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Coombes, Richard (Dick) (1858–1935)

by W. F. Mandle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Richard Coombes (1858-1935), journalist and sports administrator, was born on 17 March 1858 at Hampton Court, Hampton Wick, Middlesex, England, son of Richard Coombes, hotelkeeper, and his wife Ellen, née Parsons. Dick was educated at Hampton Grammar School. In his youth in England he was active as a harrier (captain of the Harefield Hare and Hounds Club), a sculler (captain of the Waldergrave Rowing Club) and as a walker, in which sport he became a champion of the London Athletic Club. He was also, in the days of penny-farthing cycles, captain of the Kingston-upon-Thames Bicycle Club.

Coombes arrived in Sydney in 1886 and, after a spell as a jackeroo, became involved in the foundation and management of a variety of sporting organizations, notably the New South Wales Amateur Athletic Association which he helped to form in 1887. He was vice-president until 1893 and thereafter president until 1935. He also founded, in 1888, the Sydney Amateur Walkers' Club, and the Sydney Harriers. As president of the Amateur Walking Union of Australia he drafted its rules which were widely adopted.

Coombes began to contribute articles to the Sydney Referee. Joining its staff in 1890, he was associate editor from 1919 to his retirement in 1933. Journalism gave Coombes an opportunity to indulge his other sporting interests. Under a variety of pen names, he wrote on athletics and rowing as 'Argus', coursing as 'Amesbury' and rifle shooting as 'Binocular'. At various times he also wrote for the Arrow and the Sydney Sunday Times.

As manager, Coombes took an Australian athletics team to New Zealand in 1889, the first of twenty visits. In 1891 he was interested by a proposal in the London Greater Britain that a 'Pan Brittanic and Anglo-Saxon Olympiad' be held. With R. J. Parkinson of Victoria, he arranged the first Australasian championships in Melbourne in 1892 with contenders from New South Wales, Victoria and New Zealand: they were intended to produce competitors for the Olympics, but the scheme fell through. In 1895 he took a team to Queensland, and helped to set up the Queensland Amateur Athletic Association. Next year he founded the Amateur Athletic Union of Australasia. Coombes became chairman of the Australian organizing committee for an 'Empire Sports Carnival' to celebrate the coronation of George V in 1910; next year, as honorary manager, he took athletes to London. A member of the International Olympic Committee for thirty-one years, he also managed the Australian team that went to Antwerp in 1922.

Possibly Coombes's fading skills were responsible for a row that broke out over his rulings against two Victorian walkers at the Adelaide Australasian championships of 1922. Coombes, who as 'Argus' had the advantage of being able to report on his own case, was never forgiven by the Victorians, who in 1924 and 1926 challenged his presidency of the Amateur Athletic Union.

Coombes was also responsible for the foundation of the New South Wales National Coursing Association and later of the Australasian Coursing Union. He was captain of the Sydney Rifle Club in 1907-24, and vice-president of the Metropolitan Rifle Clubs' Union. In 1924 he was described as 'a living fossil—a Corinthian, a blood' and in most respects, apart from a seeming lack of interest in boxing and horse-racing, he fitted the description. Tall and spare, with a beard in early years, a moustache later, he was a dignified figure. He never lost his English accent and in later years may have seemed out of tune with Australian ways. The Coombes Memorial Prize commemorates his interest in athletics, as does his familiar description, 'the father of Australian athletics'.

Coombes died on 15 April 1935 at his home at Bellevue Hill, Sydney, and was cremated with Church of England rites. He was survived by his wife Abbe May Talbot, née Teas, a governess whom he had married in Sydney with Presbyterian forms on 29 June 1895, and by one daughter Gretchen.

Select Bibliography

  • Referee, May-June 1893, 18 Apr 1935
  • Sydney Mail, 4 Feb 1899
  • Smith's Weekly, 26 Jan 1924
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Apr 1935
  • Davis sporting collection, Box 27 (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

W. F. Mandle, 'Coombes, Richard (Dick) (1858–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/coombes-richard-dick-5769/text9779, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 25 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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