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Code-breaker Joan’s £1m legacy for new Grasmere homes
A NEIGHBOURLY chat about a village’s desperate shortage of affordable housing was the inspiration behind a woman’s remarkable £1 million legacy, it has emerged.
Former Lakeland Housing Trust chairman Laurence Harwood believes he was the key to Joan Nicholson bequeathing her cottage and £500,000 to the charity, which will provide homes for three familes in Grasmere.
The 87-year-old was so secretive, only after she died last May was the truth about her legacy revealed.
Neighbours also discovered the retired teacher had been a wartime worker at the code-breaking Bletchley Park as well as a secret stock market investor, making hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Mr Harwood, who lives near to Miss Nicholson’s Cragfoot Cottage, said: “Around eight years ago I explained to Joan how affordable housing was desperately needed in Grasmere.
"But I had no idea then that she would leave her entire estate to the trust.
“When I saw a copy of her will I realised it was dated a couple of months after our conversation.
"I’d like to think I influenced her decision to leave her estate to the trust.”
South Lakeland housing officer Lucy Reynolds said: “There are 29 households in the Grasmere area that need re-housing, which is high for such a small community.”
Grasmere-based Lakes parish councillor Ella Footit said: “This is an absolutely marvellous legacy.
"Although we have no shortage of houses in the village, too many of them are second homes.”
Lakeland Housing Trust chairman Charles Flanagan said: “We are overwhelmed by Miss Nicholson’s generosity; she was an extraordinary woman.”
He said work was under way to refurbish Cragfoot Cottage, which will be ready for letting to a local family at an affordable rent in the spring.
The remainder of the legacy - around £500,000 - will be used to provide two further homes in Grasmere.
JOAN Nicholson guarded her privacy so jealously, all that her Grasmere neighbours knew about her life was she had been a teacher and had a lifelong passion for literature.
Only after she died last May did the intriguing truth about her secret past – and her surprise legacy to the community – emerge.
Not only had she worked at legendary wartime code-breaking centre Bletchley Park, famed for cracking the German Enigma code, the 87-year-old had also made a fortune from dabbling in stocks and shares.
And when details of her will were published, it was revealed the ‘painfully shy’ pensioner had left her £1 million estate to the Lakeland Housing Trust.
Neighbour Laurence Harwood said: “We had no idea about her life. There were rumours that she had an interesting past but no one knew quite what it was.”
Miss Nicholson, an only child born in Manchester, was so secretive it appears she did not tell her own mother that she worked at Bletchley Park.
Her official war records describe her as a Foreign Office linguist.
However, her French and German skills were seized on for naval intelligence at the code-breaking station.
Mr Harwood said when he neighbours John and Brenda Biggs and Shirley Hill were given permission to sort through Miss Nicholson’s belongings, they were amazed at what they found.
Her 1930s bungalow in the shadow of Helm Crag, where she moved in the early 1990s, was stacked with bizarre papers, boxes, even unused wrapped sponges and snippets of papers reminding her about good investment opportunities.
There were also beautifully written analyses of the work of Lakes poets.
“The house was absolutely choc-a-bloc. It took us two or three months to sort through everything,” said Mr Harwood.
“We had to be extremely careful to make sure we didn’t throw anything valuable away.
"I came across an old plastic box which had some tissue paper in it.
"I could have easily thrown it out, but it had valuable gold rings, diamond necklaces and other jewellery in it.
“Sometimes we felt we were trespassing on her private past; but there was no one else to do it.
“She was a very private person. In winter, myself and other neighbours would go check on her and you might just get your foot on the doorstep, but no further.
“Through the window you would see her huddled over a one-bar electric fire, reading or writing.
"She did not use her wealth for herself. She didn’t even have a fridge or TV.”
Another secret Miss Nicholson kept was the time she spent as an wardrobe mistress while studying teaching at Cambridge.
Luminaries she associated with included the actor Derek Jacobi and author Margaret Drabble.
She taught at Kendal Girls’ High School for a year in the 1950s.
Later she volunteered at the Armitt Museum, Ambleside, where some of her papers are expected to be archived.