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1 August 2014
Club host and poacher with a penchant for outrageous behaviour
Tom Bantock was an intense, self-obsessed character, in love with his own notoriety, and always ready with a quip or a put-down. He had two careers — one as a poacher and one running clubs in London and Berlin. Bantock estimated that he had slaughtered at least 35,000 animals and claimed to have shot every dog he owned as soon as he decided it could no longer work. He also boasted of being arrested on suspicion of murder three times, though each time the charges were dropped.
“Between 1971 and 1984 I was happy as a lark being England’s most famous gentleman poacher,” he once said. Whatever he did for a living, his true profession was that of self-mythologising hell-raiser. As his friend Christian Maréchal put it: “He liked to sail close to the wind, and many of the tall stories he told about his adventures were essentially true, even if the embellishments grew in the telling.”
To some, Bantock exuded menace, to others he exuded charm; to most, it was a combination of both. Outrageousness was his stock in trade. He once fed 21 guests on a stew made from kittens and mangelwurzels. He was also blessed with an extraordinarily high pain threshold. When a broken bottle was embedded in his neck during a dispute at a Notting Hill drinking club, he coolly stitched up the wound with a conventional needle and thread. He also turned his capacity for withstanding pain to his sporting advantage, accepting wagers for outlasting anyone at being burnt with a lighted cigarette.
In 1992 he was banned from the Groucho Club in London, for surreptitiously dropping a lighted cigarette into the jacket pocket of another patron who had irritated him. At first, the club merely asked that he buy the fellow a new suit. Bantock wrote back to apologise for not incinerating the man entirely. The ban was not rigorously observed.
In 1992 he teamed up with Giuseppe Mascoli, a Neapolitan LSE student with a small pot of money, to create the Soho members’ club Blacks, intended as an anti-establishment version of White’s. Taking a lease on a townhouse in Dean Street, they charged a small membership fee and served food and wine at modest prices. As manager, Bantock selected a membership committee of 100 women whom he deemed to be especially attractive and who were given free memberhip; they in turn vetted the other members. Members were sometimes banned according to Bantock’s whim, although he was protective of people he liked. When a friend took a Bosnian woman whom he had extricated from besieged Sarajevo to dinner, Bantock overheard two of his big-spending members at a nearby table exchange bigoted comments about Yugoslavs. He threw them out mid-entrée and banned them for life.
Blacks soon opened branches in Norfolk and the Dordogne, but in 1995 Bantock fell out with Mascoli and left. It was alleged he had cost the club £36,000 in free booze in a year.
Thomas Bruce Bantock was born in Shropshire in 1951. With his older siblings away at boarding schools, Bantock was brought up by Roman Catholic nannies, who drilled him in religious ritual. He claimed never to have met another child of his own age until he was six.
He attended a Catholic prep school at which he was routinely beaten which helped to develop his immunity to pain. He became an excellent horseman, with extra lessons paid for by his father, who was exasperated at having two of his offspring attending art school.
Between 1968 and 1970 Bantock attended Essex University, where he read history of art and English literature, was the only student to wear a suit and tie every day, and spouted Marx while dressed like the Duke of Windsor. After university, he went to live in Ireland, where he spent a couple of years as a horse-dealer. He married Antonia Fraser (a cousin of Lady Antonia Fraser), an heiress, and they briefly opened a shop on the Kings Road selling Afghan carpets. After his father’s death, Tom persuaded his mother that he should buy a farm in Norfolk. He and Antonia, together with their daughter Amaryllis, moved to Church Farm, Swanton Novers, where Tom courted notoriety as a poacher.
With pet foxes roaming the farmhouse and a house cow, Bantock fed his family with poached game. Indeed, they would attend frequent dinners at a neighbour’s house, at which he told fellow guests that he regularly poached rabbits from their host’s estate but was never caught. He even appeared on local television to advertise his exploits.
One night he was out with a friend and they had bagged 30 pheasant between them by the time they were ambushed by a band of angry, shotgun-wielding local farmers. As torches and floodlights scoped the woods, Bantock and his companion dropped to the ground. “A nine-millimetre round hit the ground inches in front of my face and filled my mouth with dirt,” he recalled. His companion distracted the farmers by shouting, “I’ve got him, he’s over here”, and the pair escaped across a field and headed for sanctuary in a poachers’ pub that had a 3am lock-in.
At Church Farm, Bantock took delivery of a tonne of grain and encouraged a plague of rats, which his dogs would then tear apart for the entertainment of guests. When rats overran the house, it took 10 kilos of warfarin to eliminate them. Tom and his wife gradually worked their way through their respective inheritances and by the end of the Seventies they had separated.
Bantock never drank heavily until 1982, but at that point took up drinking in earnest. He cheerily downed at least a bottle of port a day, often three, and indulged in frenzied womanising.
At the end of the decade he began to base himself in London and he took a job driving works of art around the country, though he did not cut back on his drinking. After his fall out at Blacks Bantock repaired to Norfolk, where he wrote his poaching memoirs, a manuscript that ran to 365,000 words. He showed it to the journalist Auberon Waugh, who advised him that it required the attention of an editor and a lawyer and could only be published as fiction.
In the late 1990s Bantock attempted to get a couple of new Soho members’ clubs off the ground, but each foundered. One had an opening-night party but then never opened again. In 2002 he was invited by Berlin publisher Klaus Zwangsleitner to start a Blacks in the German city. Again, Bantock selected a membership committee of 100 women, although he complained they were less attractive than their London counterparts. Nonetheless, he lived there for several years, supplementing his income by teaching English to German students.
He was twice attacked in the city, sustaining three broken ribs that pierced his lungs — already in a parlous state because of a family history of emphysema and his smoking — in the second assault.
In 2012, Mascoli paid Bantock to work some of his old magic at Blacks and recruit new members. At the club’s 20th anniversary party, Bantock, held court from a fireside armchair in the basement. Bantock claimed to have sired four children, but his only known child is his daughter Amaryllis, a former fashion model and psychic.
He continued to hope that he might find a lung donor, and in anticipation had switched his daily consumption of alcohol from three bottles of port to three bottles of medium sherry.
Tom Bantock, poacher and club host, was born on April 10, 1951. He died on July 6, 2014, aged 63