An English man who became a Welsh man

By Carl Llewellyn

Robbie Johnson’s funeral took place on Wednesday 24 January 2018 at High Street English Baptist Church, Merthyr Tydfil at 1.15pm. The service was conducted by Carl Llewellyn, a friend and fellow chorister who deemed it a privilege to speak and conduct the service of such a dear friend.

So many people were in attendance at the church which celebrated the life of one so dear to us all and was a testimony of the affection felt for Robbie Johnson.

Death is a time for reflection, a time to remember the happy times – on various occasions the Dowlais Male Choir combined with some of the Town’s Ladies choirs to sing such musical items as ‘Zadok the Priest‘, ‘The Hallelujah Chorus‘ from the ‘Messiah” the hymn tune ‘Pantyfedwyn‘ and the Welsh Anthem called ‘Dyn aned o gwraig‘ – both Robbie and his wife Carole Ann were both part of the joint choruses.

The first reading from the bible had an association with the anthem ‘Dyn aned o gwraig‘, translated into English as ‘Man That is Born of a Woman’, the words of the anthem were taken from Psalm 103 verses 15-16.

In the anthem the Welsh words begin with ‘Dyddiau dyn sydd fel glaswelltyn’

English version is:-
“As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.”

Its interpretation of its significance and meaning:
We live, we die, but in between those stages of our life we should continue to strive for worthwhile pursuits and leave behind some good deeds and pleasant memories. For memories are far better than dreams.

The second reading was taken from Corinthians Chapter 13 verses 1:13 which ended with verse 13: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love”.

The Dowlais Male Choir under the Musical Direction of Darya Brill-Williams and guest accompanist, Jonathan Guilford paid their respects to the memory of Robbie by singing one of the chosen pieces of music from the choir’s repertoire that meant so much to Robbie -

“The Lord’s Prayer”

Before the eulogy was read Carl explained how difficult it was to capture 82 years of a man’s life, but hoped he’d managed to encapsulate the character and memorable events in Robbie’s lifetime.

THE EUOLGY

Robert Johnson was born on November 7th 1935 in Hayes Middlesex and was the only child of Elsie and Alfred Johnson. Although his parents named him Robert Johnson his grandmother called him Robyn, so much so his family and friends carried on using the name Robyn. But of course in later work colleagues, older acquaintances and fellow choristers knew Robyn as Rob or Robbie.

Robbie’s mother, Elsie Roberts was born in Aberfan in 1911 but like a lot of Welsh people moved to England to seek employment and soon after Rob’s grandparents joined her. Elsie met Alf Johnson and they married in 1933. Robbie was always proud of his North Wales family connection, with both grandparents on his mother side being Roberts. Rob’s great grandparents came to Merthyr Tydfil from Nantlle to take charge of the Penybryn Filter Beds.

Soon after the War was declared in 1939, Robbie and his mother moved to Aberfan to stay with family. Can you imagine Robbie’s dilemma as a young boy with an English accent in a parochial environment of Welshness, but to add to Rob’s predicament his parents were both Conservative? When Rob’s father Alf joined his mother Elsie and him they found accommodation, firstly at Yew Street near the Bell Vue Pub, then the family moved to Cardiff Road before finally settling at Park View bungalow on Merthyr Road. Rob belonged to a close nit family, his Grandfather and Uncle both living with Rob and his parents.

Rob attended Troedyrhiw School and Quakers Yard School but was not academic, his teacher suggesting he leave school early to work with his father.

In his youth Robbie attended Mount Seion English Congregational Chapel, Troedyrhiw where he took part in various dramas. Robbie’s friend and fellow chorister Len Hagget’s wife Barbara also attended Mount Seion Chapel and Rob’s memories of his Sunday School days were important. So much so, when the chapel was being demolished 2004 Rob purchased some of chapel’s iron pillars and rescued a religious print of Jesus surrounded by children of different nationalities. Regarding Rob’s association with Mount Seion Chapel, I recall an engagement with the Dowlais Choir in 2010 when the Provincial Masonic Province of South Wales held a dinner in the old Rhydycar Leisure Centre. While the choir were ready to sing an old acquaintance of Rob, who shared his Mount Seion Sunday School days said “Hi Robyn”. It was Sir Norman Lloyd Edwards who was at the time Provincial Grand Master of the Masonic Province of South Wales and who had been Cardiff’s Lord Mayor in 1985/86. Furthermore in 1990 became Lord Lieutenant South Glamorgan. Everybody was impressed with Rob’s high status connections. At the same venue Rob and choir member, Roy Bailey (affectionately known as ‘Posh Roy’) standing up and commenting about Sir Norman Lloyd Edwards accent – now that’s what I call “Posh”. Roy would always refer to Rob as being ‘Captain of Industry’.

Rob, like many men of his generation was conscripted for National Service in the Royal Artillery and was posted to Oswestry before being posted to Dusseldorf in Germany.

Rob’s and his father Alf took the opportunity of starting their own business of Electro Plating – the original company was located in Caedraw. In later years Rob’s father Alf went into partnership with Jim Granger with the business moving premises to a new location, establishing a premises on the ICI or Merthyr Industrial Estate. When Alf retired from the business he left Robbie in charge, and after Jim Granger’s death his son Allan became a sleeping partner in the business. Although Allan sadly passed away not so long ago Robbie and Carol Ann were in frequent contact with him, and still care for Jim Granger’s widow Margaret, who lives next door.

Many years ago, Robbie and his father Alf acquired two cast iron plaques from a school – the plaques commemorated men who died in WWI and who worked in the Dowlais collieries belonging to Guest Keen. Both felt the plaques were too sentimental to destroy and kept them for many years until an opportunity came for Rob to donate them to the Trelewis climbing centre. In doing so, a commemorative concert was arranged for the Dowlais Male choir to take part in 2007.

When Robbie left home, firstly he lived in Hazel terrace, then Neath Bran in Troedyrhiw where his three children by his first marriage – Mark, Helen and Rebecca grew up. Both Rebecca and Mark joined Robbie in the Electro Plating business until the factory closed in 2009.

I recall Robbie informing me of an occasion when he was applying for a licence for the transportation of his products and  traveled to Cardiff to attend the Court hearing for his application. When in court the magistrate’s clerk asked Robbie did he have representation, to Robbie’s horror he answered, “No I’m sorry, I was unaware representation was required.” Then the magistrate who was to oversee the grant application told the clerk, “On this occasion, I will represent Mr Johnson.” Robbie’s friend, Sir Norman Lloyd Edwards, a Barrister who was in court at the time informed Robbie he was very fortunate to have such a well known and much respected gentleman to represent him. Unknown to Rob it was Sir Tasker Watkins QC.

I believe Robbie was a fair manager, and even on occasion when decisions were out of his control, Rob’s son Mark testified that his father was than more a fair manager.

Robbie’s main interest was Dowlais Male Choir. He originally joined Cefn Coed Male Choir in 1970 but after hearing the Dowlais sound he decided to leave Cefn Coed Male Choir in 1972 and join Dowlais Male Choir; a decision he never regretted. He was followed shortly by another chorister, David Thomas, affectionately known to all as ‘Dai Fire’.

‘Dai Fire’ was a lifelong friend of Robbie’s, having been a friend and a fellow chorister of Rob for 50 years. Since Dai’s wife Jean died he became a regular visitor to Robbie and Carole Ann’s home and accompanied them on regular excursions.

Robbie was a dedicated chorister with the choir for over 45 years. Robbie joined the baritone section of the choir in 1972 and served as a Registrar as well as on the Committee. He worked tirelessly for the choir and was always prepared to help and advised whenever he could. When he retired from the position of Registrar he handed the responsibility over to Philip Adams but Robbie still took an interest in the choir’s well being and took on the task of logging choir’s attendance at rehearsal and concerts.

On Wednesday evenings, after choir rehearsals, Robbie enjoyed social interaction at the Conservative club with, Dai Fire, Len Hagget, Roy Bailey, Philip Adams, Nigel Santos, Dai Roberts, Ken Farrar, Grahame Clarke, Anthony Prince and myself, and on occasions Cled Price and Gareth Durston. I know these gatherings were important to him.

In later years he met his present wife Carole Ann Harris, who was his partner for 25 years until they married on Saturday 5th September 2015 at Cyfarthfa Castle. There, a surprise visit from the Dowlais Male Choir who sang unexpectedly, “This is the Moment” when Robbie and Carole Ann left the marriage room. It was an emotional moment for Robbie, who was astounded the choir had turned up and added a choral significance to the occasion.

Robbie and Carole Ann settled in Skenfrith, where they both loved living and met some good friends and neighbours. But rural living had its difficulties. When Rob suffered a stroke the ambulance did not arrive quickly, so both Robbie and Carole Ann made the decision to return to Merthyr and later settled at Oakrhoyd, the home of local artist George Frederick Harris. It took a lot of planning and hard work plus the great expense to make Oakrhoyd the home in their own inimitable style.

Rob had a calendar and each day there was a quotation. I recall one quote he mentioned: “Always smile at your enemies, they won’t know what you’re thinking.”

Robbie loved travelling and went on all of the Dowlais Male Choir’s concert tours. When the choir visited USA Rob kept in touch with some of his hosts. One of his passions was reading and learning about the Plantagenet’s so it was no surprise when Carole Ann and Robbie traveled to France and drove the route taken by William the Conqueror and visited the castles. Both Carole Ann and Robbie also loved their cruises and their holidays in Cornwall where they’d meet their friend, Jeanette Eathorne, a musical director of various Cornish choirs.

To celebrate Rob’s 80th birthday in 2015, Carole Ann arranged with Steve Brewer to be included on one of his European excisions. The hotel we stayed at was in Ostend, with excursions to Ypres’s Menin Gate, the Welsh National Memorial in Langemark near Ypres, and it was his desire this year to travel with the Dowlais and Pontypridd Males choirs and their wives and partners to sing at the Ypres’s Menin Gate to commemorate the end of WWI. Sadly Robbie will not to be there but Carole Ann has indicated a desire not to cancel the excursion and still accompany the party in memory of Robbie.

One memory of that trip that made Robbie laugh; we chose a meal in one of the nearby restaurants and Rob’s friend, Roy Bailey had annoyed the slightly inebriated waitress by asking to0 many questions about the menu. When the main meal was finished she inquired of Roy, did he want some hot love, which made Rob and the rest of us laugh. Roy was speechless until she informed us it was actually the name of the dessert.

Robbie loved reading and his book collection will testify this. Particularly if they were local history subjects and he loved to visit and browse through second hand bookshops. With Rob being a well read person he became a student of life, he was a thinking man, he liked to analyse and was very much thought provoking,  enjoying sensible debates but sometime acting as a devil’s advocate.
I always admired Rob’s patience, so it was no surprise to me Rob started another hobby – building a miniature model of James Cook’s ship ‘The Endeavour’ – an expensive kit bought for him by Carole Ann .

Rob was not one for making speeches with the only two occasions I heard him publically speaking – once at his wedding and the other occasion when he received his 40 years service award in 2012, when he admitted his choral highlight with the choir being when they won the National Eisteddfod at Ruthin in 1973.

Hopefully Robbie’s eulogy has given an insight into Robbie’s personality. He was a gentleman, he did not have an aggressive nature, he was a considerate and respectful person, he was dependable and honest. However he loved to tease and liked to prepare the bullets for you to fire, that’s if you took the bait. Rob would also say something serious and convince you it was true.

Therefore it must give his wife Carol Ann, his children Mark, Helen and Rebecca, his grandchildren Zara, Matthew, Bethan and Lucy some comfort that the assemblage in this chapel was a testimony to his character and demonstrates how much Robbie touched so many people’s lives. May he now rest from his labours and find that eternal peace.

As a choir there is no greater tribute it can give to a departed chorister, especally one of its most loyal and faithful choristers namely than by singing an item of music that meant so much to him, and as said previously a musical item that was sang at Robbie’s wedding:

‘This is the Moment’

PRAYER

O Lord God grant Robbie the peace that comes from within, let those who knew him and morn his loss be comforted in the knowledge Robbie is in a better place. Bless all here today for taking time out of their busy lives to bid farewell to a husband, father, grandfather, cousin and friend. Let us rejoice that Robbie is now with the Lord, and resting eternally with his parents. Amen.

This Welsh hymn, that encapsulates the depth of feeling of mourning called Rhys  with words written by H. Elvet Lewis were well known to Robbie as it was part of the Dowlais choir’s repertoire:

Rho im yr hedd, na ŵyr y byd amdano

Give me the peace beyond all earthy knowing,
The gentle peace, that came through boundless woe.
And from the cross on waves adversely beating,
Against my soul may Jesus calm bestow.

Robbie’s wife Carole Ann, his children Mark, Helen and Rebecca, his grandchildren Zara, Mathew, Bethan and Lucy, express their sincere thanks to all for their support and attendance at the chapel.

Llwydcoed Crematorium

We have now reached the final journey for Robbie, when we must say our farewells.

There’s no readings or words that can truly comfort those who are grieving the loss of Robbie today; and no matter how we try to make sense of it all, it is hard, so hard, to do.
The final words were read from the “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” written by Thornton Wilder in 1927:
“There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love. The only survival, the only meaning.”
There is a quote in Revelation Chapter 21 Verse 4 – “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”

A reading from ECCLESIASTES, Chapter 3, verses 1-8 says:

“Everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven:
Our lives consist of time, moments in time and the extended periods of time that we call seasons – and there are seasons in nature that depict, by God’s deliberate design, the seasons of life, the new birth of spring, the summer of growth, the autumn of maturity and the winter of decline and death.”

Robbie loved Male Voice Choir music  and as a tribute I’ve chosen the words of an Irish Blessing, which is part of the Dowlais Male Choir’s repertoire. The words were well known to Robbie:

May the roads rise up to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
May the rains fall soft upon fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

The hymn “Abide with Me” was sang
This hymn is a prayer for God to remain present with the you throughout your life, through trials, and even through death.
Carl Llewellyn continued, “Some of you are here today because you are his family, some of you are here today because you are Robbie’s friends or neighbours, some of you are here today who did not know Robbie but are here to support the family, so whatever the reason you are here, we all have a common purpose, to celebrate the life of Robbie Johnson and pay our respects to Robbie and his family.”

Today is a day for saying farewell to Robbie, whose unassuming nature and gentle manner was a credit to character. His family will remember him, his friends will miss him, the Dowlais Male Choir will miss his voice but we shall be thankful we knew Robbie, and the world has been a better place for his existence. Some of his kind deeds are unrecorded, like his advice to others to start a business, how his experience of life was passed on to others for example.

We now know Robbie is resting with the angels so let’s hope he’ll pass the voice test for singing with God’s Choir, which reminds me of a gospel hymn sang by the Dowlais Male Choir:

I heard the angels sing “Glory Hallelujah!”
A mighty chorus way up high;
I heard the angels sing “Praise the name of Jesus!”
Singing in God’s choir in the sky.

Chorus:
I heard a thousand trumpets sounding out His Glory,
telling the story how he came to earth to die;
I heard a million voices praise the name of Jesus,
Singing in God’s choir in the sky.

I believe Robbie is now part of God’s Choir and probably will be its Baritone registrar.

The Eulogy that was read out in the chapel encumbers Robbie’s life and I can only reiterate Robbie was a gentleman, he did not have an aggressive nature, he was a considerate and respectful person and we will all miss him.

A poem was read out that encumbered what I believed was Robbie’s approach to bereavement:

Remember Me

Fill not your hearts with pain and sorrow,
But remember me in every tomorrow.
Remember the joy, the laughter, the smiles,
I’ve only gone to rest a little while.

Although my leaving causes pain and grief,
my going has eased my hurt,
and given me relief.
So dry your eyes and remember me,
not as I am now,
but as I used to be.

Because, I will remember you all,
and look on with a smile.
Understand in your hearts,
I’ve only gone to rest a little while.
As long as I have the love of each of you,
I can live my life in the hearts of all of you

The Prayer

Lord our God, you give and you take away.
You blessed us through the gift of Robbie,
who is now taken from us
and whose loss we mourn.
Help us, through our tears and pain,
to glimpse your hand at work
to bring blessing out of grief. To you be glory forever.
Amen.

The Congregation was asked to stand for the committal.

We commend our Brother Robbie to God’s care. The curtain may be drawn on his life but the memories and his existence here on earth will linger in the mind of Robbie’s family and friends forever. And may the curtains be re-opened for Robbie, as he’s raised up and received by the grace of God. Amen.

The Dowlais Male Choir performed Eli Jenkins’ Prayer to Troyte’s chant.

Reverend Eli Jenkins stands outside Bethesda House, he looks towards Llareggub’s hill, reminding him of the hill of Calvary. Thoughts of gratitude and praise for the wonders of God’s creation and deliverance of man.

Once the choir had offered their last tribute, a song was played. Sung by Bing Crosby and called “There’s a gold mine in the sky”, it was a party piece of Robbie’s.

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