An ‘arrogant and misogynistic’ aristocrat was ordered to pay more than £150,000 in damages to two women forced out of their jobs because they were pregnant.
Sir Benjamin Slade, 73, acted in a ‘high-handed and oppressive manner’ after claiming events planners Melissa Biggs and Roxanne Stewart had ‘timed’ their pregnancies to ‘spite him’, an employment tribunal heard.
The two loyal workers, both 28, went on maternity leave within four months of each other from their jobs at Woodlands Castle, a 17th century country house near Taunton, Somerset, which Sir Benjamin owns and hires out for functions.
Sir Benjamin Slade shows off his vintage gun collection and dogs at home in Somerset
Mrs Biggs went on maternity leave in September 2017 and Miss Stewart, who joined Woodlands straight from school at 17, followed in December. Both had premature births.
In his findings, Judge Colm O’Rourke said that from the moment Sir Benjamin became aware of Miss Stewart’s pregnancy in October 2017 ‘it was clear he was deeply unhappy with the prospect of his two “key” employees being on maternity leave and decided to engineer their departure from their employment’.
Sir Benjamin’s behaviour was ‘deliberate’, the judge said, with him refusing to pay their statutory dues and, in the case of Miss Stewart, subjecting her to an ‘entirely spurious and vindictive “disciplinary” process designed to drive her from the business’.
Miss Stewart told the tribunal she thought his treatment had ‘caused her to go into premature labour, resulting in her baby having to go into intensive care’. Both babies have made full recoveries.
The judge also criticised Sir Benjamin’s ‘appalling’ conduct while he gave evidence at the tribunal.
He was accused by the women’s counsel, Lucinda Harris, of attempting ‘character assassinations’ of both women by making ‘outrageous accusations’.
Melissa Biggs, left, and Roxanne Stewart won £150,000 damages on discrimination grounds
Sir Benjamin falsely claimed both women gave birth prematurely because ‘they had smoked and drank’ during their pregnancies, threatened to report them to the police for theft without grounds for doing so and made an offensive comment about Miss Stewart’s baby ‘dropping out’.
The tribunal awarded aggravated damages for injury to the women’s feelings because of the stress he put them under.
The Bristol hearing, which took place in May last year, was also shown a TV interview in which Sir Benjamin made ‘belittling comments about women’ when speaking about his search for a wife.
In the footage, he set out an eyebrow-raising list of requirements for the perfect ‘breeder’, stating he preferred statuesque women, aged between 30 and 40, who could shoot and had ‘stately home’ training.
In return, any ‘lady of the house’ would allegedly receive £50,000 a month ‘pocket money’ for their troubles, he told stunned hosts.
Sir Benjamin, who lives in a cottage at his family seat, Maunsel House in North Newton, near Bridgwater – a few miles from Woodlands Castle – claimed he made the comments on the TV show only to attract publicity to his property. But Judge O’Rourke said: ‘His behaviour in oral evidence entirely matched that shown on TV, namely arrogant and misogynistic.’
Woodlands Castle, a 17th century country house near Taunton, Somerset, which Sir Benjamin owns and hires out for functions
He added: ‘His behaviour when giving evidence was appalling… This behaviour resulted on one occasion in a rebuke from the tribunal and had a visibly emotional effect on the claimants, reducing them to tears and on at least one occasion obliging them to leave the room. This was unnecessarily offensive behaviour and rubbed salt in the wounds.’
Sir Benjamin was yesterday due to have paid a total of £87,696.42 to Miss Stewart, a mother-of-two from Bridgwater, and £62,890.65 to Mrs Biggs, from Taunton.
Both awards included aggravated damages and injury to feelings as a result of Sir Benjamin’s conduct, including an attempt to hide behind a shell company and not honouring transfer of employment undertakings.
Yesterday, a spokesman for the baronet said: ‘Sir Benjamin is very disappointed with the judgment and is taking advice on the possibility of an appeal.’ Mrs Biggs has since found some part-time employment while Miss Stewart, who was also duty manager at Woodlands, is looking for work. Neither would comment yesterday.
But their lawyer, Edward Aston, said: ‘This case was one of blatant discrimination which has had a devastating impact on the lives of my clients and their families.
‘I am pleased that in the case the legislation that protects women against such discrimination has prevailed and Melissa and Roxanne have received the justice they deserve.
‘They are both to be commended for having the strength and determination to pursue their claims through the employment tribunal to a fair and successful outcome.’
This April Sir Benjamin put 398 acres on the Somerset Levels up for sale for £2.2million, which would give the new owner the title of Wardwick of the North Moor.
In 2012 Sir Benjamin, who made his money in shipping, was fined £2,000 after being convicted of firearms offences and breaching a shotgun certificate by leaving a weapon unsecured in a bedroom at Maunsel House.
Police staged a dramatic raid, scrambling a helicopter to fly overhead during a wedding there, after he took a pot-shot at a fox.