Obituary: Commander Sir Michael Culme-Seymour Bt

E. C. Hodgkin
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:47

MICHAEL CULME-SEYMOUR was a man with many interests - enthusiasms is perhaps a better word - the Navy, painting, and the management of land being among them.

The baronetcy to which he succeeded in 1925 derived from the days of Nelson, when Culme- Seymour's ancestor in the frigate Amethyst captured two large French frigates. Thereafter admiral succeeded admiral and Michael Michael, until his father, who had commanded the battleship Centurion at Jutland, and become Second Sea Lord, died in 1925.

Culme-Seymour was then a midshipman aged 15. Through his great-grandmother Elizabeth Culme, he inherited property in Plymouth and from his grandmother Mary Georgiana Watson, via his great-uncle the Rev Wentworth Watson, who died three weeks before his father, the Norman castle of Rockingham in Northamptonshire, with 5,000 acres. There were double death duties to pay off and Culme-Seymour had only a midshipman's pay of a few shillings a week, but there was never any question of what he should do: he knew his inheritance.

The castle was let for five years to an American millionaire, who installed baths and central heating and offered a blank cheque to be allowed to own it. Culme-Seymour preferred to continue his naval career and hope for the best. He served in the destroyer Boadicea patrolling off the coast of Spain while the civil war was waged, and was witness of atrocities committed by both sides. For two years, 1933-35, he was ADC to the Governor-General of Canada. The outbreak of war in 1939 found him the youngest officer on an Imperial Defence College course in London.

From there he was removed, still only a lieutenant, to command the destroyer Brazen. This was an unhappy ship, many of the crew awaiting courts martial, but in Culme- Seymour's capable hands it quickly became a happy one. On one occasion, on duty off Norway in that brief and calamitous interlude in 1940, he suddenly ordered a violent change of course. What on earth made me do that, he asked himself, when immediately a German plane dropped a bomb where the Brazen would have been. Not surprisingly, when the Brazen returned to Portsmouth, the entire crew asked to be allowed to go on serving with him.

This was not to be. He was sent to be on the staff of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, the redoubtable Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean. There he was one of the only three responsible for all the planning and operations of the fleet. After two and a half years the strain had become too much; Culme-Seymour was invalided home, where his recovery was due to a healer who succeeded where doctors had failed. This fitted in with a taste for unorthodoxy which charmingly characterised so much of his career.

He was in the battleship Rodney at the invasion of Europe, and ended the war in command of the little aircraft-carrier Ruler in the Far East. There was little chance of promotion in peace time, so after a year on the staff of the Imperial Defence College, Culme-Seymour reluctantly left the Navy to look after his estates. In 1948 he married Faith Nesbitt, daughter of the ninth Earl of Sandwich, who had been married to an American and had a daughter. To their great distress both of their two sons died in infancy ("blue babies").

Corby New Town was now lapping at the edges of Rockingham, but Culme- Seymour managed to keep the bulk of the estate intact, and, with the money from compulsory sales, he restored tenant farms and cottages. He founded the Ironstone Royalty Owners' Association, which looked after the interests of the victims of open-cast mining and was chairman of the taxation committee of the Country Landowners' Association, always insisting that care of the land should be treated as just as much a business as any other. He became a JP in 1949, was High Sheriff of Northamptonshire in 1966 and a member of the County Council for seven years.

Culme-Seymour was a keen and not unskilful amateur painter and from his early years a discriminating collector. There were Van Dycks, Lelys, Reynoldses, and other Old Masters at Rockingham and to these he added works by modern artists such as Paul Nash, Matthew Smith, Walter Sickert, Sidney Nolan and John Holland, and a particularly lovely Pissarro, as well as works by many less well-known artists. For a time, he bought on behalf of the Contemporary Art Society and many young artists owe a debt to his public as well as private patronage. His portrait by Maggi Hambling in a striking tweed suit hangs at Rockingham.

In 1971 he moved to Dorset, his house near Bridport being the scene of noble hospitality, notably for a large crowd of relatives and friends for his 80th birthday. By the happiest of coincidences (and that is what it was) on that very day he won the annual wine raffle at Brooks's, for which he had as usual bought just one ticket. This included six magnums of Chateau Haut Brion 1966, the delight which this enabled him to give his friends at least equalling his own, his knowledge and appreciation of wine being formidable. His 90th birthday party at Rockingham earlier this year was another grand and memorable occasion.

Culme-Seymour was a big man of great charm with a cheery throaty chuckle. He derived much comfort from the religions and philosophies of India, as did his wife, to whom and to whose memory, after her death in 1983, he was devoted. He is survived by his stepdaughter Gemma, for whom the "step" was always otiose. His cousin, another Michael Culme-Seymour, inherits the baronetcy.

E. C. Hodgkin

Michael Culme-Seymour, naval officer and landowner: born 26 April 1909; succeeded 1925 as fifth Bt; married 1948 Lady Faith Nesbitt (nee Montagu, died 1983; one adopted daughter, and two sons deceased); died 13 October 1999.

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