Distinguished Members of the Family

Prof. Frank Debenham, O.B.E.
Frank Debenham Frank Debenham was born in New South Wales, Australia in 1883, the second of five children of John Willmott Debenham and Edith Cleveland, his father having emigrated to Australia from Suffolk some time before 1880. He travelled with Scott to the Antarctic as the expedition's geologist. Later he founded the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge as a memorial to Scott, and was its Director from its foundation in 1920 until 1946.

He was appointed Professor of Geography at Cambridge University, and on his retirement researched the family history to great effect. He wrote numerous books, mostly on geographic matters, but is best known to genealogists for the privately printed "Seven Centuries of Debenhams", published in 1957. He died at Cambridge in 1965. [Photograph by Herbert Ponting (1870—1935)]

Capt. John Debenham, R.N.
John Debenham was born at Bolton Castle, Yorkshire, in 1772, the eldest son of John Debenham and Lydia Fearon. His brother Samuel Fearon Debenham was the ancestor of the photographers described in Photography and the Debenhams. He joined the Navy in 1789, reputedly by being press ganged, and rose rapidly to the rank of Commander, then to Captain. He repeatedly distinguished himself in the Napoleonic wars, and retired from the Navy to Chelsea in London where he lived until his death in 1847. He is buried in Brompton Cemetery, where his monument is engraved with the following legend:-

"In memory of Captain John Debenham R.N. Born November 12, 1772, at Bolton Castle, Yorks. Died June 15, 1847, A good Christian friend and Father. He entered the Royal Navy in 1789. He was actively engaged in all the naval and military operations of that time to 1814. Particularly on 29th May - 5th June 1794 with Lord Howe; Lord Bridport's rencontre off Lorient; the capture of Trinidad; the Channel fleet; Corunna; Walcharen. Lastly at the Passage of the Bar of Bayonne, where he succeeded first in passing the Bar then in landing the troops. In this service he saved many lives for which he received the personal thanks of the Duke of Wellington and all the Military Commanders there assembled and was honourably gazetted for his bravery and exertions at that place."

The Debenhams of Wigmore Street
William Debenham (1794—1863), of the Bradfield line, joined with a Thomas Clark in 1813 to manage a draper's shop at 44 Wigmore Street, London. It was later extended to the other side of Wigmore Street, one establishment being called Clark and Debenham, the other Debenham and Clark. William had married Caroline Freebody, and later his son, another William (1824—1896) established the well-known partnership of Debenham and Freebody with Caroline's brother, Clement. This partnership took over the business when Thomas Clark retired, and in 1851 the business became known as Debenham son and Freebody. When the elder William died in 1863 the name became Debenham and Freebody, and remained so until the mid–20th Century when it was changed to Debenhams Limited.

The full history of the Debenhams business is told in the book "Fine Silks and Oak Counters" by Maurice Corina, published by Hutchinson Benham in 1978.

Cicely Debenham
Cicely Cicely Debenham Alice Debenham was a notable comedy actress who was prominent on the British stage from about 1912 to 1927, taking part in at least 28 major productions. The picture shows her as she appeared on postcards in 1915 at the age of 24, featured as "One of Britain's Beauties". With her sister Dorothy, also an actress, she played in many musicals with and written by Ivor Novello.

The following is extracted from her obituary in the London "Times" newspaper dated 8th November 1955:-

"MISS CICELY DEBENHAM — Mrs. Guy Ridley, who died in London yesterday at the age of 64 years, was as Cicely Debenham, a favourite musical comedy actress in the 1920's. She was born in Aylesbury in 1891, and made her first appearance on the stage at the Apollo Theatre as one of the Oysters in a revival of "Alice in Wonderland" - she was 16 years of age. Two years later she played in the chorus of the famous musical "The Arcadians", and in "Caprice". Soon she was being given leading parts and she sang and danced in a long series of musical comedies in London. In 1923 she appeared for the first time on the American Broadway stage in Hammerstein's "Nine O'Clock Review". Next year she was back in London playing at the Criterion in "Cartoons"; "Patricia" and "Clo-Clo" followed. In the latter she had the title role, and always amusing on the stage, she daringly, and successfully, made a funny part out of the heroine of a musical comedy.

She was married in 1928 to Guy Ridley, a lawyer, who died in 1947."

Colin Debenham
Colin Colin Debenham Debenham (1912—1983) was a grandson of the photographer, William Elliott Debenham. An aeronautical engineer by profession, he earned a distinguished record as a pilot in the RAF during the second world war, and after the war emigrated to Canada and later the USA to pursue his aeronautical interests. He took American citizenship so as to qualify to participate in NASA's aerospace programmes, and while employed by a major NASA contractor was project manager for the biology module of the Viking lander which successfully landed on Mars in 1976.

He later told the story of the difficulties the development team had experienced while designing the soil distribution mechanism that would send measured samples of Martian soil to the various parts of the module for analysis. A major problem was that stones would always cause the mechanism to jam. Then one day when sweeping up debris from the floor at home following some DIY activity he experienced a 'Eureka' moment. He noticed that a brush would deal with lumpy debris with ease. This prompted him to try out brushes as a vital part of the soil distribution mechanism, and it worked! So the Viking lander's biology module became operational and the rest is history, as it is said.

Colin gained a number of NASA awards for his work on this programme. They were undoubtedly well earned and richly deserved. [Photograph © Copyright M J Debenham]

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