The People of Gibraltar
1950 - Robba - Olé

José Robba - Juan and Victoria Robba

My family were repatriated from Madeira in the late 1940s and I remained in Gibraltar for a couple of decades until I became a young man and left the Rock for good.  During those years José was very much a feature of civilian life in Gibraltar and I remember him well despite never having met him personally. His most distinctive feature was the way he dressed - tight American style jeans and never without a cowboy hat.  

José Robba

With the cruel indifference of youth I tended to dismiss him as just another mad eccentric - especially when he indulged in his main eccentricity which was to adopt the stylish attitude of a Spanish torero and "bullfight" passing cars in Main Street. Far less unconventionally he washed cars for his living. His list of customers included many a taxi driver, but his most important client was no less than Sir Joshua Hassan, Gibraltar's first Mayor and Chief Minister.  I often saw him either working or hanging about near the taxi rank by the Protestant Cathedral - not exactly a million miles from where I lived in 256 Main Street - in fact just round the corner. 

Far less well known at the time - and not just by me - was that he had suffered a bout of meningitis as a very young man that had very nearly killed him. Not long after this, War II intervened and he and his family were evacuated to London.  There - despite whatever effects his illness may have had - he enrolled as a member of the Pioneer Corp and in 1944 he took part in the D Day landings - an experience from which he ended up suffering from shell-shock. No doubt the origins of his rather eccentric lifestyle can be found in one or both of these two traumatic events. His exploits in the army are said to have earned him at least 13 service and other medals, none of which were ever actually presented to him - despite the later efforts of a certain Mr. Canessa who was a friend of his family.  

According to those who knew him well he was also a writer and a poet. Apparently a friend of his had once offered to help him write his book - perhaps his own autobiography - but the project seems to have fallen through. As for his poems some are known to exist but I have never been able to find any examples.

His surname - he was always referred to as Robba - is of Caleteño origen. It was a very common surname in that part of the world and the local joke was that if you happened to be visiting the village and called out his name, half the population would turn round to look at you. 

Catalan Bay

There was in fact another well know Robba in Catalan Bay. He was Juan Robba - aka Juan Barraca - who together with his good wife Victoria not only hired out those distinctive Catalan Bay square tents but would oblige customers with a cup of tea once the sun had set behind those menacing cliffs behind the village. Those who couldn't or wouldn't fork out the cost were nevertheless obliged with a kettle of boiling water. The tents - I remember - had a small partition at the back so that one could change properly. As far as I know, Juan was not related to José.

I must have left Gibraltar by the time he passed away as I would otherwise have heard about it. Looking back at this long lost era I realise that Robba, his cowboy hat and his penchant for fighting cars had became at the time something of a local institution. But perhaps more importantly it says much about his personality that we have still not forgotten him.

Main Street - The Protestant Cathedral is just round the corner to the right   (1950s)