A Celebration of the Life
Robert Eric Hill
Monday 4th March 2002
British Humanist Association
47 Theobald’s Road London
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Wilts SN15 2 BT
A tribute to Robert Eric Hill
Although I didn’t know Robert myself, over the last week I have been able to speak to some of those who were closest to him, to learn about his life and I would like to spend a few minutes now, sharing their memories of this remarkable man.
Robert was born in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire in 1917, and was the son of a builder. He had a brother and also two sisters for whom he maintained a deep affection and lifelong respect. He was an intelligent and artistic young man, talented in both painting and photography. We do not know very much about his childhood and earliest years, but in 1939 at the outbreak of war, he joined up. His enlistment must have been one of the swiftest ever, because war was declared on the Sunday, by the Monday he had volunteered; he took his medical on the Tuesday and was assigned to the Royal Engineers by Wednesday! He was posted to France with the British Expeditionary Force, and was involved in the building of forward strike airfields, but on his return to the UK in June 1941 he was a passenger on the Lancastria, when it was attacked and sunk by German bombers with the loss of 7-9,000 lives.
It is hard for anyone from later generations who have not served in war, to imagine this scale of loss, and what those few hours must have been like, for the few who came through. Making matters much worse, the event was considered to be so potentially damaging to morale that Churchill ensured the British public were not informed of it. Robert was one of only 2,000 or so to have survived and it is to his enormous credit that he was able to return to active service, going on to serve in North Africa with the 8th Army, the Desert Rats as well as in Persia and India. He was deeply affected by the sinking of the Lancastria and was always reluctant to talk about it, but he remained an excellent soldier.
In his role as Staff Sergeant he encouraged and mentored his men, showing the qualities for friendship that were apparent throughout his life, the ability to see and respect an individual no matter what their rank or social standing. Then and later he made lasting friendships across the social divides.
He appreciated people for their personal qualities, and was respected and valued in turn.
Robert’s interest in art, photography and film were established early, and post war he returned to Mansfield and worked in the cinema as manager and projectionist. He also trained as an accountant. But his life path took a totally different direction when a job in the Middle East came up with the Iraq Petroleum Company 1948. Robert had very little time to consider whether or not to take it, but his decision to do so was clearly the right one because he remained in the employ of this company until his retirement in 1973, and it gave him a hugely interesting life.
It opened up a world far away from 1950’s and 60’s Britain for him. Over the years he worked in Qatar Lebanon and Iraq and he saw these countries and the oil industry that served them move through from relative simplicity to great wealth and luxury. Life for employees was good too, and Robert enjoyed it, particularly relishing his ability to indulge in his love of cars!
In 1949 he met Maureen, a young lady who had been visiting her father, a senior figure in the industry, and they were married a year later. They shared a pleasure in dancing and the theatre, and I have been shown some wonderfully happy pictures of them, engaged in the theatrical productions in which Maureen acted and for which Robert created scenery and backdrops.
Robert was a multi skilled man: artistic, a painter, writer calligrapher and photographer. He had a fine appreciation of colour and Maureen described him to me as a great lover of beauty, someone who would look for beauty in whatever he saw. He was never ambitious in the sense of seeking fame or acknowledgement for his creative work, but did what he enjoyed, giving much pleasure to others in the process. He had a fine sense of humour and loved to laugh, but was essentially very private person, not finding it easy to disclose his deeper feelings to others. Fortunately he was blessed with an ordered and meticulous mind, and a good memory and he put down on paper a detailed account of his life. His family will have this to prize forever, a personal treasure as well as an historical document. They have too, the results of his research into the family history in the form of beautifully hand drawn family trees.
In giving you a true picture I would be wrong to omit the fact that Robert was not always an easy man. He had strong views and found it hard to compromise. His manner was sometimes rather imperious. He also had a temper. But he was both kind and very generous in an unostentatious way and had high moral standards. To a stranger or a casual acquaintance he might appear as a rather old fashioned, private gentleman, very charming if somewhat irascible. But underneath there was so much more to him, and throughout his life he forged relationships with people who saw beneath the exterior and accepted and admired him for the fine man that he was.
One of those friends was Mr Duncan Scoby and I would like to ask him now to speak to about the Robert he knew.
Mr Scoby’s eulogy
Whilst living in the Middle East Robert and Maureen had two children, Richard and Julie, but the marriage was not to last and after 9 years they separated, and went their different ways. It is to their credit that they were able to establish a relationship of friendship, linked by their shared concern for their children. This friendship lasted for the rest of Robert’s life. Maureen always valued his kindness and generosity. The children’s holidays were split between them, and Robert made sure that they got to know their aunts and cousins, with both Julie, Richard and their cousin
Robert recalling happy holidays with the extended family, especially one wonderful summer on the Norfolk broads. Richard and Julie also visited him wherever he was stationed abroad, and Julie remembers how much care was taken to make her feel cosseted and welcome.
Robert’s retirement in the mid 1970’s took him to Portugal for a couple of years, then back to Qatar, before he settled in this country. Then in 1978 he met a young man from Sri Lanka, Robert Mahipala, with whom he formed a great friendship that was to be of immense importance in his life. “Young Robert” was like a son to him. For 25 years they have been companions and as they moved between the two countries, they became part of each other’s culture and family, truly welcomed and highly respected.
Sadly Robert’s physical health deteriorated over the last 10-12 years of his life. His brain remained active and alert, but his body weakened as he was struck by a number of illnesses. He found it immensely frustrating as not to be able to do all he wanted to, but until last year he still went abroad and was able to enjoy a glass of wine and good food, and even drive his car.
Over this time Young Robert has been his great support, looking after him with every kindness.
In January 2002, Robert Senior moved from Brighton to Bath, to be nearer to his family. Maureen tells me was so looking forward life here, close to his children, his friend and to the grandchildren he loved and was so proud of. He was sure he had much more time to enjoy, but it was not to be. He died at the Royal United Hospital on the 22nd of February.
You will be glad to know that Maureen and the family were with him, not only at the end but in the days that preceded it, there to reassure him with their presence, holding his had and talking to him throughout the last hours of his life.
My colleague Leslie Scrace once wrote some words that may be appropriate here. He said “We none of us look forward to the actual business of dying but when it is over we slip into the carefree realm of death. Knowing that life goes on, and that something of our own life continues in the people we have loved and the things we have done. As a pebble dropped into a pool sends it’s ripples endlessly outwards, so the ripples from the pebbles of our lives go on into the untold future. “
We can be glad that Robert’s life was rich with creativity, beauty and interest. He leaves a legacy to be treasured, in his paintings, photographs and writings, but also in your memories, and the physical presence of his children and grandchildren.
Farewell my friends
It was beautiful,
As long as it lasted
The journey of my life
I have no regrets whatsoever
Save the pain I’ll leave behind
Those dear hearts who love and care. …
And the strings pulling at the heart and soul.
The strong arms that held me up
When my own strength let me down
At every turning of my life
I came across good friends
Friends who stood by me
Even when the time raced me by.
Farewell my friends
I smile and bid you goodbye.
No, shed no tears
For I need them not
All I need is your smile
If you feel sad, do think of me
For that’s what I’ll like.
When you live in the hearts of those you love
You never die