Interesting Obituaries

Sir Tom Cowie
Sir Tom Cowie, who has died aged 89, built his father’s motorcycle shop into one of the north-east of England’s most prosperous business empires and became a benefactor of his native Sunderland as well as a grandee of the shooting world.
Sir Tom Cowie
Sir Tom Cowie Photo: MARK PINDER/UNP

5:43PM GMT 27 Jan 2012

The Cowie group embraced 20 motor dealerships and a contract hire fleet of some 65,000 vehicles, the largest in Britain, by the time Cowie retired in 1993 after 45 years at the helm. An old-fashioned patriarch, much loved by his workforce, Cowie’s style was courteous and down to earth — but he was also a hard-driving competitor and a man who liked to run things his own way. His preferred management structure, he said, was “a committee of one” — but his boardroom colleagues eventually disagreed, and forced him out of the chairmanship.

Thomas Cowie was born on September 9 1922 in Sunderland, where his grandfather built and repaired bicycles and his father, also Tom, branched into selling motorbikes. Young Tom joined the business after leaving Bede Grammar School at 15, and was company secretary of T Cowie Ltd on its formation in 1938.

When the war came there were few new machines to be had from the BSA and Triumph factories, so Tom senior turned his hand to running fish and chip shops while Tom junior bought up Army surplus motorbikes, repainted them, and sold them on — often to the Army, which then asked for them to be resprayed khaki. But in 1942 he closed the business and joined the RAF, serving in Coastal Command stations until he was posted to India, where he was a leading aircraftman in a maintenance unit in the Sind desert outside Karachi.

Returning to Sunderland after demobilisation, he worked as a taxi driver until he was able to reopen the motorcycle shop in 1948 and start building a prosperous hire-purchase business. Many of his customers were miners; they were good payers, and within three years he was making handsome profits.

Vespa scooters were among his bestselling items as business boomed — but when demand for motorcycles began to decline in the early 1960s, he switched to Vauxhall car dealerships. The Cowie group went public in 1964, and expanded into the leasing and contract hire sectors which became its main strengths.

In the late 1970s Cowie became chairman and major shareholder of Sunderland AFC — but later described his tenure there as his “greatest single failure”. The club was struggling in the lower reaches of the First Division, and was relegated in 1985.

Three managers had been dispatched before Cowie hired Lawrie McMenemy at a princely salary, but the results were even more disastrous and further relegation beckoned: as one wag put it, “two things should never have left Southampton, McMenemy and the Titanic”. The atmosphere in the club’s boardroom became poisonous, and having failed to agree terms that would have given him complete control, Cowie cut his losses and sold out — but remained a devoted fan, keeping a box at the club’s new Stadium of Light.

Meanwhile, the Cowie group developed a new strand as a bus operator with the takeover of the Grey-Green coach line in 1980, and continued to grow by acquisition throughout the decade. But an unsuccessful bid for the Henly’s chain of dealerships in 1992 contributed to strained relationships between Sir Tom and his fellow directors — whom he accused of pursuing the bid without consulting him, while he took bets that it would fail. He was pushed towards retirement the following year.

He became titular president, but letting go the reins of the company he had created and dominated for so long was deeply painful, and he was vocal in criticism of his successors. The final straw came in 1997 when the company name was changed to Arriva, which image consultants said suggested “promise and reassurance” — but which Sir Tom scorned as a “piece of euro-friendly mellifluence” that smacked more of animosity towards himself than sound business acumen. Arriva gradually shed its motor-trade interests to concentrate on buses and trains, and is now owned by the German state rail operator Deutsche Bahn.

Cowie went on to buy and transform a warehousing business in Sunderland, North European Marine Services, but devoted most of his energies to the grouse moor. In his forties, he had taken up rough shooting with a borrowed gun; the sport became his passion, and when time permitted he would shoot on up to 75 days a year — sometimes taking a 250-bird day just for himself — at Ruffside, Holwick and Wemmergill (leased from the Earl of Strathmore) in Co Durham and Murton Grange in North Yorkshire. The novelist Wilbur Smith was a frequent companion on expeditions further afield: together they shot partridge in Spain, dove in Argentina and wild guinea fowl in Africa.

After the shooting season, Cowie and his wife liked to cruise the Caribbean or winter at the Coral Reef Club in Barbados. Their home, Broadwood Hall, east of Durham, was a modern mansion with the look of a country club: it was said that a passing motorist once walked in and ordered a gin and tonic.

Cowie was for many years president of Sunderland Conservative Association. He gave large sums to the party until 2007, when he declared himself disenchanted with David Cameron’s “arrogant Old Etonian” leadership style and failure to sustain the grammar school model from which Cowie felt he had gained so much.

In future, he said, he would give to the Prince’s Trust instead — the Prince of Wales being an occasional shooting guest who had once observed that the royal Range Rover was the only one on the shoot not supplied by Cowies. “We can soon put that right, Sir,” the tycoon replied.

In his native Sunderland he was a benefactor of his old school and of the university, which renamed a campus in his honour. He also endowed a hospice at Lanchester and a woodland project at Consett.

Tom Cowie was appointed OBE in 1982 and was knighted in 1992.

He married first, in 1949, Lillas Hunnam, with whom he had a son and four daughters; the marriage was dissolved and Lillas died in 1994. He married secondly in, 1975, Diana Evans (née Kenyon); they had three daughters, and he acquired a stepson and stepdaughter.

Sir Tom Cowie, born September 9 1922, died January 18 2012
Because other people are always more interesting than me. :)
Captain Charles Upham VC & Bar
Captain Charles Upham, who has died aged 86, twice won the Victoria Cross.

12:01AM GMT 23 Nov 1994

Only three men have ever won double VCs, and the other two were medical officers: Col A Martin-Leake, who received the decoration in the Boer War and the First World War; and Capt N G Chavasse, who was killed in France in 1917. Chavasse's family was related to Upham's.
Charles Upham VC

For all his remarkable exploits on the battlefield, Upham was a shy and modest man, embarrassed when asked about the actions he had been decorated for. "The military honours bestowed on me," he said, "are the property of the men of my unit."

In a television interview in 1983 he said he would have been happier not to have been awarded a VC at all, as it made people expect too much of him. "I don't want to be treated differently from any other bastard," he insisted.

When King George VI was conferring Upham's second VC he asked Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, his commanding officer: "Does he deserve it?"

"In my respectful opinion, Sir," replied Kippenberger, "Upham won this VC several times over."

A great-great nephew of William Hazlitt, and the son of a British lawyer who practised in New Zealand, Charles Hazlitt Upham was born in Christchurch on Sept 21 1908.

Upham was educated at the Waihi Preparatory School, Christ's College and Canterbury Agricultural College, which he represented at rugby and rowing.

He then spent six years as a farm manager, musterer and shepherd, before becoming a government valuer in 1937.

In 1939 he volunteered for the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force as a private in the 20th Battalion and became a sergeant in the first echelon advance party. Commissioned in 1940, he went on to serve in Greece, Crete and the Western Desert.

Upham won his first VC on Crete in May 1941, commanding a platoon in the battle for Maleme airfield. During the course of an advance of 3,000 yards his platoon was held up three times. Carrying a bag of grenades (his favourite weapon), Upham first attacked a German machine-gun nest, killing eight paratroopers, then destroyed another which had been set up in a house. Finally he crawled to within 15 yards of a Bofors anti-aircraft gun before knocking it out.

When the advance had been completed he helped carry a wounded man to safety in full view of the enemy, and then ran half a mile under fire to save a company from being cut off. Two Germans who tried to stop him were killed.

The next day Upham was wounded in the shoulder by a mortar burst and hit in the foot by a bullet. Undeterred, he continued fighting and, with his arm in a sling, hobbled about in the open to draw enemy fire and enable their gun positions to be spotted.

With his unwounded arm he propped his rifle in the fork of a tree and killed two approaching Germans; the second was so close that he fell on the muzzle of Upham's rifle.

During the retreat from Crete, Upham succumbed to dysentery and could not eat properly. The effect of this and his wounds made him look like a walking skeleton, his commanding officer noted. Nevertheless he found the strength to climb the side of a 600 ft deep ravine and use a Bren gun on a group of advancing Germans.

At a range of 500 yards he killed 22 out of 50. His subsequent VC citation recorded that he had "performed a series of remarkable exploits, showing outstanding leadership, tactical skill and utter indifference to danger". Even under the hottest fire, Upham never wore a steel helmet, explaining that he could never find one to fit him.

His second VC was earned on July 15 1942, when the New Zealanders were concluding a desperate defence of the Ruweisat ridge in the 1st Battle of Alamein. Upham ran forward through a position swept by machine-gun fire and lobbed grenades into a truck full of German soldiers.

When it became urgently necessary to take information to advance units which had become separated, Upham took a Jeep on which a captured German machine-gun was mounted and drove it through the enemy position.

At one point the vehicle became bogged down in the sand, so Upham coolly ordered some nearby Italian soldiers to push it free. Though they were somewhat surprised to be given an order by one of the enemy, Upham's expression left them in no doubt that he should be obeyed.

By now Upham had been wounded, but not badly enough to prevent him leading an attack on an enemy strong-point, all the occupants of which were then bayoneted. He was shot in the elbow, and his arm was broken. The New Zealanders were surrounded and outnumbered, but Upham carried on directing fire until he was wounded in the legs and could no longer walk.

Taken prisoner, he proved such a difficult customer that in 1944 he was confined in Colditz Castle, where he remained for the rest of the war. His comments on Germans were always sulphurous.

For his actions at Ruweisat he was awarded a Bar to his VC. His citation noted that "his complete indifference to danger and his personal bravery have become a byword in the whole of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force".

After his release from Colditz in 1945 Upham went to England and inquired about the whereabouts of one Mary ("Molly") McTamney, from Dunedin. Told that she was a Red Cross nurse in Germany, he was prepared, for her sake, to return to that detested country. In the event she came to England, where they were married in June 1945.

Back in New Zealand, Upham resisted invitations to take up politics. In appreciation of his heroism the sum of £10,000 was raised to buy him a farm. He appreciated the tribute, but declined the money, which was used to endow the Charles Upham Scholarship Fund to send sons of ex-servicemen to university.

Fiercely determined to avoid all publicity, Upham at first refused to return to Britain for a victory parade in 1946, and only acceded at the request of New Zealand's Prime Minister.

Four years later he resisted even the Prime Minister's persuasion that he should go to Greece to attend the opening of a memorial for the Australians and New Zealanders who had died there – although he eventually went at Kippenberger's request.

In 1946, Upham bought a farm at Rafa Downs, some 100 miles north of Christchurch beneath the Kaikoura Mountains, where he had worked before the war. There he found the anonymity he desired.

In 1962, he was persuaded to denounce the British government's attempt to enter the Common Market: "Britain will gradually be pulled down and down," Upham admonished, "and the whole English way of life will be in danger." He reiterated the point in 1971: "Your politicians have made money their god, but what they are buying is disaster."

He added: "They'll cheat you yet, those Germans."

Upham and his wife had three daughters, including twins
Sir Tom Cowie
Sir Tom Cowie, who has died aged 89, built his father’s motorcycle shop into one of the north-east of England’s most prosperous business empires and became a benefactor of his native Sunderland as well as a grandee of the shooting world.
Didn't he go into partnership with a guy called Sarkey?

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