The secret life of Cynthia Watson

What's it like to discover that the sweet little old lady in your village was not only a multimillionaire but also a man? Julia Stuart does a Miss Marple and goes to Midgham in Berkshire to find out
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The Independent Online

There was nothing particularly remarkable about Cynthia Watson's two-bedroom red-brick bungalow. In fact, those who peered a little closer may well have turned their nose up at the blistered paintwork, the patches of mould growing on the inside of the curtains, and the sun room which was literally hanging off the back of the house. The closest the spinster had come to modernising it during the 20 years she lived there was to install a shower. The only thing going for the Berkshire residence was its glorious views over the surrounding fields, where pheasants scuttled and shaggy cattle stared gormlessly through long fringes whenever a human approached.

There was nothing particularly remarkable about Cynthia Watson's two-bedroom red-brick bungalow. In fact, those who peered a little closer may well have turned their nose up at the blistered paintwork, the patches of mould growing on the inside of the curtains, and the sun room which was literally hanging off the back of the house. The closest the spinster had come to modernising it during the 20 years she lived there was to install a shower. The only thing going for the Berkshire residence was its glorious views over the surrounding fields, where pheasants scuttled and shaggy cattle stared gormlessly through long fringes whenever a human approached.

Villagers in Midgham, near Thatcham, were therefore stunned to learn, on the publication of Miss Watson's will last month, that the pensioner was, in fact, a multimillionairess. But what caused even louder gasps, however, was the revelation that Cynthia Watson was in fact Peter Acke.

"Nobody knew she was a man," says Robin Nicholson, 76, a former chairman of Midgham Parish Council. "When she died, she had left a telephone number of her next of kin in her papers, and her neighbour John Goddard rang up and said: 'I'm sorry to say your sister has died in the hospital'. And the reply was: 'We haven't got a sister, we've got a brother'. And that was the first anybody in the village had as confirmation that she had been a man, or whatever the right phrase is. Later, when the will was published, the name Peter came out."

"It was a surprise to the village," says Robin's wife, Mary Nicholson, 73. "They accepted Cynthia as she was, and never questioned anything, unless they knew her a bit better."

Indeed, the Nicholsons had their suspicions about Miss Watson, who was much liked in the village and noted for her generosity. "We suspected that she was a transsexual, or whatever the word is, because it's very unusual for women to work as jobbing carpenters. When she hit a nail in, it wasn't a gentle tap, it was good strong stuff. It's also unusual for a woman to work as a cowboy on an Argentine ranch, as she said she had. And it's not particularly usual for a woman to have been in the merchant navy," says Mr Nicholson, a retired atomic-energy manager.

"She was a very cheerful sort of character, and very generous, but we thought there was something unusual there, put it that way. We left it as that, though. She had a right to live that way, and that was fine. Live and let live is the answer. I never heard any whispering campaign about Cynthia Watson in all the years we've lived here."

Midgham parish councillor June Dutton says Miss Watson, who moved to Midgham 20 years ago, was very much accepted by locals. "There was no malicious sneering in the village. It wasn't one of those things you ever asked her about. Everybody thought she was more a man than a woman in some ways. But as far as we were concerned, she was Cynthia. There was no gossip about her, we didn't discuss her. We knew her, we liked her, we knew she had certain characteristics, but why shouldn't she have? I myself have some characteristics which are decidedly male.

"We weren't interested because we knew her. It's like tigers being interesting to people who have never seen them. If you have a tiger living in your house, it's just a cat, isn't it? I don't know anyone who didn't like her. She was generous, warm-hearted, full of fun, and she never complained. She did absolutely nothing reprehensible or offensive. She put the village before herself, she put other people before herself. She was lovely - beautiful no, but certainly lovely."

Miss Watson, who died aged 72, was a former Stowe School pupil and a bachelor. She is believed to have worked as a carpenter in the merchant navy. Her bungalow boasted a ship's cabin-style wooden bunk bed, complete with curtain. Much of the house was decorated in wood. Miss Watson's carpentry skills were particularly admired and welcomed by the village. She made exquisite wooden toys for the raffle at the Christmas fair, held in aid of the Sue Ryder charity, which were offered as first prizes. She spent hours toiling away in her garage. A note still on her front door says: "If no answer, then knock on the blue garage door." Commissions included meticulous model replicas of ships, the details of which she researched from maritime museums.

"We had a village notice board with a plaque saying that we were in the Domesday Book, and it got vandalised. Cynthia volunteered at her own expense to repair it herself. She was very generous," remembers Mr Nicholson, who says she always wore dresses, even when she was doing carpentry.

Didn't the village find it curious that a spinster was volunteering to do these jobs? "No," says Mrs Nicholson. "She was willing to do them and that was fine as far as we were concerned.

"She did quite a lot of carpentry for us. She was a good carpenter. She filled in pipes, that sort of thing. She was very good with her hands, she could cross-stitch beautifully."

Mystery still surrounds how Miss Watson made her fortune. The Nicholsons suspect it might have been on the Stock Exchange. "One morning, she was doing a little job for us here, making a letter box, and she said: 'Oh, I won't be here early tomorrow morning because it's the morning I talk to my stockbroker in Tokyo," says Mr Nicholson. "We thought it was rather funny, but we still believed her. There was no reason not to. She didn't go out to impress anybody."

Miss Watson, who was not known to have had any romances in the village, was not only generous in life, but also in death. She left around £1m of her £3.3m estate to the RNLI for the purchase of a new lifeboat, to be named The Witch of Osier. (The pensioner had previously lived on a one-property island, named Osier Island in Wyre Piddle, Worcestershire.) A third of the estate is to go to her godson, and a donation was left to The League of Venturers' Rescue Care in Southampton.

Tania Hall, a spokeswoman for the RNLI, said: "One of our team called to see Cynthia at her home after she expressed an interest in leaving a bequest to the RNLI. We are very grateful for such a generous bequest. A brand new all-weather lifeboat costs £1.8m, and it will go a long way to funding a new one."

There are those, of course, who say they always knew that Miss Watson had been born a man. Glynis Snow, landlady of the nearby Coach and Horses public house, says: "She certainly came in here a few times a year. She used to have little dinner parties. She was totally eccentric, but lovely. She had a good sense of humour and used to wind people up a little bit.

"She didn't like the French. I remember her saying 'Down with the French' and having another glass of wine. She was always generous and would buy you a drink, and have a laugh. Everybody was surprised she was a multimillionaire."

Did anyone have suspicions about her original sex?

"Yes. Everybody knew. You could tell. Her wig was always a bit skew-whiff. But she was lovely."

Whatever Miss Cynthia Watson will be remembered for, it will certainly be with affection.

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