HAVE YOU EVER BEEN CONVICTED BY THE CIVIL POWER?
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 Coombe’s answer to No. 6, regarding apprenticeships; ‘Mr Pike, Crowthorne, Berkshire 5 years.’ Nor did they question the truth of his answer to No. 9.
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.
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.
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.
ANOTHER ACT OF REDEMPTION
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.
The full story of the 1895 murder and its aftermath is told in Kate Summerscale’s book, The Wicked Boy, published in 2016.
There are parallels in this story to that of Arthur Stace, Sydney’s Mr Eternity.
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