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Profile: George Dailey - the spreader of happiness
George Dailey can fairly be said to have done as much as anyone to add to the sum of human happiness in Oxfordshire. At four splendid country pubs, two of which remain in his control, he has supplied excellent food, fine wine and boundless bonhomie over more than three decades.
In each case, a down-at-heel, out-of-the-way establishment was transformed into a bustling business through the soundness of his vision and the creation of an environment of relaxing comfort that owes everything to the good taste of his wife, Cargie.
“We will never forget those prawns,” said Raymond Blanc, speaking for himself and the Manoir’s legendary restaurant director Alain Desenclos when the two met George at a catering event last year. This was a reference to the succulent, eat-the-whole-thing Chinese white prawns which, served skewered on garlic bread with a pot of aioli, became a trademark dish more than 30 years ago at his first pub, The Harcourt Arms, in Stanton Harcourt.
Tweaked for modern tastes, with a flatbread base and a Thai chilli dip, the crisp crustaceans are a major attraction at George’s fourth — and, since he’s 66, almost certainly last — stylish creation. “The Best, The Original, Grilled King Prawns,” proclaims a blackboard outside The Bell, a nine-bedroom boutique hotel, pub and restaurant in Hampton Poyle, north of Oxford.
Inside, in an elegant front room styled ‘the library’, George reflects on his long and enterprising career in hospitality.
Around him on the walls are eye-catching, framed photographs of action at the nearby Kirtlington Park polo ground.
These images, and all the others throughout the building, are the work of his hugely talented daughter, Charlie. They are part of an impressive oeuvre, shot across the world, previously shown in a one-person exhibition at London’s Oxo Tower.
George speaks with pride of her achievements and those of her younger siblings, Annabelle and Thomas.
Annabelle — educated, like Charlie, at Headington School — had charge for some time of the Daileys’ second pub, The Boot at Barnard Gate, near Witney, before becoming a purser on a private yacht. Now married and living in Palma, she recently gave George and Cargie their first grandchild.
Tommy, educated at The Dragon School and Radley College, is now, at 27, working in the West End offices of a major estate agent.
It was as a consequence of a coup in the property market that George gained his own financial independence, complete with London flat and an R-Type Bentley.
But this is to rush ahead of the story...
Born in 1946, in Wraysbury, near Windsor, George was himself one of three children. The only blight on an idyllic childhood was the death of his mother, from a brain tumour, when he was 16.
This left his father, a successful advertising executive, to bring up George and his younger brothers Bill and Paul, “aided by a legendary housekeeper called Mrs Peck”.
All three went to King’s School, Worcester, where George showed more aptitude for sport — cricket and rugby especially — than learning.
Leaving without qualifications, he was guided into a job in insurance by his father and next worked in the circulation department of the American magazine Newsweek. He was two weeks away from being sent to head its sales operations in Australia, when the board pulled the plug on his appointment. Handing in his notice “in a fit of pique”, he went to France, ostensibly to learn French. Rugby became his principal occupation, however, leading to his recruitment for a six-month stint with Chalon-sur-Saone and another, slightly shorter, with Nice University.
Back in England, now fluent in French and feeling properly grown-up after his year of independence, he entered confidently into a series of selling jobs, drifting eventually into one involving property.
“This was a crazy time for housebuilding and my job was looking for suitable sites. I was good at it. I did a lot of knocking on doors, persuading farmers to let us have land.”
One day, walking along the high street in Ruislip, he noticed a garage next door to Woolworth’s, which at once suggested financial possibilities. Having found out who ran the garage, George was able to obtain an option to buy the freehold. When he offered this to Woolies, they naturally jumped at the chance to expand.
“This is what set me up,” he says.
Nearly four years in the commercial property market followed, during which time George met his future wife, Cargie, at the George Hotel in Dorchester-on-Thames, belonging to her cousin Gerry Stonhill, where she was working. Gerry is famous these days as the owner of The Mason Arms, in South Leigh, near Witney. Cargie’s brothers, Johnnie and Steve Chick, are both well-known for the various Oxfordshire pubs they have run.
The sudden property crash in the mid-seventies suggested a move for George into what could clearly be called his wife’s family business.
After a series of interviews with breweries, they were offered the tenancy of The Harcourt Arms, by Morrell’s of Oxford.
“Colonel Morrell asked me at the interview what I was going to do while Cargie ran the pub. It was inconceivable to him that the place could provide work for two people.”
“But we knew what we were doing,” says George. “Or Cargie knew. She knew what it was supposed to look like; she knew how to create atmosphere.”
After hiring a series of cooks (“they weren’t called chefs then”) from the pages of The Lady, George eventually found himself in the kitchen, learning as he went. Beside him was the redoubtable ‘Auntie Rene’, so called, a skilled pastry and pudding cook inherited from the previous tenants.
Her treacle tart was as much a Harcourt Arms classic as those prawns or the lamb, cooked whole on a spit over the fire.
Rene stayed until the Daileys left in 1988, by which time they had developed a flourishing hotel (later sold as houses) on adjoining land.
Also on the staff for a period was George’s younger brother, Paul, now the long-time owner (more than 30 years) of his own hugely popular Oxfordshire pub, The Blue Boar at Longworth. (Middle brother Bill is what George calls a “freelance chief executive officer”.) George’s departure from the Harcourt Arms coincided with his developing of a bowel disease (ulcerative colitis) that necessitated two long and complicated operations. These proved so successful that he went on to play rugby for another 10 years (for the famous London team Richmond Heavies) and soon resumed his pub career.
Another little-used Morrell’s pub, The Britannia at Barnard Gate, was bought and transformed into The Boot, whose appeal was boosted by a collection of celebrity footwear and another signature dish (roasted half shoulder of lamb, a “pensioners’ cut”, as he says, spotted in Feller’s window in Oxford Covered Market).
The pub’s success led to an offer to buy, which he could hardly refuse. The family’s move from a house in Beckley to East Hendred led to the creation of the third Dailey pub.
The Eyston Arms (“all lino, Formica, pool table and the rest”) was ripe for development and George hoped to take over. The pub was developed in partnership with local squire Edward Eyston. He, George and Daisy Barton (who is in charge of day-to-day running) are the ruling triumvirate today.
At The Bell, too, George has a business partner in local farmer Robert Brooks. His involvement allowed the purchase of a cottage next to the tiny old pub. This supplied a development footprint large enough for a massive expansion of the place, which reopened in 2009 and flourishes today.
Looking back on his career, George muses over what enjoyment it has brought him and the principal motive for his work.
“While the pubs haven’t made us a fortune, they have given me what really mattered. They gained the children the best education that money can buy.”