Christopher Foyle, chairman of his family bookshop who also founded an air cargo firm – obituary

·6 min read
Christopher Foyle at Ray's Jazz Cafe 5th Anniversary Party at Foyles in 2007 - Alan Davidson/Shutterstock
Christopher Foyle at Ray's Jazz Cafe 5th Anniversary Party at Foyles in 2007 - Alan Davidson/Shutterstock

Christopher Foyle, who has died aged 79, was a distinguished entrepreneur and philanthropist who achieved commercial success in two radically different fields, bookselling and aviation.

With an eclectic range of interests that reflected his lively, inquiring mind, he was perhaps best known for his dynamic chairmanship of the famous bookshop in London that bears his family name. Before that, however, he built an impressive air cargo business that was notable for its innovative use of giant Russian aircraft.

Foyle’s capacity for hard work was accompanied by a gregarious, humorous, generous nature and an openness to maverick ideas. Fascinated by UFOs and alternative archaeology, he funded a number of geographic expeditions, including a search for the Yeti in the Borneo jungle.

His compendium of unusual words
His compendium of unusual words

In his later life he was also an author; his most widely acclaimed book was entitled Foyle’s Philavery, a term which he invented to describe a “collection of words chosen simply on the grounds of their aesthetic appeal, quirkiness or obscurity”.

Typical of the selection was “kakistocracy”, defined as “a system of government in which the rulers are the least competent, least qualified and most unprincipled citizens”.

Beeleigh Abbey, Essex
Beeleigh Abbey, Essex

Another major project was the award-winning restoration of the historic family home of Beeleigh Abbey in Essex, which dated back to the 12th century. The Abbey had belonged to his eccentric Aunt Christina, who also owned the bookstore, but it had long been in decline, its condition made all the worse by her phalanx of pungent, ill-trained cats. “We had to rip up floorboards and remove whole sections of plastering before we finally got rid of that lingering odour,” he recalled.

He took charge of Foyle’s bookshop in 1999 on the death of Christina who had run it for 54 years in an increasingly bizarre fashion. Christopher had briefly worked there in his youth but then, finding his chances of promotion blocked by his autocratic relative, had forged his own commercial path.

The shop had become notorious under Christina Foyle for such anachronisms as requiring customers to queue three times to pay for their purchases rather than going to a single till. But that was the least of the problems Christopher faced.

He found for example that, instead of being ordered alphabetically, books were grouped together by publisher across 30 miles of shelving: “The whole place was a mess. There were three elderly ladies writing up the figures in manual ledgers.”

Yet he turned the business around, returned it to profitability, and opened a series of other outlets before he sold Foyle’s to the Waterstone’s chain in 2018.

Christopher Foyle (right) with Baroness Thatcher and Lord Baker of Dorking (Kenneth Baker), at the annual Foyles Literary Lunch held at the Dorchester in honour of Lady Thatcher in 2002 - Ian Jones Retained
Christopher Foyle (right) with Baroness Thatcher and Lord Baker of Dorking (Kenneth Baker), at the annual Foyles Literary Lunch held at the Dorchester in honour of Lady Thatcher in 2002 - Ian Jones Retained

Christopher Foyle was born on January 20 1943, the son of Richard Foyle, who also worked for the family firm founded by Christopher’s grandfather William and great-uncle Gilbert in 1903, but suffered from depression and alcoholism, partly as a result of his traumatic wartime experiences in the Royal Navy, and died in 1957.

Christopher’s mother, Alice, née Kun, was a more formidable figure. Born in Budapest and brought up in Vienna, she had come to Britain in 1934, married Richard Foyle in 1937 and pursued her own, highly successful, independent career in publishing.

Along with his brother Anthony, Christopher attended Scaitcliffe preparatory school in Berkshire, from where he went to Radley. He was a bright but not particularly diligent pupil, his fondness for pranks sometimes landing him in trouble. After he let off some fire crackers in his dormitory he was beaten so clumsily by his housemaster that the cane broke; Christopher kept the shattered remnants in his library at Beeleigh Abbey as a souvenir.

During his schooldays, Christopher also began to attend Foyle’s literary luncheons. These events were major fixtures in the London social calendar, but Christopher’s first experience was particularly dramatic, as it was the occasion when Randolph Churchill drunkenly denounced his fellow guest speaker Sir Hugh Cudlipp, editor of the Daily Mirror, as “the Pornographer Royal”.

When Christopher later asked his mother what a “pornographer” was, she replied “One who plays on the pornograph,” and refused to answer any more questions.

During his unsatisfactory spell at Foyle’s as a trainee manager in the 1960s, Christopher travelled to Germany, Finland and France to gain more experience of the book trade. By a coincidence, one of the postcards still sold by Shakespeare and Company, the renowned English-speaking bookseller in Paris, features a dashing picture of Christopher from this period, clad in fashionable sunglasses and browsing through its outdoor display.

Thwarted of promotion by his aunt, he left to work for a firm of financial advisers before moving into the aviation industry, having been interested in aviation since he had first learnt to fly a glider at the age of 15.

From modest beginnings as a small air-taxi service operated from a terraced house in Luton, he built up a fleet that operated major freight services, for firms including the global giant TNT. His skill as a businessman was highlighted in 1989 when, after two years of tough negotiations with the Soviets, his company became responsible for the operational management of their mighty Antonov planes, which could carry everything from tanks to railway locomotives.

His airline was not just focused on commerce; during the first Gulf War, Air Foyle lifted 600 refugees from Kuwait to Ukraine. In 2007 Foyle was inducted into the International Air Cargo Association’s Hall of Fame, hailed as “a man of great vision, known for his high level of commitment, innovation, resourcefulness and perseverance”.

With his wife Catherine - Getty Images Europe
With his wife Catherine - Getty Images Europe

It was at a party in Luton that he met Catherine Jelleyman, a student nurse who shared his fascination with aviation. Struck by his good looks, easy warmth and self-confidence, she had an uncanny “sense of knowing that I was going to marry him”. They married in July 1983 and went on to have three daughters.

The couple became renowned for their hospitality and kindness, reflected in their parties and open days for the public in the magnificently restored surroundings of Beeleigh, or the dinners held in Monaco where they based themselves for a time in the last couple of decades. There, Christopher became close to Prince Albert and the easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou, both of whom became supporters of the Air League that Christopher founded in the Principality to give scholarships to budding aviators.

Christopher did not inherit Beeleigh from Christina, who left her entire £60 million estate to the Foyle Foundation, a charity for learning, education and the arts. So he had to buy the house at market value from the trustees. That he managed to do so was a tribute to his business acumen, though he regretted that he could only afford to buy around 40 per cent of the superb library that his grandfather had created.

At Foyle's in 2001 - Alamy
At Foyle's in 2001 - Alamy

Christopher Foyle was made a deputy lord lieutenant of Essex in 2007 and was appointed OBE in the Queen’s birthday honours this year. Having contracted a rare form of cancer, he faced the illness without complaint, never far from laughter. Even in his final days he maintained his stoicism with no a shred of self-pity.

He is survived by his wife Catherine, by their three daughters and by a son from a previous relationship.

Christopher Foyle, born January 20 1943, died August 10 2022