Anyone passing by the window of Mullucks Wells estate agents in Bishop’s Stortford in 2010 could be forgiven for pausing to admire Justices Farmhouse, a sprawling 16th-century rural home with an acre of land, a summerhouse, a duck pond, the remains of a moat and a £1.5 million price tag.
But for owner Jonathan Bennion-Pedley, this dream home in the idyllic Essex village of Finchingfield has come to represent everything he says he despises about his life. Its sold now. So is his businesses. Bennion-Pedley then used the proceeds to move to a mud hut in Uganda and start a charity for local orphans. The charity isn’t only for the local children, either—British children with a troubled past are also sent there to help the locals and ultimately help themselves.
On the surface then, a wonderful, heart-warming philanthropic tale. But as Bennion-Pedley first announced his extraordinary plans to the media in March 2010, it swiftly emerged there is more to this highly-successful self-made businessman than meets the eye.
Lurking in the telecommunications tycoon’s very chequered past lie criminal convictions, fraudulent business activities, alcoholism, affairs and a drunken car crash which landed him in a coma for six weeks.
The former public schoolboy readily admits to having lied, cheated and stolen to get whatever he wanted in life. The point is, he insists, that he has now turned over a new leaf and wants to put the past behind him.
‘I hate what I was then,’ he says. ‘Money and the pursuit of money bring nothing but misery. I was living a life absolutely centred on me – and the cost to others and myself was massive.’
But can it be possible that someone who was, by his own admission, ‘the most amoral person you could ever meet’, is now the most moral?
A delve into his past certainly uncovers a cad of epic proportions, a man who has caused so much chaos and destruction in his 41 years that some might question if he could possibly live long enough to make adequate reparation for it. But it also offers up a salutary tale for those who believe that riches bring happiness.
As the eldest of six children born to a hard-working, aspirational Shrewsbury doctor and his wife, Bennion-Pedley was given the best education that money could buy. His siblings thrived: his younger brother Edward is now a top London barrister. His sister Gaynor is a concert pianist. But while his church-going parents scrimped and saved to send him to £20,000-a-year boarding school Wrekin College in Shropshire, something went wrong for Bennion-Pedley. By the time he was 13, he was drinking, smoking and stealing from his parents.
‘I was surrounded by children with a lot more money than me,’ he explains. ‘By the time I was 14, some of them were getting £1,000 a month pocket money and most of it was being spent on drugs. I just felt so inferior to them. I went completely off the rails.’
‘My parents were very strict and I was consumed by hatred for them and what they stood for. I hated the staidness of their lives. I despised the safeness of it. I just wanted to get money for myself. I stole from them.’
Before long, he was forced to leave the school. He responded by leaving home, cutting off contact with his parents and moving into a bedsit in Shrewsbury where he found a job in McDonald’s earning £117.30 a week.
He moved to High Street jewellery firm Ratners in 1986, and shifted between branches in Shrewsbury, Hereford and Macclesfield before being made the company’s youngestever branch manager in Glasgow.
There, he began stealing from the company to enhance his salary. ‘I worked out a scam whereby I could make it look like there had been a refund when there hadn’t,’ he says. He estimates pocketing several thousand pounds during his two years there.
But, before long, his desire for more money saw him move on again, this time to London, where he sold life insurance for Endsleigh.
Aged only 19, his deceitful behavior increased. Despite earning £20,000 a year and having a VW Golf as his company car, Bennion-Pedley found it hard to keep up with the yuppies he encountered in wine bars around the City and he developed a scam which enabled him to avoid paying the rent on the flats he lived in.
‘I’d pay a deposit and the first month’s rent with no intention of ever paying another penny,’ he says. ‘I’d stay for around six-and-a-half months and leave just before the bailiffs came.’
At the same time, he was also developing a nasty alcohol habit – at his worst he was drinking around ten pints of lager and two bottles of wine a day.
‘I had girlfriend after girlfriend, drank heavily every day if I could afford it, and wasted money on anything I wanted,’ he says. ‘I’d think I was in love, promise the girls the earth, borrow money from them, get bored and then disappear.’
When one of his girlfriend’s got pregnant, he borrowed the £135 necessary to pay for an abortion.
His next job was selling photocopiers and he set up in business with ‘some slightly older, slightly dodgy people’. By now, says Bennion-Pedley, he was completely submerged in the hard-sell, fast-money culture of sales.
‘When money got tight, I sold all the furniture in the flat I was renting,’ he says. ‘I also got paid twice for a deal by mistake and I spent all the money.’
Both of these actions landed him at Southwark Crown Court, where he was found guilty of theft and obtaining property by deception.
At the same time his business went bust, owing money to people he will only describe as ‘bad’. At one stage, he found himself on the wrong end of a gun and had to give away all the money he had and promise more.
‘That meant I didn’t have any money to start one of my rent scams,’ he says. ‘So for the next few weeks I slept rough at train stations and in doorways.’
Too proud to call his parents and ask for forgiveness, he eventually did what he always did when he was in trouble – try another scam. This time, he persuaded a married woman he had been sleeping with to give him £600 for a week in a hotel.
‘When I got there, I performed a variation of the rent scam,’ he says. ‘I gave them a week’s money up front as a sign of good will and then I managed to blag them for six weeks, saying I was in London on business and that the money would be paid.’
‘I was a good conman. People liked me. But eventually it wore thin and I had to move on again.’
Next, he found a job with an old contact – a man he admits having previously ripped off – selling photocopiers and telephone systems.
Still aged only 22, he also managed to persuade his older married lover, a secretary called Carol, to marry him.
Looking back, he says with a candour his ex-wife is unlikely to thank him for: ‘I didn’t really love her or fancy her. I married her for dreadful reasons. I just wanted a wife and two children. And she agreed to get a divorce and be my wife and she already had two children, so it was perfect.’
The couple moved to Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire and two children of their own soon followed – Catherine, now 15, and Alex, now 12.
But if his wife had faith that he would rise to the challenge of fatherhood, she was wrong. ‘Life was still all about me – and money,’ he says.
By 30, he was working for himself and, after winning several contracts supplying phone systems to big companies, he was drawing a salary of around £160,000 a year.
He had, in his own words, ‘everything we should aspire to’ – a big house, a big car and foreign holidays but still he spent each night in the pub, trying to blot out the yawning gap he never seemed able to fill.
When alcohol failed to fill the gap, he turned to adultery, embarking on an affair with his wife’s best friend.
Six weeks after it began, he says, he invited his lover, Sarah, and her husband around for dinner and, in front of his wife, announced he and her best friend were having an affair and were moving in together.
‘It was carnage,’ he says. ‘My wife was heartbroken, as was Sarah’s husband. Sarah’s children and my children were at school together. There were fights in the playground. Then we moved, with Sarah’s children, 130 miles away to Aberystwyth.’
Over the next couple of years, he had only sporadic contact with his own children – something he blames on his ex-wife’s determination to punish him for his actions.
Mostly he was too preoccupied with his blossoming telecommunications business.
Yet his disastrous personal life appeared to have no effect on his professional success. In 2002, he signed a multi-million pound contract with Dixons. ‘It just made me even more arrogant,’ he says.
Not even the horrendous car crash he caused in June 2002 made him change his ways. ‘I had been entertaining clients in Birmingham,’ he says. ‘I got into my car at 5 am after no sleep and lots of alcohol and tried to drive home to Wales.’
An hour later he crashed into a van at 90 mph, breaking both of the other driver’s legs. He was unconscious when he was cut from the wreckage of his car and because he was unable to give permission for a blood test, police were unable to charge him.
Six weeks later, having lost the sight in one eye and been fitted with plates and screws, he was discharged from hospital. ‘When I got home, I treated Sarah like the hired nurse,’ he says. ‘I was aggressive, I carried on drinking. I couldn’t drive because of my injuries, so I employed a driver, meaning I could drink even more.’
By early 2003, Bennion-Pedley’s life was spiralling out of control. His relationship with Sarah had broken up, he had lost access to his children and he embarked on another affair – with another married woman – and he was also still drinking and driving.
It was then, he says, that he underwent a religious epiphany which made him turn his life around. He began by plastering motivational posters around his office. He then tried visiting his village church. And, in 2004, he embarked on a course with another church, found God and became teetotal.
In addition to selling his house – and his Range Rover – he transferred his multi-million pound businesses to new owners. In return, they pay him an income which he uses to support his charity work.
Whether or not this is adequate atonement for a lifetime of wrongdoing is another matter.
Bennion-Pedley insists that: ‘Being a Christian has made me ruthlessly honest in all areas of my life.’
His ex-wife and his ex-lovers, of course, might say that such a change of heart has come too late.
As part of his bid to make up for his past, he says he has apologized, where possible, to those wronged.
He confessed to his ex-wife that he had lied to her and has paid her the child support money he owes her, but admits they have a very difficult relationship. ‘I stole her best friend as well as leaving her,’ he says. ‘I think as far as she is concerned Uganda isn’t far enough away.’
When he tried to apologize to Sarah and to tell her he had changed, she was equally skeptical. He recalls: ‘She said: “This is just another phase. One minute you’re in love with such and such and now it’s Jesus. It will pass.”‘
There are also others he would like to apologize to – not least the van driver – but he has been unable to find him. He was, he says, reconciled with his parents before they died, but he is not close to his siblings.
Forgiveness, of course, is a central tenet of Christianity, but those who do not share his faith may find his conversion hard to swallow. And while his charitable efforts are no doubt laudable, it’s impossible not to question whether or not his first duty of care is towards his own children. ‘I have struggled with that,’ he says. ‘The children are fine with what I’m doing. I have said: “If you don’t want me to go, I won’t”. But I will see them when I come back to fund-raise and they can come out for holidays.’
Some might also question whether his decision to give away what is essentially his children’s inheritance is selfless or selfish.
Once all his assets are sold and his mortgage paid off, he estimates he will have at least £500,000 – money that could be put towards his children’s education or a deposit on their first homes. But on this, Bennion-Pedley is clear: ‘Inherited wealth is a terrible burden. I will continue to pay child support, but I have seen what money can do to children, the misery and destruction it can cause.’
Only time will tell whether his children will thank him for saving them from his fortune.
Source Credits: MailOnline and Listverse