Obituary Denys Baynham Coombe, ARIBA AA Dipl. (Westlake, 1932-1936)

My father was born on 21st November 1918 - ten days after the end of the First World War.

He went to Blundell’s in 1932, and later joined by his younger brother, H.M.Coombe (W. 1934-37). Soon after his arrival he fell gravely ill with appendicitis and spent his first term in the san - not the perfect start. Letters from his housemaster Gerry Hotblack (W 1957-1962) to his mother, allude to a concern that would have been justified, as at that time it was not unusual to loose at least one boy to illness each year. But he fully recovered, and my father would sometimes remark with amusement that he was the only boy the school had prayed for in Chapel, who actually survived!

He also used to say that he was “just average” at everything, such was his (genuine) modesty. In fact he excelled at music, playing the piano and organ to a high standard, and loved singing in the choir and motet club. Like others he was inspired by the then director of music, Jazz Hall.

One of the highlights of my father’s time at school was participating in the “World Boy Scout Jamboree” of 1933. The geography master Mr French, and Mr Batterbee (housemaster of Old House) crammed the troop with their tents into two magnificent convertible sedans and set off for Budapest. As they drove down through Germany the towns were festooned with swastikas; the Nazi party had just taken power. They were seeing a Europe that was about to be torn apart. On a happier note he recalled Mr French bringing the cars to a halt on the edge of a mountain precipice and launching into an impromptu geography lecture, making sense of the glacial features all around.

My father was a strong swimmer and later enjoyed playing golf, but not being particularly competitive, was content just to get his house a point for completing the Russell in the required time. Over the years, however, he would get pleasure from those rare occasions when the first XV succeeded in giving Sherborne a sound beating!

As the son of an artist, he had inherent ability, and this was nurtured in him by the Headmaster Neville Gorton, who took a select group of boys sketching in the countryside on Sunday afternoons during the summer term. My father became an exceptional draughtsman, and on leaving Blundell’s he went on to study architecture at the Royal Western Academy at Bristol.

During the Second World War he served in Gibraltar, and then in India with the Bombay Sappers and Miners. He led a unit of Sikh soldiers assigned to build bridges in the jungles of Burma. He thought India was a magical country, and retained a great affection for the people and its culture. He was intrigued to have witnessed there the dying embers of the British Empire, while being under no illusion that the rulers had not sometimes been greatly at fault.

After the War he continued his studies at the Architectural Association in London, graduating in 1949. My father always voted Tory, and at the AA he founded the student conservative group, “The Forty-Five Club”, receiving personally signed Christmas cards from Winston Churchill! However, he was never bigoted and enjoyed civilised debate with the opposing communist student group.

At the AA he met my late mother, who also became an architect. Together they went into private practise at Haslemere in Surrey. Their most significant project was a large headquarters building for ICI. The bulk of their work however consisted of refurbishments of existing private houses. This included work to houses by great Arts and Crafts architects, such as Edwin Lutyens and Norman Shaw. Some of this work was to the homes of OB friends. Right up to the weekend that he died, and at the age of 90, he was still going into the office every day, bristling with enthusiasm. Fittingly, as this is written, the last of his 300 or so projects, for Stephen Packman, son of his good friend, the late Stan Packman (DB 1934-36) is on site and under construction.

My father continued to take lessons on the organ (at Charterhouse), and played occasionally for local services; in all for fifteen churches in the area. He was a member of the Surrey Organists Association for over 25 years, and also a past president.

He was a fanatically loyal Old Blundellian, and over the last decade or so revelled in the school’s soaring success. In particular he was proud that Blundell’s was once again, as in his day, undeniably excellent at music. He was surprised to have out-lived Ted, and like many, was moved by the great loss. However, he always maintained a positive attitude and looked to the future. To this end he has endowed the school with what is to be called The Peter Hurford Scholarship, for a student of the organ, named in honour of the virtuoso recitalist, Peter Hurford (SH 1944-48), who he greatly admired.


Nick Coombe (W 1970-75), November 2009