I first met Robert at one of his WHCA local history lectures in West Hill Hall. It would have been shortly after I moved to Terminus Street in 1986.
Despite having barely considered the past of the sundry towns and cities I’d lived in previously, Robert instantly brought to life for me the churches, pubs, shops that had once flourished so close to my new home in the West Hill Conservation Area. Many of these buildings, of course, he’d known himself. He was a natural educator, with skills honed in the Army’s Education Corps towards the end of World War 2. I was hooked.
Robert knew Brighton – and much of Hove – like the back of his hand. He’d started early, after all, bunking off games as a pupil at Brighton Grammar School to investigate its streets; that’s when not taking in a film at one of the many local cinemas of the time!
I now fast forward (somewhat) to his 97th year. Although unable to walk around the city anymore, he positively whizzed around it on his iPad Street View App. In a jiffy, he’d make his way – virtually as it were – to a particular site or building we were curious about. Much discussion would ensue as we compared its present with a past or proposed future manifestation.
We shared a concern for the city’s future as well as its past. I joined the Brighton Society several years after he’d stood down from a 22-year stint as Chairman, although fortunately in time to relish his last few local history walks for members around some of the once seedier parts of Brighton!
Earlier this year, Robert gave the Brighton Society an invaluable personal insight into the listed St Wilfred’s Church, close to his childhood home in Bernard Road. He’d not only watched the church being built, but also created a beautiful watercolour of it. Although St Wilfred’s has since been converted to sheltered accommodation, Hans Feibusch’s impressive mural, The Magi (1940) is still there, with Robert encapsulated as one of the shepherds. We hope it will become regularly accessible to the public again in due course.
His career as an architect gave rise to many tales. Trained at the Brighton School of Art, Robert turned his hand to projects ranging from bank alterations to a bespoke lavatory designed to optimise the comfort of a female client: she sitting on the lavatory so he could measure up as accurately as possible, to an internal steel frame supporting Rottingdean windmill against the prevailing sea winds.
Astoundingly, just a few days before he died at the Royal Sussex County Hospital, he was still taking an interest in the built environment. He was, he told me, fascinated by the elaborate system of overhead vertical and horizontal rails supporting the patients’ privacy curtains.
As a born and bred Brightonian who had garnered and, importantly, processed a wealth of different experiences over a long lifetime, Robert combined assertiveness with understanding and tolerance; a tolerance of different lifestyles and attitudes; a tolerance of change. And so it is hardly surprising that, despite increasingly limited mobility and outliving most of his contemporaries, both his funeral and the gathering afterwards at West Hill Hall were jam-packed with relatives and friends raising a toast to his memory. We all felt deeply saddened by his passing but, at the same time, immensely enriched and grateful for having known him.