Roger Fresco-Corbu, 1912-1999

By Pat Mason

Extracted from Journal of Conchology 37, pp.99–100

Roger Fresco-Corbu was born in Constantinople on 22 July 1912, where his Father, Jules, a timber trader had gone with his wife, Hortense from Roumania, to work. Unfortunately this marriage didn’t last and so at the start of the Great War, his mother moved back to Braila, Roumania where they all lived with Roger’s grandparents. Roger’s Mother met and married Jack Corbu who was British Vice-Consul in Bucharest and whom Roger always looked upon lovingly, as his Father. It is not surprising that his early life was spent in a multi-lingual environment, speaking Roumanian, French, German and English fluently and in later life also read widely in several other European languages.

He came to England in 1930 to study at Durham University, but it had to be Engineering according to his step-father’s wishes. Not being happy with the course, he changed to Marine Engineering and gained a BSc from Armstrong College, for whom he rowed and played Rugby. During his time at Durham he also carried out work experience in the shipyards, but with the outbreak of war, having been naturalised a British subject in August 1939, he felt that it was right for him to volunteer into the RAF where he quickly moved up to the rank of Flight Lieutenant. He served in North Africa, taking part in the Battle of El Alamein and then worked his way up through Sicily and Italy along with spending some time on Malta. At the end of the war, due to his knowledge of languages, he worked for Military Intelligence in Germany investigating missing persons.

In October 1945, he married Joy, a WAAF Sergeant whom he met at Bletchley on one of his trips back to England. This lady, loved by all who knew her, encouraged and inspired Roger thereafter in all he undertook. Demobilised, he became a Naval Architect for Lloyds Register of Shipping in Fenchurch Street in London and chose to be London based rather than move around the overseas ports and re-locate his family from country to country. He was then able to spend his spare time on activities in many fields. To list his passions, let alone interests, would be too exhaustive for such a short note as this, but he was a member of the Sherlock Holmes Society, The Dickens Fellowship, The Geological Society, The RAF Association, The British Legion, The Button Society, The Conchological Society, The Matchbox Label Society and many other organisations too rumerous to mention. He published many learned papers, articles and books on various antiquarian subjects, particularly in the field of tobacco associated material. Indeed, the collection of the latter that he and his wife assembled over 50 years grew to be the largest in private hands.

Overshadowing all these, however, was his enthusiasm for and profound knowledge of Conchology. A life-long member of the Society, he also sat on Council for some time. The writer of this tribute was fortunate enough to accompany him for most weekends over 8 years, on the 10Km census scheme. Together, we covered every square east of a line from The Wash to the Pevensey Levels, often setting off at 02.30 am to get a good day’s work done.

These are mere dry facts. It is the personality of the man that makes him memorable. On the 17 June 1971, we found a living colony of Ena montana (Drap 1801) near Stowmarket in Suffolk. Roger’s excitement was not so much in the fact of the find, but that, to quote him, "They’re doing just what the book says - climbing trees!" It was his innocent and joyful approach to nature that made him an inspiration for the writer.

He had a sly sense of humour. Thirty years ago, I made a life-sized model of a slug, hid it amongst the flowers by his doorstep, and left him to find it. He said nothing to me for some months. Then, in comparing notes with him over his cabinets, I saw it, beautifully mounted in a plastic box. The label read, Milax bluetackiensis. Linnaeus was not credited. When Roger gave his huge molluscan collection to the Southend Museum in 1996, he kept only the fossils he had collected in Egypt in 1940, and the little blue slug.

The death of his wife in 1991, dealt him a blow from which he never recovered. Roger Fresco-Corbu belonged less to this century, than to the last, when Gentleman Scholars (and he was both of those) advanced the sciences by enthusiasm and love of the pursuit, rather than the narrow specialisation which prevails today. Such men as he deserve wider appreciation. It is to be hoped that some conchologist, reading this notice, will honour him by naming a new species x x x Fresco-Corbui. He would be delighted.

He left two daughters, Patricia and Marilyn. The former devoted many years of service to him, whilst raising a family, and it was at the home of the latter, in Spain, that he died peacefully on March 26 1999. May he rest in peace.

Pat Mason