Fri 23 Oct 2020 20:08

Dr Robert Atlay DL is a longstanding and valued member of our club. 

He worked as a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist for over 40 years.  Among his many professional roles, he served as Medical Director of Liverpool Women’s Hospital and as chairman of the Faculty of Medicine at The University of Liverpool.  He was a member of the Council of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists for more than 20 years serving within that time as Hon Secretary (Cabinet Member) for seven years; he was an unsuccessful Presidential candidate on two occasions.

He was appointed High Sheriff of Merseyside by Her Majesty for the year 2003/04 and has been a Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Merseyside since 2003.

He has an entry in Debretts and Sirs David and Dickie Attenborough can consider themselves privileged to share the same page as him!!

He joins us In conversation . . .


You were born in Liverpool, but then educated ‘over the water’ . . . on the dark side.

I was actually born in Fazakerley (in the front room), not the hospital and rapidly after that I went to the Wirral and became a Bebington lad.  My dad was a postman and he was transferred from North Liverpool to the Wirral when I was two years old.  I went to Wirral Grammar School, captained the school rugby team [Ed. actually he captained rugby, cricket swimming and athletics!  This has never been repeated since and after his ten-year tenure as a school governor and after he has served as High Sheriff, the then Headmaster set up a framed portrait at the school in High Sheriff’s gear, sword and everything, next door to Harold Wilson, the first head boy in 1929].

What a fantastic recognition

Good that, wasn’t it?  So I captained the school and was accepted to study medicine at Liverpool University.  I played a little for the Uni and was invited to play in the centre by Peter Scurfield, who was the Lancashire scrum half at the time.  But the week before he rang, I had just been elected captain of my old boys’ team – Wirral now, it was Old Wirralians in those days.  That was in 1958, which was a bit awkward because I was playing well but I just could not let the old boys down – it would have been horrendous to say “no” having told them “yes” just because I wanted to play for the Uni.  A gang of us from the Uni and other junior clubs used to make up the first County trial; it was always held at Birkenhead Park.  They put us up against one or two of the Cheshire sides they thought they might have, so we crept into what was an early County trial.  There was no prospect of me being a County player because the first-choice centre at the time was Bill Patterson from Sale, a British Lion (1959) although he would not be capped for England until two years later.  The other was a fabulous centre also from Sale whose name I forget – a great jinker.

You were a Centre – didn’t you fancy playing in the forwards?

At school, believe it or not, because I was one of the bigger ones, I played in the second row and I was switched to the backs because someone was injured in the game.  I was always a kicker, so I then stayed in the backs at either fly half or centre.

So no return to the forwards?

No, I stayed a pansy for the rest of my life.

Let’s not debate that one, let’s move on.  So you played for the old boys through your medical studies?

Yes, it was a bit difficult but you do many things when you are young.  I had a little BSA Bantam motorbike so after a day at Uni I could zoom across and train.  We only trained one day a week in those days.  I used to get to selection committee as often as I could as captain, but that is how it worked.

All the junior clubs played Waterloo Seconds.  When I was captain of Old Wirralians, we beat Waterloo Seconds for the first time in our history.  On that day they had some great players – Cliff Heaton was propping, Mike Storey was hooking, Reg Bazley was on the wing recovering from injury and Roy Eaton, a future President of Waterloo at full back.  Afterwards, the President of Waterloo, Colonel Corkhill – I am now a great friend of his son who is the same age as me – knocked on our changing room door.  He spoke terribly far back and asked “May I speak with the captain?”  I was half-naked getting changed after the match, but said, “Please sir, do come in, everyone is respectable!”  He said, “I just want to say gentlemen what an excellent, excellent victory.  Well done.”  He then asked to speak with me outside.  In the corridor he said “Just a private word, it would help in the future if you could all play in the same colours!”  (Laughs) The jerseys were the same but some of our players were ex-Army and they played in khaki shorts; nobody had the same socks.  Someone even had odd socks – we might have been primitive, but we beat them anyway.

That’s a great story.  So did you play for Waterloo whilst living here?

The only game I played for Waterloo was for the Vets against Merchant Taylors’.  That was the only one I played because by then you see I was 33/34 years old and certainly worried about damaging my hands.  I knew that I could possibly contribute to the club elsewhere.  But I always trained with the lads – Tuesdays and Thursdays for years.  Attending training was important for me as injuries were quite common.  I’ve stitched more eyes during training sessions than in any match.  Lol Connor (captain) being very physical, sometimes caused more danger to his team mates than opponents!  The sessions were somewhat primitive compared to modern rugby football; some would use the back pitch for practising kicks at goal, a few would run around the pitch for a while and then communal practice of lineouts and scrums.  It was OK but nothing like it is now – this running around and smacking each other 40 minutes before kick-off.  For me, I think it’s inappropriate and wasteful of ergs.

So what about your continuing engagement with Waterloo?

We arrived back on Merseyside later in 1969 when I was appointed a consultant at Mill Road and Sefton hospitals.  I had started my career with Lord Cohen at the Liverpool Royal Infirmary, onto the old Women’s Hospital in Catharine Street before moving on to Nottingham and Sheffield.

One day when doing a clinic in Sheffield I got a phone call from my old teacher Sir Norman Jeffcoate, a world class name in obstetrics and later good friend inviting me to apply for a consultant job at my old teaching hospital.  (Laughing) So when the master calls . . .  I went to the interview and happily I was successful.  He was a very sporty person.  I played cricket for the Uni and in his day, Sir Norman was opening bat.  After being appointed, we went for a coffee and drinkies and Sir Norman advised me to live on the north side of Liverpool as good property was more affordable and there were excellent schools, golf courses and of course, Waterloo Rugby Club.  When I mentioned living on the Wirral, he quickly said that he did not think that was viable being in obstetrics as there was only one tunnel in those days.  If the medical team is in difficulties, you can’t have the boss stuck in the tunnel!  In those days you could buy a palace for £10,000, which we were certainly very lucky to do.

We did have a cursory look at one property in Cressington Park but lost interest when we saw that we were overlooked by the cranes etc in Garston Docks!  So we decided against that and went north.  Jean and I explored Crosby the next week.  We had received literature from a number of estate agents and when we drove into Crosby it looked terribly posh to us.  We drove down Warren Road in my aged Volkswagen and then into Merrilocks Road.  Jean said to me “slow down and look at that place”.  It was sensational – seven bedrooms and just over half an acre of land – beautiful.  We lived there for 32 years.  When Mrs Tomlinson was showing us around the garden, I could see rugby posts between two houses on the other side of the railway line.  I said to Jean, “Look at that, I’ve played there several times.” 

So what was your involvement in the club?

Initially I helped out with medical issues.  Dr Bob Askam, a lovely man was the club doctor – we became great pals; he was a local GP and as I was involved in surgical matters, I tended to do the reparative work, stitching etc.

My first proper involvement was when Dennis Bowman, then captain invited to sit on his selection committee, in place of a resignation over selection difficulties.  Dennis, therefore gave me my first chance of involvement.  From there, I became Chairman of the football committee (these days, the Director of Rugby) and was able to represent the football side on the general committee, which was chaired by the President.  I went to as many away games as I could and if I was on call for the weekend my two fantastic consultant colleagues at Mill Road would stand in for me and I would repay them with other time off.  They were terrific like that.

At Mill Road, a city maternity hospital, one of my colleagues was orthopaedic surgeon, John Campbell who was at medical school with me and he used to run his clinics at the same time as me on a Tuesday morning, right under my room a floor below.  So any orthopaedic issues, John very kindly saw for me, X-rays etc.  All the boys understood the instruction “Tuesday, Mill Road, quarter to 12, don’t be late and I’ll meet you at the end of my clinic”.  John Campbell was unbelievably kind to me and Waterloo Rugby Club.  He himself was a tremendous player, captain of Birkenhead Park and Cheshire.  We played together in the Medical School 7s side that was beaten in the final of the All-England medical schools’ event at Cardiff.  We lost to Edinburgh University who had three Scottish internationals in the 7s side and we only lost by eight points!

So I was very involved with Waterloo and really, I was getting quite paternal with the lads.  At this stage I would be in my late 30s, so I was considerably older than most of the players.  I could have had a sub-clinic for obstetrics at Waterloo Rugby Club being involved in more than 20 of their offsprings!  After the obstetric era we then moved into gynaecology, but that is another story and it included care of a couple of grans!

I’ve picked up a story about you giving some of the lads experimental pain killers.  Can you tell me about that?

Hmm – Rosslyn Park away.  The story was in those days the drug companies used to include GPs and some outpatient clinics in clinical trials; the whole arrangement was legally sound, but of course, many drugs have side effects.  An analgesic, a good pain killer arrived on the scene designed initially to help women in early labour.  The drug was later withdrawn.  Prior to that, we were playing Rosslyn Park away and captain Laurie Connor was carrying a minor injury which he usually had as he was always such a physical player.  Picture the scene – sometimes several players with minor problems would say “Bertie, have you got any tabs”, meaning they wanted some Aspirin or Panadol [other brands are available – Ed.], whatever I was carrying around at the time.  I’d give them a tablet and some water.  Then we got onto this particular drug which I was trialling.  The boys loved it for pain relief.  Anyway, back to Rosslyn Park, Lol comes to me for his usual couple of tabs before giving his team talk.  As he spoke, he used to strike his palm with the other fist – he would have done well in war, Lol.  When he finished the team talk he said to me, “Bertie” – I went over and said “What’s up?”  He said “I don’t feel well.”  He didn’t look well so I put my hand on his forehead as he was sweating.  I took his pulse and I think I recall that it was 46 beats a minute.  I asked “Have you got any pain in your chest, Lol?”  “I’ve never had pain in my chest” he replied.  I wondered whether he had a heart block.  A pulse rate in an athlete like him should be between 60 and 70.  So I asked him what his normal pulse rate was.  He said “About 56 to 60”.  So that made me feel a bit better.  I told Lol that it could be the medication, as there had been some side effects recorded!  I advised him not to play, “It’s only Rosslyn Park, only a game of rugby.  And Ged Poynton is on the bench”.  He said “I know, that’s what worrying me!”  But Lol was alright and played, but no more tabbies of that nature.

I hope not. What other memories do you have of supporting the lads?

I remember once, we went up to Gosforth, sadly no longer in existence.  At Gosforth in those days, the rugby pitch was on one side of the road, across two lacrosse and hockey pitches – around 500 yards from the changing room.  So I was trotting across with Dennis Bowman who was captain.  I had my medical bag and another bag with spare shirts and stuff.  When we got to the rugby pitch Dennis stopped, bent over, hands on his knees, puffed and he looked at me and said “Bertie, I’m knackered [Ed. – child friendly version of what was actually said].”  He was only running to start the game!

So you eventually became President

Yes, I’d had this huge involvement with the club.   Organised two overseas tours, one to Rome with Richard Greenwood on the other side who was unbelievably helpful.  He and I were good pals, anyway from when he was at Waterloo.  We had such a fantastic tour.  The second tour was to Portugal some years later so I was just a part of the playing family.  If I ever had a difference with the players, it was over not paying their subs, although this never became a serious issue.  Despite always getting on well with young people, although I was a girls’ man through the job, I was fine with lads.  People used to say to me “Aren’t you sad that you haven’t got a son, Bob?”  “I’ve got 30 of them at Waterloo. [“them” was changed from a word more at home in the changing room – Ed.]

The fixture list we had was extraordinarily good.  We played in the Midlands – Leicester, Coventry and Northampton.  Down below we played Harlequins, Rosslyn Park, Richmond.  Over on the west coast, Bristol.  Up north, Glasgow Accies, Glasgow High School.  For a large part of my tenure, Dennis who had been captain became fixture secretary when he stopped playing.  So he and I became great pals and have remained so ever since.  Another part of my being at Waterloo, particularly in the early days was making friends with the old guys . . . like I am now.  When Jeanie was looking after the children on a Sunday evening I used to go down and drink three halves with these old fellows, Gordon Macintosh, Posh Al etc.  The only time that I fell out with them was when I said “If we don’t go out and recruit some players it will all go down the pan.”  At that time, I think we had nine County players, but in the first 12 games we had only won five.

What other memories do you have of memorable wins? 

We went down to Richmond, Richard Greenwood was captain and I remember it was tippling down with rain, awful.  It was a bad pitch anyway because they shared it with London Scottish so the pitch never got a chance to recover.  We were always up to our ankles in mud.  I can still remember Richard’s pre-match speech sitting down putting his boots on.  He said, “Now listen in”, that was one of his phrases, “Here is today’s menu.  The ball will go to Phil Mahon at fly half who will kick it almost vertically in the air.  He will not pass it, but we will deal with the poor so-and-so who catches it.”  They had won nine out of 11 games but the final score was Richmond 0, Waterloo 6.

Of course, Dick’s son, Will played for us in between popping back to Durham University.  He also played for Preston Grasshoppers and I remember a game in the Lake district somewhere, and Will getting badly tackled . . . late!  Will tells the story about how his father hunted this guy down until he got him.  But Richard Greenwood was such a ‘correct’ player, a correct tackler, a bit like Alan Ashcroft.  He played 8 mostly and was a classical ‘covering 8’.  So just when you thought the opposition winger was through, Greenwood would appear and take him out.  I remember him doing that against Leicester at our place tackling an England trial winger who ended up on his back with the ball on his chest!  After the game I asked Dick how he managed to do that and he humbly replied “I couldn’t work that out Bob.”  He was often the last back for the scrum, not because he wasn’t fit, but because he was up with play, covering.

When you were President, we hosted the Australians

That was a wonderful piece of news when we heard from the RFU that Australia were playing at Blundellsands.  John Carter was a great Club Secretary at the time and when he ran County and important games it was like a military exercise.  He had worked out his protocols, formats and organised the volunteers.  On the day he would turn up in his plus-fours.  He was a Formby golfer like me, but he’d have on an immaculate suit but with his plus-fours and brogue shoes.  We had a great crowd, every time we talk about that game 1,000 goes onto the attendance figure. 

Even better was when I received a letter from Charles Wilson who was the manager of the Australian team.  He was known as ‘Chilla’ and he was a gynaecologist who I had met at a World Congress in London when we buddied up.  I have still got the Australian tour tie that he gave me.  They had as great team.  The Ella brothers were playing, we had a superb post-match dinner when I got quite a few mentions most of which are not repeatable.  Later, I got a two-week visiting professorship to Brisbane doing undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and Chilla was a Brisbane man and organised a dinner for me.

How lovely.  You became High Sheriff and Deputy Lieutenant

High Sheriff in 2003-04 and I was made a Deputy Lieutenant during my year of office.  You keep the DL until you die, but you stop performing duties at age 75.  It has been a real privilege and pleasure to be involved.

Sir Alan Waterworth rang me and asked me to come to his office in Old Hall St on Friday lunchtime; he said it was important.  So I turned up at the office and his P.A. took me in.  We shook hands and he invited me to sit down.  I knew him well as he had been a non-exec director of the Women’s Hospital when I was a medical director, so I asked him “What’s this all about?”  He asked me would I like a glass of sherry – SHERRY on a Friday lunchtime!  And it was that Tio Pepe that makes your cheeks clang together

I love it

I can’t be doing with it, but I said “That would be nice, Alan”.  So there I am looking at him and he said, “Right. This is why it is serious.  I am asking you whether you would be prepared to be my nomination and ask Her Majesty to accept my nomination for you to be the High Sheriff of Merseyside in 2003-4.”  They always do three in batches, three years ahead.  I looked askance and because I knew him so well I said “Are you taking the p***, Al?”  He replied, “Indeed I am not!”  He then said perhaps it has been my long service at Mill Road and the development of the new Women’s Hospital.  I was unsure, but he agreed to advise and help me.  I said that I would have to consult Jean and he said, “I’ll tell you something, if you don’t do it, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”  It was a fantastic opportunity, meeting the Royal family, entertaining 23 High Court judges over the year.  In those days, Liverpool Crown Court was very busy.  We had some fantastic nights.  I hired a chef because I wasn’t going to have Jeannie in the galley while everyone was having a good time.  But we actually did 313 ‘things’ in our year.

In 52 weeks?

Sometimes we would do three events in one day, I’d do after dinner speeches, school speech days, visits to primary schools in my uniform.

So I guess that left little room for rugby in that year

I really didn’t have the time, but whenever I didn’t have a function I would go along to the club.

So let’s get back to Waterloo.  What makes the place special for you?

It became an extremely important part of my life, not only the time I spent there, but the interest – I’d always been a Rugby Union man and we lived so close by.  If I was needed at short notice because of an injury I could be there in minutes.  And Jean got involved – she thought as there is no other choice she might as well join them!  So along with other wives, Jan Bowman, Pat Mahon and Pauline Carter they ran the women’s committee and did functions and events.  They built up their own bank account and on one occasion they were really proud to have reached £1,000 – then Colin Brennand came along and plundered it as the club needed the money.  He did ask them, of course.

My children when they became teenagers were always around at the club and they have lifelong friends that they made at Waterloo.

Final thought – what do you wish for Waterloo in the future?

Well, we have got to be realistic.  We cannot return to the days of yore when we were in the top dozen sides for a long, long time.  When I think back to the people who have been and gone in the sides, we have had some unbelievable people.  We are never going to achieve that again.  I used to hawk myself around the clubs – Southport, Sefton, West Park, Wirral etc.  What I could offer those lads then was the opportunity to step up a rung and have a few training sessions with us.  They could see that we were a top club with fantastic facilities – one of the best pitches anywhere that anyone would love playing on.  And they could be playing with people like Dick Greenwood, Jim Sydall, Colin Fisher and Dave Carfoot when the Cowley lot came down.  One of the great turning points for the club was when they came down.  Ray French, a lifelong friend had taught rugby to these lads and a once a few joined us and liked it, others followed.

I went to Southport one day watching them play and got hold of Nigel Wilkinson.  He came to a few training sessions, then joined – I think he played over 100 times for us – North of England in the side that beat the All Blacks.  I picked up Nick Allott, one of the best players we have had in my lifetime, a quite fantastic player.  I was at a dinner at Birkenhead Park once and a local barrister, John Morgan gave the reply to the main speech and in it he said, “Beware Bob Atlay bearing gifts”.  In other words, if he is watching a game of rugby and Waterloo are not on the pitch, he’s after someone.

Dr Bob Atlay – thank you.

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