A celebrity nightclub boss-turned-hotelier’s bid to recoup tens of thousands of pounds from erstwhile business partners have ended in him having to pay a £35,000 court bill.

Swindon County Court heard Howard Spooner had gone into business with Marlborough-based millionaire businessman and polo player Charles “Brook” Johnson and his wife Sally Faber Johnson, a former weather presenter, in early 2019.

Over lunch, 50-year-old Mr Spooner – who was previously ran London clubs with Prince Harry’s childhood pal Guy Pelly as well as a pub in Manton, near Marlborough – and Mr Johnson, 73, agreed to be equal partners in prestigious 17-bedroom Isle of Wight hotel The George, Yarmouth.

Mr Spooner’s barrister, Josh Lewison, said the two men agreed Johnson would invest a total of £150,000, with £65,000 paid immediately and the remaining £85,000 invested as and when it was needed.

That account was disputed by the Johnsons, with Sally Johnson saying she had bought furniture with the £85,000 which had been loaned to the hotel. The George’s website boasts of Mrs Johnson, 55, who in the early 1990s was married to then Wiltshire MP David Faber, overseeing an extensive refurbishment of the hotel, including a new Italian-inspired beachfront garden.

Companies House records show Charles Johnson was appointed as a director of the hotel’s parent company Quay Street Ltd on March 4 last year, with Sally Johnson and Howard Spooner registered as those with significant control.

The Wiltshire Gazette and Herald:

The George Hotel, Yarmouth

By October the relationship between Mr Spooner and the Johnsons had soured. Attempts at mediation between the partners came to nought.

Emma Williams, for Sally Johnson, alleged the flamboyant nightclub owner had tried to exclude Mr Johnson from the management of the company and transfer £100,000 out of the hotel company bank account into the account of a firm controlled by him alone.

On March 20, the Johnsons’ solicitors sent Mr Spooner a pre-action letter. He replied the same day saying he was owed £85,000 and telling the lawyers their clients should “come to the table to buy out, sell out or stump up what they owe”. The solicitors responded on March 24 warning the claimed debt was disputed.

Mr Spooner issued a formal statutory demand for the cash on behalf of the firm on March 27, effectively warning the Johnsons they could be hauled before the courts if they did not pay up.

A day later, on March 28, the hotelier sent Mr Johnson what claimed to be minutes of a company board meeting held via email rather than in person or telephone. The minutes were essentially emailed responses to questions previously asked by his business partner. Any actions from that board meeting should not apply, Ms Williams said, as the meeting had not been quorate and had not met requirements laid down in a shareholders’ agreement.

A month later, Mr Spooner issued a second statutory demand for payment for £16,612 plus interest, which it was claimed was owed to a directors' loan account..

On April 28, he emailed the Johnsons saying he wanted immediate payment of the sum. “This was the first my client had heard of this outstanding sum that was apparently owed on that directors’ account,” Ms Williams said.

Mr Spooner offered to extend the time to pay, but warned a statutory demand was ready to be served on the couple.

The demand was duly served on both Johnsons and a company jointly owned by the couple, Sarcen Ltd.

The Wiltshire Gazette and Herald:

Howard Spooner

The Johnsons’ lawyers had been preparing to fight both demands for payment. A hearing fixed for June 30, when the judge would decide on an application that the statutory demands be set aside.

Instead, last Thursday – five days before the hearing – Mr Spooner withdrew the demands. The two-hour hearing on Tuesday was to decide an application made by the Johnsons’ barrister that their erstwhile business partner pay the couple’s legal costs.

Ms Williams, for the couple, argued that the celebrity club owner had acted improperly in making the demands for payment. He should have known the debts were disputed and he did not have authority, as one of two owners of The George Hotel’s parent company, to demand repayment of an alleged debt.

It was claimed the man had trespassed onto the woman’s land, although no details were given, and his conduct throughout the legal proceedings had been “utterly deplorable”.

The barrister accused Mr Spooner of sending Sally Johnson messages that were “tantamount to blackmail”. One WhatsApp message referred to in the woman’s witness statement was sent on May 20, 2020, and appeared to suggest he would sell the alleged £85,000 debt to “your daughter’s drug dealer”. He wrote: “Somebody else can come and collect it from you. I’m bored of trying to get you to be honest and reasonable.”

Josh Lewison, for Mr Spooner, said his client had been trying to do his best for the company in trying to collect what he saw as a debt owed by his former business partners. The money would ensure the hotel could come out of the lockdown period in a comparative financial good health.

“In this case Mr Spooner was not going to derive any personal benefit from the litigation. He was simply trying to collect a debt he saw as due for the company,” the barrister said.

His client had genuinely believed he had the authority to issue demands for payment. Mr Lewison said, contrary to the claims of the Johnsons, it was his client who was being threatened with warnings by the couples’ lawyers that a QC – a senior barrister – was being instructed.

Deputy District Judge Napier acknowledged he was not being asked to rule on whether the statutory demands should be set aside. But he told the lawyers in his view Mr Spooner had used the statutory demand process improperly and there were “very serious irregularities” in the administration of the company.

He ruled Mr Spooner should pay a contribution to the Johnsons’ legal costs of £35,000.

Following the hearing, Mr and Mrs Johnson said: “Whilst we regret that this dispute had to come to court, we are delighted by the judgement. Deputy District Judge Napier has fully vindicated our position.

“This is a satisfying conclusion to a challenging period and we look forward to putting it behind us.”