A lifetime of service to Gillingham – Tony Coombes
Tony Coombes’s devotion to Gillingham has recently been recognised by the award of the MBE. John Newth has been to meet him.
Published in May ’13
There are so many Gillingham people doing good work for the community that it is difficult to single out an individual, but one person who has done as much as anyone is Tony Coombes. Born in Milton on Stour in 1937, he grew up in the village and attended the local school. He modestly claims that his main interest as a boy was in sport, but he was academic enough to win a place at the old Gillingham Grammar School. Called up at 18, he joined the 1st Battalion of the Dorset Regiment, spending most of his service as a pay and orderly room clerk in Germany. His experience with the Dorsets was to have a significant influence on his activities in later life.
When the time approached to leave the Army, he thought of joining the police force. However, so many young men wanted to join the Dorset force that the minimum height requirement was put up from 5’ 8” to 5’ 10” – and Tony was 5’ 9”! He was accepted by the Met, and also by the Leicestershire and Rutland force, but, as he puts it, ‘I didn’t want to leave Dorset, and I’d just met Maureen, who was later to become my wife – we celebrated our golden wedding in March this year.’ Fortunately, the managing director of Hudson & Martin had let the Dorset Regiment know that he was looking for a bright young clerk, and Tony joined the timber and builders’ merchant (now Sydenhams) in the pay office. He stayed with Hudson & Martin for the next 45 years, retiring as a director and having been particularly involved in the timber side of the business.
Tony and Maureen started married life in his home village, sending their two daughters to the same school that Tony himself had attended. He became a governor and helped with the fight to keep the school open when the numbers fell. Today it is, in Tony’s words, ‘a jolly good school’, with some 110 pupils. When the time came for their children to go to Gillingham School, Tony and Maureen moved into the town. Their daughters have inherited their father’s unwillingness to stray too far: both still live in Gillingham with their families.
In the days when Gillingham had a parish council, before the re-organisation of 1974, there were no wards as such, but there was an unwritten understanding that at least one of the councillors would come from Milton on Stour. In 1968, the councillor who had filled that role died and Tony was co-opted to take his place. It was the start of 28 years of service. When the town council took over in 1974, Tony not only continued to represent Milton on Stour, now on a rather more formal basis, but he was also the first Mayor of Gillingham. During the three years that he held the office, his main concerns were to attract industry to the town, to do something about the traffic congestion in the High Street and to provide decent sporting facilities. As far as the last was concerned, he remembers, ‘I knew there was a pot of money left over from the old Shaftesbury Rural District Council, of which Gillingham had been part. So we made a bid for it by putting together a scheme for Gillingham’s first leisure centre.’ Based round the town’s existing swimming pool, which was heated and covered, the centre was opened by Tony in 1976.
Ten years later, in 1986-7, Tony was honoured by being elected Mayor once again. The traffic in the High Street was even worse, ‘so the council started agitating for some sort of relief road again. A deputation of us went up to London to see Peter Bottomley, who was Minister for Roads. Luckily I had thought to take some photos of the farm vehicles, lorries and so on clogging the High Street, which seemed to impress him.’
It was appropriate that when the road was opened in the 1990s, it was called Le Neubourg Way, after Gillingham’s twin town in Normandy. It was during Tony’s first spell as Mayor that the Mayor of Shaftesbury invited him to join a party visiting Brionne, Shaftesbury’s twin town. ‘At the final dinner on the Sunday night,’ remembers Tony, ‘I was passed a paper napkin on which someone had written the name and contact details of Le Neubourg, a nearby town that was looking for a twin in Britain. There was a town council meeting on the Monday night, and I went along with my paper napkin.’ That was how it all started, the formal twinning agreement being signed in 1977. Tony is convinced of the value of twinning, not only for the many benefits that young people derive from it but also for the enjoyment that it gives older people.
In 1996, Tony was honoured by being one of the first four people ever to be made Freemen of Gillingham. A few years later, he felt that the time had come to step down from the council, but his energy was undiminished and, retiring from Hudson & Martin shortly afterwards, he looked around for another way in which he could serve the community. He found it in the Gillingham branch of the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment Association, of which he is still secretary. The regiment was formed by the amalgamation of the Dorsets and the Devonshire Regiment, and has itself now been absorbed into the Rifles as the 1st Battalion.
The Gillingham branch of the association covers most of Dorset apart from the coastal strip, having taken in members from other branches as they disbanded because of the increasing age of their members. Its original purposes were primarily comradeship and remembrance, but in recent years fund-raising has become more and more important. The main beneficiary is Care for Casualties (C4C), the Rifles’ own charity; 62 Riflemen have been killed in action since the regiment was formed in 2007, while 320 have suffered life-changing injuries, including 29 amputees. C4C offers material help to them and their dependents. Last year the Gillingham branch gave the charity over £4000, making a total of £12,000 in the last five years.
Tony’s work with the branch goes beyond fund-raising. When those killed in Afghanistan were repatriated through Lyneham, he would usually be among those lining the main street of Wootton Bassett if it was a Rifleman who was to pass by. He has involved members of the Army Cadet Force in the association’s work and helped arrange for the ACF to receive the freedom of Gillingham in 2010. He has helped with cataloguing at the Keep in Dorchester, which houses the regimental museum; he also volunteers with Gillingham Museum, often being the one to open the museum in the morning and to lock it up at night.
Before Christmas, Tony opened a letter, saying that he was being offered the MBE, which was a complete surprise. ‘It’s a tremendous honour,’ he says, ‘but I didn’t achieve it on my own. The town council was always a strong team, while our branch of the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment Association has a good committee and an excellent chairman.’
Tony Coombes has seen great changes in Gillingham, including a population that has increased four-fold. He is not one of those who pines for the old days. ‘The growth of the town doesn’t bother me,’ he says. ‘Homes and jobs are the important things. Anyway, the tremendous community spirit that Gillingham has always had is still there, with people giving their time and energy for the good of the town.’ Few have given more than Tony Coombes.