Robert Blackwell Crowson (Bob Crowson)
Slightly surprisingly, I suppose, it was in the darkest days of the First World War that Bob was born, to Flossie and Robert Crowson. They lived in a large house in South Croydon and his father, a jolly sort of chap, had quite a successful business in supplying costume jewellery and other fancy goods, partly from a shop in Gresham Street and partly on the road. It was presumably on these travels that he had encountered Flossie Spiller, one of the extended family that owned Spiller and Webber, the premier builders merchant in Taunton that was to be such a large part of Bob’s life.
After pre-prep, Bob went as a day boy to St Anselm’s in Croydon. He regarded this as a most important period of his life: he was (he said laughingly) head of everything – school, sport, cricket, rugby and so on. He said that he and a close friend, who was killed at Arnhem, virtually ran the place. Bob lost almost all his pre-war friends in the second war. He was a man whose close friends were few but once made were life-long; I had the impression that the loss of those friends was still a wound.
The head at St Anselm’s was a classics scholar. Bob said he taught them more Latin than he learned at Whitgift, the school he went on to at 13.
In those years Bob’s family would migrate to the south west for August holidays, Flossie and the boys for a month and father for a two week break. The trip was long and they would stop off for a while in Taunton at Flossie’s mother’s house, Weir Villa, to meet cousins up from Exeter and - presumably out of the gaze of the slightly forbidding Flossie - jump on Grandmother’s white soft furniture. It seems that Bob and his elder brother Paul had a penchant for hiding behind a particularly large tree on the street and firing their pea-shooters at people’s hats.
Those happy days included holidays on Dawlish Warren, which seventy years ago was apparently a bit closer to Exmouth so that one activity was to row across the river, and even, with a boat as company, to swim across it. A liking for messing about in boats stuck with Bob through his life.
Eventually he had to grow up, and while he was a prefect at Whitgift and studying for his Higher School Certificate his father, anticipating his own retirement and a future career for Bob in Taunton, had Bob leave school to learn the builder’s merchant’s trade in a shop a friend of his owned on Brixton Hill. Bob hated the place, and the business, but had no particular alternative career ideas. He was there for two years before the move to Taunton in 1937, and then he was pitched into Spiller and Webber.
But there was one piece of unfinished business in London. In his spare time he and a friend worked on the restoration of an old car and there was a regular visitor to the friend’s mother at this house. They got to know this visitor because they were required by the mother to break off from working on the car to escort her on the bus to Croydon station. Clearly the irritation and the bus trips were eventually replaced by something rather better and in due course Bob asked Barbara to marry him. Bob had grown into rather a good looking young man: tall, dark, slim and even then with distinguished eyebrows, although they were not yet the hedges they were to become. Throughout his life he was impeccably dressed, hair groomed, even his gardening and painting clothes were always pretty smart.
It was September 1939. As they married, war broke out and soon afterwards Bob was called up. He was assigned to Anti Aircraft Warfare and spent a couple of years in Scotland. His specialism was in searchlights and he became an instructor. To his delight Simon and he encountered an old searchlight at an army museum a year ago and it all came back to him. Later he was sent to Kenya to train the King’s African Rifles in preparation for the final push in SE Asia to Japan. In the event the atomic bombs stopped the deployment but it was a further year before he returned to the UK, to Barbara, Taunton – and Spiller and Webber.
He was made a director almost immediately, joining his cousin George who was Managing Director. Bob’s department within the firm was the management of purchases. Quality, quantity and pricing were the essentials. This was the lifeblood of the store, and having married into a family of DIYers I can testify to the omniscience, meticulousness and precision that made Bob so well suited to that task.
When the MD’s chair became vacant some years later he was offered the post but felt, with excessive modesty, that he wan’t as competent as some of the non-family members of the staff and so declined. I suspect he recognised that his considerable popularity with the staff probably meant that he wasn’t tough enough with people to run the whole firm successfully. But underneath it was the sad fact that he really didn’t enjoy this career at all.
On the other hand, life outside was flourishing. Having moved after the war to Pitminster Bob and Barbara were blessed with Jill and Sue. They then moved out to a cottage at Buckland St Mary. It had that terrible mistake, a paddock, so they were soon further blessed with a succession of ponies. Bob was required to erect a stable and tack room, and did so with the quality and solidity that characterised all his craft. He managed to avoid most other equine duties but there were occasions when he had to help, notably when the farrier was visiting some way off and Bob had to ride over to him as Jilly was at school and Sue was too young; since the pony was a tiny 12.2 it wasn’t clear whether Bob was riding it or walking astride it. He must also have been quite a sight perched on the Lambretta scooter that he used to get to work. He would take Jilly riding pillion to school – but she rather preferred the bus on the way back.
Bob’s parents had both died aged 56 and Bob was convinced there were hereditary issues that meant he also would die young. How happily wrong he was! So at 54 he made his excuses and retired from Spiller and Webber. So much of what I’ve heard over the years from the Crowson family has been of fun and visits and holidays, and it is therefore no surprise that Bob and Barbara immediately moved to a favourite holiday spot, the Percuil river near St Mawes. It’s fair to say that here at Herons, by the river, Bob was immensely happy.
The house had a chalet which they had rebuilt and let for holidays, making lasting friendships with a number of the tenants. There was so much to do – controlling the garden, playing tennis, rebuilding the stairway, watching the birdlife, and mucking around in boats, notably a GP14 and an amphibious car left by the previous owner. Boats were a lifeline: the house had no road within half a mile and normal access was by dinghy across the river. Of course the estuary is tidal; my first meeting with the in-laws to be was an arrival at midnight after driving down from London, a flashing of torches across the river, a thirty foot walk through sticky mud to the low tide mark to meet Bob in the dinghy, and an inelegant cleaning of feet when I found my boots had leaked.
This was a daft way to live; the Cornish damp started giving Barbara rheumatic aches as she scrambled in and out of boats and collected firewood in the woods, and they realised that in their sixties they should perhaps be thinking of a more conventional existence. So after six years they beat a retreat to this area, bought the derelict Station at auction from Clinton Devon Estates, and proceeded to live in a caravan in the siding in one of the coldest winters we’ve had while the station was rebuilt, having to break the ice in the kettle and the dog’s bowl every morning.
The reconstruction of the Station was a co-operative effort of imaginative design with Simon. Although the larger works were done by a builder the fitting out was Bob’s work. This was Bob’s forte par excellence. His career in Spiller and Webber seems to have been an apprenticeship for what he turned his hand to after retirement. He would take an issue, big or small, and examine it from every angle. And he would worry away at it until the solution was right, and was clearly the only long-term solution. There was nothing hasty about the way he worked, nor, come to that, about the way he thought. And then he would set to and work away at it until it was done. Properly. There is no way I would have the patience he had, and of course not the knowledge either. He was happy to use what modern tools would offer although he was only recently weaned off the hand drill. To the end he was a bit suspicious of nails: screws are the only way to fix things together.
We found that visits to Devon became working parties under the genial gang master. Nothing was impossible, nothing was unplanned, everything got done. We still look back in amazement at the fence round the station. He spent many weeks recovering all the engineering bricks, chipping away at the mortar like a convict, and did a meticulous restoration job on the old station windows and the canopy, which gave him great joy.
Again there was happiness. All his family was soon nearby and there was, again, birdwatching. There were games whenever the family congregated. Bob brought his own pace to these. One game is the Drawing game, a do-it-yourself Pictionary which has been played in the family for decades. Speed is of the essence but Bob could never bring himself to create just a rough sketch: when he had the pencil the first line was painfully slow in coming, we willed it to come, but then it was, of course exactly right, although quite why wasn’t clear until after more lines had eventually emerged.
Bob and Barbara had always been in the habit of doing most things for themselves. Looking forward Bob saw, perhaps sooner than he needed to, that the Station would become unmanageable on that basis: the grounds are big, the need to chop two barrowloads of wood a day in winter was onerous, the maintenance was constant, money was tight. So they moved into East Barton, altered it to maintain their independence, and we have all lived under the same roof for an astonishing twenty years.
In that time the grandchildren have grown up. He has had great pleasure in following their doings, in welcoming them home in recent years, and he would hold their hands tightly whenever they came through to sit and talk with him. The only thing he really disapproved of was bad manners and discourtesy, and he made that plain. To them he is Baa, always there, always ready to talk, and to listen, and to share his books when the impatience of children was stilled for a minute.
In his life in Otterton Bob has been more retiring than retired. He spend a number of the early years quietly on the PCC but his later task of Master of the Church Key was more him – a regular discipline, opening early but fretting if it couldn’t be locked again by 5pm. Regularity became the staff on which he leant: clockwork meals (no doubt a trial for Barbara), an 11am wholemeal biscuit and Aloe Vera kept his dodgy digestion under control. Puffing away at his pipe and submerging himself in classical music gave him peace; he rigged up the workshop with hi-fi, no doubt to the pleasure of the animals in the farmyard although there was perhaps less peace to the people who’ve lived there later as his hearing deteriorated and the volume went up. He kept thrombosis at bay by his long daily walks, that stork-like figure, head pushed forwards, elbows jutting out behind, birdwatching binoculars at the ready, pacing up the railway line and down the river. Still, that slimness meant that he was able to wear the same suit for Jo’s party in December that he wore when he was married in 1939.
His time was always full. He was closely involved in the fitting out of the house Sue and Simon built at Talaton: he relished the challenge and precision needed in the carpentry and particularly in the incomprehensible art of door hanging. Once he had been taught the laying out of a dressage arena he delighted in setting them up precisely right for many Bicton Horse Trials in the last two decades, and that was just one part of the support he gave to Barbara when she was organiser of the Trials in the mid-80s.
His most visible achievement in the last decades has been the garden, keeping its jungle tendencies at bay, twice rebuilding the pergola, largely single-handed and with typical precision, and being quite shockingly ruthless at times. Being Head Gardener, his “I’d have that out” was the prelude to some fierce debates. But that was him: He was strong in his views: he could be persuaded to change them, but only by strict reasoning. As he focused on a building problem so he would focus on a logical problem. Emotional influences in an argument made no sense to him, and there were times in his later years when one had to remind him of the inevitability of complete irrationality when living in a family of three women.
He kept going to the end. It was a heavy blow when he was banned, at the age of 85, from going up ladders. He rebelled by buying a new and bigger stepladder. Even two years ago he was anxious to finish the pergola within the season – “I have so much else I need to do”, he said. In his work he had time to think, and he would solve his thinking problems by referring to his brother Paul, who had become a noted schoolmaster. The loss of Paul four years ago was another heavy blow. In recent years, when he had to sit down more, he became interested in reading about philosophy and was fascinated by Jewish thinking: this harked back to his father, who bought much of his fancy goods stock from Jewish traders in Czechoslovakia: he said to Bob that he liked to deal with them because you knew where you were, he found them straight and honest in their dealings. Thus the influences of childhood colour old age.
Bob would not claim to have done great things. He has admired, and has always been interested in, the doings of others. He has let them be the great ones. He’s followed the doings of his grandchildren with fascination, always keen to fix in his mind where they are and how it’s going. But he has done more things than he would lay claim to. If the importance of one generation is to teach the next, then he has certainly done that: we have learned from the good things, from the difficulties and above all from the maintenance of standards. His example reminds us in this flatpack age of the skills and crafts of a century ago, and has taught me, for one, how things can and should be done.