Wales' Unknown Hero: Soldier, Spy, Monk: The Life of Henry Coombe-Tennant, MC, of Neath, by Bernard Lewis

Reviewed by Trevor Hamilton

This book, by Bernard Lewis, is an interesting and soundly written account of a remarkable man. It narrates the adventurous life of Augustus Henry Serecold Tennant [the Coombe was added later] (1913–89), an officer in the Welsh Guards in World War II, who was captured by the Germans in 1940 and eventually escaped back to England from a POW camp. He then became a Jedbergh agent parachuting back into France to support the French Resistance. Later he worked for the British Secret Service in Baghdad and other places before making the decision to end his days as a Benedictine monk. 

The book concentrates on Henry's outer life and activities but less so on the inner man, partly no doubt because of the defended nature of Coombe-Tennant’s personality and partly because it would have less appeal to a broad audience. However, it does, if a little briefly and tangentially, discuss, what for many members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) would be of central interest, his relationship with his formidable mother, Winifred, a key figure in the automatic writings known as the cross-correspondences and the world-leading role predicted for him in them. Lewis also discusses the book Swan on a Black Sea, which records the apparent return of Winifred, through the automatic writing of Geraldine Cummins (1965), to convince her son of her continued existence. Henry was fully involved both as subject and as investigator in this episode. Lewis is fair and balanced on the matter, outlining the possible alternative explanations to spirit return while still acknowledging the fact that Henry and his brother found some of the material highly characteristic of their mother’s personality.

Henry was the youngest child in the family of Winifred Coombe-Tennant and her husband Charles, who lived in Cadoxton near Swansea and whose fortune was based on the Tennant canal which transported coal and other items to the Swansea docks. The only girl Daphne died in 1906 precipitating Winifred’s mediumship and renewal of her involvement with the SPR. (As a sister-in-law of F.W.H. Myers she had had a brief earlier connection with it.) Her eldest son Christopher died in the trenches in 1917. The two surviving brothers, Alexander and Henry lived in their different ways long and successful lives. Henry, particularly, was a man of very high intellectual gifts. From Eton he went to Trinity College Cambridge where he achieved firsts in both parts of the Moral Sciences Tripos. His tutor, C.D. Broad, who wrote extensively on philosophical and parapsychological topics, thought that he was one of the most promising students he ever had. 

Henry laboured under the burden of two great expectations – the overt one of intense possessiveness and vaulting ambition for him on the part of his mother and the covert one of impossible ambitions from the ‘spirit’ world. (The indiscreet Mrs Lyttelton, also one of the cross-correspondence automatic writers and a friend of Winifred’s had given him, when he was eighteen, hints concerning his future destiny.) For, in ways not clearly spelt out but repeated on a number of occasions and across a number of scripts in the massive cross-correspondence project from 1901-1936 (not just Mrs Coombe-Tennant’s), Henry, or possibly Henry in connection with a number of remarkable children, was to make a major contribution to world peace perhaps as significant as that of his namesake, the Emperor Augustus. In his preface to the last scripts of Mrs Coombe-Tennant, Gerald Balfour (Hamilton, 2017) stated that he and J.G. Piddington, the assessors of the later scripts, still believed that the material was best interpreted as suggesting that the communicators ‘are really what they claim to be, and that they had genuinely been engaged in an effort to bring about the birth of a child of Messianic order’, but that there was no conclusive proof of this. Henry must have picked up, as stated above, something about this, and possibly, too, that he was the product of a long and passionate liaison between Winifred and Gerald Balfour which had developed after he had begun to study her mediumship in 1911. In fact, the two stories merge, for Jean Balfour, Gerald Balfour’s daughter-in-law, suspected, that hints may have been dropped in the family about his destiny, even from Balfour’s wife Betty, herself, since it was a good cover story to explain Gerald Balfour’s great interest in both the medium and the young man, his natural son.

Quite obviously, Henry did not achieve the world leadership role predicted for him and most of us nowadays might interpret these predictions, in Winifred’s scripts, as the subliminal and unrealistic yearnings of a mother highly ambitious for her son were it not for the fact that some of the material supporting the Messianic interpretation occurred in the early scripts of Margaret Verrall in 1901 long before Mrs Coombe-Tennant became involved. (On this see Salter, 1961.) In addition, Henry turned out to be an extremely gifted man whose achievements, even given his advantages in life, would put most of us to shame and a man with strong charitable instincts and impulses in his later years. This book is a well written and often gripping account of those achievements. But, while good on the external Henry, Lewis is less so on the internal one and Roy’s book (2008), while a little unwieldy and over-stuffed with general material, is with its extensive quotations from Jean Balfour’s papers, and Roy’s own perceptive commentary, of central and continuing relevance (Parker, 2010). Jean points out that Henry lacked a certain inner fire and drive possibly caused by his over-dominant mother. And Roy, himself, shrewdly suggests that the Swan on a Black Sea case may have propelled Henry’s entry into the Catholic Church, implying, possibly, that he needed a more powerful authority to centre and motivate him and make sense of the strange phenomena associated with him over the years.

Cummins, G. (1965). Swan on a Black Sea: A Study in Automatic Writing. The Cummins-Willett Scripts. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Roy, A. E. (2008). The Eager Dead: A Study in Haunting. Brighton: The Book Guild.
Hamilton, T. (2017). Arthur Balfour’s Ghosts. An Edwardian Elite and the Cross-Correspondence Automatic Writings. Exeter: Imprint Academic.
Parker, A. (2010). [Review of the book The Eager Dead: A Study in Haunting by A. E. Roy]. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 24, (3). 546–553.
Salter, W. H. (1961). Zoar. The evidence of psychical research concerning survival. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.