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Coombe, Sir Thomas Melrose (1873–1959)

by J. H. M. Honniball

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Sir Thomas Melrose Coombe (1873-1959), businessman, film exhibitor and philanthropist, was born on 3 December 1873 at Melrose, South Australia, eldest of seven surviving children of Thomas Coombe (1847-1925), a Cornish-born timber and iron merchant, and his first wife Sarah, née Beddome. Coombe senior had begun in business at Port Pirie, and by 1886 was a storekeeper at Broken Hill, New South Wales, where he was mayor in 1890. In 1895 the gold rush drew him to Western Australia; he flourished anew as a supplier of building materials and was mayor of South Perth for two years (1906-07).

Young Tommy was educated at Thomas Caterer's school, Norwood, at Hahndorf College, and finally until 1891 at Prince Alfred College, Adelaide, where he was an all-round sportsman. Following his family westward in 1898, he began working for his father. On 14 February 1900 at Christ Church, North Sydney, he married with Anglican rites Alice Senior, of Mosman. He set up as an importer of sporting materials about 1904, represented Western Australia at cricket in 1905-06, and prospered.

In 1910 he teamed up with T. J. West, the British exhibitor who had the largest cinema circuit in Australia. At first Coombe provided the venues only, beginning with the simple Melrose Gardens, at a prime location in Murray Street, Perth, which in December 1911 gave way to the barn-like Melrose Theatre and in 1922 to the elegant Prince of Wales. He built the Princess Theatre at Fremantle in 1912 and controlled several others in Perth for varying periods. When West merged with his competitors in 1913 Coombe became a partner and the local managing director of Union Theatres Ltd. In 1928 he financed the ornate, 'atmospheric' Ambassadors Theatre in central Hay Street.

As president of the Theatrical Managers' Association, Coombe raised large sums for charities. In World War I he was active on the Federal War Loan Committee and later promoted the welfare of ex-servicemen and their families. He also chaired and generously supported the Boy Scouts' Association of Western Australia. In 1921 he donated £5000 to found the Coombe scholarships, enabling six schoolboys per year to continue to upper secondary education. He also encouraged the pianist Eileen Joyce. Rumoured to have financially supported the government of Sir James Mitchell, Coombe was knighted while on a visit to Britain in 1924.

In July 1928 he retired from a managerial role but continued as a director of Union Theatres. His business suffered from the effects of the Depression and particularly from a sharp decline in cinema attendances, and in 1931 he was prosecuted and fined £100 for income tax evasion, an offence he blamed on his over-expenditure in building the Ambassadors in the lavish style demanded by American film suppliers. After Union Theatres collapsed that year, effective leadership in film exhibition passed to the rival Hoyts chain. One by one, he sold or relinquished control of his theatres.

Coombe's marriage ended in divorce in 1932 and on 11 January 1933 at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Carlton, Melbourne, he married 29-year-old Frances Smith, of Perth. A few years later the couple moved to Glenelg, Adelaide, although he retained ownership of the Ambassadors and other property in Perth. Sir Thomas invested in real estate, continued his interest in sport and travelled. In his last years he and his wife made lengthy visits to England, where three of his children resided. He died on 22 July 1959 in a nursing home at Epsom, Surrey, England, and was cremated. His estate in South Australia and Western Australia was sworn for probate at £53,418. He also had assets in England. Coombe was survived by his wife and their two sons, and by the son and three daughters of his first marriage. His youngest daughter Gwennyth (1911-1966) had settled in London in 1930, and pursued a successful career in theatre, film and television under the name of 'Carol' Coombe.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Butler, A College in the Wattles (Adel, 1989) p 285
  • South Australian Genealogist, 15, no 4, Oct 1988, p 5
  • Kino Cinema Quarterly, no 34, Dec 1990, p 12
  • no 79, Autumn 2002, p 30, no 80, Winter 2002, p 46, no 81, Spring 2002, p 36
  • Western Mail, 15 Sept 1921, 2 Aug 1928
  • West Australian, 3 June 1924, p 18
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 4 June 1924, p 9
  • Observer (Adelaide), 21 June 1924, p 36
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Dec 1931, p 9
  • private information.

Citation details

J. H. M. Honniball, 'Coombe, Sir Thomas Melrose (1873–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/coombe-sir-thomas-melrose-12856/text23213, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 28 July 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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