If you Google the name ‘Bobbie Roberts’ you won’t find very much information. That’s because Bobbie Roberts MBE hides from the limelight even though she’s one of Doncaster’s unsung heroes.
Bobbie, or Roberta to use her Sunday school name, is chair of Doncaster’s Deaf Trust and one of the most tireless voluntary workers you’re ever likely to meet.
Bobbie, 74, who has worked at Doncaster Deaf Trust for 35 years, has devoted her life to helping others, particularly young people and those who deserve a chance in life.
A nurse by profession, last year modest Bobbie, who champions the achievements of others, never her own, was awarded the Lifetime achievement award by the Free Press - something she’s taken in her stride.
“When I received the Lifetime achievement it wasn’t all down to me,” she says in her usual self-effacing manner, “you only get these awards when you have phenomenal team behind you, which I have. To be honest, I’m a real pain to work with because I’m a bit of a bully when it comes to getting what I want - I expect very high standards.”
Yet it’s this forthright attitude which has seen Bobbie achieve great things and help hundreds, if not thousands of people she’s met throughout her lifetime.
It was the early 1950s when Bobbie, aged just nine, left England to move to Hong Kong, where her father, an RAF squadron leader, was posted. At 15, Bobbie’s mother contracted TB so as the eldest, Bobbie spent a year looking after her five sisters and brothers. Thankfully, her mother recovered and Bobbie was sent to a boarding school in Germany, where she picked up a little of the language. She left school but after her year-long stint caring for her siblings, Bobbie set her heart on becoming a nurse. However, then she hit another snag.
“I applied to hospitals in London but they all turned me down because I’m only 5ft tall. Back then, you had to be a minimum height of 5ft 2ins to be a nurse in London. It seems rather odd and I still don’t know why they applied the rule although we later joked it must be because the beds were higher off the ground!”
Instead, Bobbie trained at Addenbrookes hospital in Cambridge and qualified as a SRN in 1960. She heard a hospital in Montreal, Canada, was looking for midwives and so began part one of her midwifery training. Around the same time she met John Roberts, a young consultant, who later became her husband. Her heart was still set on moving to Montreal, so she took a private nursing job to fund the trip but one day, after returning from a short Christmas break, a fire broke out at her lodgings and she lost everything.
True to form, Bobbie still tried to fight the fire herself singeing her hair, mouth and eyebrows in the process.
She recalls: “The fire brigade told me off because I’d used the wrong sort of fire extinguisher. They soon got to work and put out the fire, so I carried on working downstairs even though there was water dripping through the ceiling!”
Bobbie married John Roberts, a Welsh-speaking radiologist, and the pair moved to Uganda a few days after independence in October 1962. Whilst John worked as a consultant at a nearby hospital, Bobbie was employed by a local dentist and did voluntary work at a polo clinic. This is where she had her first real taste of fund-raising. Within three years, Bobbie and her colleagues had raised an astonishing £30,000 - a small fortune back in the 1960’s - which was used to pay for prosthetics and to create gardens so they could teach patients how to grow their own produce. Bobbie even learnt a little Swahili along the way.
Her son Adrian was born in 1964, but when he was only four months old, the couple were forced to leave Africa due to an uprising in Kenya. Instead, along with her babe in arms, Bobbie and John trekked across Africa by train and then by sea to return to the UK.
“It took us four weeks to reach home but we saw some incredible wildlife along the way.”
The couple moved to Bristol but John was offered a post at DRI, and became the youngest ever consultant to be appointed at that time. They relocated to Doncaster in February 1966, and, seven months later, their daughter Catherine was born. Not that motherhood slowed her down. Bobbie still undertook voluntary work, including meals on wheels, and even became the district commissioner for Girl Guides.
In 1974, she was appointed to the bench as a magistrate presiding over criminal, family, and youth courts as well as licensing for the many pubs and clubs of the town.
“I was a magistrate for 34 years and loved every single moment of it.”
Yet, she still couldn’t rest. By day, Bobbie worked in a private nursing home and shortly afterwards, an intensive care nurse at DRI.
Four years later, she became friends with the chair of the house committee at Doncaster Deaf Trust. At that time it was looking for governors, so Bobbie was asked if she’d be interested. One thing led to another and soon she was busy raising funds for the school too.
“When you work somewhere like this it kind of sucks you in,” she admits with a smile, “but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Ironically, Bobbie, who can speak Swahili and a little German, says she never mastered Welsh, even though she married a Welshman fluent in the language of his homeland!
An avid basketball fan, she even ran Doncaster Panthers - the town’s team back in the 1990s.
“Although sadly, I think it no longer exists.” She says.
Today, Bobbie is chair of Doncaster Deaf Trust and works at the school on a daily basis, raising the profile of the remarkable work done there.
“I like helping people,” she says, “particularly young people to achieve their goals in life.”
In 2005, Bobbie was awarded her MBE, and a highlight came last year when the school catered for the Olympic torch-bearing team after one of its students Matthew Slater, the youngest deaf referee, carried it down Trafford Way.
“We even put Olympic rings on the front of the school,” she says.
Despite celebrating her 50th wedding anniversary last year, Bobbie shows no sign of slowing down.
“Do you know, I only sleep for a few hours each night? I’ve always been like that but I’m never tired. Sleeping just gets in the way of doing things.”
Bobbie’s next aim is to use the school as a staging post for the Tour de France next summer.
“I’d love to bring them to Doncaster,” she says with a glint in her eye, and you just know they won’t dare refuse her.