Australian residents enlisting in World War I were required to answer a series of personal questions. At the time, military authorities had no idea what lay behind  recruit Robert Coombes’ answer to No. 6, regarding apprenticeships;  ‘Mr Pike, Crowthorne, Berkshire, 5 years.’  Nor did they question the truth of his answer to No. 9.

AIF Service Record of Robert Coombes

Crowthorne is the location of the Broadmoor Hospital for the criminally insane, in the south of England.  Mr Pike, Robert Coombe’s ’employer’ was  actually the occupational attendant at the institution,  a master tailor who passed on his skills to  inmates.

Coombes had been released  from  Broadmoor just two years earlier, in 1912. He had served seventeen years for the premeditated stabbing murder of his mother Emily, when he was just 13 years old.  As he was too young for the gallows, the courts decided that  incarceration at Broadmoor  was  the only alternative.  The boy’s  motivation for the horrific crime was never fully understood, though his home life was difficult.  His father was away at sea, and his mother  was emotionally unstable.  It was alleged that she had beaten his younger brother  Nattie  shortly  before the murder.  Others said  that Robert’s  addiction to lurid, ‘penny dreadful’  novels  was also a factor.  Twelve year old Nattie  was  charged too, but acquitted.

Press coverage of the Robert Coombes case
Newspaper coverage of the murder Robert Coombs was charged with.

In 1914, two years after  his release from Broadmoor,  the now 30 year old Coombes  made his way to Australia, following in the footsteps of his brother.  World War I  was declared in August and  Robert enlisted in Sydney  a few weeks later.  The regimented life of the army was similar to that at the asylum, offering him  security  and  camaraderie.  It also provided an outlet for a musical talent that had been evident from his  very early years and  fostered at Broadmoor.  He became a bandsman, and a stretcher bearer.

AIF brass band in WWI, including Robert Coombs
Robert Coombs with his cornet, pictured front row, far left. (Australian War Memorial).

Sergeant  Robert Coombes served  at Gallipoli, where he was twice hit with shrapnel as he carried men to safety under fire.  After  the evacuation of the peninsula  he spent time  recovering from illness in Egypt, then went on to  the battlefields of France. In 1916 he was awarded the Military Medal, for conspicuous bravery in the field.  It was a huge honour to be singled out among so many brave stretcher bearers.    Surely he reflected on the fact that  having taken a life, he was now saving many others.

Robert Coombs won the Military Medal
Confirmation of  Robert Coombes Military Medal from his  AIF Service Record.


Following his discharge from the army Robert Coombe became a tenant farmer in tiny Nana Glen, New South Wales; milking a handful of cows and growing vegetables. He led a quiet life;  law abiding and hardworking.  He taught music to youngsters in the village, but formed no close relationships.   However, in 1930 he took on the care of  Harry Mulville, an eleven year old boy from  a neighbouring  farm, who had been physically abused by his step-father.  Perhaps Robert  saw something of himself in that vulnerable child.  Harry remained with Robert until he was 17.  It is not known whether he was aware of his protector’s tragic background.

When war was declared again in 1939, Robert stepped up, despite being in his mid fifties. He enlisted, but was discharged medically unfit before being sent overseas. He died  on May 7 1949, aged 65.  His meagre estate went to Harry Mulville, who had already been given his ex-guardian’s war medals.

Robert Coombes.
Robert Coombes in later life. (Daily Express)
Grave of Robert Coombes
Resting in peace, and never forgotten.

The full story  of the 1895 murder and its aftermath is told in Kate Summerscale’s book, The Wicked Boy, published in 2016.

The story of Robert Coombes by Kate Summerscale

There are parallels in this story to that of Arthur Stace, Sydney’s Mr Eternity.


  1. That was a good tale. I think he committed a crime of passion and maybe it was after he had been abused. We’ll never know but it seems he lived a quiet life after that.

    • Pauline

      Yes Heather, it was wonderful to find that he led a productive life after all those years in Broadmoor.

  2. What an amazing story. It just goes to show that redemption is possible. I wonder if Mr Pike’s care had a hand in that? (I’ve just downloaded a copy of the ebook “The Wicked Book” to find out more).

    • Pauline

      I’m sure Mr Pike did have a good influence. Apparently Broadmoor was not nearly as terrifying as we imagine and the inmates such as Robert were treated very well.

  3. This is not the first true story of a child murdering a family member and being imprisoned for a time. When grown they turn their lives into useful citizens and even greatness. I refer to the girl in Mr. Whicher’s Suspicions, who killed her 3 year old half brother, Leopold of Leopold and Loeb who became a physician, and the author Perry, who helped to kill her best friend’s mother as a teenager.

  4. I think his mother was messing with him sexually. I also think the other boy in the sanitarium who killed his mother was enduring the same thing. Why was the mother taking her 13 yr old into her bed? It was common for children to share a bed not not with parents unless they were poorer than this family. Why did his mother go to bed in her underwear? What made her husband suspicious she was having an affair? Why was the other boy locking his mother out of his room at night? I don’t think this kind of thing was spoken of in those days and the boys had no recourse.

    • Pauline

      Well they did seem to be a very dysfunctional family.

  5. I enjoyed the article so much that I think I will give Kate’s book on the subject a read. Will also take a peek at your other articles and books. Thanks, Pauline.

    Regarding Leopold, he did earn his Master’s degree and was an X-Ray assistant who also did some research but I don’t believe he was ever a practicing physician. He was certainly never a threat to re-offend.

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