Bobby Melville 1918-2017

»«Wednesday 18th January 2017

It was with great sadness that on the 18th of January 2017, we reported the news that our Admiral, Bobby Melville, had died peacefully in his sleep. Below is the eulogy that his son Charles delivered at Bobby's funeral, held at Mortlake Crematorium on the 8th of February.

Eulogy for Bobby Melville 8 February 2017

It’s strange to be standing here, no longer being just one of the ‘children’. For 65 years in my case, and a handful fewer for David & Caroline, there has always been a father figure in our lives. Someone rather distant sometimes, but always there and essentially a fond presence, practical and generous when help was needed. We have been fortunate to have had such a father for so long, especially because he was himself till the end. A bright childhood, an interesting but largely undramatic war, a successful businessman, Commodore and later Admiral of a leading Yacht Club, a proud father, well-travelled; it sounds a fairly normal and ordinary life – but I don’t think anyone who knew Bobby thought he was ‘ordinary’. 98 is a remarkable age and Bobby remained truly remarkable throughout. That he was still not only sailing but winning races in his 95th year testifies to his skill, and also to his determination and competitive drive.

Most of you know more about his later life, so I will concentrate on the early periods. We have his letters to his father covering from 1942 to August 1948. These make riveting reading. He signs them ‘Bobby’.  

We never called him ‘Bobby’, of course, until one morning round the breakfast table at Creeksea. The side of the cornflakes packet had a competition for the best catchy jingle advertising their product. Daddy was silent for a bit, then suddenly said, “Eat Kellogg’s Flakes for all our Sakes, Bobby Melville, aged 6”. He was Bobby to us ever afterwards; I think it was the “aged 6” that did it: as though he was one of us. I also think it is a hint of quite a precocious young boy. He clearly did very well at school. He was good at making up poems and songs, especially fitting new words to well-known tunes, with which he and Mikey Patten, John Barker and others would lampoon and entertain members of the class at yacht club dinners. While posted at Minehead in 1938 and studying to be a wireless operator, he went to a regimental concert and remembers snatches of a song sung to the tune of “These foolish things”, and concludes: this “helped, almost inspired me to have a go at something similar when opportunity presented itself at the RCYC later on.”

Bobby was born in Burnham on Crouch on 14 October 1918 at the family home, Warner’s Hall, in the High Street. It was easy to remember the date, partly because it is the date of the Battle of Hastings, and partly because he made sure we didn’t forget; the first sentence of his memoirs gives the date “In case one has forgotten”.

Bobby’s father was practical man, good with his hands, a sailor and also a keen golfer, but seemingly less successful at business. Except in the latter point, it’s clear that Bobby took after him in very many ways and his letters to him are affectionate and solicitous. His mother was an educated and talented woman, who spoke French fluently and played piano and violin: she probably found Burnham society (and in the end, her husband) rather tedious. They split up when Bobby was still young, but never divorced. He had an older brother David and a younger sister Poppy, both of whom spent most of their lives in and around Burnham. Bobby was the one who went out into the world. His formative education started at Old Browne’s (Southminster Grammar School) from the age of 5. Old Browne clearly impressed Bobby and was the source of numerous anecdotes and pieces of wisdom.  He writes, “Everything I learned, I learned from Old Browne, practically. Extraordinary”.

Around the age of 13, Bobby went to Colchester Royal Grammar School, where he says he “was certainly well up with the standard of my class.” He also notes that there was no science teaching and no facilities for that. His brother David made wireless sets and Bobby learned from him. Bobby made our first black and white television, from a kit. That was in Pembroke Square, where Pat and Helen Dyas, life-long friends, lived next door. It is nice to recall that Bobby was next in line to Pat as Admiral of the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club, something that meant a great deal to him.

The first Admiral was “Tiny” (i.e. large) Mitchell, who in Bobby’s own words turned it into a great yacht racing club in the 1930s. Olympic trials in 6 metres were held off the mouth of the river. Tiny Mitchell played an important part in Bobby’s life, later offering him a job after he left the army.

Bobby signed up for the Territorial Army in 1938 (aged 20, working at the time for the Legal & General).  His memoirs relate how he drove his tank up the road every day for “testing” to the house of a charming woman, who gave him her scarf when they parted “on the understanding that she would be very annoyed if she saw it round the head of some blonde.”! He recalls driving a three-tonner into London every day to collect bricks and rubble from houses demolished by bombs during the blitz, to use as hard standing for a vehicle park at Headquarters.

It was around this time he first met our mother, Joan, sister of a new friend, Derek Hawkins. Bobby records that Derek’s family came to visit him at Linton, nr. Cambridge, “which is how I met Joan. I thought she was lovely, right from the start.” Another version is that this took place at Paddington station, where Derek’s family had come to see them off to Ilfracombe. He says “she was dazzled by the shine on his boots!” which may or may not be true.  Bobby thought she looked very fetching in the pale blue WAAF uniform. He and Joan met infrequently but apparently kept in regular correspondence once he went abroad. He was commissioned in the spring of 1941 and was appointed to the 47th Royal Tank Regiment, which eventually embarked for Egypt via Cape Town and Suez on a luxurious Cunard liner. He served in Egypt until December 1942, following the el-Alamein campaign: he notes that on the first day of battle they lost most of their tanks.

Bobby was then posted to India, with the task of converting a Cavalry regiment to armour. He didn’t much enjoy India, but wrote “It’s not often that one gets £500 a year for doing nothing and I suppose one should take every advantage of it whilst things last.” So he joined the Yacht Club at Secunderabad, which had five Moths and five Snipes. He was taken out by a member of the committee to prove his “seamanship”, and won the next four races in succession. He quickly built up a four minute handicap, winning the Novices Cup and six spoons altogether. He eventually and gratefully returned to Egypt in 1944 and was seconded to the Arab Legion as an armour training officer, which he found very disappointing: “the apology of a staff they have here is sickening, Glubb Pasha being the only man who can get anything done or has really any idea of things.”

In 1945 he was transferred to the Sudan Defence Force to command the Equatorial Corps Company. The following year, after the end of the war and looking for a job, he returned to the Arab Legion, where his appreciation of Glubb was evidently reciprocated. He arrived in Palestine in March 1946, where he had command of a Mechanised Regiment and numerous skirmishes with the Israeli army.

In June 1946 he finally had a brief period of leave in London and enjoyed a lot of time together with Joan. Back in Palestine, he records a trip to the Bitter Lake where they had a class of Snipes: unsurprisingly Bobby “had a very successful afternoon and came in first!”  He proposed to Joan in 1948 and they got married quickly, in February 1949 (a week after her 25th birthday), perhaps because she had only shortly beforehand broken off her engagement to someone else! The same year he was promoted to Colonel and appointed Staff Liaison Officer for the Arab Legion in London until the Jordanian Government terminated British Services in 1956.

He liked the Middle East and learned Arabic. I well remember waiting outside the Jordanian embassy in Upper Phillimore Gardens on Friday evenings, in the Hillman Husky, for Bobby to come out of the office and drive down to Burnham for the weekend. Our destination was at first Rice & Coles’ caravan park, rather less crowded in those days; quite soon, Bobby acquired the cottage at Creeksea, which boasted a large platform suspended from the ceiling by pulleys, perfect for a model railway. Bobby eventually bought one largely for himself, impatient that we showed no particular interest in electric train sets.

In his own words, “I got the sack in 1956, aged 38, a wife and three children.” After leaving the Jordanian Embassy he was offered a job by Tiny Mitchell. The flagship activity so far as Bobby’s involvement was concerned was the construction of a luxury hotel in Gibraltar, which was doomed by Franco’s closure of the border with Spain in June 1969. Somehow, Bobby ended up with the other arm of the business, called Parcar, which had a multi-storey carpark of revolutionary design in Shoe Lane, off Fleet Street, as well as interests in other carparks in the Midlands. Bobby ran his small empire efficiently and well, carrying out regular unannounced visits to check there weren’t too many hands dipping into the till. This all provided the means for a very comfortable life style. Bobby not only ensured all three of us had an excellent private education, but was able to acquire a house in Kensington and support his weekend existence in Burnham. He transformed the large garden at Creeksea, establishing a routine of gardening and sailing that structured his life until his very last years. He and Modom enjoyed going to the Opera in London and generally led an easy life, especially after he sold the business and retired; he generously supported his sister Poppy too.

As for the sailing, he ended as he had started, from RCODs and back, via Dragons and Etchells. There’s hardly a cup in the Corinthian that doesn’t have his name on it. He was a highly competitive helmsman, given to fierce rages if things went wrong with the crewing, but all was forgotten in the bar afterwards. He also much enjoyed taking part in many foreign regattas from Geelong to Vancouver, sometimes crewed with one of us ‘children’. Modom followed him loyally on these trips and also down to Burnham every weekend, though she didn’t really enjoy the regular upheaval.

There was another aspect to his sailing life, namely Ocean Racing. He sometimes sailed with Adlard Coles and was apparently also a crewmember for one of the original exploratory surveys that helped produce what became the Channel Islands and North Brittany Pilots. These books opened up new cruising areas for yachtsmen and are still used today. Thanks to Chris (Stirland) for this information.

Joan died of a protracted cancer in 1996, at home in Cope Place. Bobby was devastated by her death, but as Modom herself had predicted, soon found new female company in the form of Claire Kemp. This relationship quickly blossomed into marriage, celebrated on a fine sunny day in August 1998.  Bobby really started a new life then, and in some ways a new family, extending his social sphere and luxurious holidays into new directions.  Claire made Bobby very happy and released the capacity for love and the ability to express it that had perhaps been bottled up for some time. Theirs was a truly loving relationship and his care for Claire gave him a powerful reason for living and ultimately brought them together in the same nursing home.

We can all remember his full life with love and admiration.

Charles Melville

Eulogy for Bobby Melville 8 February 2017