Harry Secombe : biography
Sir Harry Donald Secombe, CBE (8 September 1921 – 11 April 2001) was a Welsh comedian and singer. He played Neddie Seagoon, a central character in the BBC radio comedy series The Goon Show (1951–60). He also appeared in musicals and films and, in his later years, was a presenter of television shows incorporating hymns and other devotional songs.
After leaving school in 1937, Secombe became a pay clerk at Baldwin’s store. With war looming, he decided in 1938 that he would join the Territorial Army. Very short sighted, he got a friend to tell him the sight test, and then learnt it off by heart. He served as a Lance Bombardier in No.132 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery. He would refer to the unit in which he served during World War II in the North African Campaign, Sicily, and Italy, as "The Five-Mile Snipers".
When Secombe visited the Falklands to entertain the troops after the 1982 war in the islands, his old regiment promoted him to the rank of sergeant – 37 years after he had been demobbed.
He was knighted in 1981, and jokingly referred to himself as Sir Cumference (in recognition of his rotund figure). The motto he chose for his coat of arms was "GO ON", a reference to goon.
Later life and death
Secombe suffered from peritonitis in 1980.The Unforgettable He had a stroke in 1997, from which he made a slow recovery. He was then diagnosed with prostate cancer in September 1998. After suffering a second stroke in 1999, he was forced to abandon his television career, but made a documentary about his condition in the hope of giving encouragement to other sufferers. Secombe had diabetes in the latter part of his life.
Secombe died on 11 April 2001 at the age of 79, from prostate cancer, in hospital in Guildford, Surrey. His ashes are interred at the parish church of Shamley Green, and a later memorial service to celebrate his life was held at Westminster Abbey on 26 October 2001. As well as family members and friends, the service was also attended by Charles, Prince of Wales and representatives of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Anne, Princess Royal, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon and Prince Edward, Duke of Kent. On his tombstone is the inscription: "To know him was to love him."
The Secombe Theatre at Sutton, London bears his name in memory of this former local personality. He is also fondly remembered at the London Welsh Centre, where he opened the bar on St Patrick’s Day (17 March) 1971.
Secombe was born in rooms in the Danygraig Area of St. Thomas and later the family moved to a council house in the St Thomas district of Swansea, the third of four children of Nellie Jane Gladys (née Davies), a shop manageress, and Frederick Ernest Secombe, a grocer. From the age of 11 he attended Dynevor School, a state secondary school in central Swansea.
His family were regular church-goers, belonging to the congregation of St Stephen’s Church in Danygraig. A member of the choir, Secombe would – from the age of 12 – perform a sketch entitled The Welsh Courtship at church socials, acting as "feed" to his sister Carol. His elder brother, Fred Secombe, was the author of several books about his experiences as an Anglican priest and rector.
Secombe met Myra Atherton at the Mumbles dance hall. The couple were married from 1948 until his death, and had four children:
- Jennifer Secombe, married to actor Alex Giannini. She was also her father’s agent in the latter years of his life. Jimmy Grafton had died in 1986.
- Andy Secombe, a voice actor, film actor and author
- David Secombe, a writer and photographer
- Katy Secombe, an actress
Later in life, Secombe (whose brother Fred Secombe was a priest in the Church in Wales, part of the Anglican Communion) attracted new audiences as a presenter of religious programmes, such as the BBC’s Songs of Praise and ITV’s Stars on Sunday and Highway. He was also a special programming consultant to Harlech Television. and hosted a Thames Television programme in 1979 entitled Cross on the Donkey’s Back. In the latter half of the 1980s, Secombe personally sponsored a football team for boys aged 9–11 in the local West Sutton Little League, ‘Secombes Knights’.