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Jackie Robbins

Jackie Robbins

Prominent speed skater of the late 1930's who died during WWII aged just 22

Jack (Jackie) Edwin Robbins was born in Hampstead, London, towards the end of 1920.  His father, Verney, was a local butcher and the family lived just a mile from the Cricklewood rink on the Broadway.

Undoubtedly, Robbins would have frequented the rink as a youngster and it wouldn't be long before he would join the National Skating Association and subsequently the Broadway roller skating club.  Aged just 16 he was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Harold Wilkinson and Frank Lamb.  The year was 1936 and Wilkinson would take part in the European Championships of that year in Stuttgart Germany.  In fact, of the seven events Wilkinson would win two titles and place second in a further three.  Lamb was also on the way up and would go on and win the RSROA World Congress Two Mile Championship in Oakland California in 1947.  Robbins was in good company indeed.

On 14th January 1937, not long after his 16th birthday, Robbins placed 3rd in the One Mile Championship on the Alexandra Palace rink.  Ahead of him was European and British Champion Jimmy Reed (Alexandra Palace) and British Champion Peter Walters (Herne Bay).  It was certainly a result that raised a few eyebrows having beaten team mate Wilkinson and other European Champion, Bill Ross (Alexandra Palace), on his home track in the process.

Very quickly any thoughts that this result was a fluke were soon expelled.  A little over a week after his first placing he would finish 2nd in the Burditt Cup handicap at Granby Halls, Leicester.  A week on from that and he would finish 2nd again, this time as part of the Broadway quartet in the Inter-Club Relay Championship on the Alexandra Palace rink.  Another week on and another 2nd place in the Southern Counties on the small Herne Bay rink.  Despite these results there were still a few doubters.  After all, a handicap, a relay and a Southern Counties were not fully blown championships or scratch races.  However, 24th February, just five weeks since his bronze in the Mile Championship, Robbins would go one better.  He would finish second to Jimmy Reed in the Five Mile Championship on the Forest Gate rink.  Reed was in the form of his life and on his way to break the record for the most number of individual senior male titles, and here was a young 16 year old "upstart" racing him all the way to the line.  Everybody agreed, Jackie Robbins was a star in the making and it was only a matter of time before he would take his own title.

The skating magazines of the day such as Cyril Beastall's "Roller Skating" or the more established (at that time) "Skating Times" were all carrying articles about this new found phenomenon.  Robbins was also not a one rink skater.  He had placed on a number of different rinks in his debut season, something that not many skaters of the day could boast.  As the 1937 season drew to a close there was indeed excitement around the rinks and more so within the Broadway club for their rising star.

One of the first events on the 1937-38 season was the Half Mile Championship at the Granby Halls in Leicester.  Robbins would make the final and start alongside reigning Southern Counties Champion and small track specialist Peter Walters along with  two local lads, Don Jackson and Ken Blakesley.  Jackson would win in front of his home crowd with Walters second and Blakesley third.  Robbins would come home fourth, commendable to some, but the result irked the 17 year old.

Jackie Robbins poses for the camera c.1937

A couple of weeks later the Alexandra Palace rink would again play host to the Mile Championship.  This time Robbins would take no prisoners.  On 20th January 1938, and only just 17 years of age, Jackie Robbins would be crowned the One Mile British Champion and holder of the Benetfink Challenge Cup, the oldest and most famous of British trophies.  The potential he had shown over the previous12 months had all come together in that one event.  Behind him was club mate Arthur Cooper who warmly congratulated the youngster on his remarkable achievement.

It had already been announced that the very first World Track Championships would take place at Wembley, London in April.  The National Skating Association deliberated on who should make the team.  They decided they would stick with experience over youth and went with 1936 European Champions Bill Ross and Harold Wilkinson.  Jimmy Reed, the other skater from the 1936 trio was turning his attentions to the sport of Roller Speedway and so Arthur Cooper was selected in his place.  To complete the selection Les Gillett (Alexandra Palace) was named as reserve.  Robbins had beaten all of these skaters and Bill Ross still had to win a British title (something he would never achieve), but everyone was of the belief that Robbins will have his day. 

Two weeks before the World Championships the Five Mile Championship was held on Alexandra Palace.  He had already taken the One Mile on this rink and his confidence was sky high.  By the end of the race Jackie Robbins was a double British Champion.  Behind him in second place was Bill Ross, who two weeks later would become Britain's first and only double World Champion.  In fact, Wilkinson and Cooper would also win a World title each, both of whom Robbins had relegated to also rans in the One and Five Mile British Championships on that year.  Undeterred Robbins bided his time and watched from the stands as the British team took home the spoils.

The 1938-39 season started relatively well, 3rd place in the Half Mile Championship, 2nd in the One Mile to club mate Frank Lamb and another 2nd in the Southern Counties.  Great results by anyone else's standard, but for Robbins he was still looking for another win.  In the Five Mile Championship he also failed to defend his title but there was no doubt on everyone's mind that Robbins had everything in his locker to pull out a result.  It was just a matter of time.

It is fair to say that as the summer break approached there were more important things on people's minds than roller speed skating.  International conflict was looking increasingly likely and on 3rd September 1939 Britain declared war on Germany.  Any thoughts of British Championships or indeed championships of any kind were now on hold, but for how long would be anyone's guess.  Bill Ross had retired after winning his two world titles and Jimmy Reed and Harold Wilkinson had now turned professional.  Robbins, however, was still to enjoy his 19th birthday.  Time was very much on his side.

Shortly after the start of the conflict Robbins joined the RAF as a wireless operator and air gunner.  It wasn't long before he was in the thick of the action.  Posted to the infamous 269 Squadron Robbins found himself stationed in Iceland.  On 27th August 1941 his squadron famously became the first to capture a German U boat (U-570).  Later that year Robbins went home to a little bit of normality and married his sweetheart, Jane, shortly before his 21st birthday.  He soon returned to Iceland and continued to do his part for the cause.

By 1943 he was now a sergeant and flying regular ASW (anti-submarine warfare) patrols looking for U boat activity.  It was after conducting one such patrol on 10th June 1943 that the unthinkable happened.  Visibility was poor and as he and his crew returned to their Reykjavik base the plane crashed into a hill 6 miles north of the Stadur Lighthouse.  The crew were killed instantly.

The British roller speed skating world was rocked by the news as the sport lost one of it's most brightest of stars.  At just 22 years old Jackie Robbins still had so much to give to the world.  He was nothing short of an enigma.  At 16 he had taken on European and soon to be World Champions and beaten them on their own tracks. A double British Champion before he was 18 and knocking on the door of international stardom.  More importantly he was a son and a husband lost to those who loved him most.

We can surmise but nobody will ever know what Robbins could or would have actually achieved in sport or in life, but for the achievements he made and the legacy he left in such a short period, Jackie Robbins will always be remembered as a British skating legend.

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