Obituary: Barry Custance Baker

Somerset County Gazette: Barry Custance Baker Barry Custance Baker

Barry Custance Baker, who had lived in Trull for over 50 years, died at home on December 27 aged 94.

He was renowned among his family and his acquaintance for being able to make anything that was required; this continued up to a month before his death.

After his death his family compiled a list of the different things he had made - this list now has over 160 entries ranging from canoes to harpoon guns, from kimonos to toddlers’ chairs, from duelling pistols to doll’s houses.

Barry was born in Penang in 1915, the eldest of three brothers, as his father was Resident Councillor in the Colonial Civil Service in Malaya.

He came back to England for most of his childhood and was brought up by his grandfather, William Evans, and his awe-inspiring great aunt Ada. Aged eight he borrowed Ada’s sewing machine to make sails for a toy boat and at twelve constructed his first lathe, beginning a lifetime of making things.

He attended Marlborough College and then went on to King’s College, Cambridge. His academic career changed from maths to languages and finally to military studies in which he graduated. In 1936 he met a theatre-mad graduate of Newnham College, Phyllis Elinor Bacon and they married in 1939.

Barry was commissioned into the Royal Corps of Signals in 1937, but spent most of the war years as a prisoner in the Far East.

Barely surviving the building of the Burma railway – reaching the final camp at under six stone – he became a medical orderly and joined the theatrical group to become a ‘leading lady’. Apart from building bridges, railway tracks and bamboo huts, he also made medical instruments out of cutlery, fashioned a violin, used the leather from some old boots to frame a photograph of Phyllis and rebound his treasured copy of Racine’s plays.

After the war Barry was stationed in Vienna, where he passed the French Interpreter’s exams and in 1947 returned to England to study mechanical sciences at Shrivenham Military College. He joined military intelligence and bought a vicarage in Wiltshire where he installed his wife and growing family.

There he raised pigs and poultry to offset the restrictions of rationing, restored the antique plumbing and made jodhpurs, dressing gowns, pig-sties and chicken coops.

Re-joining his regiment from 1952, he was stationed in Gibraltar and then in Germany, before taking early retirement in 1958. He moved to Somerset as a schoolmaster at King’s College, Taunton, teaching Maths, Physics, French and German. There he ran the Pioneers, building walls and laying paths as an alternative to games and introduced the boys to archery and target rifle shooting.

He bought the house near Taunton where he lived for the rest of his life. He made folding canoes, a swimming pool (with solar heater), a 4-bore elephant gun and several duelling pistols and turned a field into a tennis court. He retired from teaching in 1971 and worked on the restoration of a ruined cottage, while making dulcimers, chairs, kimonos and some formidable wines for his relatives and many friends. His son-in-law described the household of this period as an industry with two bosses – the only difficulty being in describing the product.

Phyllis, who was a leading member of the WI and Taunton Thespians and served with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, died in 1984, but Barry continued to live in the family home and was always happy to have large numbers of visitors using the pool and court.

Rifle shooting was a favourite activity throughout his life. He continued shooting into his 95th year and won his last competition in July 2009, having regularly featured in the Bisley prize lists using a .451 ‘Baker-Bedford’ rifle of his own manufacture. His was probably a world record shooting career of over 80 years as his first trophy was his prep school shooting cup, won in 1928, which is still in the family.

His other main sport was skiing which he did for nearly 70 years, having started in the 1930s, and continued until 2002 when he was 87.

He started writing his memoirs in 2000 and produced a comprehensive, honest and extremely readable summary of a very varied life. Among his many creations, the most memorable will probably be the 86 chairs that he made for children, not only for his own relations but whenever he learnt of a new baby amongst his acquaintance.

Barry was a voracious reader and, throughout his life, was busy, entertaining, inventive, open-minded, modest and clever. He leaves his brother Alan, four children, Robin, Hilary, Jonathan and Stephen, eleven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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