Frank Dobson: Yorkshireman had a true passion for his adopted home
The West Ham United fan who loved a curry
14 November, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
HE used to joke that he arrived at King’s Cross on a train from Yorkshire, turned left and never looked back.
Frank Dobson had fallen in love with London, and specifically Camden, his adopted home for 60 years. He never traded on it, but his childhood in the 1940s had not always been easy. His family home, Strawberry Cottage in the village of Dunnington, had no heating or electricity.
His mother Reni was a milliner, and his father Jim worked on the railways until passing away when Mr Dobson was 16. His father’s illness, before the NHS had been formed, helped shaped his views first-hand on the right to free healthcare; his parents had faced daily choices as to whether they could afford a doctor.
Mr Dobson, also always remembered the spirit and kindness of the National Union of Railwaymen, had supported his mother. He arrived in London as a student in the 1960s, reading economics at the LSE. He joined his local Labour Party, living at first in student digs in Endsleigh Place, and for the next 60 years he never lived more than 20 minutes from King’s Cross.
At university, he met his future wife, Janet. He gatecrashed a party she was at in Hampstead – and as a way of saying sorry for turning up unannounced, they agreed to return the following day and help carry a piano back up a set of stairs. Though he was an atheist, Mr Dobson loved a hymn – and they gathered round the piano to sing.
The pair were engaged on New Year’s Eve in 1966 and married in February, just months after they had got together. Daughter Sally was born in 1968, followed by Tom in 1969, and their third child, Joe, in 1976.
They lived in private accommodation in Museum Street, Bloomsbury.
The flat was later bought by Camden Council, prompting critics to question why he lived in a council-owned property on an MP’s salary – unaware that he had first been the sub-tenant of a private landlord.
He once responded to the question by saying: “We were sold to Camden Council. What should I have done? Exercised my right to buy, which I voted against?” After graduating, he worked for the Central Electricity Generating Board and the Electricity Council. In 1971, he was elected to Camden Council and led the Town Hall between 1973 and 1975.
When MP Lena Jeger stepped down, he stood for Holborn and St Pancras South in 1979, and would hold the equivalent seat until 2015.
From walks through Regent’s Park or Hampstead Heath, he loved the city’s bustle and the many different people he could meet. He also loved shopping for food and was a fan of the stores once found in Soho. He expressed sadness at how Soho’s specialist food shops had fallen foul of rising costs and gentrification.
The curry houses in Drummond Street were favourites and at home he would rustle up his own spicy meals. Sunday roasts were mandatory for the family. After his retirement, Mr Dobson turned his hand to jam-making.
He volunteered at children’s charity Coram Fields, but away from such voluntary positions he had a penchant for making children smile. He had a stock of funny faces to pull, and could be found crawling about on his hands and knees while his children clambered on his back. He loved trips to London Zoo and would take his children to see his favourite animal, Guy the Gorilla.
When Guy died after an operation, there was a suggestion the creature should be stuffed and displayed. Frank retorted that he felt the keeper should be stuffed, not poor Guy.
He became a West Ham fan when he moved to London after pal Roger Martin took him to Upton Park – his first team was York City.
He also saw the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley – a friend, who owned a new Mini, had wangled a job ferrying referees around from game to game in return for petrol money and two final tickets.
His heroes ranged from West Ham skipper Billy Bonds to Oliver Cromwell, admiring his role in founding parliamentary politics. Shakespeare was another great love and Mr Dobson would regularly travel to Stratford-upon-Avon to see shows. With a brilliant memory, he could rustle up a telling quote – and his ability to speak so well in public stemmed partly from his lifelong love of Shakespeare.
He enjoyed all forms of theatre – as a young man he would buy cheap seats to see the likes of John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier on stage and then write a review to send back to his mother in Yorkshire.
But he often mentioned three heroes in particular: scientist Rosalind Franklin, who worked on the discovery of DNA but never won the acclamation her male colleagues enjoyed; Nelson Mandela; and fireman Colin Townley.
Mr Townley had been on duty during the devastating King’s Cross station fire of 1987 which claimed 31 lives. He had made the decision to go ahead of his brigade colleagues to assess what was needed but was killed by a fireball – and Mr Dobson never forgot his bravery.
In 1992, he spoke of Mr Townley’s sacrifice, quoting the Bible that “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” to which Mr Dobson added: “Colin Towney laid down his life for strangers.”
The Rhondda MP Chris Bryant, his former agent, recalled it was the finest speech by a politician he had ever heard.