SEACOTE AND JENNETT CROUCH
On casual hearing, you might think her name was "owd Janet", and to an extent, that's not a problem. What really matters is that Jennett Crouch was, in her eccentric way, a woman people could be glad to know. Jack Henson of 'Lobster Pot' has many stories about his former near-neighbour; here is a summary, in my somewhat less entertaining words, of a few of them.
Once upon a time there was a girl named Jennett Fearon, born just as British troops were preparing to leave for France in 1914. Years later, she became Jennett Crouch, and a mother, but then along came a second World War, and her husband went off to serve his country. It seems he had not found her eccentricities easy to live with, for he came back with an unexpected companion, and then began a most unpleasant period in Jennett's life. She was saved by her mother, a Pentecostal Christian who gave Jennett stability and helped her get a job at the Mission to Seamen in Whitehaven. When the Mission closed down, Jennett became caretaker of 'Seacote', which her mother owned along with a caravan on Pallings' Lantern Moss site nearby. The system was that Jennett would occupy the bungalow in the winter months, then move to the caravan while 'Seacote' was profitably rented out in summer.
Thus Mr Henson made the acquaintance of Jennett, one of the few other people to live on the beach throughout most of the year. To him she was eccentric but funny, had absolutely beautiful handwriting, and yet was heavily built and "strong as a bloody horse". On one occasion, he saw her dragging a piece of wood perhaps as much as 7 metres long, all the way from somewhere near the station to 'Seacote', which she then proudly displayed to him. She didn't know what she was going to do with it though, so Jack offered a swop for three bags of coal, which she accepted, giving him a useful piece of structural timber.
She tended to keep herself to herself, but used to visit Jack and knock on the window, at which signal he knew it was time to brew up, for she liked "half a cup" of tea. She would also play tricks on him, and laugh in a wicked-witch sort of way (which Muriel Henson can imitate). Like all sensible beach dwellers, she used a lot of driftwood for fuel, but rather than saw it up and put pieces into the fire, she had a peculiar and potentially disastrous technique of sticking one end of a plank or pole into the grate and placing the other end on her settee, so she could push it into the grate as the lit end burned away. Mrs Fearon (even into her 90s) would make regular trips to the beach, with her son George- she used to visit Jennett on Fridays, bringing £1, a loaf of bread and a quarter-pound of tea. Occasionally, her daughter Helen ("Nellie") would also visit- latterly bringing the next generation with her- but it is clear that Jennett greatly regretted not being able to be a mother to her during her crucial adolescent years.
One night, Jack Henson was disturbed by a very large alsatian at the door- followed by a policeman and a detective. They asked if he'd seen anybody carrying anything heavy along the beach, and when asked to elaborate, explained that the Post Office in Drigg had been burgled, and its safe removed. Jack expressed surprise that anybody would bring such a thing down to the beach, but the officers assured him that it was a likely spot. They asked if anybody else was in residence nearby, so he told them about "owd Janet", but warned them about her eccentricity. Jack offered them a cup of coffee, and while they waited for the kettle to boil on the hob, the policeman decided to go and see Jennett. He returned a few minutes later "absolutely in stitches", looked at Jack, and said "Did you say 'eccentric'? ..." Jennett had opened the door a few inches and snarled "What do you want?"; he explained he was looking for a man and she, quick as a flash, replied "Looking for a man? I've been looking for one for years, and if one broke in here I'd lock him in."
Jennett had few personal possessions, but she used to collect coins. Jack remembers the occasion when she decided she would like a radio, having seen some at low prices in Woolworth's. To pay for it, she took a few coins from her collection to a dealer on Roper Street in Whitehaven. Jack was busy when she came back from Whitehaven on the mid-afternoon train, but told her he'd come over to see the radio later on. When he arrived, it was playing, and Jennett was very happy with her new purchase. He asked how many coins she had parted with to pay for it, and she told him seventeen. She still had her best coin though- she explained to Jack that she had once been a cook for the Bishop of Carlisle, who had given her a special coin as a "lucky piece". It was a florin- two old shillings, equivalent to 10p (and until 1993, 10p coins were made the same size as the old florins, so they could be used interchangeably) which she produced, wrapped in tissue paper, after a rummage in her front bedroom. By the candle-light in her living room, Jack thought it was in lovely condition, but just a two-shilling coin, until she pointed out a peculiar thing- it had no year on it, because it was a test coin made to try out the design. Grasping the point very quickly, Jack suggested that it might be worth enough for Jennett to buy Mrs Lewthwaite's bungalow that was then going on the market up in Braystones village- far more comfortable than the wooden structure on the beach. Jennett was reluctant to give up her "luck", but Jack hinted that a definition of luck which stretched to living in poverty might not be entirely logical. She wouldn't let him take the coin, but was willing to let him make enquiries. On his next long-distance trip, he called at a coin shop in Keswick, and asked about undated florins on behalf of an anonymous neighbour- the proprietor brought out the official catalogue and showed him an illustration of a coin Jack confirmed to be similar. Of the few test florins that had been made, explained the dealer, only one was not in a known collection. Naturally, he was keen to see if this was the genuine article, so Jack said he'd try and persuade his neighbour to come with him in a few days' time. When he reported the conversation to Jennett, she explained that she was well aware of its value, because she had made enquiries through the valuation service of Exchange and Mart magazine some time ago. He again suggested that she ought to sell it and improve her standard of living, but she became quite upset, so he never mentioned it again. Still, to ease his conscience he told one of Jennett's sisters to look out for the coin if Jennett should die or become incapable of looking after herself.
Over the last weekend of January 1979, wintery weather which had covered much of the country came to Cumbria. For several hours, the roads were so bad that even the town bus services in Whitehaven had to be abandoned. After struggling back from a long-distance trip, Jack intended to go up to the village and top up Jennett's coal supply, so he knocked on her door to see if there was anything else she needed. There was no reply, and the curtains were closed; wondering if she might be playing one of her famous tricks, he decided to risk going in. As soon as he did so, it became pretty clear that she wasn't joking. Subsequent events, involving Jack, the police, Jennett's relatives, the undertaker, and large quantities of snow and ice, did have their own comic quality, but Jennett was buried in Whitehaven cemetery on 1 February.
Janet's coin collection was not found at 'Seacote', despite a thorough search- for it had gone with her to the mortuary, in a bag she kept hidden under her clothing, tied to her waist. Even when the collection was returned to her family, the lucky florin was not found, and her daughter, who had visited the mortuary, does not seem to have become unexpectedly rich by selling it to a coin dealer. At the time, the old florins were gradually being phased out and melted down, but were still (unlike nearly all of the other coins in Janet's collection) accepted by shops. Jack has a horrible feeling that one of the world's rarest coins went from mortuary to shop to bank to furnace...
After Jennett's death, her mother arranged for a neighbour to cut the grass at Seacote. Rather than lug a mower along the beach, he simply burned it- and Jack warned him that he was risking setting fire to the bungalow. Eventually he did just that, and Muriel was the principal witness in the resulting court case. The lazy gardener attempted to dispense with his counsel and defend himself, with the near-inevitable result that, after proceedings bordering on farce, he ended up some £7000 poorer. After the case was settled, Mrs Fearon, who was missing her visits to the beach, asked if Jack could build her a hut, of the sort that used to be quite common on the beach for those who only came for day visits and did not need a full bungalow. Unfortunately, Jack had to inform her that the Council no longer gave planning permission for such structures. Mrs F. could not afford to build a full-sized bungalow, and nor could any of her family, so Jack was asked if he would like to take over the site (leased from the Leconfield Estates, based at Cockermouth Castle). He agreed, and made a start on clearing it- a job for which Mrs Fearon had been quoted £800, and he half-seriously said he would do for £200. At the beginning of April, he took a load of wood suitable for fuel from the bungalow remains to Mrs Fearon's house on Tomlin Avenue in Mirehouse. Jack attempted to refuse payment for the clearance work, but Mrs F. insisted and sent her son to fetch her handbag, the interior of which turned out to be "like a bookie's satchel", full of £20 notes, each folded in the same pattern six times. She unfolded the requisite number of notes, and the first thing he did when he left her was visit the then newly-opened Council finance office in Whitehaven Market Place, where he paid his rates for the year all in one go.
Jack later built a garage/boathouse on the Seacote plot, one of many improvements he has made to his beach property. He swears that one day, as he was working to set up his big water-tank, about a year after Jennett Crouch died, he heard her laughing at him.