RUTH Edith Kelsall Duncombe — principal of St Mary’s Secondary School, Kuching from 1958 to 1971 — passed away in Oxfordshire, England on Tuesday at the age of 97.
Born on Sept 8, 1923, she was the second child of Walter Duncombe and Dorothy Helen Smith. Mary, her older sister by two years, was physically and mentally disabled. When Duncombe was just eight years old, Walter died in Nigeria where he had served as controller of the customs service.
As the widow’s pension was very low, conditions were difficult for the family. Smith also had to dedicated herself wholly to Mary’s care, thus she encouraged Duncombe to be independent and find her own interests.
Duncombe found joy in her schoolwork and discovered a love for all kinds of reading, as well as music. She learnt piano and viola, played in the school orchestra, and sang in the school choir. She would continue both the viola and singing at university.
Smith worked immensely hard to see that her daughter received a good education. These efforts were rewarded when Duncombe achieved excellent A Level results that earned her a scholarship to Oxford University and, despite it being war time, she was able to complete her degree and become the first graduate in her family.
As Smith was deeply religious, Duncombe became interested in missionary work quite early on.
In her teens, she became fascinated with China, reading whatever she could about the country. This developed into a wish to serve as a missionary there.
As such, Duncombe, who was conversant in basic Mandarin, trained to become a teacher. However, when she completed her training in 1949, China was undergoing the Communist Revolution and expelling all foreigners.
Duncombe found herself with an offer to teach at St Mary’s School Kuala Lumpur instead. In 1950, the Communist Insurgency also reared its head in Malaya. Although it was a tense time, she had her school duties and took charge of the Sunday School at St Mary’s Cathedral. She also helped with the youth fellowship and activities.
In 1957, the Bishop of Borneo, the Rt Revd Nigel Cornwall, offered her the position of principal of St Mary’s School, Kuching. Cornwall met Duncombe over a year before when she visited Kuching on holiday and had obviously been impressed with her knowledge. She accepted and took over as principal in January 1958.
Duncombe’s time as principal is often credited as a period of intense expansion and development for the school in terms of new buildings and the introduction of science subjects in the curriculum.
Bishop of the Anglican Church in Sarawak and Brunei, the Rt Revd Datuk Donald Jute, said Duncombe was “well loved and well respected by many, especially her former students and peers, and many others who were blessed and fortunate enough to have had an encounter with her”.
“Truly she was a wonderful servant of the Gospel and of the Church. She was like a candle, consuming itself to light the way for others. She knew how to bring out the best in her students. Many good teachers know how to teach and explain things. Miss Duncombe was an exceptionally great teacher — she inspired her students,” he said.
“The Diocese mourns her passing with thanksgiving and gratefulness to God for her life and ministry here in Borneo. May she rest in peace and rise in glory!”
Former student Alice Wright recalled how skilled Duncombe was in imparting knowledge.
“Miss Duncombe and I started our lives at St Mary’s in the same year of 1958 — she as principal and me a student in Form 1. Over the course of five years, Miss Duncombe taught me Geography, English (Language and Literature), and Latin. Geography became my favourite subject purely because of the life she made me see through it.
“The map of peninsular Malaya literally grew — from its relief of brown mountain ranges, blue rivers, green plains, and shapely coastlines to red caterpillar railway tracks along the foothills with white-chalked roads running parallel, little red dots depicting towns where tracks and roads crossed rivers, and larger dots for ports where rivers entered the sea. Tin mines amidst rubber plantations sprung up on the lower highland slopes, while padi sprouted on the northern plains. It’s small wonder that I became a teacher of Geography too,” she said.
Piano teacher Dolly Crocker considered Duncombe her mentor and friend.
“She invited me to her flat in York Block, when I just started to learn the piano and joined the choir, to listen to the full version of Handel’s ‘Messiah’. I sat entranced for a couple of afternoons while she played it for me on her His Master’s Voice gramophone player on a 33rpm vinyl record,” she said.
“I loved her Religious Knowledge and English classes. We learned to read the dictionary thoroughly, and I mean thoroughly — every aspect starting from the contents page.”
Datin Dayang Mariani Abang Zain was only in Form 1 when Duncombe returned to England.
“My association with Miss Duncombe came much later, when I became the Old Marians Association president and the late Linda Ong was principal. She visited Kuching twice during that time. We developed a strong friendship,” said Dayang Mariani, who often visited Duncombe in England.
“My last visit was in July 2018, when my children came with us. I took a video of her wish to St Mary’s for its 170th, which we showed at the anniversary reunion dinner. I have never seen anyone with such a strong mind, remembered everything till the end.”
When she was a schoolgirl, former St Mary’s School principal Prisca Chambers only knew of Duncombe as someone legendary.
“I finally met the legend in 1998, when she came to visit. Linda Ong was the principal then. She was everything that I had imagined her to be. A dignified lady, straight-backed, with piercing eyes, and she spoke in a slow and forceful manner.
“When I was principal, she came to visit a couple more times. That was when I really got to know her. I felt less intimidated by her presence then, and she proved to be a good friend, a source of encouragement, support, and comfort to me as at that time I was a novice in the world of school leadership. She then became like a godmother to me and to the school,” Prisca related.
The last time they would meet was in 2015 at St John’s Church in Waterloo, London, at a service to commemorate the closing of the Borneo Mission Association.
“She was already very frail at that time, but I could still see the strength of character there; and she still looked tall and dignified in her bearing,” said Prisca.
She also recalled how Duncombe would correspond regularly, sending Christmas and Easter Cards without fail for many years, as well as letters every March or April to ask how the school observed the Feast of the Annunciation to Mary.
“Her passing is certainly a big loss to us all who had known her as principal, teacher, and for me a dear friend, a confidant, and a mentor. She was always concerned about the school, and I was always assured and confident about her love and dedication to St Mary’s,” Prisca added.
During her time in Kuching, Duncombe founded the 1st Kuching Company, The Girls’ Brigade in March 1967 — the start of the movement in Borneo.
“She was really a good captain, who demonstrated incredible leadership skills; setting the bar very high. She did a lot for the Girls’ Brigade, and was always very kind and concerned about the welfare of the girls. She was very good to me personally as well,” recalled Joyce Ong, former 1st Kuching captain.
Duncombe was also a member of the St Thomas’ Cathedral choir, where fellow choir member Dr Thomas Chung noted she “was a powerful alto with a rich contralto voice”.
In May 1971, prior to leaving Kuching, Duncombe was invested with the insignia of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) from the Queen by then British High Commissioner to Malaysia Sir John Baines Johnston.
When she returned to England following a period of reflection in Jerusalem, she worked for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) and later took up teaching again.
At the end of 1978, she was assistant to the warden of Verulam House, a centre for retreats and conferences under the Diocese of St Alban’s. After her retirement in 1983, she continued to serve the house part time.
Later she worked at St Alban’s Cathedral’s bookstore and charity shops, as well as continued to volunteer with Oxfam — an international organisation working to solve poverty and suffering — well into her 80s.
In an interview with The Borneo Post’s pull-out ‘Postmag’ in 2006, Duncombe noted that she still thought of Kuching as home.
“It is where I feel at ease and at home. It took me a very long time to feel that England was home. Yes, I know England is home, but I feel a bit of a misfit. And I suppose I am a misfit here because nothing will ever stop me from being an orang putih!” she laughed.
Duncombe was also asked to reflect on her life and many achievements.
“I only live from day to day and hope I may be able to respond to whatever God puts in my way. Daily committing my life to the guidance of God and endeavouring to accept what each day brings as something which God has given,” she replied.
From 1999, Duncombe lived at St Katherine’s Care Home in Wantage. On Thursday, the staff and residents held a beautiful memorial service for her.
During the memorial, activity coordinator Tina Louise Tompkins gave a eulogy.
“She proved to be a constant user of our library. Ruth was very sociable and took an interest in everybody’s well-being. Always being grateful to the staff and often giving out Christmas presents. Ruth was a huge part of St Katherine’s and is going to be missed by so many people,” Tompkins shared.
Duncombe’s funeral will be held on April 3 at Holy Trinity, Charlton in Wantage, where she was a regular parishioner.
On the same day in Kuching, the Anglican Church of Sarawak and Brunei is scheduled to hold a Memorial Service in St Thomas’ Cathedral at 4pm.