More than a month has passed since Roxanne Stewart and Melissa Biggs won their sexual discrimination case against one of Britain’s most colourful aristocrats. By rights, the two 28-year-olds should be celebrating by now.
Their former employer, 73-year-old Sir Benjamin Slade, was ordered to pay the pair aggravated damages amounting to £150,000 after his ‘appalling’ behaviour towards them when they went on maternity leave from 19th-century Woodlands Castle, near Taunton in Somerset, within four months of each other.
Sir Benjamin accused the women, who worked as event planners, of timing their pregnancies to ‘spite him’, withheld wages and maternity pay and forced them out of their jobs while inventing spurious claims against them.
During this highly distressing ordeal in 2017, Roxanne and Melissa both went into premature labour, giving birth to underweight baby girls. Yet the multi-millionaire baronet and former stockbroker, who can trace his family tree back to Alfred the Great, has yet to hand over a penny.
Sir Benjamin Slade, pictured at his home in Somerset, was ordered to pay out £150,000 to two female former employees after they won a sexual discrimination case against him
Melissa Biggs, pictured above with 18-month-old daughter Maisie, and Roxanne Stewart both went into premature labour, giving birth to underweight baby girls
His spokesman told the Mail some things had been inaccurately reported and added: ‘Sir Benjamin is very disappointed with the judgment and we are in the process of an appeal.’
Meanwhile, the women’s solicitor, Edward Aston, said the next step would be to take enforcement action against the flamboyant landowner, who once advertised for a ‘castle-trained’ wife to give him a male heir.
But it is clear Roxanne and Melissa’s two-year ordeal is far from over. Today, for the first time, the Mail can reveal in full the ‘incredible distress’ they suffered at Sir Benjamin’s hands.
As well as withholding wages and maternity pay, he threatened to report them to the police for theft, maliciously blamed the premature births of their babies on their smoking and drinking before pregnancy, referred to maternity pay as ‘f***ing entitlements’ and to the premature birth of Melissa’s daughter as ‘dropping’ her baby.
Tribunal Judge Colm O’Rourke described him as ‘arrogant and misogynistic’ at the hearing last month, and accused him of acting in a ‘high-handed and oppressive manner’ and rebuked him for being ‘unnecessarily offensive’ during the hearing.
The families of both women have told the Mail this week of their traumatic experiences.
Roxanne Stewart, pictured with daughter Berrie, and Melissa Biggs had worked for Sir Benjamin, who can trace his ancestors back to Alfred the Great, for two years
Melissa Biggs, left, and Roxanne Stewart won £150,000 damages on discrimination grounds
James Biggs says his wife, Melissa, was treated ‘as though she was worth nothing, as though she was a burden to Sir Benjamin simply for being on maternity leave’.
He added: ‘Sir Benjamin appeared to assume that, given his status, two women from a lower social background would never consider legal action against him.’
Meanwhile, Jack Faun, Roxanne’s partner, told how her pregnancy in 2017 came just a few months after she had suffered a devastating miscarriage at 19 weeks.
He said that from the moment she told Sir Benjamin of her pregnancy, she was ‘belittled and made to feel no longer a valuable employee’.
The women’s shared experience is certainly not what they expected when they applied to work for Sir Benjamin at one of his two Somerset country homes.
Nestled within 12 acres of private parkland, Woodlands Castle is a charming 200-year-old country house with a garden pavilion and manicured lawns, hired out to couples seeking a romantic wedding.
‘Whatever your dreams are, at Woodlands Castle we can make them come true,’ boasts Sir Benjamin on his website. The picture painted at the Bristol tribunal hearing, however, was more akin to a nightmare.
Roxanne, who lives near Bridgwater, Somerset, with partner Jack, 27, a dairy farmer, their 18-month-old daughter, Berrie, and her elder sister, Crystal, six, started working at Woodlands straight from school in July 2008, after taking part in a rural youth employment project.
She worked first as catering and bar assistant before being promoted to deputy manager in 2014, reporting directly to Sir Benjamin. After she gave birth to her first child in 2013, she placed her in full-time nursery care so she could return to work.
Woodlands Castle, a 17th century country house near Taunton, Somerset, which Sir Benjamin owns and hires out for functions
It was Roxanne who interviewed Melissa, who lives in Taunton with husband James, 28, an accountant, and their daughter, Maisie, for the post of administration assistant to Sir Benjamin in May 2015.
All was apparently well until 2017 when both women became pregnant. Melissa was due to give birth in November and Roxanne in January 2018, but Melissa suffered from a condition called obstetric cholestasis, which affects the liver during pregnancy, and gave birth eight weeks early in September.
A month later, Roxanne informed Sir Benjamin of her own pregnancy. According to evidence given at last month’s tribunal, the wealthy landowner told one of her colleagues that she and Melissa ‘had got pregnant together on purpose to spite him’.
In November 2017, Roxanne was not paid and Melissa didn’t receive her maternity pay.
When Roxanne complained, Sir Benjamin called maternity pay ‘f***ing entitlements’.
She was then suspended after being falsely accused of allowing catering firms to use the castle’s facilities for off-site events for which Sir Benjamin hadn’t been paid.
In evidence, she said she was told by Sir Benjamin that her suspension was a ‘sort of negotiation’ at a time when he was restructuring his companies for financial reasons.
‘I had an impeccable disciplinary record and nine-and-a-half years of loyal service,’ Roxanne said in evidence. ‘I was very upset, confused, shocked and stressed.’ A few days later, she went into premature labour, eventually giving birth to her daughter, Berrie, eight weeks later in December 2017.
Sir Benjamin Slade did not pay Roxanne in November 2017 and failed to pay Melissa for maternity leave. When Roxanne complained, Sir Benjamin called maternity pay ‘f***ing entitlements’
According to partner Jack: ‘We firmly believe the worry and stress of Sir Benjamin’s malicious behaviour had a huge part to play in her early labour. Roxanne was at her most vulnerable, and in these circumstances you would expect support from your employer, but she got the complete opposite. He continued to treat her in such a malicious way even after the birth.’
Roxanne was fired two days before Christmas 2017 — she received the hand-delivered letter on the day she brought her baby daughter home from hospital. To add insult to injury, the termination of her contract had been backdated to December 4 — the day before she gave birth.
During a subsequent call from Sir Benjamin, she says he told her not to be upset ‘as you’re completely covered under the government law’.
She says he told her to ignore the dismissal letter and that he merely ‘wanted to clear everyone from the company due to previous accounting and tax issues’ and also that ‘he would rather the state pay my maternity pay than the company’.
On another occasion, when she asked him for the money owed to her, she says he told her: ‘There isn’t a lot of money about.’
And when she told him she couldn’t pay her rent and was in danger of being evicted, she claims he said: ‘Don’t be so ridiculous. I thought you were in protective housing or something. Don’t you live with your boyfriend?’
Roxanne added: ‘Throughout my maternity leave, each month was a struggle with constant stress and worry when payday would come.’
She said her situation meant she struggled to bond with her baby. She told health visitors: ‘I can’t help feeling that if I did not have another child I wouldn’t be in this situation’.
Melissa, whose mother and brother also worked at Woodlands, as a cleaner and a chauffeur, was also told by Sir Benjamin that the business ‘was making no money’ and that a colleague he referred to as ‘bugger-lugs’ had failed to file any figures at Companies House. She was sent an email stating that the company didn’t have funds to pay her maternity pay.
Sir Benjamin Slade then suspended Ms Stewart after falsely accusing her of allowing catering firms to use the castle’s facilities for off-site events for which he hadn’t been paid
The financial impact of the situation was, she said, extremely stressful, particularly over the Christmas period.
‘I would regularly break down when I was with my husband, sometimes in public. This caused anxiety and I was at some points reluctant to leave the house,’ she said.
In his findings, Judge O’Rourke said: ‘The acts of discrimination were deliberate and based on a vindictive desire to get rid of the claimants.’
But if such behaviour sounds outlandish, Sir Benjamin’s attitude towards women has always veered towards the eccentric and outrageous. He was successfully sued by another female employee for constructive dismissal in 2011.
In a 2012 documentary about ‘modern-day Downtons’ filmed at his other country property, the 13th-century Maunsel House, he revealed: ‘They say why do you have such beautiful staff? I admire beautiful racehorses and I love seeing beautifully dressed women around the place. They add to the ambience.’ One of his female employees at the time explained: ‘It’s just a big look for him, I think, when his male friends turn up and there’s a house full of women walking around saying: “Ben, would you like anything?” Sir Benjamin Julian Alfred Slade was born in May 1946, the youngest of two sons born to Sir Michael Slade and his wife, Angela. He was educated at Millfield and left school after taking his O-levels. His early life was marred by tragedy: he was 14 when his elder brother, Robert, 20, was killed in a car crash.
Both parents also died a couple of years later. Sir Benjamin spent time in Australia in the Sixties working as a ‘jackaroo’ on a sheep station and in an iron ore mine, before returning to London in 1971 to work as a stockbroker.
He married in 1977, to Pauline Myburgh, younger daughter of cricketer Claude Myburgh. Their divorce in 1991 cost him £1.5 million. In the Nineties, he lived for six years with Fiona Aitken, who later married the Earl of Carnarvon.
His next long-term partner was actress Kirsten Hughes, who played the famous wartime cartoon-strip heroine Jane in the racy film comedy Jane And The Lost City.
The pair met at a London dinner party in 1997 and lived together at Maunsel House until 2012 when she left him (according to Sir Benjamin she ran off with a handyman ‘Lady Chatterley-style’).
He subsequently placed an advertisement for a ‘young lady’ companion, offering a £50,000 salary plus bonus, as well as a car, house, expenses, food and holidays.
The advert read: ‘You must have a shotgun certificate, be able to run two castles, an estate and a grouse moor. MUST be able to breed two sons . . . A little private capital and income would be helpful. A large fortune would be more helpful.’
He has repeated this tongue-in-cheek request on several occasions since. In 2017 he appeared on This Morning, again appealing for a ‘castle-trained wife’ who could give him ‘an heir and a spare’.
‘Running these big houses is a nightmare. I have no skills when it comes to human resources. I once hired five mad women on the trot.’
In 2018, he was back on This Morning, saying he was looking for a woman with a gun licence, a helicopter licence, ‘armorial bearing’ and the ability to run two castles.
Perhaps the biggest irony, given his treatment of Roxanne and Melissa, is his regret at not providing an heir for the estate, which has been in his family since 1772.
Indeed, so concerned was Sir Benjamin about who might succeed him that in 2005 he proposed bequeathing the estate to whichever stranger could most closely match his family’s DNA — so long as they weren’t Guardian readers, drugs users, communists or homosexuals.
For the past decade or so, Sir Benjamin has devoted most of his time to making ends meet at both Woodlands and Maunsel. In April this year, he put part of a 398-acre nature reserve at Maunsel on the market for £2.2 million.
That sum dwarfs the amounts he has been ordered to pay to Roxanne, who has been awarded £87,696.42 and Melissa, who won £62,890.65.
Their solicitor, Edward Aston, told the Mail: ‘As the awards have not been settled, the next step will be enforcement of the tribunal awards together with interest and legal costs.’
Until Sir Benjamin decides to cough up, the women say they are still struggling to make ends meet.
Melissa is working part-time in a hotel restaurant for £8.50 an hour.
Roxanne, who is still looking for a full-time job, said she struggled to put into words how she was affected emotionally.
‘I have lost out on what should have been happy, quality time with my child.’