Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: December
08, 2018
Webpage updated: December 08, 2018

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Woollcombe is not a surname readily associated with Plymouth-Dock or Devonport but Mr Thomas Woollcombe 'very early assumed a leading position in his adopted town', as the writer of his Obituary in the Western Morning News put it.

Born at the family's seat, Ashbury House, in the Ancient Parish of Ashbury, near Hatherleigh, Devon, on March 6th 1800, he was articled to Mr Henry Woollcombe, of Plymouth, under whose tuition he qualified as a solicitor.  He joined the firm of Messrs Leach and Little, at what was then Plymouth-Dock, and with the death of each of the senior partners eventually succeeded to that position himself.

Mr Woollcombe achieved some notoriety during the election of the Borough's first Members of Parliament after the Representation of the People Act 1832.  Mr Leach, the senior partner of his law firm, was invited to become a candidate.  Unfortunately two other Whigs (Liberals), Sir George Grey (1799-1882) and Sir Edward Codrington (1770-1851), were parachuted in from outside and the three-way fight became both personal and acrimonious.  Personal honours were challenged and Mr Woollcombe challenged Sir Edward Codrington to a duel.  Since this was illegal, Mr Woollcombe was taken to court and fined.  He refused to pay the fine and was sent to prison, which, it was claimed, he rather enjoyed.  His fight was over the independence of the Borough against the Government influence, which became a long-standing argument in the Town.  Anyway, Mr Woollcombe's fine was paid by a subscription raised in the Town and his popularity and influence was assured for the rest of his life.

Devonport received its Charter of Incorporation as a Borough following the Municipal Corporations Act received the Royal Assent on September 9th 1835 and at a meeting of the new Town Council on December 20th 1837, Mr Woollcombe was elected to be Devonport's first Town Clerk, assisted by Mr Philip Little.  Being an honorable gentleman, Mr Woollcombe advised the Council not to fix his remuneration there and then but to let him resign in a year's time, once the duties of the post had become evident, and tell them at which salary he thought the post should be paid.  They could then decide whether or not to employ him or to find someone else.  He continued in that post up until the time of his death and lived at number 26 Ker Street supported by a cook, a housemaid and a footman.

He became a keen supporter of the South Devon Railway Company but was not in favour of the use of the atmospheric system of locomotion.  After that was proved to be a failure and the Company was at the point of bankruptcy, the shareholders elected him to replace Mr Thomas Gill as Chairman of the board of directors.  He retained that position right through the amalgamation with the Great Western Railway Company and fought against the extension of the narrow-gauge London and South Western Railway in to Plymouth, a battle he lost.  He resigned the Chairmanship in 1874 and was voted a sum of 1,000.  In that year his portrait was painted by Mr Horsley and exhibited in the Royal Academy.

Mr Woollcombe was responsible for the expansion of a small Dispensary at Devonport in to the Royal Albert Hospital and Eye Infirmary.  His concern for the health of the towns people, however, brought him in to collision with them when the first Contagious Diseases Act was introduced in 1864.  The Government gave 3,500 towards the cost of providing a Lock Ward at the Hospital, in which female prostitutes suspected of having a sexually transmitted disease could be securely kept and treated before being released back in to the community.  This was aimed at protecting men in the Army and Royal Navy but it was a civil matter, administered by the Devonport Police Force.  This had the full support of Mr Woollcombe and was enthusiastically implemented by the Police, to such an extent that during the dark, winter months, many respectable ladies got arrested on their way home from their places of work simply because they were out alone after dark and therefore must be prostitutes.  As his Obituary put it: 'This involved him in considerable controversy.'

Described as a man with great intellectual power and an iron will, his Obituary also said that: 'Few men knew better how to parry an awkward question; and nobody could more dexterously seem to give a detailed explanation which did not contain but the merest grain of information.'

On August 1st 1876, at the age of 76 years, he attended to railway business at Plymouth; it was his last outing.  Mr Thomas Woollcombe, who never married, suffered from a weakness of the heart and quietly passed away on Saturday August 12th 1876, with his medical team, Mr Lorenzo P Methan and Mr Joseph May (1808-1904), the Mayor of  Devonport, at his bedside.  The private funeral took place at the Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport Cemetery on Wednesday August 16th 1876.