SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: From being a pilot in World War I to working as a visionary minister caring for the vulnerable during the Great Depression, Don Robins had an inspiring career, writes DAVID MORGAN
Croydon Airport in the 1920s was at the forefront of the world’s travel revolution.
New aeroplanes, which were capable of flying greater distances and carrying heavier loads, and passengers, transformed the capabilities of the new airline businesses. One of the routes which began operating in May 1924 was a daily service from Croydon to Cologne. One of the pilots flying that route was Don Robins. His story is a remarkable one.
Born in Aldershot in 1899, Robins was still a pupil at Farnham Grammar School when the First World War broke out. He joined the army aged 16, eventually being assigned to the Royal Flying Corps.
Flying was in its infancy and, according to one report, Robins managed to land a damaged aircraft which he had repaired using nothing more than a handkerchief. On another occasion, when he was flying VIPs home from France, he had TE Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – among his passengers.
Robins was awarded the Air Force Cross in 1919 and it was presented to him personally by King George V. As with many soldiers though, his experiences of warfare changed him. Time in the trenches so moved Robins that he became an ardent pacifist for the remainder of his life.
Once the war was over and he returned to civilian life, he needed to find a job. Imperial Airways provided him with employment. He was one of the first 12 civilian pilots based at Croydon and he became one of their finest aviators. It was while in the cockpit, flying over the Channel one day that Robins experienced a Damascene moment. High above the clouds, he felt an overwhelming urge that he should leave his job as a pilot and devote his life to the Christian ministry.
On his return to Croydon, Robins sought out the vicar, Rev Pat McCormick, and talked to him about how he felt. McCormick was most supportive. He made Robins a Reader in the Church of England and arranged for him to go to Cambridge and study for the priesthood.
Before Robins left Imperial Airways for good, he had already begun to study for his new career. I don’t suppose the passengers on his Cologne flights ever suspected that their pilot was reading his Greek textbook in the cockpit.
In December 1926, after completing his training, he was ordained in Canterbury Cathedral as a deacon. His time of training wasn’t easy. He and his wife Alva had to survive on a meagre income, much less than he earned as an airline pilot. After his ordination, he was appointed curate-in-charge of St Edmund’s Church, Wandle Park, a post he held for three years. Always energetic and keen to throw himself into various projects, some locals remembered him as the man who ran the local scout troop.
In 1930, Robins applied for the job as vicar of St George’s Church in Leeds. The trustees who interviewed him realised his inexperience in the church but saw in Robins a man of great potential. Their appointment of Robins proved to be a masterstroke.
Over the next 18 years Robins worked tirelessly in his parish and his name would become known both nationally and internationally as someone who had a vision that the church should be a beacon and a refuge to the “hard-pressed wayfaring man on the road of life”.
Robins declared that he would be “where the battle is hottest and the work is hardest”.
It was the time of the Great Depression, and Robins saw his parishioners were suffering. Leeds was particularly hard hit, with massive unemployment. Robins was aware of the work done at St Martins-in-the-Field in London for the homeless and having looked at St George’s huge building, he developed a plan.
If he could clear the vast crypt, there would be a suitable space to help those people in greatest need. Robins could see the familiar signs of a community that was really struggling, namely enforced idleness, hunger, hardship and despair.
If some of his congregation didn’t entirely share either his vision or his enthusiasm, they were swept along by the dynamism of their new vicar. Robins was a most persuasive man as well as a great organiser.
Together with his team of helpers, they cleared all the cobwebs, dirt, debris, old coffins and years of rubbish from the crypt so that within months of his arrival they could offer warmth, shelter, a hot drink and companionship to those in need.
Robins was pleased with the start of his work but knew that this was not enough. By the end of 1930 The Crypt, as it was known, became a night shelter, too. It provided basic beds for 40 men, as well as offering them medical aid and clothing if they needed it. Nobody was refused entry if there was space.
Robins’s project was costly not only in terms of the time that people had to devote to it but also in the amount of cash needed. He had recorded that the first £3 which was raised for the project was spent on canvas, to cover the coffins and the gaping holes in the crypt roof.
While the congregation donated milk, sugar and cocoa, Robins took his project to a wider audience through talks and radio broadcasts which brought in larger sums of money. He was able to appoint some full-time workers. The project expanded to help women and families, and during the Second World War, The Crypt was put to use as an air raid shelter.
As well as Robins’ work in The Crypt, his congregation were in awe at the services he planned and arranged. The Christmas Tree services in the church were a wonder of pageantry and organisation and were just one example of his gigantic ideas being put into practice.
Years of hard work, the stresses and strains of his ministry, eventually took their toll, and in Robins died in February 1948.
The impact of his work could be seen in the response to his sudden death. Newspapers reported at length on Robins’ funeral. “He did more for the friendless and the workless than any other man of his generation in Yorkshire,” wrote one.
From the homeless to the city councillors, they came to mourn the vicar who had spent his life caring for the down and out. People came to pay their respects to the man who gave comfort to thousands, someone who had big ideas but never forgot the little person.
Nearly 3,000 people attended the service in St George’s Church, with many unable to get in. Those outside listened to the hymn singing, some openly weeping as they joined in. A young woman in the gallery of the church fainted during the service and had to be helped out. At the end of the service, the pathway from the church door to the hearse was lined with policemen and Scouts as they carried out the flower-covered coffin.
A few days before he died Robins had spoken to a friend about the vision he experienced over the Channel and how he had tried to remain true to it for the rest of his life. Letters appeared in the press from parishioners extolling his dedication and his practical Christianity. He was “untiring in his work, very happy in it and jolly” wrote one parishioner, “yet he had a deep and sympathetic understanding of human problems”.
Many gave testimonies about how The Crypt had changed their lives forever. As a tribute to Robins’s work, Wilfred Pickles presented one of his Have A Go BBC radio programmes from The Crypt.
Perhaps, though, the best testimony to Robins’ impact in the community is the fact that The Crypt carried on his work. Adapting, changing, updating, it still exists today to serve the community of Leeds. In June 2021, Don Robins House was opened, supporting vulnerable citizens in Leeds. The St George’s Crypt charity is today one of the leading charities in the city, offering care, compassion and hope to homeless and vulnerable people and those living with substance dependence, 365 days a year.
And all begun from the vision of one man, as he flew across the English Channel from Croydon Airport in those early years of aviation.
- David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups
If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page
Other articles by David Morgan:
- The ‘incompetent’ Lebombo scout who helped win Boer War
- Croydon gold rush that saw thousands move to the outback
- Spectacular history of Addiscombe college is required reading
- Hard lives for the Puritan pioneers of new state New Hampshire
- The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history
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