Colonel Stewart Francis Newcombe was already a legend in the deserts of Arabia before he was joined in Cairo during the early months of the First World War by a group of extraordinary specialists in Middle Eastern affairs. One member of this group was T.E. Lawrence who went on to achieve worldwide fame. Colonel Newcombe's story, like those of other unsung figures in the Anglo-Arabian panoply, has been eclipsed by the legend of ´Lawrence of Arabia´, and has languished in the dusty recesses of regimental records, government files or in the elliptical words of Lawrence’s book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. However, S.F. Newcombe´s untold story is there to be told. IN THE SHADOW OF THE CRESCENT is a story of extraordinary exploits and courage, coupled with Newcombe's own legendary and inexhaustible supply of energy and of remarkable adventures under the very noses of the Ottoman authorities – full of danger, intrigue and perhaps more surprisingly, of romance during Newcombe's captivity in Turkey.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

30 Brechin Place

Newcombe's place of residence after retirement

Newcombe and retirement

On his retirement from the army in 1932 Stewart Newcombe and his wife, Elsie, moved to London and took up residence at 30 Brechin Place, South Kensington, an imposing four-storied terraced townhouse with additional attic rooms and basement. He soon settled into his new life away from the regiment and found time to renew his connections with old friends and colleagues at society meetings and clubs. At 53-years old he took on a civilian job, perhaps the first and only in his life, with Turner and Newall, a company specialising in asbestos products. His continuing interest in developing sustainable heat and energy for domestic housing made T&N a perfect vehicle for expanding his theories and would help in formulating some of his untried ideas on the subject of heat retention within the home.  The asbestos industry would later became mired in litigation and controversy but at the time was thought of as no more dangerous than many other industries such as coalmining or in the manufacture of steel. Lawrence took advantage of Newcombe’s connection to order some of their products to modernise his Dorset cottage, Clouds Hill,  but even he was aware of the inherent dangers of asbestos and referred to it as that ‘beastly stuff’.    

Lawrence – Final RAF duties

As Lawrence’s time in the RAF wound down he was worked hard – or more likely worked himself hard – right up until the end. For a couple of weeks he had been overseeing the assembly of a new batch of 100 h.p. power engines destined for RAF target boats at Henry Meadows Ltd, in Wolverhampton, but could be found at any number of locations that needed his presence. After residing briefly as Henry Meadows’ guest at Windermere House, he informed Newcombe that he had been forced to take up a bug infested accommodation as Wolverhampton seemed pretty full.
Windermere House

Lawrence was deeply unimpressed by Wolverhampton calling it ‘squalid’ and a ‘cess-pit’, adding that it had ‘the worse mannered local press of my experience!’ Coming from a press-hounded man like Lawrence it must have been particularly bad, so much so that he claims to have punched an editor in the mouth. He said that it had been the first time he had done so in his life; it would not be the last.

A lull in the manufacture at Meadows’ Fallings Park factory meant more meetings with the Air Council in London or back to Southampton for further fine-tuning at Scott-Paine’s power boat yard. “Since Wolverhampton,” he wrote, “I have been to London, Nottingham and Oxford; London; Plymouth; and London again.” At some point during this time, perhaps on 16 February when Lawrence’s meeting with the Secretary of the Air Ministry, Sir Christopher Bullock, was cancelled, he spent a day with the Newcombes at Brechin Place in London. A few weeks later Liddell Hart sent Newcombe an inscribed copy of his biography ‘T.E. Lawrence’ In Arabia and After and received the following letter describing the meeting:

2 March 1934
Dear Liddell Hart, It was extraordinarily kind of you to send me the book and also to insert a very flattering inscription. Naturally it has given my wife and me very great pleasure and very many thanks. T.E. was here about three weeks ago from 10 am till 6: as bright as ever.

Yours very sincerely
Stewart F. Newcombe

A rare moment of quietude

It must have been a rare treat for Lawrence to spend a whole day with Newcombe and Elsie instead of his usual nomadic existence in lodgings with snatched meals and working day and night on double shifts, ‘oiled up to the teeth,’ as he put it, ‘fed up to the teeth: and very unpopular.’ 

30 Brechin Place, now painted red

Today the Brechin Place house is painted in a cardinal red finish - too jarring for my tastes - one of only two in a typical street of London brick facades. When I last visited Kensington the house still seemed to reverberate with conversations both serious and jocular that took place within its walls eighty years ago between two old desert warriors and a brave woman that helped one of them escape under the very noses of his Turkish captors!

I would like to thank John Meadows for placing the history of his grandfather's factory online at Henry Meadows Ltd.