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Obituary - Iris Combe


Iris Combe

IRIS FRANCES Mary Combe (Tilehouse Collies) passed away peacefully in her sleep at Rose Cottage Retirement Home, Huntingdon, on 3rd February 2009. She was in her ninety-fifth year.

Born into a family of wealthy Irish landowners on 23 June 1914, Iris was brought up at Glencairn Abbey, a 700 acre Estate at Lismore, Co. Waterford. She was educated at a convent at Dun Laoghaire and, by her own admission, received no real education other than to learn to speak correctly!

At the age of sixteen Iris moved to London with her mother and as she had neither academic qualifications nor money she found work in a Knightsbridge café. However, Iris longed to be a model and was eventually employed by ‘Jays’, the Court Dressmaker, where she modelled court dresses and ball gowns for the debutantes.

During the Second World War Iris was taught catering management, working nights at the Daily Mirror in Fleet Street eventually progressing to become manageress of a munitions workers’ hostel canteen in Malvern. Her sixty year association with Collies began at this time, through a neighbour’s working sheepdog. Following the war she married Tom, a Captain in the Grenadier Guards, and they settled near Colchester running a small farm and market garden. In her spare time Iris became involved with the local dog obedience club, taking an instructor’s course and doing demonstrations at local fêtes and shows.

When her working Collies became too old to compete Iris went to the Suffolk Show and fell in love with Clayswood Debutante, a Rough Collie bitch which she later purchased, and who eventually whelped Iris’ first Champion - Debs Happy Marquis. Iris later campaigned and made up Ch Corviross Silver Joy and her sibling children, the tricolour Tilehouse Tonto and blue merle Tilehouse Thistle (by Ch Lowerpark Black Buccaneer).

Iris’ first Tilehouse Smooth Collie was the Peterblue-bred tricolour Robec Ramora, which she purchased in the late 1960s. In 1971 Ramora produced a litter by Ch Selskars Blue Tarn which consisted of nine puppies including the b/m Ch Tilehouse Patrick, who became a qualified tracker dog and holder of 21 CCs, and sire of Ch Tilehouse Sabre.

So, with five Tilehouse Champions in two breeds Iris looked back to her first love, the Border Collie, which at the time the Kennel Club was in the process of accepting as a registered show breed. After much deliberation she purchased a compatible breeding pair who, in their first litter, produced Tilehouse Cassius who subsequently became the UK’s first Show Champion Border Collie. Unfortunately Iris was unable to campaign him as she was nursing her terminally ill husband, Tom, so Cassius was sold to Joyce Cosme (Collis) who made him up as Sh Ch Tilehouse Cassius of Beagold.

Iris was fortunate to be asked to judge her three favourite breeds numerous times, and she accepted appointments across Europe as well as in America, Australia and New Zealand. She was also granted the honour of judging both Rough and Smooth Collies at Crufts, in 1990 and 1994 respectively. Crufts 1990 held fond memories for Iris as, not only did she draw the largest entry in the show, but this was the last time it was held in London and also the last time that only one judge officiated over the breed.

Over the years Iris has been President of the Southern Border Collie Club; Vice-President of the Smooth Collie Club of GB; Life Member of the London Collie Club and the International Sheepdog Society; as well as a Founder member of the East Anglian Collie Association.

Iris’ late husband Tom supported and encouraged her to research the history of the Collie breeds she so loved, and this led to the publication of numerous specialist books which have been hugely popular worldwide and which, sadly, are now mostly out of print: Collies Yesterday and Today (1972); Border Collies (1978); Shepherds, Sheep & Sheepdogs (1983); Champions’ Parade 1980-1985 (compiled in conjunction with Tony Heij); Herding Dogs - Their Origins and Development in Britain (1987); The Smooth Collie – a Family Dog (1992); Border Collies – An Owner’s Companion (1993); Rough Collie Records (1997); Rough Collies of Distinction (2001, compiled with Dareen Bridge and Pat Hutchinson); The Rough Collie in Society (2003, with Pat Hutchinson); and finally, her limited edition autobiography Glencairn - My Irish Roots (2008).

Personal reminiscences. For many years I was aware that Iris Combe, doyen of Rough, Smooth and Border Collies, lived only ten miles away from me but I have known her well during the last nineteen years. The first time I met her socially was neither in our home area nor at a dog show, but at the first of the International Collie Society’s conference/holidays that I attended in Killarney, Eire, in 1990.

Underneath her austere and dignified appearance Iris was a rather shy but fun-loving person with a heart of gold, and always loved a good giggle. She loved children but unfortunately had none of her own so took comfort in the company of her extended family, as well as her numerous international Collie friends.

Iris was actively involved in village life and she loved to organise dinner parties, enjoying all aspects of catering including the production of fantastic flower arrangements. She spent many hours pottering in the garden and often ‘opened’ her beautiful garden in Hemingford Abbotts during the village’s annual summer festival.

She was a remarkably cheerful lady, so physically and mentally alert, but rather fearful of the niggling bouts of ill health that had beset her over the last few years of her life. I came to know her really well during my regular visits to discuss progress on the book Rough Collies of Distinction. Occasionally she would attend shows with me but latterly found it very tiring to be out for long hours, though she loved nothing more than hearing show gossip as it kept her in touch. In recent years I visited her regularly in her retirement home at Rose Cottage, where she enjoyed being kept up-to-date with the canine world.

I shall miss Iris very much indeed – as a mentor, friend and substitute ‘mum’ – for her quick wit and schoolgirl giggles. I remember the time in 2004 when she ‘blacked out’ in hospital and ‘came to’ seconds later on the floor, with the doctor and nurses peering concernedly down at her. Quickwitted as ever she quipped: ‘Oh goody I’ve died and must be in heaven – the floor’s too darn cold for the ‘other place!’

There will be a cremation and service of thanksgiving for Iris’ life at the West Chapel, Cambridge Crematorium on Wednesday 18th February at 2:15pm, followed by tea at the Village Hall, Hemingford Abbotts, near Huntingdon. Family flowers only and donations, if desired, to The British Heart Foundation or Diabetes UK, c/o William Peacock & Sons, Castle Hill Lodge, Castle Moat Road, Huntingdon, Cambs. PE29 3PG.

With deepest sympathy to Sarah and family.

Pat Hutchinson

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