Pam first met the Bahá’ís through Sydney Barrett, whose daughter Jean was her best friend. I was living in Exeter at the time. We also met a very elderly lady, Florence Pinchon, living in a nursing home in Exeter. She had been a Bahá’í in the time of Abdu’l-Bahá, and had written a pamphlet on life after death which Pam had at home, signed by Florence. Pam was only sixteen when she declared, with her parents’ permission. Topsy and Jimmy Bennett had visited Pam’s home and talked with them, meeting no opposition to Pam’s wish to become a Bahá’í. Her mother was very deeply attached to a church, but her dad had no such feelings. As a young man in a little village up on Dartmoor he was Mr and Mrs Scaramucci’s milkman. Mrs Scaramucci was with Lady Blomfield when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá arrived in London in 1911. Her husband was the postmaster in Sticklepath and she had a sweet shop. Kelly’s Directory for 1941 lists the Scaramuccis as living in South Zeal (although notice of Mary Scaramucci’s passing appeared in the 12 April 1939 edition of the Daily Telegraph and the Morning Post).
Sticklepath and South Zeal are where Pam’s father’s family came from and at least a third of the ‘Quaker or non-denominational’ graveyard holds the remains of her family. Pam’s forebears were free thinkers unaligned to any particular church.
Pam must have been the only British youth in the area, but there were other Iranian youth. Mrs Mokhtari had arrived by that time and Pam met her eldest daughter, Mehrshideh née Mostafanejad), now retired and living in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
I came into contact with the Torquay Bahá’í community in 1962, meeting Joe and Elsie Lee, Reg and Cynthia Smith, May White, and Muriel Matthews (who was BBC Children’s Hour’s ‘Auntie Muriel’ on the radio). I was on a long leave from the Navy. My immediate family are not religious. My grandfather would have nothing to do with the church; were he to encounter a minister, nun or a priest, he would turn around and not proceed, even on his way to his much-loved fishing. On the other hand, my grandmother, reputedly of Jewish origin, ‘hedged her bets’ by sending some of my uncles and aunts to the Church of England School and some to the Roman Catholic one. I was christened in the Church of England and went to its school but at the time I met the Bahá’ís I had been studying Zen Buddhism. I immediately agreed with what I heard about the Bahá’í Faith and thought “Yes, that’s life, the principles of the Faith are correct” but praying – that was ‘for the fairies’! Pam and I talked about it to Joe Lee. He became our spiritual father. There was Joe’s son Peter Lee, Joe’s youngest daughter Babs (Barbara Anderson, now deceased), and elder daughter Joyce Sherwani. Maybe I thought it was the personalities I had been drawn to. They gave me a declaration card and said “If you feel you can, then sign it and give it back to us”. I was actually in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) when I signed and returned my declaration card.
On arriving back home in the UK I was told it was accepted and I was a member of the Torquay Bahá’í community even though I was still travelling. In Australia I met up with Bahá’ís in Sydney and in a town called Ipswich, outside Brisbane. I also met Bahá’ís in Honolulu, Hawaii, and went to some classes where there was an elderly lady in charge. We pupils were all in our early twenties (mostly American service personnel) and we were reminded that weren’t there to look at the girls but to work! I spent quite a long time in San Francisco where I met more Bahá’ís, in particular one Wayne Hoover, who had been a Methodist minister. In 1964 I came back to Britain and attended the Summer School in Harlech with a girl called Carole (her married name later became Huxtable) and a lad called Ho-San Leong, a Chinese from Malaysia, who married Mariette, daughter of Collis Featherstone, Hand of the Cause. Among others I shared a room with was Adib Taherzadeh. We had to be somewhat self-sufficient and clean our rooms in those days. Carole had invited Ho-San to stay with her parents and Pamela had a summer job in Torquay. We had been in each other’s company before at different times, but nothing more than acquaintances. There was no suggestion of ‘love at first sight’, we were just working for the Faith; my Senior Service cigarettes were of more interest to Pam and her friend Jean. They were lighting them up then stubbing them out and putting them in their bags.
Pam was at Exeter College at that time, followed by three years studying to do teacher training. We met again in 1964 and one week later decided to get married, which we did with Pam’s parents’ blessing, within the prescribed ninety-five days. It was in the Bahá’í writings so we saw no reason not to, and Pam had finished her teacher training.
I had actually been offered a job in Australia, but when I spoke to Pamela about it, she didn’t want to leave the country. We also had a problem. Only a week after the National Spiritual Assembly had said we could marry, we couldn’t locate my father. The last place I traced him to was Oxford County Court, where the Clerk said “If you do manage to find him, could you please let us know as he has several warrants outstanding!”
We married and moved close to my job in Bristol and became part of the local Bahá’í community. I was a second chef at the Royal Hotel on College Green. I had done my training in England and Switzerland and then had been a chef on P & O liners. We moved to Cheltenham in January 1965 for about eighteen months but were never aware of there being any Bahá’ís there. Then in about September 1966 we moved back to Exeter and became part of the community that included Dr.Taeed, Alma Gregory, David and Lois Lambert, Joe and Elsie Lee and all their family, lots of Persian Bahá’ís at the University, and a certain Barney Leith, who was studying at Exeter University. It was 1966, the year of football’s World Cup, and we all went to watch it on their TV set. Peter Lee was the Exeter area delegate at the 1966 National Convention held in London. He didn’t want to drive up on his own so we went with him in support, and even borrowed Malcolm Lee’s brand new Singer Gazelle car.
Pam and I then moved to Teignmouth where we were the first Bahá’ís, and were kindly provided with a really decent flat, although we both carried on working in Exeter. The company employing us offered us both management training, which we did in Newport, and from there we used to visit the Bahá’ís in Cardiff. After briefly being transferred to Bristol as part of our training, we were asked to manage the “The Haunch of Venison” bar and restaurant in Salisbury. The community there included Martin Perry, his future wife Isobel, Major Harry Charles and Marcia Gray – we used to hold feasts in our loft. Nearly two years later the company asked us to manage “The St George and Dragon” hotel and restaurant in Wargrave, and we held feasts in our flat. Our business drew in a lot of American tourists, coming off the ocean liners in Southampton and rolling up in Rolls-Royces.
Richard St. Barbe Baker spent a summer with us. He was on his last tour of this country, wanted a room in the area and became part of our community that summer. His bedroom was across the way from the room where the feasts were held. He spent the whole summer with us while going out on his trips. I remember him as a tall, genial gentleman. He would get up at four every morning and see to his correspondence – letters and postcards – which we would bag up every day, and send to the post office. We wouldn’t know he was back until his rucksack appeared in the lounge or the bedroom; he was very much an outdoor man.
In Wargrave the company employing us had been taken over by the brewery and they wanted massive bars so we left. The Universal House of Justice had asked that Bahá’ís sell their shares in breweries, and if you owned businesses or worked with breweries, Bahá’ís were encouraged to consider a change of occupation.
In 1970 we moved to Preston, near Lancaster, working for Trust House Forte for two years, and in 1972 our first daughter was born. I decided to go back to being a chef and we moved to Brixham in South Devon as part of the Torbay community. I ended up as chef / butler to an American multi-millionaire who had a 2000-acre estate just outside Yealmpton. We held World Religion Day at the WI Centre in Yealmpton, supported by Mrs Mokhtari and the Plymouth friends. The American family wanted a chef to do the family cooking. They used to have newspapers sent from the Bahamas containing reports of the Bahá’ís there. There were only three staff in the house, and I would work outside on the estate except when they had visitors, when I would work indoors.
From 1974 to 1978 Pam and I used to go Totnes for the public talks in Burwood House, where various knowledgeable travel teachers came from America, one being the librarian at the United Nations Organisation. The house we were living in was condemned, and by then we had we had three children, so we were allocated a new council house in Totnes. One week, the group “Daystar” came down to our area. Bernard Leach and Trudi Scott visited too. Bernard gave a talk at the Seymour Hotel, Plymouth, and the Torbay Bahá’ís helped us out. Ann McAlpine joined us in Totnes.
We had had a lovely holiday in the Isles of Scilly and Bahá’í pioneers were needed there, so Pamela volunteered us to look there for work. Lo and behold, there was an advertisement in the West Country newspaper for a chef in Tresco. I applied and got nowhere, but at least we tried – that was in the October. In the following April, Carole Huxtable phoned to say that the job was being advertised again. I phoned the manager, who responded ‘How soon can you get here – can you arrive in a week?’ So initially I went out on my own, starting on May 31st, 1979 at the Island Hotel. Pamela came out at the half-term holiday with the children, aged three, five and seven, and our three cats. They all liked the way of living on the island, moved over in August 1979, and went to the Tresco School. The original school register still in use to this day, records the three Coombe chidren attending, the father’s occupation, and the family’s Bahá’í religion.
When the island started their compulsory education in 1844, the owner of the islands, Augustus Smith, said it would cost a penny a day to send the children to school but twopence for each day missed. Girls were taught needlecraft and boys navigation and sailing in addition to the normal subjects. The population in those days [1800s] was far higher than it is today. Smith split up families and helped send them to the mainland and to other countries such as Australia and New Zealand; he reckoned the land could not support the population.
At that time there was a vicar, Francis, on Tresco. When he was at the seminary in Salisbury he met Harry Charles and Marcia Gray. They introduced him to the Faith and he said he would have become a Bahá’í but it would have made him unemployed. We became mutual best friends on the island. There were too few people in the parish and he had to return to the mainland. We had devotional meetings with the parishioners, and discussion groups, especially during the winter. The church committee lamented the fact that Francis was leaving. Having spent thirteen years there we were very much part of the community, who all knew we were Bahá’ís. At Christmas the church goers would say ‘come on, let’s be together’. During our time on the island we received many visitors, some came on holiday from the Bahá’í World Centre. One was Kitty Copple, a friend of Jan Mughrabi, another was Tony Conroy and his wife Kaff who, like us, had a son named Alex.
[Tony recalls: Because I had bought some things for scuba diving whilst visiting Micky and Pam in the Isles of Scilly, Micky and I had a great chat about the sea. He enthusiastically invited me to go mackerel fishing with him so we got into his small boat about 10.30 late in the evening and he took me maybe two to three miles offshore or between the islands. It was dark as we sat in the drifting boat chatting quietly, jigging our hand held line whilst it got pitch black. Micky assured me that it was fine, he knew the way home, and perhaps since we had had no luck fishing, we ought to move onto another spot. Unfortunately the engine just wouldn’t start and seeing it was close to midnight, much to my relief he suggested that we ought to start for home with him rowing. Again we quietly chatted as he laboured away, refusing to let me take a turn at the oars. It was a little frightening but good frightening, Micky pointing out the faint outline of the islands against a slightly lighter pitch black sky. Needless to say, we got back to harbour safe and well. In visiting the Isles of Scilly, we had a memorable and truly peaceful break from the world as we knew it. God bless them!]
The Council on the Islands is non-political and they have an unusual voting system there. On the main island there are thirteen councillors and each islander has thirteen votes. On the other four islands of the Scillies group there are two councillors for each island and each person on the island has two votes. I was asked to stand on the council, which I did for four years as it was non-political and there was no canvassing. All I needed were ten sponsors out of a population of 120, which wasn’t difficult. In reality I gained a place without an election since no-one else was prepared to stand.
We became very close to the Cornish Bahá’í community. We were geographically isolated but felt very much supported. They visited us many times and we held many firesides. When Geoff Smith and Paul Profaska first came they were both bachelors. After we left Tresco we moved to Bryher (population then sixty-three) to run the Hell Bay Hotel. By that time the Universal House of Justice had advised that provided you didn’t totally own a licensed premise you could work in one. The children had grown up and gone to boarding school on the mainland. Justine, our daughter, went to live in Exeter. She became a member of the community, boarded with Pamela’s sister, and went to Aberystwyth University. Our two sons were at Truro School. One was sitting his ‘A’ levels when Pam had her brain haemorrhage, which changed our lives quite a lot.
Jeremy Herbert and his son came out to Bryher and we had a musical evening with at least half, if not three-quarters of the community of Bryher there. Everybody knew about the Faith on the islands. The Headmaster of the senior school said ‘You have a different religion’. In the library he had just two Jehovah Witnesses books but his school was run on Methodist lines. Methodists control the Education Committee on St. Mary’s, which is why the Bahá’ís have never been able to establish a teacher on the islands. The old headmaster retired, and a new one took his place. He was keen on comparative religion so we immediately arranged for Jan Mughrabi to come over to organise a talk. The headmaster was nearly sacked when the Board found out. The children were taking a GCSE in comparative religion (circa 1986) so the Education Authority terminated any child’s course in religious education, and the new head was hauled over the coals. I know a lot of Bahá’í teachers who applied for posts on the island but immediately they said they were Bahá’í they were disqualified. The same exclusion applied if you said, for example, you were Roman Catholic.
We finally had to leave Bryher in 1994. Pam needed essential speech therapy and we moved to Newton Abbott where we have been ever since. In 2011 we had eight Bahá’ís. There are isolated believers around Newton Abbot: Terry Beaverton in Bishopsteignton and Helen Babb in Chudleigh, and Godfrey and Dahlia Bishop moved to Buckfastleigh. We have kept in contact with them and when possible have held a Feast in their home, or they have come to support us in Newton Abbot.
Sadly, Pamela passed to the Abhá Kingdom on 6 February 2014.
Devon, March 2014