Obituary: 'Selfless' community worker and family man Peter Cuming
Céline La Frenière
- Credit: Polly Hancock
Kentish Town father, grandfather, husband and community activist Peter Cuming has died aged 81.
Peter Gerard Cuming was born on July 1, 1940 in Worthing. His father Wilfred, a banker, had arranged for his mother Vera and brothers David and John to be evacuated from London.
During a bombing raid – so the family story goes – worried that the newly-born might be blown up, the midwife immediately baptised him. The local Catholic priest did not trust this and baptised Peter again. Subsequently Peter’s Uncle Bob Cuming, parish priest of Berkhamsted, decided to baptise the little boy one more time, for good measure.
Peter could not read until he turned nine, but after that he read absolutely everything he could lay his hands on. Living with Peter was like living with an encyclopaedia. Encountering him in court as a judge in a planning appeal was considered a real challenge. His knowledge extended to, but was not limited to, history, geography, anthropology, geology, travels and world news.
He studied geology at the University of London and became a member of the ULU Canada Club. He and his friend Jeremy Greenfield devised a scheme whereby students could travel to North America, filling flights at £80 return. He even convinced Canadian prime minister John Diefenbaker to become club president.
The experience started a lifelong love affair with Canada and travelling, and he worked as a geologist in the Canadian outback before returning to the UK for further studies.
Before entering the workforce he was recruited by the Red Cross to resettle Tibetan refugees in India. This challenged his resilience, having to build a village during a famine with little financial resources and with people who were weak and destitute. There he met Jean Anderson, a nurse whom he was destined to marry.
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Having completed the task, he broke his neck when his car ran off the road and over the Himalayas. His driver ran off leaving Peter for dead, before he was rescued by the army. In London, Peter went through pioneering surgery, married Jean, and started a family. Kathleen (Katie) was born in 1969, a year later, Victoria (Vicky) arrived, and then John followed in 1974.
Peter took his family on holidays to the Third World, and Vicky would go on to work for Oxfam and Katie would volunteer as a doctor for Médecins Sans Frontières and other organisations in violent hotspots around the world.
Peter worked as an architect and city planner, and then as a planning inspector in the UK and Bermuda. He became a director of Arup Associates, including postings in poorer countries.
On his retirement, he designed and built our solar house, which was the first London sustainable building to get planning permission, gaining media attention in 1996.
Although he was not perfect by any means, Peter could be described as selfless. He was an active person who raised his family and devoted a lot of his free time to the community.
He campaigned successfully for projects in Camden that he executed with the help of volunteers, including, in 2003, the planter boxes at All Hallows’ Church in Savernake Road which rendered a dangerous area safer. In 2002 he raised funding to create the Jean Edwards Memorial Garden that transformed a drug dealing area at Athlone House into a children’s garden. In 2008, he created the Gaudi-style bench at Talacre Gardens with the help of 400 children and volunteers. He ran the Talacre Gardens Neighbourhood Watch from 2002.
In 2007, when Talacre Gardens was threatened by a property developer who sought to build a road across the park, Peter formed a friends group, gaining a 250-strong membership, and they saved the park by getting it registered as a town green.
In June 2016, when an issue arose about the costs of maintaining the town green, Peter came up with the solution of selling burial plots for park users and their pets. Later that year, however, an unsuccessful hip operation started a decline in his mobility.
We were married on March 17, 2018, dressed in traditional Scottish Cuming family kilt and with a bagpiper playing, in St Dominic’s Church by Fr Thomas Skeats.
The village Peter built for the Tibetan refugees in 1967 is still there. During a short stay at the Royal Free in 2019, one of the nurses revealed to him that her family still lived in the village. They were delighted to hear that their daughter was caring for “the Doctor”. The Red Cross had provided Peter with antibiotics and other drugs which he had administered to the refugees. .
In January this year, Peter Caught Covid-19 and was in intensive care at the University College Hospital. Due to Covid rules, Fr Peter Harries from St Dominic’s Priory was his only visitor and Peter fell into a depression when he was unable to be discharged. Father Peter visited him regularly, gave him communion, and did his best to provide reassurance.
After Peter’s discharge on January 29, it was my pleasure and privilege to care for him 24/7. I would not have wanted it otherwise. Every minute I spent with him was precious.
Peter was admitted to A&E on Monday the November 29 with suspected pneumonia. His condition deteriorated and I arranged for him to have the Last Rites from Father Joseph
On December 3, Peter died peacefully while Katie and I held his hand on either side of the bed. Mari, the hospital lay Catholic chaplain, prayed over him, Katie, Vicky, and me.
Camden’s parks department considered allowing him to be buried at Talacre Town Green and using the event as a trial, but it was not to be.
Peter will be buried in the Woodland Burial Area at Islington and St Pancras Cemetery. On December 30, mourners will gather at Leverton & Sons, 164 Marden Road, and follow the hearse to St Dominic's Church while bagpiper David Whitney plays Amazing Grace.
Rest in Peace, my beloved Peter, you have done your work and deserve a rest.
Peter leaves behind his wife Céline, his children Katie, Vicky, and John, and seven grandchildren Isaac, Maia, Sam, Laurie, Issy, Eva, and Kofi.