Photographs from Peter’s Thanksgiving Service sheet.
Peter Curry: barrister, solicitor and athlete
Peter Curry was a prominent figure of the English Bar, counting John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison among his clients. An imposing man with an intimidating presence, he remains the only man to take silk twice, returning to the Bar after spending three years in private practice.
Thomas Peter Ellison Curry was born in 1921, in Muree, India – now part of Pakistan – where his father was serving with the Royal Artillery. He attended St Michael’s Preparatory School in St Leonard’s-on-Sea, showing even then the belligerence and bravery for which be became known, leading “a jolly nice gang” into “great fights with the local yobs”.
In 1934 Curry won a scholarship to Tonbridge, where he excelled as both a student and sportsman, breaking the school cross-country record by more than a minute at the age of 16.
Curry joined the Army in October 1939 as an officer cadet. Commissioned at Deolali where he passed out third, he was assigned to the Indian Artillery, serving with first Indian Field and then 7th Indian Division.
During this time, Curry was one of 600 officers on board HMS Windsor Castle, sent across the Indian Ocean from Durban to Bombay without an escort, despite the threat of the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer. He also fought in the pivotal Battle of Kohima in 1944, during which Allied forces prevented the Japanese from entering India.
In Burma; retreating from the Japanese, Curry arrived at a crossroads. He chose to take the right turn and later discovered that left led towards certain capture. Thereafter, whenever he was lost, he would always turn right.
Later in 1944 Curry was assigned back to the war office and promoted to captain. Here he was involved in sending parachutists behind enemy lines. While still employed, he accepted a place at Oriel College, Oxford, to read English. He did not find his tutor a man with whom he could easily get on and applied to change to a science degree. When the university refused his request, law was agreed on as a compromise. He graduated at the end of his second year, as was usual in the immediate postwar period, taking a first and winning Middle Temple’s Harmsworth Scholarship.
Curry was equally successful as a university sportsman. He won triple Blues in athletics, squash and cross-country, winning the 1947 varsity race against Cambridge. Oxford’s Blues Committee had earlier announced that a full Blue would be awarded only to the first runner home, with the other competitors receiving half Blue’s, so Curry and his teammates conspired to cross the line holding hands, ahead of any Cambridge runner. All four were awarded a full Blue.
Also while a student, Curry twice beat Roger Bannister, first in the freshmen’s match – Bannister was at Exeter College – and the second time running for his local club, Hastings & St Leonard’s Harriers, against the University of Oxford. Thus he was surprised to be omitted from the Great Britain team for the 1947 World Student Games. Querying the selection in characteristic style, he was told that there was not enough money to send him, so, equally characteristically, he paid for himself. He finished fourth in the three-mile race, won by training partner and future track legend, Emile Zatopek.
In the following year’s AAA national championships, Curry won the 3000m steeplechase, running the event for only the second time. He was subsequently selected to represent Great Britain in that summer’s Olympics in London, but unused to the event, did not make the final. This was effectively the end of Curry’s athletics career; he blamed the anti-Oxbridge attitude of the other British athletes for putting him off competing.
After graduating, Curry went to work for the British Empire Cancer Campaign, leaving, once again, because he found it impossible to get along with his boss. He moved to work as secretary for a company that owned rubber plantations, leaving when the firm recruited partners younger than he. It was at this point that he decided upon a career at the Bar, called by Middle Temple in 1953 and joining John Arnold’s formidable commercial set at 9 Old Square, which later moved to 24 Old Buildings.
Taking silk in 1966, Curry left a year later to join the City firm Freshfields as a solicitor; his elder daughter, Fleur, was unwell and he wanted to spend more time with her. His highest profile instruction while at Freshfields came from Leasco, a US company seeking to wrest control of Pergamon Press from Robert Maxwell. An Extraordinary General Meeting was convened in order to remove him from the board, during which Maxwell announced that proceedings were adjourned as he was awaiting legal advice. Curry promptly took the microphone and informed those present that this could not be done without their consent, and that he would now be administering the meeting. Maxwell soon returned but could not prevent Curry from ensuring that the motion for his dismissal was passed.
Although Curry appreciated the uplift in salary facilitated by private practice, he did not enjoy the work, so returned to the Bar in 1970. The earlier decision to walk away from the Bar had not been well received; those awarded the rank of junior silk were expected to progress to the highest office. Some former colleagues refused to speak to him when he returned, and he was refused tenancy by his old chambers. Instead, he joined 4 Stone Buildings and was became a QC for the second time in 1974.
Appointed to the bench by Middle Temple in 1979, Curry became head of chambers a year later, on the retirement of Viscount Bathurst. Under his powerful leadership, the set developed into a company law powerhouse, also acting in many overseas and trust-based cases. Scrupulously fair but exceedingly tough, he was a fearsome courtroom presence, his determined, logical and economical style exactly suitable for his chosen specialism.
In 1974 Curry acted for Ringo Starr, George Harrison and John Lennon in their dispute with Paul McCartney, who wanted to wind up the Beatles’ Apple record label. Introduced to Lennon for the first time, he was typically laconic, welcoming him with the greeting “I understand you can sing”. Lennon responded by spontaneously breaking into song. He later commented that he found Yoko Ono to be “incredibly clever”.
Curry was also involved in two of the highest-profile cases of the 1980s. In 1982, he represented investors following the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano – at the time, the largest financial institution to fold since the Second World War, and whose president, Roberto Calvi, was found hanged under Blackfriars Bridge leading to many conspiracy theories. One way of trying to retrieve investors’ money from the bankrupt bank was to contest the ownership of Sicilian Mafia money based in Nassau in the Bahamas, that had been laundered by the bank. Here he advised and represented the liquidator of the Bahamian subsidiary which held the assets.
Curry was not wholly successful, but as was his practice whenever he lost a case, he consoled himself with the purchase of a new pipe.
A new pipe was also in order in 1987 during the trials that followed the Guinness share-trading scandal. Acting for former director Thomas Ward, his client was ordered by the High Court to repay the company £5.2m that had been illegally transferred to him.
His wife Pamela survives him, along with two sons and two daughters.
Thomas Peter Ellison Curry, QC, barrister, solicitor and athlete, was born on July 22, 1921. He died on January 25, 2010, aged 88
Paul Jenkins wrote:
Peter Curry QC, was one of my faithful 8.00am 1662 Holy Communion flock here in Dunsfold, Surrey.
Visiting him in his last days was my privilege. As I entered his bedroom, observing a glass of whisky on his bed-side table his first words “And what, Rector, would you like to drink?” The following day he moved to champagne! Faith, courtesy and style are such rare virtues these days!
Canon Paul Jenkins
March 8, 2010
Extract from a tribute to J.F.Pollard ( Pembroke College, Oxford, 1947-50) who ran in the ‘Varsity Cross-Country Race of 1947 with Peter Curry.
In the first year, he was part of the controversial four-way tie for first place with Peter Curry, G.Ridding (both Oriel) and N.M.Green (Magdalen). In those days, cross-country was still, effectively, a Half-Blue sport, with the only concession offered by the respective Blues Committees that the first man home for each team could be awarded a Full Blue.
Peter Curry, who was leading the race, glanced back in the closing stages and saw that the other three Oxford runners were far enough ahead of the chasing Cambridge duo of Chris Brasher (St. John’s) and Max Jones (Clare) and so waited for them and they crossed the line together.
The following year, Pollard once again ran for Oxford and finished joint second, with Roger Bannister, behind team-mate Jim Scott-Wilson.
The 1947 result caused considerable controversy at the time and Sandy Duncan and Harold Abrahams argued whether such contrivance was honourable as ‘slacking-off’’ just was ‘not done’ in university crosscountry running. Thames Hare and Hounds, as organizers, incurred the wrath of the Blues Committees because the four-way tie necessitated the awarding of four Blues. However, Peter Curry’s actions were to have a long-lasting impact as his literal interpretation of the Blues ruling paved the way for cross-country to become a full Blue sport.