Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of David Edwin Coombe

Archive Collection

Scope and Content


The material covers the period from 1918 to 2000 and has been arranged by sections as outlined below.

Section A, Biographical, contains items relating to Coombe's childhood and education in Bath, Somerset as well as diary and notebook material spanning the 1930s-1990s. There are a variety of identity cards, certificates, passports, etc. that document family life and activities. Coombe's education in Bath is well represented with material from his time at Twerton Infants’ School and King Edward’s School. A sub-section of scrapbooks, diaries and notebooks provides evidence of his observational abilities from childhood into adulthood. The material is of interest for its descriptions of a boy's life in wartime Bath and as an illustration of how Coombe's enthusiasm for ecology began at an early age and thereafter developed into a professional vocation. Coombe's undergraduate and postgraduate education is not well represented but a copy of his PhD thesis Plant Growth and Light in Woodlands, Christ's College, Cambridge, 1952, can be found at A.64.

Section B, Research Interests: British Isles and International Habitats, is comprised of material closely associated, and illustrative of, Coombe’s interests in particular habitats. The material relating to the Cambridgeshire woodland and fen habitats is primarily of a land management or teaching nature. Coombe used the habitats for teaching associated with the Environmental Biology course at the University of Cambridge. The University’s formal association with some of these habitats is in evidence.

Coombe's extended association with the Lizard, Cornwall for research and teaching purposes is well represented with research data in the form of plant lists, soil samples, etc. There is correspondence and associated papers relating to the process by which parts of the landscape were eventually designated with National Nature Reserve status. There is a comprehensive collection of field notebooks by Coombe and associates covering the period 1954-1996. The Lizard material also comprises a collection of unpublished reports of the University of Bristol Lizard Project 1981-1987.

Other British Isles locations are represented in the section but the material relating to the Brecklands of East Anglia indicate a particular interest of Coombe’s. There is documentation of a research data and teaching nature relating to features of the landscape that interested him such as stripe and polygon formations and the natural eutrophic lakes of the region.

The international material relates to trips to Iceland, Norway, Nigeria and West Africa and Europe. In addition to research data there is correspondence, notebooks and reports that provide detail of aspects such as travel and working in these foreign locations. Photographic material relating to the above was integral to Coombe’s work. Some is to be found within this section but the majority is located in Section G, Photographs. The section concludes with Coombe’s comprehensive collection of Ordnance Survey maps. These are annotated with field trip plant recordings and dates.

Section C, Research Interests: Research Data and Plants, includes material relating to Coombe’s interest in historical ecology; research data on the relationship of plant growth to light factors; and Coombe’s accumulation of plant data which he organised by alphabetical species/genera files and index cards. There is also a general notebook sequence.

The sub-section on historical ecology contains material indicative of Coombe’s interest in the use of historical sources to supplement study of the ecology of habitats. The bulk of the material here relates to historical sources for the Lizard, Cornwall and Newmarket Heath, Suffolk. Use of historical sources is evident throughout the archive.

Notebooks and other research papers comprise the material found in the sub-section on research data. There is some material relating to stripe features in the landscape and research in the 1970s at Cambridge University Botanic Garden. The majority relates to the research he carried out into plant growth and light in the 1940s and 1950s and may therefore be related to his PhD thesis (see A.64).

There is a sequence of files arranged by Coombe in alphabetical order by species or genus name and containing correspondence and notes mainly relating to issues of identification and occurrence. Coombe also maintained two sets of index cards, one set is international, and the other is for Great Britain. The index cards record species occurrence.

A sequence of notebooks described by Coombe as ‘general notebooks’ covers the period 1948-1994. They contain research data and field trip notes. There is some material in these relating to a trip to Germany in 1951 but the majority relates to repeated field trips to the Cambridgeshire woodlands, the Lizard, Cornwall, and the Brecklands of East Anglia.

Section D, Societies and Organisations, is a small section but it does contain a good collection of The Lizard the magazine of the Lizard Field Club covering the period 1955-1990. There is also material of a more biographical nature such as the papers relating to Coombe’s participation in the Youth Service Volunteers during World War Two and to his active membership of the Auxiliary Fire Service in the 1950s and 1960s.

Section E, University of Cambridge, contains material relating to teaching and research. There is a sequence of notebooks for the period 1957-1967 in which Coombe wrote the text of his undergraduate environmental biology lectures. These are annotated with revisions. Included here are Coombe’s notes from a lecture given in 1957 by ecologist A.S. Watt. More of Coombe’s undergraduate lecture material can be found in a collection of folders covering the years 1941-1989. These also contain material relating to the fieldtrips associated with the course. There is some material relating to teaching and research at Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

Section F, Correspondence, consists of frequent correspondence relating to the occurrence of plant species in specific localities. There is an extensive correspondence with Coombes’ parents. Many of the correspondents are represented by just one or a few letters but there is more comprehensive correspondence for botanists Rosemary Fitzgerald and Lewis C. Frost.

Section G, Photographs, contains a thorough collection of photographic prints, photographic film negatives, glass plate negatives, glass plate lantern slides, and film transparencies. Photographs of a biographical nature show Coombe as a boy, an academic, and as a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service. There are sub-sections for plant photographic material arranged alphabetically by species or genera; date; location; and research interest. Coombe’s leading work on the scientific application of hemisphere photography is well represented. Coombe’s expeditions to Iceland, Norway, Germany and British West Africa, as well has his field trips, over the course of many years, to the Cambridgeshire woodlands, the Lizard, Cornwall and the East Anglian Brecklands, are all well represented.

Section H, Publications, contains a collection of Coombe’s authored or co-authored published scientific papers covering the period 1951-1996. The draft material in this section covers the period 1947-1999 and includes much relevant correspondence. A sub-section on invitational lectures and conferences indicates Coombe’s moderate activity in this area.

Section J, Horsell Papers, is the smallest section in the catalogue. It consists of the papers of amateur botanist, and resident of Bath, Somerset, Miss M. Horsell. An explanation of exactly how the material came to be in Coombe’s possession is unavailable. Two notebooks record plant species locations in the Somerset locality. A third notebook contains a manuscript transcript of Flora Bathoniensis: or, A Catalogue of the Plants Indigenous to the Vicinity of Bath, C.C. Babington, 1834. Correspondence and associated hand drawn maps relate to locations of plants of interest recorded on field trips by various individuals and apparently collated by Horsell.

There is also an index of correspondents.

Administrative / Biographical History


David Edwin Coombe was born in Bath, Somerset on 9 March 1927. He was the only child of Charles and Phyllis Coombe (née Weaver). He was educated at Twerton Infants’ School, Bath and King Edward’s School, Bath. From an early age he displayed an interest in botany and diary writing. As a teenager, in 1943 he joined the Youth Service Volunteers as part of the war effort.

Coombe went to Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1945 on a scholarship and read Natural Sciences (Botany). He became a research fellow in 1951 and a lecturer in 1952. Coombe’s PhD was awarded in 1952 for Plant Growth and Light in Woodlands. The work was a study of the dry weight balance of Impatiens parviflora in relation to light climate and was notable for Coombe’s use of the Robin Hill hemisphere camera to study woodland canopy light. Coombe spent his entire professional career at Christ’s College, Cambridge and held a number of formal offices during his time. These included Tutor and Director of Studies, member of the College Council, member of the College Livings Committee, and Honorary Garden Steward. He formally retired in 1989.

In the 1940s and 1950s Coombe took part in a number of international expeditions. He travelled to Iceland in 1946, Norway in 1947 and 1950, Germany in 1951, British West Africa over 1953-1954, and Austria in 1956.

Coombe also carried out fieldtrips in the British Isles. A number of locations came to dominate his research. He made many trips to the Lizard, Cornwall from 1950 onwards. He repeatedly visited a number of ecologically interesting woodland locations in Cambridgeshire. He also made repeated visits to the Brecklands region of East Anglia.

Coombe’s principal research interests included plant growth in relation to light conditions; climate and physical factors governing the existence of specialised habitats; the study of specialised habitats over extended time periods; and the value of historical sources for the study of ecology. Coombe was noted for valuable observations in the study of ecotypic differentiation and for his specialist knowledge of the gerera Juniperus and Trifolium.

From the late 1970s Coombe’s health became an issue and affected his output. He nevertheless continued to work and publish. He died in Cambridge on 28 June 1999.

Conditions Governing Access

Not all the material in this collection may yet be available for consultation. Enquiries should be addressed in the first instance to:

The Archivist The Library University of Bath Claverton Down Bath BA2 7AY


Telephone: +44 (0)1225 383464

Acquisition Information

The papers were received in February 2010 from the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists, Bath by kind permission of Dr David Jones, Acting Master, Christ’s College, Cambridge.

Other Finding Aids

A catalogue of the collection is available online in PDF format at the following url:

Physical Characteristics and/or Technical Requirements

Paper, photographic prints, photographic film negatives, glass plate negatives, glass plate lantern slides, and film transparencies.

Conditions Governing Use

Applications should be sent to the University Archivist.