Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Coombes, Robert

COOMBES, ROBERT (1808–1860), champion sculler, was born at Vauxhall, Surrey, in 1808, and as a waterman at an early age commenced life on the Thames. In height he was about 5 feet 7 inches, and his rowing weight was generally under 9 stone. Constantly matched against men his superiors in strength and size, he by his superior skill, tact, and attentive training almost always proved victorious in the long run. His first public race was for the Duke of Northumberland's purse of sovereigns on 4 July 1836. His principal sculling matches were against Kipping, Kelly, Jack Phelps, Campbell, Tom Mackinning, Henry Clasper, and Tom Cole, and his most important oars' race was rowed with his brother as partner against the two Claspers. In sculling he beat J. Phelps, F. Godfrey, George Campbell, and the majority of the best men. On 3 Oct. 1838 he beat J. Kelly from Westminster to Putney, but the latter meeting with a slight accident, and doubts being expressed as to the nature of the victory, the two men raced again on the following day, when Kelly was beaten easily. This was the first rightaway match without fouling of which there is any record. As an oarsman his achievements were numerous. With J. Phelps he beat W. Pocock and J. Doubledee. He was stroke in the winning four at the Liverpool regatta in 1840, winning against five crews. On 8 Sept. 1842 he beat R. Nowell, Westminster to Putney, for 50l. a side; in the following month they rowed again, when Coombes was again the better man, and was presented with a piece of plate in commemoration of his victories. At Newcastle-on-Tyne, 18 Dec. 1844, he staked 100l. to 50l. and was the winner in a sculling match with H. Clasper. He became the champion of the Thames on 19 Aug. 1846, beating C. Campbell easily. He held the championship longer, and rowed the course, Putney to Mortlake, faster, than any other man of his time; but on 24 May 1852, when aged forty-three, although backed at 2½ to 1 for 200l. a side, he was beaten by Thomas Cole, a man half his age, by half a length, in a race lasting 29 minutes 12 seconds, one of the most perfectly contested races ever witnessed. With Wilson he won the pairs at the Thames Regatta in 1845, and with his brother, Tom Coombes, beat Richard and Harry Clasper in a match on the Thames in 1847. As a trainer he was employed by the Cambridge crew in 1852, and in the same year his name is found in connection with a book bearing the following title, ‘Aquatic Notes, or Sketches of the Rise and Progress of Racing at Cambridge; by a Member of the C.U.B.C., with a Letter containing hints on Rowing and Training by Robert Coombes, champion sculler,’ 1852, 12mo. Although he was sometimes defeated in pair and four oar races, yet he and his crews always came off with credit and stoutly contested the victories with their opponents. In speed and style during his time he was never surpassed, and he rowed many more races than any other man except H. Clasper. After an honourable career, in his later days he fell into poverty. His mind failed, and he was removed nine months before his death to the Kent lunatic asylum at Maidstone, where he died on 25 Feb. 1860, and was buried at the expense of his friends in Brompton cemetery on 7 March, when the leading London watermen followed his remains to the grave.

[Illustrated London News, 29 May 1852, p. 436, with portrait; Field, 3 March 1860, p. 176; Bell's Life in London, 23 Aug. 1846, p. 8, 4 March 1860, p. 6.]

G. C. B.