Obituary: Theo Mathew

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OVER THE last two centuries, the Anglo-Irish family of Mathew has produced more than its fair share of eminent lawyers, leading churchmen and noted eccentrics. A worthy addition to the last category was Theo Mathew.

His grandfather and namesake, Theobald Mathew, was a much-loved barrister, regarded as one of the great wits of his generation, and himself the son of Lord Justice Mathew, who founded the Commercial Court and was renowned for his observation, "Justice is open to all - like the Savoy Grill." The judge's uncle Father Theobald Mathew was so successful in persuading the Irish (and others) to take the pledge that he was universally known as the Apostle of Temperance. Teetotalism was not, however, a general characteristic of this remarkable family.

One of its more recent luminaries was Archbishop David Mathew, whose oracular manner and untidy appearance are engagingly recorded (as are the lives of so many Mathews) in the Dictionary of National Biography. The Archbishop made Theo Mathew his heir and assigned to him the ruins of Thomastown Castle in Tipperary, the ancestral property that he had saved from demolition in 1938.

Theobald David Mathew was born in London in 1942, the son of Robert Mathew, a solicitor whose early death took place when Theo was barely 12 years old. His mother, Joan Young, was a Somerville graduate, a strikingly attractive and intelligent woman. She, too, belonged to a distinguished family, plentiful in scholars and public servants (Sir George Young, the former Transport Secretary, is her nephew).

After schooling at Downside, Mathew read Modern History at Balliol College, Oxford, and was always grateful for the tuition he received there at the hands of Maurice Keen and Richard Cobb; Cobb's erratic behaviour was a fruitful source of anecdote, and perhaps also an inspiration.

Soon after Oxford he worked for a year at the College of Arms in the office of Sir Anthony Wagner, Garter King of Arms, but then decided to follow in his family's legal footsteps by becoming an articled clerk at the solicitors' firm of Frere Cholmeley in Lincoln's Inn Fields. However, finding himself unenamoured of the law he was tempted back to the college by Sir Anthony Wagner in early 1969.

Serving as a Green Staff Officer at the Prince of Wales's Investiture in the summer of that year, he was appointed Rouge Dragon Pursuivant in 1970. From then until the mid-1990s he donned his tabard regularly for the Garter Service at Windsor and the State Opening of Parliament, and was proud to play his part in those colourful ceremonies.

He was promoted to the office of Windsor Herald in 1978. In the same year he became Deputy Treasurer of the College of Arms, a post he held for 17 years despite an avowed terror of financial matters. Both as a Pursuivant and as a Herald, he carried on the time-honoured business of his profession. Heraldry had been an early enthusiasm, and he enjoyed designing coats of arms. He also built up a useful working knowledge of the orders of chivalry.

The somewhat leisurely ambiance of the College of Arms undoubtedly suited him. He remained in the same set of ill-lit basement rooms throughout his career, providing memorable entertainments from time to time, often in celebration of some curious anniversary or other. The generous dispensing of liquor that characterised these occasions took place under the watchful eye of the Apostle of Temperance, whose bust was prominently displayed, sometimes adorned by incongruous headwear.

Mathew served as an officer of arms for nearly 27 years. Possessing little taste for office administration, he was fortunately able to recruit a succession of reliable assistants. And, although application to the task in hand was not one of his strong points, the considerable affection in which he was held carried him through.

As was said of his grandfather, "Mathew's fame amongst his contemporaries was not based upon his professional career." Among his other skills, he was a superb mimic who could capture certain people so vividly that the individuals themselves often seemed pale reflections of the "real" selves that he conjured up.

But mimicry was only one aspect of his story-telling ability. He had a great repertoire of anecdotes. Some of them concerned members of his own family, such as his dotty great-aunt Catherine Mathew, who on entering a room claimed to detect a smell of "crushed elephant", despite the obvious improbability of being able to identify such an odour.

He might equally recount some amusing experience of his own. Once, ringing to say that he would be late home, and under the impression that he was talking to one of his mother's lodgers, he asked for his dinner to be put in the oven, adding that he would certainly be back in time to watch Up Pompeii on television. His attempts to impart further information of a domestic nature were interrupted by the words "There must be some mistake. This is Sir Arthur Bliss." The bewildered recipient of the call was the Master of the Queen's Musick, whose phone number differed by one digit from that of the Mathew household. By dialling the wrong number, Theo Mathew had acquired another anecdote.

He dabbled in a variety of extramural pursuits. He once stood as a Liberal candidate in the local elections, and it is a matter for regret that Westminster City Council was not given a chance to enjoy the offbeat contribution he would doubtless have made to its deliberations.

He was for a time part-owner of a boat (Tinker Liz) and belonged to the Royal Harwich Yacht Club. He was also a member of the MCC (cricket being a great passion) and the Athenaeum, where his infrequent visits provided something of a diversion for the staider members of that august institution.

For most of his adult life Mathew lived in St John's Wood, north London, in a house of distinctive (if faded) charm; its many temporary inhabitants included at least one Booker prizewinner. Retiring from the College of Arms in 1997, he abandoned London and settled in West Mersea on the Essex coast, where he had spent happy riding holidays in his youth.

Stories about Theo Mathew will assuredly abound for years to come. A lingering image from recent times is of him removing his glasses, rubbing his hands together and squinting in a concentrated fashion at whoever happened to swing into view; he might then utter a grunted "Woof!" - or else (in imitation of a familiar ducal voice) give a mild bark of the words "Now look here!"

I recall a July evening in 1971 when Mathew, armed with a trumpet that his mother had unadvisedly given him for his 29th birthday, attempted to play the instrument while sitting outside the Sir Christopher Wren public house, close to St Paul's Cathedral. Although understandably attracted by the notion of blowing his own trumpet, he had no idea how to, and the excruciating noise that emerged not only disconcerted his companions but astonished a number of passers-by and eventually attracted the attention of the local constabulary.

One has only to think of Theo Mathew to chuckle fondly at some such memory. He could be madly exasperating; he could be gloriously funny. There was no one quite like him.

Theobald David Mathew, herald: born London 7 April 1942; Rouge Dragon Pursuivant of Arms 1970-78; Windsor Herald of Arms 1978-97; died West Mersea, Essex 24 December 1998.