Identity of mystery benefactor is finally revealed
- Credit: Clarke & Simpson
For years the identity of the woman behind the creation of a woodland oasis in north Essex remained a mystery.
Estate agent Chris Clarke — who acted as her agent — was sworn to secrecy during her lifetime.
But after an anonymous benefactor purchased 500 acres of farmland at Fordham Hall Farm, near Colchester, for £1.4m in 2002 so that it could be turned into woodland for the benefit of the community there was much excitement and speculation about her possible identity.
Mr Clarke recalls one particular phone call from a tabloid journalist at the time.
“I had a great call from a national newspaper,” he says. There was speculation that the woman in question was none other than supermodel Claudia Schiffer who had bought a mansion at Lawshall, near Bury St Edmunds, and the journalist was keen to know whether she was indeed behind the ambitious project.
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The real benefactor — Leslie Mary Carter — was hugely amused but kept her silence — and her anonymity.
“She thought that was the biggest joke that ever was,” he recalls. “She was a very, very entertaining lady — she was so amusing.”
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Known as Bobby, she adopted the male spelling of Leslie from her father, a Navy man who died from Spanish flu before she was born in 1919 in Wimbledon.
She spent her formative years in north Essex, and at the age of 20 joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service serving as a WREN during the Second World War.
She lived modestly, says Mr Clarke, in a small house in Frinton-on-Sea. She developed a love of the sea and of East Anglia and was a keen birdwatcher. She also travelled widely. The shy philanthropist died in 2020 aged 101 having never revealed her act of generosity.
“She was a remarkable lady,” added Mr Clarke, who was first approached to become her agent soon after he launched his business, Framlingham-based Clarke & Simpson.
At that point he was asked to become involved in the management of a small 200-acre farm she had bought near Diss. It was too small for national agents to manage, he explains. She owned it on a personal basis and would visit it from time to time to enjoy the wildlife and walk around it.
Then 10 years later he was instructed by her to try to secure 500 acres of land in Suffolk or Essex which she could buy with the aim of planting it with native trees.
Amid much secrecy, he purchased the Fordham Hall land on her behalf, and she gave it to The Woodland Trust on a 99-year lease.
“This area, formerly arable, is now woodland and open to the public,” he says.
The trust planted trees and transformed what was mainly arable land into a woodland idyll, says Mr Clarke. “It was a remarkable achievement,” he says.
But she didn’t like any fuss, he says, and remained intensely private. “She was an incredibly private lady who never wanted her name mentioned. I was bound to secrecy for the entire time I knew her from 1990.”
Mr Clarke continued to call his client Miss Carter throughout her life but formed a very strong professional relationship with her. “Now the dear lady has died I think it’s appropriate to reveal her extraordinary generosity in being able to do this,” he explains.
But while he knew about the Diss farm and the Fordham woodland — both of which he continues to be involved in — he wasn’t aware that she had separately acquired 655 acres of reed bed, fen and grazing marsh at Hickling Broad for Norfolk Wildlife Trust so that it too could be preserved as a conservation oasis.
“She was passionate about wildlife and flora and fauna and when I had meetings with her the most important thing for her was going around the ditches and hedgerows and particularly at this time of year looking at the primroses,” he recalled.
He remembers her as “immensely robust” in her views — but also very modest. “She had views on every subject and we had the most entertaining conversations about all sorts of things. She was just a lovely, lovely lady whom I loved talking to,” he says.
The Woodland Trust at Fordham plans to put up a suitable plaque in Bobby Carter’s memory to record her remarkable act of generosity.