An investment banker has left £2.3 million in his will to a small British seaside resort – with instructions the money is spent on a million FLOWERS.
Canadian Keith Owen, 69, made his fortune in the financial industry and travelled the world – but always returned to his favourite place – Sidmouth in Devon.
Keith was born nearby and spent most of holidays in the coastal town admiring its beach, blooms and Regency architecture.
But when Keith was told he was suffering lung cancer and had just eight weeks to live he left the parish his retirement fund, pension and a string of properties.
Keith’s massive £2.3million estate – £1,5million in cash and £800,000 from properties – was handed over with a stipulation it had to be spent keeping Sidmouth “beautiful”.
Before he died he also told officials some of the money should be spent on planting one million flower bulbs in the town.
Keith, who was divorced with no children, left all the money to the Sid Vale Association (SVA), Britain’s oldest civic society.
The group has now decided to honour one of Keith’s specific suggestions by planting a million bulbs in verges, gardens, lawns and flowerbeds.
Rev Handel Bennett, SVA president and chairman of the Keith Owen Fund, said: “I only met him briefly but he was clearly a very kind man.
“He kept himself to himself but was particularly interested in the association because of the amount of voluntary work we do.
“The first time I met him was when he asked for us to visit him to discuss his will. He told us he was ill and that he had some money he wanted to leave us.
“I thought it would be in the range of a few hundred thousand, so when he told us it was more than a million we were very shocked.
“He loved Sidmouth so much he wanted to leave enough money to ensure it could be preserved.”
Keith was born in Totnes in Devon and became an RAF pilot, leaving the service in 1976 to start a new life and career in finance in Canada
He moved to Ottawa and became a Canadian citizen but returned for regular visits to Sidmouth where his mother had retired.
After her death he regularly stayed in her small flat and described Sidmouth as the picture perfect English resort.
But on one trip in October 2007 he was told he had cancer and Keith, a member of the Rotary club and supporter of the Sid Vale Association, urgently gathered together civic leaders to discuss the massive gift before changing his will.
His will stated that the capital should remain untouched but each year the estimated #120,000 interest should be spent on schemes to spruce up Sidmouth and the neighbouring villages of Sidford and Sidbury.
He also told them to spend a part of the cash planting a million bulbs in the resorts flower beds and pots.
Volunteers will now plant £166,000 worth of daffodils, snowdrops, crocuses and other flowers in several waves so locals and visitors can enjoy an eruption of blooms.
Alan Darrant, chairman of the SVA, said Keith drew up a document of things he wanted to see done in Sidmouth, from community projects to conservation work.
He said: “Before Keith died he spoke in detail to the then chairman and treasurer of the association about what kind of things he wanted the money spent on.
“When they were discussing ideas, he said ‘think outside the box’. On one occasion he told them ‘think of things to do in the valley that will get everyone together – I don’t know plant a million bulbs’.
“So we’re going to do exactly that. We will be planting the bulbs at over 50 different sites, some road sides, some park land and some public gardens.
“We are hoping several local schools and organisations in the community will come together to help us honour Keith’s wish.
“Once we’ve planted the bulbs we can sit back and wrap up warm for the winter and then next spring we can go out and see what has sprung.”
Speaking in 2007, his only relative, brother Gordon, said: “Keith lived in Canada and had travelled around the world. But he fell in love with Sidmouth.
“Our mother retired there and he used to visit her a lot. He did not have any children or family so he left everything to Sidmouth.'”
Sidmouth Garden Centre is currently stockpiling the massive number of bulbs needed for the extraordinary feat.
The first wave will see 153,000 flowers planted at a special community day on October 26.
Around £400,000 of Keith’s money has already been spent on various youth schemes including a new scout hut.
Sidmouth, which has a population of around 15,000, more than a third of which are over 65, attracts more than 100,000 visitors every year.
Mr Darrant added: “Lots of children have come forward with great ideas. One young schoolboy suggested we used some of the money to improve the cemetery where his brother was buried.
“We have also had a pond restored and a path improved on the green. All of these ideas are great for the town and thanks to Keith we have the means to put them into practise.”
The windfall is the largest in the 162-year history of the civic society, which is the oldest in Britain.
Keith also hoped that the cash could be used to stimulate interest in preserving the countryside and encourage local children to take part in conservation projects.
Ever since 1819, when the future Queen Victoria was taken there on holiday as a baby, tourists have flocked to Sidmouth’s beach, majestic red cliffs and Regency architecture.
Poet Sir John Betjeman described Sidmouth as ‘a town caught still in a timeless charm’.