Welcome to millionaires' row

For a small village in Fife to be the home of one millionaire is unusual. But suddenly to discover that there's a second ... Paul Kelbie tells the story of Ronnie Wood, the thrifty local businessman with a £6m secret
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The Independent Online

For years the hardworking, God-fearing community of Thornton in Fife was proud of the fact that, in the best biblical tradition, it had two of everything.

Unlike any other small community in Scotland the 3,000 or so residents of the former mining village could boast two churches, two railway stations, two doctors, two hotels, two pubs, two tradesmen of every skill. And, as they discovered for the first time this week, two millionaires.

For 82 years, Ronnie Wood, a local businessman, lived in the same terraced cottage in which he was born, and worked at the family joinery firm his grandfather had founded in the 1800s after the family moved to this quaint village, six miles from Kircaldy on the road to St Andrews.

He was well known within the community as a "shrewd operator" and reckoned to have "more than a few shillings to his name". But it was only after details of his will were published this week that the village discovered just how shrewd he had been in playing the stock market. He left a fortune of more than £6m - much of it to people and organisations within the village and surrounding area.

"No one realised he was quite that rich. He was always careful with his money and never spent more than he needed to," says his nephew Ramsay Wood, a surprised beneficiary of £500,000.

It's only two years since another Thornton resident, Derek Wilson, became Scotland's biggest lottery winner when he won an £11m jackpot. The former coal-mining village has now been dubbed "the money pit" by excited locals.

But what was Wood's secret? How could a village joiner and undertaker amass such a fortune?

"Ronnie was a shrewd and successful businessman. A pillar of the community whose generosity comes as no surprise to his friends," say one elderly resident. "He was a tight-fisted old bugger who is trying to buy his way into heaven and make up for his mean and snooty behaviour in the past," claims another.

In the bars of Thornton's two hostelries, at either end of the village's only main street, speculation about their neighbour's "last act of kindness" has dominated conversation since the weekend. While nobody doubts that all the recipients of Wood's bequests are deserving of the honour there is both amazement that he had a secret fortune and amusement at his generosity.

"Ronnie would never give anybody a penny if a ha'penny would do," says Jim Blyth, a former school contemporary and fellow tradesman. "I used to run a plumbing and heating firm and did a lot of work with Ronnie but it was always difficult getting paid. On the other hand, if we owed him money he was always quick to demand payment," says Blyth with a wry smile. "Ronnie was a very shrewd man and he knew the right side of a shilling. Just a few months before he died we sent a man round to fix a burst pipe in his house and he was pleading poverty to keep the bill down and now we hear he was sitting on all this money. I suppose you could say he was a likeable rogue."

Over the years, Wood's firm, Robert Wood and Sons, employed about 60 local men, many of them starting off as apprentices and working all their lives with the company. "It's true that he never sacked anybody but he also didn't pay them very much," says one former apprentice, who didn't want to be named for fear of being accused of "speaking ill of the dead".

"A lot of the boys that worked for him were from the railway or fire service and he was paying them sweeties - cash in hand - for a bit of work on the side. He was an OK employer but he certainly wasn't Robin Hood back then - maybe more the Sheriff of Nottingham ..."

In a close-knit village such as Thornton, the Wood family, of which Ronnie was one of three brothers and one sister, were known for their entrepreneurial flair.

At one time they owned the joinery business and a number of properties in the village which they rented out with what some former tenants describe as an almost Rachman-style efficiency. "If there were any repairs needing done to the houses then the tenants had to pay for them not the landlord," says 80-year-old Archie Dick, who used to live with his parents and 16 brothers and sisters in one of the Wood's houses.

"They were a money-grabbing lot back then and Ronnie could be as tight-fisted as the rest of them. At school he was always a loner but a bit of a show-off - riding his bicycle backwards while sitting on the handlebars - and thought he was important.

"When I worked as a builder and plasterer I stopped doing any work for Ronnie because I never got paid. I could say a lot about him but it might not all be nice. I remember what it was like living in one of their properties. The rent had to be paid on time no matter what and the houses were left to fall to pieces."

According to villagers, some of the houses fell into such disrepair that the local authority took them over but by then Ronnie and his brother Harry had turned their grandfather's small joinery business into a thriving concern. "Harry was the tradesman while Ronnie worked in the office - he couldn't put a nail into a piece of wood without splitting it," remembers Jim Blyth. "Ronnie was the brains who took care of the money."

There was, however, no doubting Wood's standing in the community, for which some of his friends nicknamed him The Provost of Thornton. An enthusiastic supporter of the local Rotary Club in Glenrothes for more than 30 years, Wood had a profound knowledge of the region and could recall names, dates, family histories and places of local importance going back years.

Apart from a brief stint with the Territorial Army during the Second World War, Wood lived all his life in Thornton and never left the house on the main street in which he was born. Instead, he spent £80,000 on acquiring the two adjacent properties and made them into one house.

An avid networker, Ronnie entertained business contacts frequently at home but often had to borrow cutlery from his neighbours.

"He kept himself to himself a lot of the time," says his neighbour and fellow businessman Bob Baillie. "He was friendly enough but his manner sometimes put people off as they thought he was being arrogant or too full of his own importance even when he wasn't.

"It's great that he has used some of the money he worked very hard for all his life to benefit the community and individual people who were good to him, especially in the later years after his wife Isobel died in 1986 and towards the end when he had cancer."

One of the biggest surprises for the villagers is the bequest of £25,000 to the local football club.

"This money is about 10 times what we could expect to generate in sponsorship in any year," says the club's treasurer Alec Duncan, as he surveys the undulating football pitch on which the club has played since 1913. "The will stipulates that we have to spend it on club facilities and that's exactly what we'll do," he promises.

The bequest is considered all the more strange by former members of the club who recall approaching Wood for a donation some years ago.

"I went to see Ronnie and explained we were collecting sponsorship for the club and junior gala for the kids in the village," says one former club official. "I told him that individuals were donating what they could afford and all the other businesses were chipping in an average of a couple of hundred pounds each.

"At the end of our conversation he said it sounded a great idea and he would support us. He put his hand in his pocket and handed me a £1 note.

"Now he leaves the club £25,000 - maybe he's making amends."

For many others in the village, however, Ronnie Wood was a benefactor who helped many people in numerous unsung ways. As the local undertaker, a job he saw as a natural offshoot of the joinery business which supplied wood for the coffins, he was often credited with helping poorer members of the community by waiving his fee for burying their relatives.

Other villagers knew him as a keen supporter of the annual village fête, providing wood for the banners, fencing and stalls for free, and said he would often go out of his way to help others. His neighbour, Robert Buchan, a retired surgeon, was left £20,000. "It's fair to say he has repaid some of his wealth to the village he grew up in," he says. "That's the kind of man he was. He was a generous man who did a lot for people without talking about it."

Other beneficiaries from the will include Wood's three nieces, all set to receive pounds £400,000. along with up to 10 charities and local organisations which he had been linked with at some time, including the Victoria Hospice in nearby Kirkcaldy.

"Let's face it, he had to leave it to somebody," says Bill Wyness, another lifelong Thornton resident. "He couldn't take it with him. It's better that it goes to local people and local causes than to the Government."