (including a £220,000 bonus) in 1991. King was made a life peer as Baron King of Wartnaby, (in the County of Leicestershire) in 1983.

In the United Kingdom, life peers are appointed members of the peerage whose titles cannot be inherited, in contrast to hereditary peers. In modern times, life peerages, always created at the rank of baron, are created under the Life Peerages Act 1958 and entitle the holders to seats in the House of Lords, presuming they meet qualifications such as age and citizenship. The legitimate children of a life peer are entitled to style themselves with the prefix "The Honourable", although they cannot inherit the peerage itself.

Leicestershire County of England

Leicestershire is a landlocked county in the English Midlands. The county borders Nottinghamshire to the north, Lincolnshire to the north-east, Rutland to the east, Northamptonshire to the south-east, Warwickshire to the south-west, Staffordshire to the west, and Derbyshire to the north-west. The border with most of Warwickshire is Watling Street.

Lord King recognised the importance of Concorde to British Airways. In its early years of service with BA, Concorde lost the carrier money and attracted criticism from the press as a white elephant. BA used Concorde to win business customers from transatlantic competitors by guaranteeing a certain number of Concorde upgrades in return for corporate accounts with the airline.

Concorde Supersonic airliner

The Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde is a French-British turbojet-powered supersonic passenger airliner that was operated from 1976 until 2003. It had a maximum speed over twice the speed of sound at Mach 2.04, with seating for 92 to 128 passengers. First flown in 1969, Concorde entered service in 1976 and continued flying for the next 27 years. It is one of only two supersonic transports to have been operated commercially; the other is the Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-144, which operated in service from 1977 to 1978.

Virgin Atlantic Airways and the "Dirty Tricks" Scandal

Around the same time, British Airways was witnessing the emergence of rival; Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic. Virgin, which began with one route and one Boeing 747 in 1984, was emerging as a serious threat on some of BA's most lucrative routes. Following a highly publicised mercy mission to Iraq to fly home hostages who had been held by Saddam Hussein in 1991, [1] King is reported to have told Marshall and his PA Director David Burnside to "do something about Branson". [2] This began the campaign of "dirty tricks", for which Branson sued King and British Airways for libel in 1992. King countersued Branson with the case scheduled for trial in 1993. However, it was settled out of court, with BA paying damages to Branson of £500,000 and a further £110,000 to his airline; further, BA paid legal fees of up to £3 million. [3]

Later career

King stepped down from his BA leadership role in 1993, but remained BA president emeritus. His interests included directorships at the Daily Telegraph , Spectator , headhunting company Norman Broadbent, and engineering firm Short Brothers. However, it can be said that until the end he remained passionate about his "ugly duckling that became the world's favourite airline."

Marriage and children

King was married twice; first to Lorna Sykes (daughter of his first boss Arthur Sykes and sister-in-law of John Poulson) in 1941. The couple remained married until her death from cancer in 1969. King remarried in 1970 to the Hon Isabel Monckton, daughter of 8th Viscount Galway. [4]

Personal life

A keen huntsman from an early age, King held the rank of MFH (Master of Foxhounds) with the Belvoir and Badsworth hunts and was also Chairman of the Lord King XI cricket team.

He and wife Lorna both learnt to fly and they would use an aircraft to tour the UK and drum up business.

Lord King kept a flat in London for many years, in Eaton Square, and during his time running British Airways he lived there during the week full-time. At weekends, he travelled north to his country estate, Friars Well Estate, in Wartnaby near Melton Mowbray in the county of Leicestershire. He also had a house in Scotland, close to the River Naver, where he pursued his love of fly fishing.


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  1. "Branson achieves another media coup", Simon Midgley, 11 December 1993, The Independent
  2. "Row over dirty tricks led to decade of hostilities", Lee Glendinning, 2 August 2007, The Guardian
  3. "1993: BA dirty tricks against Virgin cost £3m", BBC
  4. "Lord King of Wartnaby". The Guardian. 13 July 2005. Retrieved 16 March 2019.

Further reading

Business positions
Preceded by
Sir Ross Stainton
Chairman of British Airways
February 1981 February 1993
Succeeded by
Sir Colin Marshall
Preceded by
Sir Hector McNeil
Chairman of Babcock International Group plc
January 1972
(Babcock & Wilcox) July 1994
Succeeded by
John Parker