Last link with Vesteys’ Australian pastoral and processing empire passes away

Jon Condon, 05/02/2021

LORD Samuel Vestey – the last remaining family member with direct connections tracing back to ownership of the vast Vesteys pastoral and meat processing assets in Australia, passed away in the UK this week, aged 79.

Samuel Vestey, 3rd Baron Vestey, was born on March 19, 1941 into one of the richest families in Britain. His Australian mother was a granddaughter of opera singer Dame Nellie Melba. His father was lost in action in World War II, so he inherited the peerage at the age of 13 on the death of his grandfather.

Sam and his cousin, Edmond, ran the Vestey worldwide business empire until the Australian assets were sold in 1992.

He was a regular visitor to the company’s Australian operations, and after completing an internship at Victoria’s Riverstone abattoir in the late 1950s, used to joke that he was the “only trained butcher sitting in the House of Lords.”

Click on image twice to enlarge

The family’s food empire was founded on meat, but their business interests around the world also included shipping, farming and insurance. Renowned for their tax-avoidance schemes, they owned assets worth, at their peak, more than £1 billion according to the Sunday Times Rich List.

In Australia, the Vesteys had an enormous impact on both the meat process and pastoral industries over 70 years.

In a deal with the Federal Government, they originally took up vast tracts of pastoral land in the Northern Territory and Kimberley regions from 1914. In exchange for ‘minimal rents,’ Vesteys agreed to build an abattoir in Darwin. Between 1914 and 1918 they leased 36,000sq miles (89,000sq km) of northern Australia, including seven breeding and fattening properties – three in the Gulf of Carpentaria, three near Charters Towers and another near Rockhampton.

By the time of their sale in 1992 (Beef Central attended the auction, recording the details on this sale schedule) the grazing holdings included Wave Hill and Cattle Creek, Helen Springs and Morstone Downs in the NT, and Cooloolah, Oban, Lake Learmonth, Archer and Fitzroy Vale in Queensland. In total, the showcase holdings made close to $60 million.

Processing interests

Steve Martyn’s excellent red meat processing history, World on a Plate, records that Vesteys entry into meat processing came via their ownership of the Blue Star Shipping Line, which in the 1930s was a major shipper of frozen beef around the world. The family already had extensive cattle and meat processing interests in South America, but these were decimated by the UK’s Ottawa decision (prioritising imports from Commonwealth nations).

Imperial preference and the potential for Australian chilled beef in the UK market was the clear driver for the Vestey purchase offer for the Angliss meat processing assets in Australia. They eventually bought the Angliss (also UK owned) Australian processing assets in March 1934, adding to the existing Vestey Darwin plant.

The sale to Vestey proved to be one of the most influential in Australian meat processing history.  It included five abattoirs at Footscray, Riverstone, Forbes, Redbank (near today’s JBS Dinmore) and Lakes Creek, near Rockhampton, together with large export and cold storage facilities at Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, and a string of retail shops in Sydney and Melbourne.

Vesteys paid 1.5 million UK Pounds to become the largest meat processor in Australia. The deal would shape Australian processing for the next 60 years. Having bought the William Angliss business, Vesteys introduced new engineering and management practises, chilled beef and canning expertise it had developed in its South American and UK operations – boosting the company’s performance, and by necessity, that of its Australian competitors.

In its heyday, the Vestey family owned a global behemoth that included meat and livestock interests in the UK, New Zealand, Venezuela, Canada, South Africa, France Ireland, Argentina and Brazil, as well as Australia. They owned 2500 retail meat outlets globally plus the Blue Star shipping line, and was arguably the richest family in the UK, after the Royal family.

The Australian business continued to expand after WW2, and by 1992 included large meatworks in Townsville, Rockhampton, Riverstone and Naracoorte, and a national meat wholesale network servicing its own 35 shops, plus major supermarkets and wholesalers. It also processed livestock on a service kill basis at Casino, Grafton, Wingham and Macksville, and was Australia’s second largest processor at the time, after AMH.

Lord Sam Vestey and his son, William

The Vestey family also had extensive commercial property holdings around Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Townsville that appreciated enormously in value over time, as the cities grew.

The Australian assets – pastoral, meat processing and property – were sold progressively from 1992. The four meatworks reportedly realised $68 million, and were sold to Smorgons. The Vestey grazing properties, run under the flag, Western Grazing, were reportedly the largest individual transaction of cattle holdings in Australia to that time.

Sam Vestey and his wife shared their love of horses with their friends the Queen and the Prince of Wales. He held a senior position in the royal household, Master of the Horse, from 1999 to 2018, and was knighted for his services to the monarch.

Despite his huge wealth, Vestey was revered for his down-to-earth personality. “He taught everybody about meritocracy,” one UK colleague said following his passing this week. “He treated everybody on their merits, not how they dressed, spoke or their background.”

Former JBS Australia chief executive Iain Mars worked for the Vesteys processing business in Darwin in the late 1970s. He also served for a period as PA to Edmond Vestey, Sam’s cousin, in 1981.

“Sam was a great bloke – really down to earth, and people enjoyed his company. He had a deep connection with the Australian business operations, given he was a descendent of Dame Nellie Melba, and was a frequent visitor,” Mr Mars said.

Mr Mars saw him last during a regular lunch gathering of former Angliss/Vestey Australian staff, around 2006.

The relationship between Lord Sam Vestey and Australia has remained strong throughout.

One story recounted in Steve Martyn’s book, World on a Plate, references an occasion when he and some friends were having a quiet ale in a pub in Sydney. When views on Australia were questioned by one local on the basis of “How would you know? – you’re a pom!” Lord Vestey pulled out an Australia $100 note and pointed to the picture of Dame Nellie Melba on the back, saying “she is my grandmother, and that makes me an Aussie!”

Lord Vestey’s mother continued in live in Dame Nellie Melba’s Coombe Cottage in Lilydale until she died in 2011.

Lord Sam Vestey at his mother’s Coombe cottage in the Yarra Valley, originally held by his great grandmother, Dame Nellie Melba







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  1. Ross Jeffery, 15/05/2022

    My father Bob Jeffery, started as a trainee in the UK and worked for the Vestey family for almost 40 years managing abattoirs and other operations for the family throughout Australia, New Zealand and South America. He always spoke fondly of catching up at the lunches with Lord Sam and other colleagues to tell and re-tell great stories. Sadly dad passed away this month after a short illness just 3 months shy of his 90th birthday.

  2. Steve Welk, 29/09/2021

    Worked for Lord Vestey for 21 years in the stockyards at Riverstone Meat Co .Spent time with Saffron during her stay.
    They were the greatest people to work for I wish I could turn the
    clock back and enjoy it all over again.

  3. Malcolm Deery, 21/09/2021

    I am curious –

    Has the Vestey family been involved in any Wave Hill restitution to Aboriginal stockmen arising from the strike in the 60’s?

    Cheers Malcolm

  4. Barbara Watts, 10/02/2021

    I cared for Sam Vestey’s mother, Lady Pamela Vestey and met Sam and many family members during their stays at Coombe Cottage. Sam was a wonderful generous man as are his children and are in my thoughts at this time. Condolences to William, Saffron, Mary and all others I did not meet. I will always remember you all

  5. douglas+hurst, 10/02/2021

    I had opportunity of multiple visit(s) to Vestey meatworks around Australia , with long tenures at the Footscray premises . I learned extensively of the numerous trade skills through the dedicated ,loyal & professional staff at Footscray . The highly outstanding feature , was the dedication & loyalty of staff to the Management & ultimately Lord Vestey . Truely an honourable man was Sam Vestey

  6. Michael Vail, 06/02/2021
  7. Paul Kaye, 06/02/2021

    I worked the stockcamps for Vesty’s in 1979 at Waterloo, Mistake Creek and dropped into Spring Creek on occasions. Helo mustering was the newish game in town. I had a Super 8mm Movie Camera and I still have the movies to this day recorded on DVD. Interesting times, interesting horses we rode also. The weight of a portable yard panel and putting up the hessian wings for the helo-musterers on a warm dusty day is not something I am ever going to forget.

  8. Ruth Jocelyn Doran, 06/02/2021

    My husband and I worked on Vestey cattle stations from the sixties to the eighties. It was a most rewarding time and a privilege to have worked for this family.

  9. Paul Troja, 06/02/2021

    I learnt the trade working for the Vestey group 1966 to 1982 .

    The commitment to the team, each other and to prevail was my take away.

    Great people and great memories

    RIP Lord Sam

  10. annette oconnor, 06/02/2021

    I had the greatest pleasure of having lunch at Stowell Park in the Cotswolds with Lord Sam and Lady C 18 months ago. I first met the very handsome young Lord Sam in the ’60s when he came for morning tea at my home in Townsville. Such an impressive person then and remained so all his life. The sudden death of Lady C a couple of months ago was so sad and would have been a huge loss to him. My father was a Vestey’s man who Lord Sam was very fond of . He shared many wonderful memories with me. This news comes as a huge shock. He will be very sadly missed by many Australians who knew him.

  11. Mick Loughlin, 06/02/2021

    I was a ‘pommy jackaroo’ on Wave Hill when the Gurindji walked off to Wattie Creek. Vesteys made a fortune from legalised slavery.

  12. Geoffrey+Beere, 06/02/2021

    My father told a yarn about the Vestey’s Abattoir at Footscray in the 1920’s, where a young Lord Vestey asked the Foreman who was acting as a guide, whether he had a spare man. Yes was the foreman’s reply. “Well sack him,” was Vestey’s instruction! It’s a good story anyway. I was able to complete my Meat inspection theory in some of the remaining mess rooms at that abattoir in the winter of 1975. For some exams we wore gloves due to the freezing weather conditions at exam time.

    • douglas+hurst, 08/02/2021

      Geoff : I tutored on the Meat Inspection course you are talking about . The course was fully funded by the Federal Govt , under the N.E.A.T. scheme , & administered by the Victorian Dept of Agriculture ; with all that applicants supplying was their pens & note paper . The venue at Angliss’es Footscray , was rented from the company for a pittance ( thanks to the charity of Lord Vestey ). The Premises was long decommissioned , & in an actual phase of demolition in parts , & actually necessitated refurbishment with some basic facilities to assist the course .
      The venue also greatly facilitated :1/. Unrestricted parking for tutorial staff& pupils 2/. Accessability to public transport 3/. Unrestricted entry / exit for the Class pupils & staff when excursions occurred 4/. Centrality to Western Suburb Meatworks for access / collection of pathology samples & Rendering premises for disposal of such 5/. Abundance of spaces / rooms for demarcation & hygiene of Theory & Practical classes. 6/. Privacy & lack of disruptions from outside . I believed at the time , that all of the class team were content with the venue & the pass rate was of pupils was exemplory . Successful Pupils were even supplied with working equipment to directly partake in induction & employment with the D.P.I.
      My thanks again goes to The Angliss / Vestey group for their hospitality in hosting the course at the Footscray plant , as other venue,s would have been extremely hard to facilitate our needs .
      Thany you Vestey group

      • Geoffrey+Beere, 09/02/2021

        Hi Teacher, do you have any contact details? Thanks Beef Central.

    • annette oconnor, 06/02/2021

      Lord Sam Vestey was born in 1940 so those comments from the 1920s can’t be attributed to him.

      We’d assume it is referring to Sam’s father, also Lord Vestey, through his peerage. Editor

      • Charlie Vestey, 09/11/2022

        If I may…This note is to the editor. Lord Sam’s father passed in 1944 when Sam was about 3. He took the title from his grandfather in 1954.

  13. Allan Bloxsom, 05/02/2021

    A very sad day for anyone who had the pleasure of spending time with Lord Sam. A true gentleman who had a real passion for our industry, and someone who could relate to all. I was lucky to have that experience as a young Vestey trainee, something that will not be forgotten!

    RIP Lord Sam Vestey

    Thanks for your comment Allan. I have vivid recollections of the Western Grazing auction in Brisbane in 1992. The front three or four rows were full of the usual ‘suits’ representing solicitors and accountants, plus the big pastoral company identities. Behind them, in the next three or four rows, was a gathering of former Vestey station managers – well-weathered, old men in their 60s-80s, many of whom had worked for the company for decades. The fact that these ‘Vesteys Men’ turned up, in such numbers, to pay their quiet respects at the company’s final departure, impressed me. Editor

    • steve welk, 18/11/2021

      Hi Allan just a quick note to say how lucky we were to have worked at Rivo and what a great team of people they where .
      Had at least one of my family there for over 60 years.

    • Allan Bloxsom, 07/02/2021

      Editor – That is a fine example of why Vestey staff gave so much to the company down through the years, a loyalty instilled by the likes of Lord Sam. Oh, and just a reminder that Riverstone Meat Co operated in NSW, not Victoria!

    • annette oconnor, 06/02/2021

      My father was a Vestey’s man pre and post WW2 and eventually retired in the ’70s. True cattleman legends of Australia.

  14. Peter+McHugh, 05/02/2021

    If you want to read about the Vestey empire find a copy of the following book title .
    ” Treasure Island : Tax Havens and the men who stole the world ”

    Peter McHugh

    • David Connellan, 06/02/2021

      Vesteys basically fed Australian and allied troops in two world wars.

      • Alan Mitchell, 06/08/2023

        The Vesty’s didn’t feed Australia, their workers did. I also used to know a few seaman that were on Blue Star Line ships. Their Vesty bosses were generally reviled by the crew.

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