The Fine Collection of Medals to 'Old Contemptibles' formed by Major Bob Keay
Major Robert Keay
I started collecting medals in a somewhat disorganised way in the early 1960s, although I had neither direction nor theme until I had the privilege to be involved in the anniversary celebrations of a wonderful group of fighting men.
In 1964 I was Adjutant of Depot, The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces, at Maida Barracks, Aldershot. 'Depot Para' was the army sponsor unit for the Old Contemptibles Association and my tour in post coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Mons. My RSM and I had many planning meetings with the committee of the Old Contemptibles Association and their secretary Paddy Smythe, late of the Coldstream Guards. On the day, after a service in the garrison church of All Saints, the Association was reviewed by and then marched past the Queen. They then retired to Maida Gymnasium where we had organised a gigantic tea party for over 5,000 veterans.
Many books written about the Old Contemptibles refer to their nickname of 'Chums' - I can vouch for this from my personal experience that day. The many 'Chums' I spoke to all exuded an aura of chivalry, comradeship and loyalty. What tremendous fighting men they had been! I remember with humility Paddy Smythe and John Macdonald, who was my civilian batman at the depot. John was over 75 in 1964, a softly-spoken Irishman from Co. Tipperary who had served in the Royal Field Artillery at Mons, Le Cateau and throughout the retreat. My RSM would moan about Jimmy Green, a Chelsea pensioner Old Contemptible, dressed in his glorious red tunic at the depot sergeant's mess bar at weekends, attempting to drink it dry! He was wearing his three-clasp QSA, IGS '08, trio and bar to the 1st West Yorks.
And finally, I recall as a boy in the early 1950s, in my home village of Mevagissey, H.L. Rowe, who ran a small fruiterer's shop. He gave up his spare time to organise and train our junior water-polo team. It was not until many years later that I found out his apparent hostility to 'them German buggers' had been caused by his four years' internment in Holland and Germany as a member of the Royal Naval Division.
I have to admit that I have been a 'dormant' collector for some time. Looking back, the best years for me were the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. At the time I had a two-year staff posting in London at the old War Office building in Whitehall, which enabled me to pester John Hayward, Ron Barden and Donald Hall on a regular basis - to the great benefit of my collection! However, many of my groups are 'new' to the specialist medal market, having been found in junk shops, antique dealers and house clearances.
Whilst I have been fortunate to acquire a number of gallantry and long service groups, the simple trios must not be overlooked. They were awarded to equally gallant men who faced overwhelming odds with fortitude, loyalty and discipline, attributes which have been inherited by our armed forces to this day.
This collection has been 46 years in the making, and the pleasure it has given me is immeasurable. However, we are only custodians for so long and the time has now come for others to share the enjoyment I have had.