THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
Percy Donald (Don) Robins (1899-1948)
A Priest with a mission – ‘new lives for old’
In 1930 Leeds was in the grip of the great depression. There were queues at the labour and dole offices; men walked the streets ashamed to go home without money for food. Some arrived here looking for work, homeless and destitute. In that year a young parson, Don Robins, came to Leeds. His mission was to breathe new life into the huge, decaying St George’s Church, islanded among slum streets where unemployment had hit hard; his aim to reach out to the poor and needy. He had to start from scratch, yet he founded a refuge, St George’s Crypt, which became a national landmark and today still follows his inspirational vision, offering support, shelter and friendship to those in need.
Don Robins was 30 when he arrived in Leeds, at the start of a new phase in his life. Born in Aldershot in 1899, the sixth of seven children, he had had a comfortable, happy upbringing. He was still at Farnham Grammar School when war broke out in 1914, but as soon as he was 16 he enlisted. He finished up an officer in the newly-formed Royal Flying Corps, supplying the troops. Flying was still in its infancy and he needed courage and resource – once landing a damaged aircraft he had repaired with his handkerchief! In 1919, aged 19, he was awarded the Air Force Cross.
After being demobbed he joined a civilian airline as a pilot, based at Croydon. Flying was still a risky business but he was game for everything. He took on other commitments too, leading a local scouts group and helping to get one going in Cologne, a frequent destination. And, in spite of family resistance, he married his long-term sweetheart, Alva Hall, from Farnborough – she was just nineteen.
As a pilot he had a well-paid, adventurous job, but it was not enough. He felt a need for a spiritual vocation, and with support from his local vicar began studying for the Anglican Church. Money was raised to send him to Cambridge, and he was ordained in 1927. After three active years as curate in Croydon, he applied for a vacancy in Leeds. He was young and inexperienced, but the Trustees for St George’s Church, serving the poor streets around the Infirmary, recognised his potential and appointed him as Vicar.
Energetic, capable, inspiring, he declared from the start his vision of the church as a beacon and a refuge to the ‘hard-pressed wayfaring man on the road of life’ and he pledged himself to be ‘where the battle is hottest and the work is hardest’. A born organiser, he rallied helpers to join him. With no money except small donations he determined to provide a refuge for the unemployed and homeless. He knew Dick Sheppard and his work at St Martin’s-in-the-Field in London, and hit on the idea of converting the long-unused St George’s crypt. Dark, cold, gloomy, its floor crusted with mud, choked with rubbish, with gaping vaults and crumbling coffins, it couldn’t have been more unpromising, yet within a few months, with his band of helpers, he was able to open it as a daily shelter, providing warmth, companionship and cocoa to the many men who queued at its doors.
It was immediately obvious that more was needed. Money was begged, hasty improvements made: by the end of 1930 the Crypt had become a night shelter too, providing basic beds for some 40 men, as well as food and practical help, including medical care and clothing. No one was turned away if there was space, and there were no rigid rules.
Don, warm, sympathetic, humorous, was on hand to listen to the men’s stories, which often distressed him. But he had parish duties too, and more volunteers were always needed – when Don shook your hand you knew a job was lined up for you! Money was tight but he was a persuasive, inspiring speaker; his talks and radio broadcasts brought in more donations and helped to spread the word. This meant some full-time staff could be employed, and the Crypt’s work could be extended to help women and children and families in need, particularly important during the war.
Don seemed endlessly energetic but he was under strain, emotionally and physically. Ordered to rest in January 1948, he died just a month later. Thousands came to his funeral, and Wilfred Pickles came to present ‘Have a Go’ at the Crypt. There were many testimonies to the way the Crypt had changed people’s lives. Its work, adapted to changing needs, continues today. What better memorial could Don Robins have?