Tribute paid to former Strathclyde Chancellor Lord Tombs

Lord Tombs of Brailes (far right) pictured in 1992 with, left to right:: Professor (later Sir) John Arbuthnott, then Principal of Strathclyde;Strathclyde Professor John Butt; Thomas Johnston OBE, then University Treasurer and recipient of honorary degree.

Tribute has been paid to the University of Strathclyde’s former Chancellor, Lord Tombs of Brailes, who has died at the age of 95.

Lord Tombs was Strathclyde’s second Chancellor and held the post from 1991 to 1997.

During this period, the University merged with Jordanhill College of Education to create the then Faculty of Education and began using the Barony Hall as its graduation venue.

Lord Tombs enjoyed a long and successful career in the engineering and energy sectors, serving as chair of Rolls-Royce, the Weir Group, the Electricity Council and the South of Scotland Electricity Board (SSEB).

Strathclyde Principal Professor Sir Jim McDonald said: “I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Lord Tombs. He made enormous professional contributions to the energy and engineering industry throughout his career and made a significant impact as Strathclyde’s Chancellor during a time of our growth and establishment as the UK’s first Technological University.

“He was already a legendary figure when I became a graduate engineer in SSEB in the late 70’s and he was influential in the establishment of the Rolls-Royce Chair at Strathclyde, which I took up in 1993. He made himself available to me and offered support when I became Principal in 2009 and I benefitted greatly from his advice.

"We extend our sincere condolences to his family and will always be proud that we benefited from having such an accomplished engineer and successful business man as our Chancellor.”

Born in Walsall in 1925, Francis Tombs worked as a St John Ambulance first aider during the Second World War. He had aspired to become a journalist but went in 1946 to work as an electrical engineer with GEC (General Electric Company). He rose to Operations Superintendent before being appointed to a new department which dealt with troubleshooting and commissioning new plants around the world.

He joined SSEB in1969 as Director of Engineering and was later promoted to Deputy Chair and, in 1974, Chair. In a 2012 oral history interview for the British Library, he described his tenure there as “very busy but very satisfying.” In 1977, he was invited to head the Electricity Council, the industry’s supervisory body, and held the post for three and a half years.

Lord Tombs, who regarded himself first and foremost as an engineer, was recruited in the early 1980s as chair of the Weir Group. When he joined, the firm’s shares were worth 30p but he was instrumental in a process of growth which would ultimately lead to it becoming a FTSE 100 company with shares valued at 1200p.

Lord Tombs took over as Chair of Rolls-Royce in 1985, having already been a board member for three years. Under his leadership, the company invested around £6 billion in five years in producing a new range of engines and went from a 6% share of the civil engine market when he took over to 40% by the 2010s. He told the British Library that he saw the company’s purpose as “(providing) a lucrative business for the workers and shareholders and satisfactory products for the customers” and he believed in having “a well-treated, happy, proud workforce.”

Lord Tombs was knighted in 1978 and became a life peer in 1990, taking his title from a Warwickshire village. He sat as a Crossbench peer until his retirement in 2015 and was a member of the Lords’ Science and Technology and Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee; he also chaired a Select Committee on sustainable development. He saw the House of Lords as providing “extremely expert advice” to the Commons and believed Crossbenchers such as himself were “usually totally independent of politics.”

Lord Tombs served as President of the Institute of Electrical Engineers, now the Institution of Engineering and Technology, in 1981. He was a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.