The following biography is taken from ‘Reminiscences of 70 Years’ by Father Denis Sheil, who died in 1962 in his 97th year.
Father Robert Eaton came to the Oratory School at the age of about 12, when I was already a boy there. His father was a man of considerable means and was the proprietor of a private bank, of which there were many in those days, in Stamford Rutland, and his lovely place, known as Tolethorp was outside the town.
When he became a Catholic it brought considerable prestige to the Catholics of the district. Entirely at his own expense, Mr Eaton replaced the shabby old Catholic Chapel by the handsome edifice where the Catholics of Stamford now worship.
My first recollection of Bobbie Eaton was disastrous for me. He was a well-trained boxer, and I was as ignorant of boxing as of other games. I was rash enough to have on the gloves with him, with a rapid, final and tragic conclusion for me. I don’t suppose his pupils and the choir boys in after years knew that Fr. Robert shone with the boxing-gloves in his youth, but they knew only too well that he would stand no nonsense. But they all had happy recollections of him, and were ever ready to swap yarns about him whenever they got together.
At school he was intellectually of more than average ability, but it was as a cricketer that he specially excelled among his contemporaries. He took an enormous run when plugging in a lightning ball – the next ball would be a sneaking slow one with a nasty twist, and all the batsman knew was that his wicket was down. Today they talk of fast and spin bowlers; Bobbie Eaton had the rare distinction of excelling in both. On at least one occasion he did the hat-trick in a school match, and scored half a century in another.
In those days the boys of the Oratory School performed a Latin Play each year under the personal teaching of Dr Newman. Robert was a great actor, and later on, after he joined the Oratory, he used to coach his actors in subsequent plays with great enthusiasm. One critic used to say that every character was a little Robert, but I am not competent to judge!
Bobbie Eaton, the ruthless bowler and celebrated actor, was received into the Congregation at the same time as his school-fellow Edward Pereira. In due course he was ordained and became Father Robert. In a very short space he had made his mark not only in the Oratory, but in Catholic Birmingham, and beyond. First as a preacher. To some critics, including myself, his sermons were too long and too loud. But Birmingham Catholics judged otherwise. On Sunday nights when Father Robert was preaching, the church was full and the back and doors filled with the overflowing crowd. He was allowed to introduce the Apostleship of Prayer at the Oratory, and in connection with this confraternity he had for many years a special service and sermon each Tuesday Evening with a congregation drawn from all over the town.
With his preaching activities Fr. Robert combined a considerable amount of literary output, several volumes of popular Scripture commentaries – he covered practically all the New Testament at one time or another – as well as a large number of devotional works – “A hundred readings for the sick” and many more, and hardly a year passed without some publication from his pen. He also paid many visits to Oberammergau during the Passion Play seasons, and gave lantern lectures on the Plays in many places.
For several years Fr. Robert acted as Headmaster of St. Philip’s Grammar School – a very much smaller establishment than it is now, located in Oliver Road. It was when he retired from his post as Headmaster in favour of Fr. Vincent, about the year 1911, when he took over, soon after, the office of Prefect of Music, that he made what was perhaps, his greatest impact.
The Oratory Choir had already a great reputation built up under Fr. Richard Bellasis, and then Fr. Anthony Pollen – a reputation that greatly increased during the long years of Fr. Robert’s administraton. He was ably assisted by that musical genius, Mr. H.B. Collins, as organist. Nobody would describe Fr. Robert as a plainchant enthusiast, and I don’t think he cared much for Palestrina and Polyphony although the choir under him always gave artistic renderings of unaccompanied music during the seasons when the organ was forbidden. But he served us abundantly with Masses by Mozart, Rheinberger, Beethoven, Silas, Cherubini, Dvorak, Hummel and alas, Gounod, then at the height of his popularity with some but whom many of us did not relish. Sunday High Mass at 11 was already of prodigious length, but the long music and sermon dragged it on to 12.30, and not infrequently till 12.40! There was much friendly discussion about the Oratory music, numerous arguments in the ‘Plough and Harrow’ after High Mass. Many have to thank Father Robert for giving them an appreciation of music when they were boys in the Oratory Choir.
It was not only in the Oratory Choir that he showed a practical interest. For many years he was the unofficial but very lively mentor in the musical activities of St. Paul’s School, and in musical competitions many local school choirs, Catholic and non-Catholic, had the ‘finishing touches’ given by Fr. Robert at the invitation of their teachers, before appearing before the adjudicators. It was not unknown for competing choirs to have had the same ‘coach’!
No account of Fr. Robert’s life would be complete without some reference to the many years he spent as Director of Music to the famous Birmingham Catholic (mixed) Choir, which gave many concerts, and was one of the first large choirs to be broadcast by the B.B.C.
Mr Collins predeceased him by a year or two. When finally Fr. Robert’s Requiem took place and his mortal remains were brought to Rednal in thick snow on January 17th 1942, one felt that an epoch in the history of the Oratory Choir had ended, and that the Oratory itself would never be quite the same without his attractive and versatile personality.