Tuesday, 16 April 2013

HUNGERFORD ARCADE: PART II


This a very personal farewell to Group Captain Samuel Cuthbert Rexford-Welch by his very dear friend, Peter Grayson.

Epilogue for Group Captain Samuel Cuthbert Rexford-Welch, died on 26th February 2013

First of all, a bit of early history: Rex was born on 27th November 1915 and raised in Streatham London, an only child, the last in line of a medical dynasty. He was educated at Epsom College where he developed a life-long aversion to cold baths and overcooked green vegetables and went up to Cambridge in 1935 as a medical student to ultimately specialize in Surgery. I visited his college, Jesus two years ago and was shown a group picture of the school of 1935 with Rex standing on the back row, a handsome young fellow. He was delighted to learn I had been and commented that sadly many of his contemporaries never survived the war which was soon to follow. While in Streatham he was a keen ice skater, enjoyed ice dancing and played ice hockey for Streatham. He went to Switzerland for winter sports with the university and even went down the Cresta run on a bobsleigh demonstrating a life- long taste for adventure. During these earlier years of his life he travelled extensively mainly around Europe and no doubt developed his taste for foreign adventure.

He rose to the rank of Group Captain over a long and distinguished career in the service of his country with the RAF, initially as a medical officer in WW2 and then as a specialist in radiological protection in the cold war period when we were developing our nuclear deterrent. He served in this country, Burma, Australia, Christmas Island, Peru and USA where he was involved with the space programme and got to know many of the Astronauts. In later years he used to regale us with anecdotes about his fascinating experiences including encounters with Field Marshall Slim in Burma, Winston Churchill in the 1950’s, who invited him to take over the editing from 1954 to 1958 of the three volume work “ Royal Air Force Medical Services”, and US presidents Kennedy and Johnson whilst on the space programme.

Rex married after the war and he and his wife once appeared in an advert for Nescafe while sat in his Lagonda but they were sadly divorced in the late 1960’s and he never remarried.

While in Peru in the late 1960’s with an RAF contingent to monitor French Nuclear tests, Rex met David and Betty Fuller and family ( David was air attaché for Peru and Bolivia) and forged a close friendship based on the world of antiques. Rex delighted to stay with the Fullers at Lineham . After his retirement at the age of 70 in 1985 Rex and Betty were regulars at auctions and antique fairs and Rex took a keen interest in Betty’s antique business. He often moaned that she didn’t charge enough!. Rex developed a particular taste in horology , amassed an impressive collection of timepieces and became a skilled clock maker and repairer. Yet another dimension of this remarkable man.

Rex loved the natural world and took the opportunity to explore its wonders wherever his travels took him, from the Burmese and Amazon jungles, bat caves in Texas, camping out and observing grizzly bears catching salmon in Alaska, or diving off Christmas Island in the Pacific.
He observed and in some cases captured end even cooked and ate wild creatures including snakes and alligators ( a bit like chicken) and he was once bitten by his pet cobra in Singapore. The contents of his cottage bore witness to his travels with exhibits such as jars of pickled snakes, a rattlesnake’s rattle, scorpions, terrapins, animal skins, skeletons and moths and beetles.

He loved his acres at Plastow Green Farm and he rebuilt the cottage in the 1960’s with the help of a then Ship inn regular and close friend Gerry “ the poacher” Townsend. He was even known to go poaching with Gerry!

He demonstrated the extreme of bravery by trapping a gang of burglars at his cottage and detained them at the end of a Samurai sword, but was very distressed by the loss of valuable family heirlooms and the mess left behind; they got off with community service and the defending solicitor tried to brand him as an eccentric crazed old man.

He enjoyed his garden in which he pottered and had a fine collection of cacti in his greenhouse. He was also an enthusiastic beekeeper. Rex has always loved animals, particularly dogs and and he has kept pet rats for many years. One particular “ good rat” as Rex would say delighted in running in and out of holes in an old sweater as Rex sat in his chair, and unwary visitors would be invited to allow the rat to run over them!

Apart from his love of nature, Rex had a great passion for motor sports and officiated as a medical officer at Silverstone as well racing himself; he built a collection of vintage cars the crown jewel being his 1907 Itala which he recovered from a farmyard in 1953, restored and used it occasionally to travel to work at the AWE, Aldermaston. Sir William Penney once summoned him to the office and requested a tour of the site in the Itala. Rex’s friend , David Ayres subsequently acquired and restored afresh the car and successfully completed the Peking Paris rally among others. The floral tribute depicts the car.

He had holidayed at Sennen cove in Cornwall for many years and developed many friendships with the locals, so he bought a coastguard cottage there and had many happy times.

So how would we describe him? Fiercely independent, sharply conscious of status yet greatly valuing his many friends from all walks of life and colleagues, at times crusty and cutting, charming (especially with the ladies), eccentric with a taste for the unusual including foods, brave and tough with an iron constitution, a sharp wit and mischevious sense of humour, a brilliant and enquiring mind with a wide range of interest and learning; that’s what made him so fascinating as a person.

I’m sure everyone here has their own particular memories of Rex, mine is of Rex propping up the corner of the bar in the Ship Inn in Ashford Hill, pipe and pint of beer in hand and holding court, or gardening in his slippers, sunbathing in his loincloth or even less!, and eating unusual meals ( he liked Tricking things up as he put it and once added grass to a dish of prawns he was preparing with my son’s wife.)

Sadly, in 2009 Rex had a bad accident which ultimately resulted in his loss of mobility but he was able to continue living a home with the help of a dedicated band of friends and carers and he was touchingly grateful for all their many kindnesses, including lifting him out of his wheelchair into a car. He ultimately expired at the grand old age of 97.

How did he live so long? The answer probably lies in the genes allied to an iron constitution , but I am sure his life-long habits of modesty in eating and drinking played a part. (we’ll conveniently forget about his pipe-smoking).

Rex passed away peacefully in his sleep on 27th February 2013 and with him went a whole chunk of history of the 20th century.

And so we bid our fond farewells to a wonderful friend and character.
Peter Grayson


1 comment:

  1. He sounds like a real character who was wonderful to have as a friend. This is a lovely tribute to him which I am certain he would appreciate.

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