An accomplished engineer, industrialist and public servant, Lord Francis Leonard Tombs has died peacefully aged 95.
Born in Walsall on 17 May 1924, Tombs attended Elmore Green School until it closed in 1939. He started work as an office boy, later becoming an apprentice at GEC, whilst continuing with his education at night school at Birmingham Polytechnic. It was on his daily trip to work that he met his future wife, Marjorie Evans. They were married in 1949. By then, he was working for the Central Electricity Board – the start of a long career in electrical engineering, power generation and distribution.
The couple moved to Liverpool where, in 1952, he became System Liaison Engineer for the Merseyside and North Wales division of the British Energy Authority, then Operation and Efficiency Engineer at Ince power station, which was then being commissioned. This was followed by a move to Kent, where Tombs worked for GEC once again at Erith until 1967. There he was appointed to form a new Operational Services department, commissioning plants across the world and providing trouble-shooting services. This return to manufacturing gave him unparalleled experience that was to prove invaluable in his later roles. By this time, he had gained three daughters and an external degree in Economics from London University.
The family moved to Scotland in 1987 where Tombs was appointed general manager of Howden’s, then director of engineering of the South of Scotland Electricity Board, subsequently becoming chairman. He became a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (FREng) in 1977. He was also a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, of which he was president in 1981, becoming an Honorary Fellow of its successor organisation, the IET, in 1991.
His brief spell as Chairman of Electricity Council for England and Wales between 1977 and 1980, meant a move to London and he was knighted in 1978. He resigned after a disagreement with the government of the day, firmly establishing his reputation as a principled and determined man prepared to put his beliefs before his career. He was soon fully occupied again as a director of the merchant bank N M Rothschild, and of Rolls Royce. He gained a reputation as a company doctor – a description he was never fond of – being appointed chairman of Weir Group and of T&N, both ailing companies that he steered back into profit.
In 1983, the couple moved back to the Midlands, settling in the village of Honington where they spent 25 happy years. From 1985 to 1992, he was Chairman of Rolls Royce, seeing the company successfully through its privatisation and back into its rightful position as a world leader in aero-engine production. The connection with the City of London continued with Tombs’ involvement with the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, of which he was Prime Warden in 1994 and actively involved as a court member, serving on numerous committees.
Tombs was created a life peer on 29 February 1990 as Baron Tombs of Brailes in the County of Warwickshire and served as a crossbencher in the House of Lords. In the course of his career, he served on a number of special advisory and select committees, including the Chinook Inquiry, and the Advisory Council on Science and Technology. He made several speeches on the security and continuity of electricity supply, concerned that subsequent governments were not prioritising this important issue seriously enough. With an extensive career in the electricity supply industry, Tombs authored the memoir Power Politics: Political Encounters in Industry and Engineering, exploring the widespread policy of privatisation in Britain and detailing the interaction between industry and politics over nearly half a century.
He took leave from the House of Lords when Marjorie became ill and nursed her devotedly at their home in Honington. He finally retired from the House of Lords on 31 March 2015.
Outside of his professional life, Lord Tombs enjoyed sailing with his friends, particularly around the west coast of Scotland where it was frequently deemed necessary to drop anchor near some of the finer whisky distilleries. He took a great interest in education and was Pro-Chancellor of Cranfield University 1985-1991 and Chancellor of Strathclyde University 1991-1997. He was awarded numerous honorary degrees from universities in the UK and abroad. He loved music, frequently attending the opera and, particularly, chamber music concerts, and was chairman of the Association of British Orchestras between 1982 and 1986. He loved old cars, of the type you could ‘tinker with’, was a director of Brooklands Motor Museum from 1993-2000, taking part in the London to Brighton rally. His Catholic faith was a lifelong but understated source of strength and solace for him and he loved the church SS Peter and Paul at Brailes, which he attended for many years, even acting as a rather mature altar server if the need arose. He was made a Papal Knight in 2002.
Lord Tombs is missed by his many friends and survived by his three daughters, Kate, Lis and Meg, six grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.