Resolfen History Society April Report

The Remarkable tale of the Coombe Tennants of Cadoxton

Before commencing on the report it is only fair to note that the meeting began in sombre mood following the death of Society President and founder Phylip Jones. In the absence of Chairman Gwyn Thomas, the Society’s Secretary Trefor Jones, after a minute’s silence, gave a short address regarding Phylip’s contribution to the study of history in the village.  

This month’s speaker was Mr Bernard Lewis of Cimla, a local historian who has written several books on an eclectic variety of topics including Neath Rugby Club and the workhouses of Swansea. His topic, the Coombe Tennants of Cadoxton Lodge revealed a remarkable tale of mysticism and valour, summed up in the title of the talk “From Cadoxton to Carnage”. In particular, Mr Lewis focussed on the fortunes of the sons of Charles and Winifred Tennant, Christopher and Henry.

Mr Lewis began by explaining how the Tennant family came to the Neath area, when in 1817 George Tennant a Lawyer, bought what was then a redundant canal and extended it to Swansea at Port Tennant where a fortune was made in exporting the industrial goods of the area. The Tennant Canal remains in the possession of the Tennant family and still supplies water to a local tissue works. In 1895, Charles Tennant (notice the name Coombe did not appear until the year1929) married Winifred Margaret Pearce Serocold a well-connected local woman, JP and friend of David Lloyd George the future prime minister.

In 1897 their first son, Christopher was born and at aged nine he was sent to a preparatory school near Winchester. It appears that Christopher was a very sensitive child and he was badly bullied and very homesick. His academic prowess was mixed and he missed out narrowly on a place at Cambridge. His parents bought him a commission in the Welsh Guards (he was a tall man) however, before he could take up that post he had to attend Sandhurst in 1916. In 1917, he went to the Tadworth Army Camp where he drilled troops and acted as the paymaster. Following a visit home, he was sent to the Western Front. His mother, a noted spiritualist, was convinced that she was able to contact the deceased and that the human spirit survived death. She convinced her son that whatever happened in the War they would remain in in contact. In fact Winifred spent over thirty years of her life in disguise as her alter ego under a pseudonym, Mrs Willett.

He was posted to Belgium, and fought in the most deplorable conditions. He was not devoid of initiative and once on the orders of his superior had to inspect the forward positions twice in one night thus crossing “no man’s land” and returning twice! His luck however was about to run out since in September 1917 he was killed by a stray shell, ironically while crossing the duck boards on his way to some leave in Paris, at only nineteen years of age. Back at Cadoxton Lodge (now the housing estate Stanley Place) his distraught mother tried to contact her son via spiritual “automatic writing”. Memorials were placed to him in several places including Ypres and at a restored church near the spot of his demise in Flanders.

Mr Lewis now turned to the life of the far more charismatic Henry Coombe Tennant, the story also takes a more bizarre twist compared to that of his sibling. Firstly, Charles was not the natural father of Henry, who was born in April 1913. Winfred hosted the luminaries of the day at Cadoxton including H M Stanley, Lloyd George and Gerald Balfour (brother of former Prime Minister A J Balfour). Gerald was indeed henry’s natural father and had been “instructed”, by the spirits to perform the deed in order to spawn a “New Messiah”. It appears that Charles who was very hard of hearing was present in the house at the time! The secret was not discovered by Henry until 1941.

Henry proved a very precocious child and even described himself as “the wise one”. Following Eton, where he taught himself Chinese, at Cambridge he studied under Ludwig Wittgenstein and John Maynard Keynes. He also went on a tour of China in the 1930s, a very dangerous place, in the company of renowned polymath journalist and diplomat/spy Gareth Jones. Jones was himself a very interesting character who had exposed the great famine in Russia much to the wrath of Stalin, and also met Hitler. He was later killed by bandits in China.

After graduating with a double first from Cambridge, Henry could have chosen any career he wished, including that of a professional pianist. However, perhaps in deference to his late brother followed him into the Welsh Guards and served at Gibraltar. In May 1940, the Welsh Guards, in a crumbling Europe were posted to the Netherlands in order to hold the road between the Hague and the Hook before the blitzkrieg of Hitler. In doing so, they rescued the Royal Dutch gold. Later, the Guards were sent as the rear-guard at Boulogne to fight to the end to stop the Germans reaching the main British force at Dunkirk. On the 25th of May, Henry was captured by the Germans and sent to an Officers POW camp at Warburg. He then played a notable part in a break out from the prison when, 50 prisoners scaled the wire following the fusing of the camp’s lights and escaped into the darkness in teams of three in August 1942. Remarkably, Henry was only one of three who managed to make their way back to Gibraltar and home via an underground network of resistance fighters. Remarkably, the driver who met Henry Coombe Tennant to drive him was none other than a certain Princess Elizabeth, where he was entertained at Sandringham.

This was not the end of Henry’s military service, since he volunteered for the SOE (fore runner of today’s SAS) commando and became a member of an elite within an elite – the Jedburgh team. In 1944, in extreme weather he parachuted into the Ardennes in order to link with the resistance. This proved to be less successful, though there were several skirmishes with the Germans. He later re-joined the Welsh Guards and was involved in an attempted attack at Colditz. Following the war, he was posted to Palestine, helped in the formation of NATO and went to the Hague. He later joined MI6 where he worked with the traitor Kim Philby and ended his work with a deployment to Baghdad.

Remarkably, after such a full action packed life, Henry underwent a religious conversion and reverted to researching the spiritualism of his now dead mother. He finished his life as a monk, dying in 1989 – what a life!!

Mr Trefor Jones, thanked Mr Lewis for a very memorable talk which had indeed been a mystery to him until the meeting.