Barbara Evelyn Joan Crowson (nee Plant)
It was typical of Barbara that when we were chatting about her memories and I remarked that I was probably going to be called on to give an appreciation of my mother in law, she said “Poor you” and grinned wickedly.
Barbara was never one for attending funerals; she threatened to leave alternative instructions for hers and replied “Yes” when I asked whether we should therefore count ourselves lucky if she actually attended her own. But I hope she’d be intruiged to hear what is said. Whatever it is would interest her but not trouble her: a lifetime of dispensing wisdom seemed to have left Barbara with a clear view of herself
Barbara was born in 1917. Her father had contracted TB while preparing for the Foreign Office and had had to abandon that career and go to Switzerland for the air and for treatment. When he returned he needed country air and took a job as stationmaster at Condover, just south of Shrewsbury, where Barbara was born. They moved on twice to other stations, still in Shropshire. And finally he retired to a house in Church Stretton.
She went to a small school, Onibury Junior School, and won a scholarship to Ludlow High School for Girls. She felt that as a scholarship pupil at a fee paying school she was looked down on by the other girls, but soon her games prowess helped her integrate.
She played for the first teams in netball and hockey and even played for the Shropshire Ladies Cricket team. But she maintains that her academic record was hardly as shining: she got a scholarship in but no way a scholarship out. In her maths paper in the School Certificate (the “Oxford”) she achieved a mark of one and a half out of the ten questions, but that was all right in those days - it was still adjudged “Satisfactory”.
Boys, however, were rather more fascinating and it was very useful to have two accomplished brothers at the local boys’ High School: there was “one special boyfriend” (her words - it did make me wonder how many she had on a string at a time, until I came across a note which listed – and demolished – four victims) whose grandmother owned the house opposite the girls’ school: he used to sit in the window looking out for Barbara to appear, until she was summoned to the deputy head’s study to explain that boy with a fixation. And there were Saturday mornings mis-spent, “if you were lucky” as Barbara put it, holding hands in the back row of the local cinema.
Tennis was a major interest. Barbara played in the evenings at a club a two mile walk away and at the age of 17, “greatly daring” in her words, she entered the Junior Championships for Shropshire. It was held at a club where she knew no-one, but she battled through and beat the favourite, but, it seems, she couldn’t then exploit the doubles invitations that showered on her because of the cost of entering tournaments. But it did take her to Junior Wimbledon.
Having left school she joined an agency and went on to teach games, first at Hedley Heath near Dorking, in an old family house that acted as a finishing school, mostly for girls from Iceland and Scandinavia. There were also four local girls at the school who were aged about 8 and Barbara was assigned to teach them all English and history.
She was OK at English but she could only teach history, she said, by referring to a pencil she carried which had a list of significant dates on it. Luckily there was one precocious child among them who sat at Barbara’s right hand and could be relied on for the answers when Barbara ran out of knowledge. She described the place and the life as like an extended country house party: there was dressing for dinner and musical evenings, and a chauffeur who would run them to and from the station in an ancient car on their days off.
Of course at 18 she was hardly older than most of the girls, but was clearly much respected and after the school unfortunately closed she went on with the head and deputy to another school in Bexleyheath. This school was pretty badly run, and she and another teacher handed in their notice half way through the first term. Then she went north, to Hadley Wood near Barnet, again to teach games. And survival tactics, it seems, from her description of the freezing temperatures in her accommodation.
While at Dorking she had been in the habit of visiting her cousin Coralie’s family at Purley. She got to know a young man who was then, sadly, killed in a car crash. The lad’s mother pressed Barbara to visit her, even though they had never met; clearly Barbara had been much spoken of to this lady and she wanted to get to know her. They found each other delightful company, and Barbara spent many of her days off there, and so of course met the elder son who, together with a friend, was restoring an old car. These young men did get rather irritated when commanded by the mother to drive Barbara to East Croydon station at the end of her visits, but something must have charmed them because the friend, one Bob Crowson, eventually asked Barbara to marry him. He came over as a more serious person than previous contenders, and perhaps that’s what made him special.
They married at 22, a year earlier than planned and so slightly hurried because it was 1939, the war was starting and Bob was to be posted away. Barbara mentioned that the best man, the older brother and a commissioned officer, was apparently packing a revolver at the wedding: who it was to encourage is not related.
They married in Onibury and their wedding gifts were stored in the Pollards house in Exeter for the duration of the war. Unfortunately it, together with all its contents, was destroyed in the Exeter raid in 1942. But possessions as such have never been of much interest to Barbara: what mattered was the sentimental value of small things, and what her possessions could do for others: many years on she lamented having sold some old family furniture in an early move to a smaller house, not because she missed it for herself but because she now wanted to give it to others.
While following Bob around the country at his various anti-aircraft postings in the early stages of the war she found herself in Edinburgh, where she helped at a nursery in Rose Street and would meet Bob for tea at Jenners. Then he was posted to an island off the west coast, and Barbara, left on the mainland, would spend some time by the coast gazing over the mouth of the Clyde. On one occasion she wrote a chatty letter of the scene in front of her, with all the ships getting ready for their convoys, to her brother, serving on an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic: he found it hard to read because all the censors had left of her letter was Dear Reg, Love Barbara.
Oddly, the war brought an intangible benefit. Later in the war, when Bob was posted to East Africa, Barbara worked with his mother, Mrs Crowson (as she always was), who was in charge of catering at the NAAFI at Medmenham. Hers was an organisational job. But one day the cook walked out and Barbara was, at no notice, required to bake 500 cakes a day, and did so, which explains why any request from the grandchildren for urgent baking has always been to her, as you might say, a piece of cake. Which reminds me of another thing about Barbara: in her courtesy she was always quick to appreciate and laugh at a joke, however bad, in the spirit in which it was intended.
I spoke here only two months ago of the post-war moves, from Taunton to Pitminster, and on to Buckland St Mary. Social life was still games-related, with tennis and with skittle evenings at the pub with a group of particular friends. But there were also two daughters, and holidays, and the daughters’ ponies. Barbara said she rode rarely, only under protest, but clearly she helped hugely in the organisation of the equine life.
She was drawn into helping with the Taunton Vale Pony Club. She did a great deal towards getting the pony club team to Wembley each year: a great adventure as the lanes of Somerset were no training for the rush hour traffic near Wembley Stadium.
Heather Radice was her assistant in getting it together: Barbara recalled team selection as often contentious – presumably from the need to juggle Pony Club mothers. But that friendship, between both parents and children, has been a fixture in Barbara’s life since all the children were small: she, always interested in their doings, remembering the history, admiring and teasing, and respected in return like a popular aunt, addressed by one, and genuinely, as Lady Crow.
While the moves in Somerset were necessary, the move in 1971 to Cornwall was led by Bob as a means of shaking the dust of his working life off his feet. Barbara went willingly enough to this new life. Thinking she needed something to do she bought a gift shop and spent a happy two years meeting people, chatting, and quietly bankrupting herself. Looking back, she always maintained that she gave away at least as much as she sold. When the business was eventually sold to prevent complete ruin, the amount of stock was found to be much higher than when she had bought it, so she obviously didn’t like to disappoint the sales representatives either.
For pin money Barbara then turned to baking cakes and meringues for the tea shop on the accessible side of the Percuil River, deliveries being by the rowing boat needed to reach their house, Herons, perched just above this tidal creek. And they had their neighbouring chalet rebuilt for letting. One of the first tenants was the Finnish Ambassador to London, whose family took up half of the first page in the Visitors Book and also left their mark in the vodka party that they hosted for the Crowsons before they left.
This tale is typical of Barbara. She was fond of recounting the amusing experiences and the eccentric behaviour of people she’d met on her journey through life, but in a way that made you want to have met them too. Even dodgy horse dealers have acquired a rosy glow in retrospect.
The Cornish idyll had to end when the damp made Barbara’s developing arthritis worse and she and Bob found that they were just too far from their roots. They decided to come back to the Exeter area, near where Sue had settled, and in due course bought the station at auction. With Simon’s architectural ingenuity they created an outstanding home, and entered the life of the village.
Barbara joined in the Gaggle, later named the Monday Mafia, where, one understands, good works are put together and village personalities are taken apart, all to the sound of knitting needles and teacups. When Barbara hosted there was of course also cake. And she remained a major contributor to the cake stalls at Church events right up to this summer. The regular clearance of the stall within two minutes of the fete’s opening showed how this fresh baking sells like, well… hot cakes. We always have “I wish” es when someone dies: somehow in her life I never managed to thank Barbara publicly for the pile of meringues, the best in the world, that she produced when Jilly and I married. But she knew how much I loved them, so it’s not too late for me to say ‘thank you’ to her now.
There were other activities over the years: Barbara was drawn by her cousin Coralie into assisting with the WRVS in Exmouth and Meals on Wheels around here, and the house is littered with small knitted bears that didn’t make it into aid parcels for abroad. She loved wildlife, and birds in particular: in recent years she had a daily 4pm appointment with her seagull for cake and cheese, and as a night owl she was often out watching the hedgehogs, baby foxes and, for a while, the badger, who were attracted by the bread and milk they’d find.
Shortly before emigrating to Cornwall Barbara ran a huge and very successful Pony Club event. When she had returned to civilisation in the early 1980s and was visiting a Taunton pony club event she saw Michael Strachan and Audrey Beare talking intently together and casting glances in her direction, and shortly afterwards, on the strength of that event over a decade earlier, she was asked to take over as Organiser of the Bicton Horse Trials, which Michael had run for some years. She accepted on the one condition that Jilly and Sue agreed to help her with it (Barbara was 65 at the time), and for the six years from 1982 this became an all-absorbing winter occupation.
The Organiser’s job is a people thing and Barbara did that excellently: jolly and knowledgeable, able to chat interestedly to anyone at any level. She had a good technical team so she could concentrate on keeping people happy, managing the needs and expectations of over six hundred horses and riders and the hundreds of others involved in the Trials. The Crowson Cup keeps her and Bob’s memory alive in what was then, and remains, a happy event.
She could be mischievous. She could be provocative in conversation and that led to some mighty rows with Bob. If table conversation flagged at family meals she would ask a question to stir it up again, and she knew exactly what she was asking: but she was perceptive enough to be non-judgmental in her question, and in listening to the answer. She didn’t bring attitude to conversations because she wanted to talk and to listen, never, that I can recall, to lay down the law.
Twenty years ago the Station was becoming too much for Bob, in particular, to manage and he suggested to us that they move into the little-used end of our house. Barbara’s approach to this was typically considerate. Her first instinct was not to go along with such an apparent imposition on us, then, when persuaded that it was fine, she worked out and rigidly kept to informal rules to enable us (more than them) to retain our privacy.
And she’s lived here, in apparent content apart from certain domestic blips, for far longer than anywhere else she’s ever lived. Pleased with her garden, pleased with her friends and relations, pleased with the routine of the Willow Tree in Sidmouth, pleased with her comforts, and her dog and cat, pleased to bake Victoria sponges specially to be crumbled up and given to the birds, pleased to spoil the grandchildren, pleased to talk with the same friendliness and comfortableness with the grandchildren as with the high and mighty she’s encountered on the way: for as long as I’ve known her she’s not been so much a grandmother, or an aunt, or an Organiser, or even a mother in law, as a friend to everyone. And everyone has been drawn to her by her friendliness, her benevolent strength and her steady good humour.
I asked her what she was proudest of and she replied immediately, “My two daughters.” She then added “And my grandchildren.” After a significant pause she then smiled and added “And my sons in law.” Pretty decent of her, I thought.
So here we have a strong, shrewd, amiable character, ready to laugh at life and even at the indignities of old age. What will her legacy be? Gazing at the sky, one granddaughter said that the puffy clouds will remind her of Doe’s white hair. But I think it would amuse her greatly if her most lasting legacy turned out to be the recipe for Doe’s Coffee Cake.
Barbara’s mother was a Mapp. Her mother was blind and some members of
the family would play tricks on her.
Her father’s father was a schoolmaster / organist at Atcham, east of
Her parents were Charles and Lilian.
Barbara’s father contracted TB while preparing for the
Foreign Office and had to abandon that career and go to
She went to a small school,
Boys were, however, rather more fascinating and it was very useful having two accomplished brothers at the local boys High School: “one special boyfriend” (her words - it does make you wonder how many she had on a string at a time) was Teddy Woodhouse, whose grandmother owned the house opposite the girls’ school: Teddy used to sit in the window gazing, presumably at Barbara when she appeared, because it was Barbara who was summoned to the deputy head’s study to explain who was that boy who seemed to have a fixation.
She joined an agency and went on to teach games, first at
Hedley Heath near Dorking, an old family house that acted as a finishing
school, mostly for girls from
Of course at 18 she was hardly older than most of the girls, but was clearly much respected and after the school closed at the end of the year she went on with the head and deputy to another school in Bexleyheath. This was pretty tough, it seems, and she and another teacher handed in their notice half way through the first term. Then she went north, to Hadley Wood near Barnet, again to teach games. And survival tactics, it seems, from her description of the freezing temperatures in her accommodation.
While at Dorking she had been in the habit of visiting her
cousin Coralie’s family at Purley. She
got to know a young man who then was, sadly killed in a ?plane crash; the lad’s mother pressed Barbara to continue
to visit her, and she got to meet his elder brother who, together with a
friend, was restoring an old car. They
did get rather irritated when commanded by the mother to drive Barbara to
They married at 22, a year earlier than planned and so slightly hurried because it was 1939, the war was starting and Bob was to be posted away. When I suggested to Barbara that while this was not a shotgun wedding it was a howitzer wedding, she blushed a bit, grinned and remarked that the best man, the older brother and commissioned, was apparently packing a revolver at the wedding: who it was to encourage is not related.
While following Bob around the country at his various
anti-aircraft postings in the early stages of the war she found herself in
They married in Onibury, near Ludlow (?) and their wedding
gifts were stored in the Pollards house in
While Bob was in training in Wiltshire Barbara lived at a hotel in Devizes owned by a family friend – very comfortable! Bob would visit when he could, the chance of a good meal.
Later in the war, when Bob was posted to
At school she was captain of hockey, and netball, and tennis. After settling in Taunton she would play tennis with friends, and go skittling in the evening.
When the girls got interested in ponies she was drawn into helping with the Taunton Vale Pony Club. She did a great deal towards getting the pony club team to Wembley each year: she recounts with a shiver getting stuck – in her car – in the morning rush hour near Wembley, knowing where she wanted to go but that wasn’t quite with the flow, causing a considerable traffic jam as cars piled in from every direction blocking her way out of the mess. (Those were the Wild West days of 1960s London traffic). Heather Radice was her assistant in getting it together: team selection was a bone of contention.
Shortly before emigrating to Cornwall Barbara ran a huge and very successful Pony Club event. When she had returned to civilisation in the early 1980s and was visiting a Taunton pony club event she saw Michael Strachan and Audrey Beare talking intensely together and casting glances in her direction, and shortly afterwards, on the strength of that event decade earlier, she was asked to take over as Organiser of the Bicton Horse Trials, which Michael had run for some years. She accepted on the one condition that Jilly and Sue agreed to help her with it (we should bear in mind that at this time Barbara was 65), and for the six years from 1982 this became an all-absorbing winter occupation.
While at Herons, in Cornwall, they had the chalet rebuilt for letting. One of the first tenants was the Finnish Ambassador to London, whose family took up half of the first page in the Visitors Book and also left their mark in the vodka party that they hosted for the Crowsons before they left.
This is typical of Barbara. She was always fond of recounting the amusing experiences and the dodgy behaviour of people on her journey through life, but in a way that made you want to have met them too.