Harry Clifton is still a figure mired in controversy and some proclaim him to have been a “waster” and a “terrible gambler” who destroyed his family and its estates by deliberately squandering money or simply giving it away.

He is spoken of as that “awful Harry Clifton” or that “terrible man” but is it as simple as that? He was, you could argue based on evidence, many of those things but perhaps it is worth considering what made him like that and why he did what he did. Maybe he destroyed everything because he didn’t want anyone to have to go through what he had endured at the hands of his father? The pressure heaped on him to conform to his birthright position? Perhaps.

My new book is very much a mix of fact and fiction, the fiction being in the imagined situations and conversations the characters engage in, and it also attempts to flesh out the evidence and try to understand why Harry was so destructive.

Henry Talbot de vere Clifton was born in 1907. He was the heir apparent to the Clifton family estates and initially the pride and joy of his parents Violet and Talbot Clifton. The following year they hosted the Grand Duke Michael, brother of Tsar Nicholas II, at their fine Georgian manor, Lytham Hall, for a shoot and to celebrate that illustrious Imperial friendship.

But the relationship between their son – who preferred to be called Harry – and his parents, especially his father, would deteriorate at an alarming rate as Harry grew up. This seemed to set the wheels of fate in motion, a trajectory that would eventually see the destruction of the family finances and its illustrious estates built up over hundreds of years.

The Cliftons owned most of the land from Lytham along the coast to Blackpool – and much of the surrounding farmland too. They also owned an estate in Ireland, which was abandoned after independence, but was replaced with a new estate on the Scottish island of Islay with a grand house called Kildalton Castle at its heart.

John Talbot Clifton was a giant of a man and a typical Victorian adventurer who loved to shoot, fish and conquer all before him; gladly accompanied and supported by his adoring wife, Violet. Their obsession with each other, and the passionate marriage they enjoyed, seemed to leave little affection spare to bestow upon their children.

Harry, being the heir, came in for some pretty harsh treatment as his father declared he needed to be toughened up to survive in the world and also in preparation for when he inherited the estates from his father.

But Talbot, as he liked to be called, had been no angel when he was a young man. He too gambled and squandered money, had an affair with the infamous mistress of the Prince of Wales, Lillie Langtry, gaining a reputation as a womaniser and drinker. He was a man’s man and when he eventually married Violet he settled down and accepted his duty and responsibility. One suspects his own misspent youth was the reason he was so hard on his own son.

Talbot’s aim was to toughen Harry up but it had the opposite effect. Harry was bookish and sensitive and hated all the gory blood sports, shooting especially, and loathed stomping through the wilderness of the Islay estate in Scotland or walks through the Lytham Hall parkland.

He was not sporty either and struggled with the concept of being a gentleman at all. He was sent to Downside School in Somerset near Bath, no doubt glad to be a boarder to give him respite from his father’s constant carpings and disappointment with him. The school was less than a happy experience for Harry as it had a primary focus on sports of all kinds but he managed to find relief in the library where he developed his love of poetry, literature and especially the darkness of Edgar Allan Poe’s works; these he adored all his life and they became such a passion he financed a film in the 1930s of one of Poe’s famous works The Tell Tale Heart.

He went to Oxford to study Modern History at Christ Church in 1926 at the insistence of his father. This is where he found his wings and experimented with life and sex. Although we know that Evelyn Waugh visited Lytham Hall in the 1930s, and much speculation has evolved that he became an inspiration for Waugh’s character Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, it’s fairly certain that Harry and Waugh would have met at Oxford in the private drinking clubs that were for the time so hedonistic and sexually liberated. Interestingly, Sebastian Flyte in the novel Brideshead Revisited also had rooms at Christ Church and was, like Harry, a spoilt, petulant and rich young man.

After a visit to Lytham Hall in the 1930s, Waugh wrote to Lady Asquith to say the Cliftons were “all tearing mad” but also made some complimentary remarks about Lytham Hall, saying it was “a very beautiful house by Kent or someone like him with first-class Italian plaster work. A lap of luxury flowing with champagne and elaborate cookery. Mrs Clifton, Easter (or so she seems to be called), Orsa [Avia], Michael, a youth seven feet high with a moustache who plays with a clockwork motor car and an accordion.”

Great British Life: Lytham Hall, home of the Clifton family from 1606. PHOTO: Kirsty ThompsonLytham Hall, home of the Clifton family from 1606. PHOTO: Kirsty Thompson

The Cliftons were Catholics, and Waugh would convert to Catholicism in the 1930s, but his opinion of the places of worship was less than complimentary: “Five hideous Catholic churches on the estate.” Waugh then went on to say: “Large park entirely surrounded by trams and villas. Adam dining room…all sitting at separate tables at meals. Two or three good pictures including a Renoir. Appalling heat. All sitting in sun with a dozen aeroplanes overhead and the gardens open to the public.”

The 1930s also saw the sale by Harry of large tracts of Lytham and Ansdell and the subsequent loss of annual ground rents they generated as income for the family estate. Large areas of land towards Blackpool were also sold – the area that is now Blackpool Airport was land once owned by the Clifton estate.

In 1937 Harry married the American socialite Lilian Lowell Griswold during a drunken courtship – when they sobered up and realised they were married it was all downhill but along the way they managed to acquire two Imperial Faberge Eggs; the Renaissance Egg and the Rosebud Egg are now in the Faberge Museum in St Petersburg. Sadly they were re-sold when the market was uninterested in the 1940s and 50s. Had they been kept in the family they would have been worth many millions today.

Harry had a number of passions which helped drain the family fortune. He lost money on film-making projects in Hollywood and the UK and through gambling. He was an art collector, amateur jockey and racehorse trainer and had three books of his poetry published. He also had an interest in the occult and legend has it that he believed in a deity called The White Goddess with whom he would dine at the Ritz in London every other week as waiters served a meal for two.

Harry kept a suite at the Ritz and later took one at the nearby Dorchester Hotel as well in case, it was claimed, he felt tired when he was passing down Park Lane and would have somewhere to go.

By the time of his death in 1979 Harry had squandered in the region of £70 million and lost his family estates built up over hundreds of years. He died childless and almost penniless in a down-at-heel Brighton hotel.

Thankfully the jewel in the crown, Lytham Hall, which had been in the family since the early 17th century, survived. It is now open to the public and bringing back to life the rich history of the Cliftons and all their eccentricities.

* Flyte or Fancy? You Decide is available in hardback from Lytham bookshop Plackett & Booth, Lytham Hall and all good book stores, £19.99.

Great British Life: Flyte or Fancy by David Slattery-ChristyFlyte or Fancy by David Slattery-Christy