You would think that marrying into the Royal Family and being the in-laws of the future king might shield you from money problems and business dramas, but if the latest exploits of the Middletons are anything to go by, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Earlier this summer, Carole and Michael Middleton were forced to sell off their party supplies firm, Party Pieces, after it racked up debts of £2.6 million, leaving dozens of small businesses out of pocket. Meanwhile, the baby of the clan, serial entrepreneur James Middleton, is facing fresh business woes after it was reported the assets on his latest venture, Ella & Co, have plummeted.
Last year, fresh from the collapse of his novelty marshmallow firm Boomf, James launched a dog food company dedicated to the ‘happiness and wellbeing of dogs’. The business was inspired by his beloved spaniel Ella, whom James has credited both with saving his life, after helping him during his darkest days of depression, and introducing him to his wife, French financial analyst Alizée Thevenet, who he wed in 2021 (the pair met after Ella made a beeline for Alizée at the South Kensington Club in 2018). Sadly, Ella died at the beginning of this year, and now it seems her namesake company may be ailing too, as it’s recently been reported that Ella &Co’s assets are down to just £92,510, compared with £334,591 the previous year.
It’s a position James is fairly familiar with by now – Ella & Co is the fifth venture for the 36-year-old, who friends have said always fancied himself as the next Richard Branson. When Boomf collapsed last year, it had accumulated trading losses of almost £2 million, despite having the backing of big-name investors like James Matthews, the billionaire husband of James’s sister Pippa, and Moonpig founder Nick Jenkins. James started his first business, the Cake Kit Company, in 2007 after dropping out of Edinburgh University, before going on to set up Nice Cakes and Nice Wine a few years later. In 2015, he applied to have the two cake firms as well as his wine business struck off the official register at Companies House. Reports at the time suggested that the Cake Kit Company had just £20 in the bank and that James had to rely on his family to support the business. “He has lots of great ideas, but he’s less practical when it comes to following those ideas through, which is partly due to his ADD,” says a friend. “He finds it hard to stick at things.”
So far, James appears to be taking this latest setback in his stride. Last week he took to Instagram to announce he was changing the name of the company to James & Ella, ushering in a new chapter for the business. “I’ve spent a long time reflecting on how much [Ella] transformed my life,” he said. “Through James & Ella, I’ll be carrying on the legacy of the most incredible dog I ever had the pleasure of caring for, with lots of exciting news to share later this year.”
For James, who recently announced he and Alizée have their first child on the way, it’s business as usual. “I wouldn’t be too quick off the mark to dismiss him or the business,” says one insider. “And let’s not forget he’s got some impressive investors on board.” Those include, once again, Pippa’s husband James (clearly undaunted by Boomf’s collapse) and insurance and property entrepreneur Raja Balasuriya.
James Middleton with wife Alizée Thevenet
It’s hardly surprising to see James Matthews providing a healthy injection of cash for his brother-in-law’s business – since her 2017 wedding to the investment banker, whose net worth is estimated to be upwards of £2billlon, Pippa has become by far the richest member of the Middleton family. Last year, the couple and their three children relocated from their £17million Chelsea townhouse to a sprawling 30-room mansion in Berkshire, just a 20-minute drive from her parents. James, who’s the brother of Made in Chelsea star Spencer Matthews and used to be a professional racing driver, also bought up nearby Bucklebury Farm Park for £1.5million in 2021. The 77-acre piece of land is already home to a petting zoo (said to be a favourite of Prince George’s when he was younger), café and cabin accommodation for around 30 people, which the family is currently running, but the couple are now keen to expand the business further to include glamping cabins and a restaurant, with the plans being dubbed ‘Pippa’s Playground’.
Like her parents and brother, Pippa also has an entrepreneurial streak and her fingerprints are all over the tasteful products on offer at the Bucklebury Gift and Farm shop, where you can pick up chic jute bags, eco-friendly toys and healthy cook books. It’s said Carole Middleton was instrumental in getting the venture off the ground and actively encouraged the couple to launch the online shop. At home, however, things are going less smoothly, as Pippa and James are currently struggling with some of the ambitious renovations planned for their £15million Berkshire house. Their proposal to build a mammoth swimming pool and tennis court topped with AstroTurf, which would require building over an old wall, has been called into question by specialists, who worry about the “historic fabric” of the estate, as well as for “the Middle Stone Age sites” nearby.
Pippa Middleton and her husband James Matthews at Wimbledon, 2021
Then, of course, there’s the investigation Pippa’s father-in-law David Matthews is currently embroiled in. Five years after being accused of the historic rape of a 16-year-old girl between 1998 and 1999 in Paris and the Caribbean island of St Barts, where he owns the luxury hotel Eden Roc, it’s been revealed detectives at the child protection unit in Paris have begun another inquiry which is now running in tandem with the current one. While details remain scarce, it’s thought new allegations have emerged during the protracted original enquiry. Though David vehemently denies any wrongdoing, it’s sure to be casting a shadow over Pippa and James.
Pippa may well have cause to worry about her own parents, too. The closure of Party Pieces has come as a blow to the Middletons, especially Carole, who friends say is “desperately sad” to see the business sold off in this way. It was snapped up by former children’s entertainer James Sinclair – who calls himself the ‘Millionaire Clown’ – for £180,000, but crucially the Essex-based entrepreneur has not taken on any of the company’s debts. Many of those who have been left out of pocket are small family-owned businesses, including Mohamad Pardis, owner of the helium supplier Sultani Gas, who said the £20,430 he is owed was equivalent to a year’s profits. “I thought I was in safe hands and that I could trust the royal family. I’m completely shocked,” he was quoted as saying.
Carole famously started the business from her kitchen table in 1987, when she was six months pregnant with James, after struggling to find some fun paper plates for daughter Kate’s fifth birthday. Surprised by the lack of options, she realised others must be facing similar issues. The business really took off with the advent of online shopping in the 1990s, and at the time of Kate and William’s wedding in 2011 it was estimated to be worth £30 million.
While the Middletons’ fortune has always been shrouded in an air of mystery – the couple has relatively humble beginnings, with Carole a former air hostess who grew up in a London council house and Michael one of four children of an RAF-turned-commercial pilot from Leeds – it’s thought the family’s wealth derives almost entirely from the success of Party Pieces. It certainly seems to be what allowed Carole and Michael to pay the hefty school fees for all three of their children, who were privately educated at Marlborough College, and led to them amassing a property portfolio that at various points has included a mortgage-free Chelsea flat and a £4.7 million Grade II-listed Georgian mansion in Berkshire.
Michael and Carole Middleton attend the Coronation
The company’s closure has come as a surprise to many – as recently as April, the firm said it was looking to “secure additional investment” to support “the next phase” of its growth plans and in October last year it launched in America, with Carole using a cardboard cut-out of herself to promote the move. Despite her apparent involvement, though, friends say Carole’s actually taken a backseat in the business since 2019, trusting the day-to-day running to a new management team. She’s since acknowledged she was “naïve” to do so, as the business quickly started racking up debts. When lockdown came and people stopped throwing parties, the company was forced to take out a £219,000 Covid loan from RBS, a bank still propped up by taxpayers – meaning some of those debts will now have to be paid out of the pockets of the British public.
It’s all rather awkward when you consider these are the in-laws of the future king. “It definitely doesn’t reflect well on the royals, but Kate will mostly just be worried about her mother, as the two have always been incredibly close,” says one well-placed source. “Carole will be working hard to put this right.” It’s said before Party Pieces fell into administration Carole was calling those who were owed money from her personal mobile to apologise, promising that debts would be repaid. Unfortunately, the administrators’ report made it clear that it is “highly unlikely” that any of these organisations would receive any of the money that they are owed.
Michael Middleton, Carole Middleton, Eliza Lopes, Prince Charles, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and Lady Louise Windsor greet crowd of admirers from the balcony of Buckingham Palace on April 29, 2011
It seems the party is well and truly over for Carole and Michael – at 68 and 74 respectively, it’s unlikely the duo will be launching any new business ventures. Indeed, before Party Pieces went into administration, they revealed they were keen to devote more time to “family, gardening and travel” and are known to be incredibly hands-on grandparents to both Kate and Pippa’s children, who all live relatively locally. With more time on their hands, it’s likely we’ll see them picking up a few more school runs for George, Charlotte and Louis.
As for James, the serial entrepreneur’s not going anywhere. “He’s full of energy and he’s always got something on the go,” says a friend. “He knows people will mock him for starting endless businesses, but he doesn’t care. If this one fails, I reckon he’ll just keep launching more.”