Tributes paid to former EADT reporter Robin Williams
PUBLISHED: 11:00 21 February 2020 | UPDATED: 13:08 21 February 2020
The journalist, who reported on life and events in Bury St Edmunds, has died at the age of 88
Robin Williams was the quintessential local newspaperman: dedicated, determined and driven to make sure people could read the news, whether it be controversies or celebrations.
He saw to it that all life in and around Bury St Edmunds was reflected in the columns of a newspaper that was essential reading for thousands of people every day.
He has died in Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge - aged 88 - after a sudden illness. Robin leaves wife Cynthia, their daughter Jane Watson and two grandsons, Thomas and George Watson. He is survived by sister Iris and brother Christopher.
Robin, who lived in Bury St Edmunds his whole life, retired as the district chief reporter of the East Anglian Daily Times in 1990 after 42 years with the company. He had followed in his father's footsteps - Frank Williams had joined the newspaper in 1926.
There was no-one of importance and influence, and many who were neither, who didn't know Robin in and around Bury. They would turn to him with news and information, often with hints of suspected controversy - trusting him to delve into matters and report the truth.
Terry Hunt, former editor of the EADT, said: "Robin was the absolute epitome of a good district chief reporter. He loved the town and knew it like the back of his hand. Absolutely nothing of note happened in Bury without Robin knowing about it."
Like so many young journalists before and after him, Terry started his career under the guidance of Robin, spending two years in the Bury St Edmunds office, which in those days was in Woolhall Street.
"His experience, calmness and patience helped me so much. He taught me the importance of responsible, balanced journalism and how vital it was to ensure that every word I wrote was true, accurate, and fair to the person or organisation I was writing about.
"Over the decades, so many young reporters have so much to thank Robin for. Like many others, I arrived at Bury completely raw, and Robin was an invaluable influence.
"Robin instilled in me the values which I hope stayed with me during my long career with the EADT and Ipswich Star."
Parcel on train
Robin went to King Edward VI Grammar School in Bury and spent two years doing National Service, becoming a bombardier in the army, based at Shoeburyness. He spent a further three and a half years with the Territorial Army, based at Bury's Gibraltar Barracks.
He joined the EADT in 1948, working as a trainee under father Frank and earning £2 and five shillings a week. He did a bit of everything: from taking advertisement copy to reporting from the paper's office in Hatter Street.
It was a six-day working week, often with events to be attended on two or three evenings as well. Every day he would cycle to the railway station once or twice to put a parcel of copy on the train, to be delivered to the EADT's Ipswich head office in time for the next morning's paper.
It was while reporting the Saturday home matches of Bury Town football club that he first encountered the young woman who would become his wife of 66 years.
Robin had to phone match reports to Ipswich at half and full time, and often found himself being connected to the office by Cynthia Snazell, who worked at the town's telephone exchange. Chatting led to a first date - begun and finished with a handshake - and an eventual life-long marriage.
Cynthia later joined the EADT in Bury and worked for 24 years in the front office, simultaneously charming customers and acting as the gatekeeper for the reporters writing their news stories within.
"Robin loved his job," she said. "We gave up having set meal times because he was so often late or suddenly called out on a job. Being a reporter was Robin's life.
"Our first home was a flat in Hatter Street, opposite the office, and we used to keep our window open in the evening so we could hear if the telephone rang - we didn't have our own - and Robin would be off across the road and out on a job at the drop of a hat."
In his early days, frustrated at there being no photographer to hand, he took up the role and created a dark room, drying prints by sticking them on the windows and knowing they were dry when they fell off.
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The EADT wasn't the only organisation without its own photographer in Bury at the time. He was called upon by the local police to take scenes-of-crime pictures - the most grisly being those of a young woman raped and murdered in Mildenhall.
When Home Office pathologist Francis Camps conducted the post mortem examination it was Robin who took photographs of the autopsy.
"It shook me a bit," he later said, describing how he, the pathologist and a police officer smoked 100 cigarettes during the procedure.
The most difficult and emotionally draining story he followed was that of the 1974 air disaster. Eighteen members of Bury Rugby Club died when a Turkish Airlines DC 10 plane crashed in a forest near Paris. At the time it was the worst air disaster in history, with 344 killed.
Robin knew many of the people who died, and their families. The tragedy happened on a Sunday and his story was on the front page of the Anglian the next day, with his follow-up on the front of the Evening Star in the afternoon.
He described it as "the worst weekend of my career".
Robin created quite a stir among fellow journalists when reporting on the 40th anniversary events marking the D-Day landings in Normandy. He was spotted using an early laptop Tandy computer on which to write his copy.
Such a thing had never been seen before by the other hacks, who gathered around him to watch what was then a revolutionary way of transmitting news back to head office. He had to decamp to a café to find peace and quiet, and a telephone line so he could file his story.
On another occasion he found himself surrounded for very different reasons. On a train journey to Berlin, when East Germany was under communist rule, Robin was guarded by armed soldiers of the Royal Anglian Regiment, protecting him from possible interference by the authorities until they reached safety in the British zone of the city.
Respect and fairness
Robin was much more than just the chief reporter in Bury. He was in charge of all aspects of the office, with at times more than 12 people on the staff.
Among them were junior reporters for whom he felt great responsibility, even finding them digs and worrying about their well-being. He had to find new premises when the Woolhall Street office was destroyed by fire in the 1980s.
"When I arrived, late for work on my first day, Robin treated me with tolerance and patience as I learned the ropes," said Richard Carter, who met wife Jill, another junior reporter, there and went on to become editor of the West Suffolk Mercury newspapers.
"He instilled in me the importance of getting out of the office, talking to people, engaging with their lives and situations, building contacts. Always treating people with respect and fairness. His ethos has served me well ever since."
Always a notebook
Robin was born in Albert Street, Bury, on March 31, 1931, and the family soon afterwards moved to Park Road. He was a member of his school's Old Burians' Association and stayed in touch with Army mates through the Royal Artillery Association. Since retiring, he was an active member of Bury Probus.
Outside work he was a private man, devoted to his family and finding relaxation in making model aircraft (which he flew on Newmarket heath) and model boats.
He and Cynthia enjoyed European travel and in retirement he organised trips to Italy and France with a dozen friends.
Even in retirement, and up to his death, Robin never went anywhere without a notebook and pencil so he could jot down things of interest.
He was a reporter to the last.
Robin's funeral is on Friday, March 6, at 3pm, in St Edmund's Chapel at West Suffolk Crematorium, Risby, IP28 6RR