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Feather's Miscellany: Neil Woodward

...He stammered slightly, was of average height, shy, dark-haired, brown-eyed, eyes which seemed casual at first glance, almost dreamy, but a great deal went on behind them as you’re about to hear....

John Waddington-Feather serves up another excellent tale.

To read more of John’s stories and articles please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/feathers_miscellany/

Neil Woodward was a lad who well and truly hid his light under a bushel all his life. He began and ended his working life in Adams’ Paper Shop on the corner of Vicar Street and Garlic Lane. He left school at fourteen in 1947 and went to work for old Adams, delivering morning and evening papers, and when he wasn’t doing that he helped behind the counter in the shop. He’d no academic qualifications; but he was good at figures and he was astute. He also liked reading, mainly historical romances for he was a dreamer.

He stammered slightly, was of average height, shy, dark-haired, brown-eyed, eyes which seemed casual at first glance, almost dreamy, but a great deal went on behind them as you’re about to hear. They missed nothing; especially where figures were concerned and Neil could add up the shop’s ledgers in a trice. In that old Adams found him invaluable.

He played out with the other lads of his age, though he wasn’t very good at sport; generally ending up as linesman. But he’d a good singing voice and was a chorister at Trinity Church which gave him a faith that lasted him all his life. Their mother had a hard life raising them for she was widowed young, so there were no frills in Neil’s life. Perhaps that was he was so frugal in later life when he was much better off.

He worked hard for old Adams, who couldn’t afford to pay him much, but he sold him the business when he retired for a pretty low price; not that it would ever have fetched a high price down Garlic Lane, but it did provide a living of sorts for the old man and Neil always saw him right.

The incentive to branch out and get on came to Neil when he went into the army in the 1950s to do his National Service, the compulsory gap-years in education his generation had. He landed a cushy number as clerk in the general stores at the training depot of the Ordnance Corps and was made up to a corporal. And it was there he met his superior officer, a National Serviceman like himself, Second Lieutenant Marcus Leighton-Phillips, the son of Sir Michael Leighton-Phillips, Bart., a big noise on the London Stock Exchange and senior director of a merchant bank. Very upper-crustian. His son Marcus would go into the family bank on completion of his army service, but meanwhile, as both he and Neil had spare time on their hands in the stores, he showed Neil how to play the Stock Market from “The Financial Times” each day.

Of course, Neil had no capital but observed well and saw how to make money, so that when he had a windfall from a lottery, just before he left the army, he promptly invested his £200 in the Stock Market. That was the start of it all, a couple of hundred quid invested in a small petroleum company which struck rich prospecting for oil in West Africa. His two hundred pounds multiplied tenfold within eighteen months – and Neil was in business, big business!

He returned to his old job in the paper shop and to all intents dropped into his old routine: delivering papers early each morning before folk went to work, then returning to help behind the counter in the shop. Because he started work so early, he left the shop early about three o’clock in the afternoon and returned home with “The Financial Times”. And at home he began his real work, studying the paper from cover to cover before phoning his dealer in London to buy up shares or bonds.

He continued to live at his mother’s house long after his brothers had left and married. Neil never married, but still lived at Scot Road near Albert Park after his mother died. Indeed, he stayed there the rest of his life, converting part of the house into an office and becoming a bit of a recluse. The only times he went out were the odd night to the Cycling Club and the odd long weekend in London conferring with his lawyer and banker. He spent a week each year quietly at Morecambe on holiday always staying in the same Bed and Breakfast.

When he started doing well he employed a secretary, Dorothy Waring, who was a jewel. Like Neil, she never married and her work was her life. You could say there was a marriage of sorts between her and Neil for she felt fulfilled working for him and managing his affairs, and he paid her well. Indeed, he was very kindly and thoughtful towards her. Sometimes he’d take her up the Dales to a good hotel for a meal and sometimes he’d take her down to London with him to a show when he went to see his banker, but that was all. There was nothing serious between them. She never talked about his work outside the office, never divulged where he banked his money; always remained discreet. She was a jewel.

Early on he opened an account with the same merchant bank where young Second Lieutenant Marcus Leighton-Phillips worked when he left the army; and years later, great was the surprise of the same middle-aged Sir Marcus Leighton-Phillips, Bart., when, as a director of the same bank, he discovered that Corporal Neil Woodward was a much wealthier man than himself.

For Neil went from strength to strength. He had the Midas touch and everything he speculated in did well, so that by the time he was fifty he was a millionaire. Ten years later he was a multi-millionaire and could have bought out Keighworth; but what did he do? He went on working in the old corner paper shop, which he owned and had put a manager in charge. He didn’t go in every day, for he was much too busy with his finances and the newspaper group he’d bought, yet nobody in Keighworth had a clue what he did with Dorothy Waring handling his affairs.

Since all his transactions were done through his London bank and lawyer that left the upper-crustians in Keighworth very perplexed. Try as they might, they never found out who the mysterious philanthropist was underwriting every charitable appeal in the town. Whenever a worthwhile cause cropped up, it was funded time and time again by an anonymous benefactor working through a London agent.

The nearest they got to solving the mystery was when Councillor Billy Webster called in at Adams’ Newspaper Shop one morning for his paper and chatted with Neil about the half-million handout to re-furbish Crag Castle Museum, then all the talk of the town.

“I’d give owt to know who t’fellow is handin’ out all this money,” he said chatting over the counter. Then he noticed Neil idly flicking through the pink pages of “The Financial Times”. “A bit out o’ your class,” he observed, nodding at the paper. “What you readin’ that for? You ‘ave to ‘ave a bit o’cash behind you to dabble in what’s in there.”

“Oh,” Neil replied, smiling arcanely and folding up the paper. “It’s Mr Pratt’s, the clerk at Sugden’s the solicitors. He picks it up on his way to work. Just thought I’d have a look-see, but as you say, Mr Webster, it’s a bit out of my class – all beyond me. All London stuff.”

Billy didn’t give it a second thought though it became an obsession among the Keighworth upper-crustian set trying to discover the identity of the mysterious giver. They guessed he lived in Keighworth, but who the devil was he? Long were the discussions at the Cycling Club, the Freemasons’ Lodge and the Conservative Club about Keighworth’s mystery Good Samaritan. Even in council meetings the talk always turned to him as the list of hand-outs continued.

The Cricket and rugby clubs benefited immensely when they appealed for funds to up-date their pavilion and stand. They also wanted cash urgently to re-turf their pitches and playing area, and Neil duly coughed up. He felt he owed it to the cricket club, for as a youngster he’d been part of a gang which had startled a cart-horse grazing in the field next the cricket field and sent it leaping the wall and clomping over the cricket pitch, tearing it to ribbons as it galloped across. He’d also spent many happy hours playing down at the rugby field after school and in the holidays. Anonymous cheques for ten grand each swelled the cricket and rugby clubs’ coffers and set tongues wagging all round the town again. A tight-fisted lot for the most part, these gestures unnerved the Keighworth upper-crustians.

They were unnerved even more when Crag Castle Museum and Art Gallery launched an appeal for five hundred grand to restore the ball-room and lounge back to their Victorian splendour. The building held Keighworth’s golden past – and more. It housed renowned art exhibitions and encouraged local artists – young and old - by hanging their work. It also was home to a wonderland of global artefacts and exhibits, including that alluring Egyptian mummy.

When the unknown fairy godfather coughed up yet again for the museum, Keighworth was simply agog. But they never did find out who donated the cash. Neil, Dorothy Waring, his lawyer and his banker kept his secrets even after his death; when, after seeing Dorothy right, he left all his money to various charities and educational trusts.

After he’d gone, no long eulogy was made at his funeral, no memorial was erected, not even a gravestone with his name carved on it was left behind, for his ashes were scattered on his beloved moors he’d walked so often above the town.

But for the diaries and ledgers meticulously kept by his secretary and which were made public after her death many years alter, no one would have known anything about his good deeds; but by that time the old Keighworth had gone with him and his generation. The town was a very different place when history turned yet another page and, as Neil would have wished, no reference was made to him on it.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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