I can find nothing about Robert Barlow apart from this affectionate portrait by his friend and colleague L.R. Reeve* whose archive we acquired. He may have been born in 1897 but that's about it..His obscurity is particularly odd because Reeve rated him 'supreme ...above all' and he had met many famous men and women, some world famous.
ROBERT BARLOWIn my opinion Robert Barlow, born in Manchester, was the most outstanding Lancastrian of his era, and during the last hundred years Lancashire has been rightly proud of many great men. Moreover, although I spent most of my long life in London persistentIy visiting the House of Commons, colleges of the University of London, conferences, public meetings and lectures in search of and finding really great men and women, supreme above them all stands Robert Barlow.
He grew up with one valuable asset, perfect health; and on this foundation he developed into one of those extremely rare men who could do almost anything better than other men; and the only one I could compare with him, C. B. Fry, would have to take second place.
I am told that when he was a young man Manchester City wanted this brilliant six-footer.
I can believe it, for he was one of the best men in his college soccer team, and he was certainly the swiftest runner, winning the hundred yards race in record time at college sports. He was also a cricketer who would, given time for practice, have been at least worthy of county honours. Furthermore he won the college tennis championship under adverse circumstances which would have daunted many a strong-willed student. At the game of billiards, which he played about twice a year, he would come to the table and beat players who were always practising, and I have seen him play a good game of chess. Also I, a fenman, can announce that during one hard winter he achieved the figure eight on the Chorlton Meadows as quickly as anyoneI have ever met. If ever there was an all-rounder in sport Robert Barlow was one.
Yet his athletic eminence was the least important side of his personality. From the very first meeting you realized that you were in the presence of a man of rare quality and unusual distinction. Further, before very long you learned that there was always the impression of a tremendous lurking forcefulness even when he was having a quiet pipe after lunch, and within a year I felt that his many old school friends and acquaintances would, when in trouble, turn first to him for advice and help.
It seems to be fashionable nowadays for teachers to assert that they are no good at teaching mathematics, physical exercises or some other subject they happen to dislike, and apparently they feel superior in their bland acknowledgement of incompetence. Again, they fancy that listeners are profoundly impressed when they assert their inability to teach seniors, or juniors, or infants. Not Robert Barlow. He could teach any subject. It was all the same to hi~a whether he was in charge of four-year-olds or nonagenarians. He could readily adapt himself to any age group. He was fond of telling the story of one incident when he was examining the youngest class in the school. "This little pig went to market" was his evergreen theme at the moment in question. Five-year-old Walter Harris looked very serious for a few seconds; then he asked, "Which little pig went to market?"
He insisted on a quiet classroom, and I am certain his charges were happier when quietly working under him, than any rowdy, snarling, hot and bothered group of boys whose teacher gave them a free hand. For one thing his humour was of the type which would make anyone smile, and few lessons proceeded without one or two cheery moments in an houris work; but although a strict disciplinarian he appreciated a courageous rebellion when harmless. He always chuckled when mentioning a quiet-looking boy who had a voice worthy of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. One evening a messenger went to the singer and informed him that he was wanted. "Tell Mr Barlow I’m busy," was the unexpected reply. Came the answer to that one, "Tell him I should like to see him when he is disengaged.”
One hilarious incident occurred on the cricket field. When, in a game with the boys, the head’s turn came to bat he walked to the wicket carrying a tiny bat with a blade about eight inches long. He found centre, and solemnly took his stand holding the ridiculous little weapon in both hands. The yell of spontaneous laughter still rings in my ears.
On another occasion heaps of snow were everywhere in the quadrangle. Robert Barlow suddenly had an idea. He put on an old mac and a cap, drew two chalk lines in the playground and proceeded to take on the school. The snowfight was an epic. Boys who knew nothing about sublimation knew what a glorious sensation it was to retaliate for a change and turn the tables on their master, and no doubt there were arguments in the dormitories during the next few days as to who was the hero who hit his human target the most times. The snowballing episode was one of many incidents which could not fail to create a wholesome tone in the school.
Owing to staff changes I am probably the only man who spent as many as six years sharing the same staffroom with him, and I can declare that at no time did see him at a loss when a critical situation, foreseen or otherwise, had to be faced. His was always the most dominant personality in any group when I was present, although I have heard that once he failed to act with assurance, and on that occasion his old chief from London was a witness to his control of the morning assembly and inspection in the playground.
Among other gifts presented by the gods was a love of the simple manifestations of nature in all her moods, and a capacity to shake off life’s problems and live in the present; and as for after-dinner speeches he was in the class of that splendid orator T. B. Leigh, a prominent judge in the Manchester area who, I have always felt, could hardly have been overshadowed at the same dinner table by the well-known first Lord Birkenhead.
Although in appearance a manVs man Robert Barlow’s slight Manchester accent was as cultured as that of Sir Ernest Barker; his smile was charming and he had developed his conversational powers to a fine art. With his ready wit there was no need for him to attract attention cheaply by curses or doubtful yarns. Life was always worth while when one could relax and have an unforced chat with him; and in the days when cycling was a pleasure, when a ramble in the Derbyshire dales was sheer joy he was a most satisfying companion for an outing. Here, to sketch an honest picture, perhaps I should add that at times a biting tongue came into action very effectively indeed; but such occasions were rare, and as a rule the squirming victim fully deserved his discomfort. I must add too that he couldn’t sing for little apples, but he could make boys sing like cherubs because he was a first-class conductor.
What made him a leader among men? Well, I have never met another man with such unyielding will power. Facing a problem or task he would never rest during his waking hours until he had reached a completion. And he was the most prodigious worker I ever encountered. He would take twice as much trouble as the normal man to ensure success in any kind of task, and he never spared himself; one must acknowledge here that only a man of superb health could have stood the strain during the years I knew him. Then, we know that a man of integrity always has a great advantage over an unreliable person, and I never heard one man question his probity. Furthermore, he never evaded unpopularity if he believed that a certain course of action was the right one, and nobody, even the most cantankerous man who may have him would dream of challenging any expression of respect due to him.
Now should anyone suspect that I am extravagant in my appreciation in spite of a time sequence let us turn back again to college days and the opinions of other men. Forty years ago I was in the lounge of an hotel during a week’s Easter conference. Half dozen men were gossiping when Chester Training College was mentioned. One of them left the group and was passing near me when I asked him whether he knew Robert Barlow under whom I had worked as one of his assistants. His face brightened and he shouted “Chaps! Here’s a man who worked in Bob Barlow’s school.” The others swarmed round me, teIling me college tales and asking me questions. When we finally dispersed in chaotic excitement one enthusiast declared, "Bob was the finest man ever trained at Chester College.” "He certainly was," was the unanimous verdict.
I have said that Robert Barlow was a really exceptional athlete. During his last year at college, in addition to his appearance on the playing fields, he was busily engaged in the difficult and nerveracking role of Senior Prefect. Yet he found time to study seriously enough to top the list at the final examination, a rare achievement for a senior prefect, who has so many extraneous duties. His honour in the examination was shared by Sidney Blake, one of his greatest friends, who invited him to be his best man. The invitation was accepted.
* From the papers of the long defunct literary agency Michael Hayes of Cromwell Road S.W.5 - parts of a manuscript memoir by one L.R. Reeve of Newton Abbot, South Devon. Mr Reeve was attempting to get the book (Among those Present: Very Exceptional People) published, but on the evidence of the unused stamp Hayes never replied and L. R. Reeve published the book himself through the esteemed vanity publisher Stockwell two years later in 1974.