The Gifts of Frank Cobbold
by Arthur W. Upfield edited by Sandra Berry
(£14.99 plus p&p £2.01 from Number 11 Publishing, PO Box 459, New Malden, Surrey KT3 9DH).
This is the biography of an extraordinary man. Felix Thornley Cobbold is the most warmly remembered of the famous Ipswich family for his gift of Christchurch Mansion to the Borough. And the family has produced several other notable scions, but surely noone else to match the life of Francis Edward Cobbold (1853-1935), known as Frank or FE.
His exploits as a teenager and young man were so demanding and outlandish that 'you couldn't make it up!' As a 14 year old apprentice on a 3-masted wool clipper, his experiences were indeed hair-raising. But what followed was almost incredible - one of three British teenagers trying to start a cotton plantation in remote Fijian islands, hiring labourers who were soon killed by the local islanders. You wonder whether there could be worse tribulations to come - and over the page, there are; sometimes two at once. Moving to Australia, he managed and owned huge cattle stations and sheep stations where, in the early days, there were no fences, very little assistance and long drives of the animals to market on largely unmarked routes, all of which makes the American West sound quite domesticated!
Later, buying and selling estates was greatly affected by years of droughts and by the collapse of most Australian banks in 1893. "There were no safeguards in Australia to prevent financial systems from becoming sufficiently elastic to admit practices little short of criminal." How does that sound to us in 2009?
The book was written in 1935 apparently shortly before FE died but it was only acquired by the Cobbold Family History Trust in typescript in 2005. The author, Arthur Upfield, often writes in 'derring-do' style but appropriate for such a life story. He is clearly so much on the side of the pioneering stock men that he has only scorn for the townies who never venture into the Australian bush. He is also tight-lipped about FE's married life and about the Aborigines (always 'blacks'). But it was written in 1935, and for that reason conveys the extraordinary achievements of Empire building which can easily be under-estimated today.
FE's whole estate was willed to a charity now called Independent Age which helps finance elderly people in the UK (originally only Suffolk) to stay in their own homes. For the last 50 years his Gift has paid out annuities from the interest on his capital, currently worth £9 m. Like Felix Thornley Cobbold, FE is worthy of being appreciated in Suffolk.