A full life from flying to the Northumbrian smallpipes

Lance meets a local resident during his safari in Tanzania.
Lance meets a local resident during his safari in Tanzania.

Tributes have been paid to a Northumberland man who had a long and interesting life.

Lancelot George Robson, who lived for most of his life in Hartburn, died last month at the age of 99 years and seven months following a short illness.

The eldest son of Gladys Margaret Robson (nee Liddell), of Haltwhistle, and Lancelot Robson, of Lancelot Robson and Sons, auctioneer and director of the Wansbeck Livestock Auction Mart, was born at The Baccus, Elsdon, in May 1916.

The family moved to Greenside Farm two years later and Lance’s brother Joe and sister Jane were born at this home. They then went to live at Garden House when Lance was 13.

He finally made his home at Woodfield, Hartburn, with his own family in 1958, where he lived until his death.

In his young days, Lance and his brother Joe went to Hartburn School with their great friend Jack Pringle, also from Greenside, as well as Joy Scott, from Riplington, and her brothers.

Lance told of how he, Joe and Jack would sometimes sit by the road hoping to see a car come past.

One day, sitting behind a wall, the boys decided they would try a cigarette.

Jack’s older brother Andy saw smoke rising and, having a pail in his hand, crept up behind the wall and tipped water all over the boys, claiming he thought there was a fire.

It was also Andy who told the lads that if they put cow muck in their boots, it would make them grow.

From Hartburn School, Lance went to Ashville College in Harrogate, where he made another lifelong friend, Edward Brough.

When he left school, he was apprenticed to an insurance company on the Newcastle quayside. He would catch the bus from Belsay each morning, making the first part of his journey on a Sunbeam motorbike. Having first milked the cow and fed the pigs and horses, he was usually running late.

Lance told the story of a day he sped over a blind summit near Short Flatt and, to his horror, there was a herd of cattle in the road.

Miraculously, they all parted except the last beast that cushioned his landing. Both survived bruised, but otherwise unhurt.

In his leisure time, Lance enjoyed dancing and country pursuits.

He was taught to play the Northumbrian smallpipes by Jack Armstrong and played in Jack’s Barn Stormers country dance band.

He was a founder member of the Alnwick Pipers’ Society and became its secretary in 1939.

Shooting for the pot, Lance soon became an excellent shot. This skill stood him in good stead for joining the RAF as a volunteer.

After qualifying as an air gunner in 1940, Lance trained as a pilot in Arcadia, USA. He was one of only a few selected to train as an astro navigator and bomb aimer in the town of Rivers, Manitoba, with the Canadian Air Force.

Despite managing to bomb a forest fire and a farmhouse garden on the same day, he was commissioned and flew Catalina seaplanes from Sullom Voe (Shetland) on anti-submarine patrols, convoy escorts and long-distance reconnaissance anywhere between Halifax, Nova Scotia, and an advanced base near Murmansk in Russia.

He spent the next three years flying to north of the Arctic Circle in all seasons where the terrain and weather were as dangerous as the enemy.

The enemy did try quite hard. In one attack, a German shell came through the floor and exploded under his navigation table. Fortunately, the crew kept their kitbags there so Lance came out without a scratch.

Then there was the Russian General with a pistol and no English who decided in mid-flight that he wanted to go to Reykjavik instead of Sullom Voe.

When the European war ended, Lance received orders to join the air war in the Far East and re-train on four-engined aircraft.

In August 1945, a training exercise went badly wrong. The young pilot had never landed on water before, but with his experience of flying boats, Lance the navigator was able to talk the pilot down to land safely on the water – ending up in the Atlantic 500 miles off Ireland and saving the lives of the whole crew.

Thanks to his own navigation skills, and those of the navigation officer of the SS Bayano, all of the crew were rescued after eight hours in a dinghy.

However, their hopes of a trip to the West Indies were shattered when a passing aircraft carrier took them to Liverpool instead.

Meanwhile, events in Japan had abruptly ended the Far East war.

On a previous occasion, while attempting to land in thick fog near Oban, Lance and his crew dived through a break in the cloud and landed on the water in the middle of the Western Fleet for which Lance, as skipper, was in big trouble. He was summoned to explain himself to the Admiral.

It was there that Lance met his wife Margaret Jackson, a Second Officer in the WRNS from Londonderry who was personal assistant to the Admiral.

Feeling sorry for the handsome young navigator, she invited him to a dance being held in their mess that evening.

Flt Lt Lance Robson and Margaret were married on March 13, 1945, in All Souls Church, Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

Lance and Margaret first set up home in Bedlington and the couple went on to have two children, Sue and Lancelot Jnr.

He was, once again, able to take up his great love, the Northumbrian smallpipes.

He re-joined the family firm of Lancelot Robson and Sons and became an auctioneer with the Wansbeck Livestock Auction Mart. He always spoke affectionately of his time as an auctioneer.

Later, he became a Fellow of the Society of Valuers and Auctioneers and became the first estate agent in Morpeth.

Lance went on to develop The Drum Industrial Estate in Birtley and a residential development in Ulgham and he was then asked by the Chief Planning Officer of what was then Morpeth Rural District Council, Bill Butler, to do a comprehensive development for Longhorsley.

Due to a local government re-organisation, only part of the Whitegates Estate was ever built.

In the mid 70s, he branched out into a small chain of gift shops, which he kept until he retired in 1980.

After that, he started a new career founding The Northumbrian Musical Heritage Society, devoting most of his time to teaching, organising seminars and promoting the Northumbrian Smallpipes in the UK, Canada and USA until his fingers became too stiff to play.

He never charged for lessons and many renowned pipers today owe much to his patience and enthusiasm.

Lance had been collecting Northumbrian pipes and music since the 1930s and these became the nucleus of his piping museum.

When he was 89, he enjoyed a safari with members of his family in Tanzania. He was guest of honour at the Sunderland Air Show in 2013.

So what of the man? Daughter Sue Cansdale said: “Lance Robson was a much-loved, remarkable and widely-respected man who was passionately proud of his Northumbrian heritage.

“He was a wonderful father to his two children and he was always generous with his time and money; a lateral and original thinker.

“He had a mischievous sense of humour and a large fund of stories.

“He was a very modest man, particularly about his own musical success, and he gave the gift of music on the Northumbrian smallpipes to hundreds of students in many corners of the world.

“When it mattered, he was brave. When he realised he was dying, he showed no fear. In all, Lance left a legacy which will live forever.”

She added that the family would like to thank the doctors and staff at Hexham General Hospital for the high standard of care that Lance received during his time there.