A Life of Adventures - Robert Conway Martin

I remember my maternal grandfather as being a larger than life character. In trying to think of a word to describe him, the word adventurous comes to mind. The characteristics of an adventurous personality include:

  • throwing caution to the wind
  • venturing where most fear to tread
  • not being bound by the same terrors and worries that limit others
  • living on the edge
  • challenging boundaries and restrictions
  • pitting yourself against your own mortality

As I've looked back on his life, I think that was pretty accurate!

Early Life

Robert Conway Martin was born on 10 May 1914 in the small coastal town of Stevenston, Ayrshire the second son of Irish immigrants, James Martin and Margaret Jane Conway who had married in 1912.

Believed to be Robert (in middle) with his mother, Margaret Jane Conway, brother Willie, grandmother, Maggie Moore and sister, Sarah. c1916. Colourised courtesy MyHeritage.

Stevenston, is one of the 'Three Towns' along with Ardrossan and Saltcoats, on the east coast of the Firth of Clyde. In the 20th century, the town was a major base for Nobel Industries and later ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries), whose Ardeer site employed many thousands of workers producing explosives and chemicals, including many of the Martin and Conway families who had come over from Ireland. ICI Ardeer was commonly known locally as the 'factory' or the 'Dinnamite'. The company generally provided higher quality employment regarding terms and conditions and pension rights than other local firms. At its peak, the site employed almost 13,000 workers in a fairly remote location and the Ardeer site was almost like a community, and there were so many people employed there that a bank, travel agent and dentist were at one time based on the site.

Robert attended Stevenston Higher Grade School and in the 1925-26 session when he was 12 years old, and was awarded a Certificate of Merit for Diligence and Proficiency in general class work and history.

Canada and the USA 

When Robert left school he worked as a Painter. Shortly before his 18th birthday on 10 April 1932, Robert left home and travelled to Canada on the "SS Montclare" with the intention of farming in Ontario. Robert was sponsored by the YMCA as part of the Church Nomination Scheme. Those who went to Canada under this scheme were processed by the United Church of Canada's receiving hostel at Norval, Ontario which vetted their placements and ensured they earned a minimum of 10 shillings a week and maintained guardianship until they were 19 years old.

Canadian Passenger Lists, 1865-1935
The following year, Robert is found crossing the border into the USA at Blaine, Washington. At the time he gave his residence as Camp 205 White Rock, British Columbia and was travelling on foot with a friend, John Stanley Banks and stated his destination was "no place in particular".

U.S., Border Crossings from Canada to U.S., 1895-1960

Royal Navy

Robert was working as a general labourer when he enlisted in the Royal Navy at Portsmouth on 4 September 1934. At the time he was described as being 5 foot 8 inches, with auburn hair, blue eyes and a fresh complexion.

Once they had completed their initial training, parade drill, naval history, housekeeping and rifle drill, they were assigned to His Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Victory II. Victory was a land based training establishment for stokers and
engine artificers, based in Portsmouth. Here they would have to study the “Stokers Manual” a one hundred page book setting out the basics of Boilers, Furnaces, Engines, Turbines and the registering of Temperature, Steam, Oil and Water gauges.

Stokers would have their own Mess, usually on the Main Deck. Here they would eat and sleep between watches. Although they would have had a cook, they would be expected to “muck in” with the chores. Some would take their turn at cooking. Especially when coming off a late watch. Stokers received better pay than the ordinary seaman, as their work was more strenuous and generally more arduous than the ordinary sailor.

Although he had signed up for 12 years, we know he did not complete his service.

Spanish Civil War

Evening News 5 August, 1937 
Robert was one of an estimated 500 volunteers who went from Scotland to Spain in 1936 to oppose fascism and support the Republican government there with the International Brigades.  The war had many facets and was viewed as class struggle, a war of religion, a struggle between dictatorship and republican democracy, between revolution and counterrevolution, and between fascism and communism.

My grandmother had told me that my grandfather had been mentioned in the newspapers following his return from Spain. On a trip to Scotland in 1985, I visited the Mitchell Library in Glasgow in hope of finding some reference to Robert's involvement. I scoured the papers using the microfilm readers and remember being very pleased when I found a small article in the Evening News dated 5 August, 1937 which told of his safe return and also referenced the release of Ethel McDonald, a Bellshill woman, who had been imprisoned in Barcelona. I was a bit dismayed when I returned home to learn this wasn't the article my grandmother remembered!

Many years later whilst doing a Google search, I stumbled across the following article on the Workers' Liberty website. The account of his time with the International Brigades was written by Robert on his return to Scotland. It was originally published in the September 1937 issue of Controversy: The Monthly Socialist Forum, a British monthly magazine published by the Independent Labour Party from 1932 to 1950. It was re-published in November/December 1995 No. 26 issue of Workers' Liberty.


The 1936-37 Spanish Revolution: with the International Brigade 

What I heard over the wireless, read in the newspapers and saw on the films made me decide to go to Spain to fight for the workers. I joined the International Brigade. Before doing so I had to get recommendations from a member of the Communist Party. I was told by the Communist Party that the International Brigade was made up of volunteers to fight against fascism and for the workers’ revolution but that the workers’ revolution could not take place until the war was over. I thought this reasonable but I expected a socialist spirit and practice in the Brigade itself.

I will not give dates or describe in detail how we volunteers got to Barcelona. Despite my experiences, I do not want to give anything away to the British Government. But, in view of what happened afterwards, it is necessary to say that both in Paris and in Spain we were strongly warned against the anarchists. Indeed, we were led to the conclusion that the anarchists are as much the enemy of the Spanish workers as are the fascists.

We went by sea to Barcelona. We were told that we could not go by land because the anarchists were at the border and would shoot us. Our boat was sunk by a submarine — it was said to be an Italian submarine. When the torpedo hit the ship I went over the side and was picked up by a fishing boat after twenty-five minutes in the water. Sixty-five men went down with the ship. I was deeply stirred by the way in which the boys who were left on the boat sang the Internationale as the ship went down. Among them was my friend, Robert MacDonald, who enlisted me.

My first surprise was to find that the fishermen who rescued me in their boat were anarchists. I had been warned that the anarchists were our enemies as well as the fascists and that they would shoot us. Yet here they were rescuing me and the other comrades who were in the water. When I reached the shore I was treated by these anarchist fisherfolk with a sympathy and care which I shall never forget. After receiving treatment in hospital I was taken to the home of an anarchist and treated with the utmost kindness.

That night we went by train to Barcelona, arriving late at night. Again we were warned about the anarchists. We were told that we could not be taken into the city by the main streets because we would be shot by the anarchists. We were directed through the back streets and alleys and told to keep very quiet. We were taken to the Karl Marx Barracks and put up there for the night and warned that we must not leave the building. We stayed there for two days.

From Barcelona we went to Valencia, where Robert Minor, the American correspondent of the Daily Worker addressed us. He repeated the warning against the anarchists. I began to feel that this was being overdone.

Next we went to Albacete and then on to the Headquarters of the International Brigade at Madrigras. The conditions here were bad. I did not expect an easy time and would have put up with these without complaint if all of us had had to share them in a way which I expected in a Communist brigade. But, whilst the billeting and food provided for the privates were wretched, the officers were billeted in the best building in the town and had excellent food, including meat, butter and eggs. We could never get any English or American cigarettes, although the officers had plenty. We could not get sufficient food or any meat, while the officers had everything for their comfort. I myself went to their building and saw the contrast of treatment.

The contrast between the conditions of the men and the officers was one of the first things to disturb me. This did not seem to me to be a workers’ army, with its differences between the privates and the officers. It was an army which maintained class differences. I had received an entirely different impression from the Communist Party in Glasgow. I had been told that we would be comrades together and equals.

When the boys were sent to the front I was not included. I was told that I was to go back to Albacete and to be sent to the front from there. When I reached Albacete I was taken before Commandant Lamont. I asked when I was to go to the front. He said that I was not going to the front; I was going to gaol. I asked the reason for this. He said he did not know, but he had orders to put me in prison.

I was then placed in prison and found myself with seventy other comrades of the International Brigade. Among these were comrades who had been at the front for months. They had become disillusioned and had asked to be sent home. They had been placed in prison instead. One of them had been shot badly in the arm; several others had been wounded.

I asked to see the Political Commissar to find out why I was in prison and why I should not be released. He came to see me eight days later and told me that he would do his best to get me out but he could not do much. I was too dangerous a man to be sent to the front. He was a Welsh Communist.

That afternoon the guard came along and took me to the Commission of Justice, composed of Commandant Lamont and another officer who spoke French, but who, I was told afterwards, was a Russian. This was told me by another Russian, who had known the officer before being imprisoned.

I asked for the Political Commissar to be present with me, but this was not allowed. When I asked why I was in prison I was told that I was a provocateur and was suspected of belonging to Mosley’s fascists in England. I was asked to what party I belonged. I told them I did not belong to any party but was an anti-fascist and a class-conscious worker. They then told me that I was a criminal wanted by the police and that I had come to Spain only because I was afraid that I would be put in gaol. When I dared to ask why members of the Communist Party had been put in prison and why the workers of Catalonia were being shot down I was told that this was provocation and proved to them that I was a fascist. They gave orders for me to be locked up.

We went on hunger-strike in the prison because we were not given enough food. Again let me say that we would not have complained of lack of food if there had been a shortage. The leaders of the hunger-strike were removed. I did not know what happened to them. The rest of us were distributed to different cells. Cells infested with vermin. Nothing was done to try to keep the cells clean. We asked for water and disinfectant and brushes to clean the cells, but without result. The heat and the stuffiness were terrible. There were about thirty-five men in one room with only two little windows. One night a comrade was brought in. He was very ill — had pains in his stomach and was in agony. He was in such a bad condition that we battered on the doors to attract the guards and to ask them to take the comrade to hospital. He was not attended to for three days. Then the doctor ordered that he should be removed to hospital. Owing to the bad food, the heat and the vermin, other men were sick all the time. They received no proper attention they were just given pills.

We were there for eighteen days. Some men had been there for months. After we had been there ten days some of the comrades were taken away by ambulance and told that they were being sent home. These included two Canadians, Fred Walker and James Bradley, and some French comrades. They were given a cordial farewell by the Communists, who shook their hands, cried “Salud, camerads,” and gave them the sign of the clenched fist. The boys were happy to know that they were going home and, of course, this gave us hope as well.

Eight days later the same thing happened to us. We were taken from the prison at night-time, our army gear was taken away from us, we were given civilian clothes, and our identification cards as members of the International Brigade were torn up. We were told that we had finished with the Brigade. We were going to Barcelona and from there to Marseilles.

Before we left, Commandant Lamont said, “Well, fellows, you are going home,” and he gave us a kind of sarcastic salute which made me wonder. He told us not to get “tough” with the guard or we should have to walk from Barcelona to Perpignan (across the Frontier).

We were taken away in an ambulance very late at night so as not arouse interest. There were fifteen of us; one armed French officer went with us in the ambulance.

We went to Valencia and then through to Barcelona. We were taken to the International Brigade Headquarters at the Karl Marx Barracks. We were told to wait there until our passports were put in order — they had been taken from us when we were imprisoned in Albacete. Finally we were told to get back into the ambulance so that we could be taken by road to Perpignan.

We were not taken to Perpignan. We were taken instead to the Calle Corsiga, which is the central police station in Barcelona. We asked what was happening and were again told that it was all right — we were being sent home. We were ordered to enter the police station. We noticed with some doubts that guards had been placed at the door. Our names were taken, our ages and the names of our relatives.

We were returned to the ambulance and driven to the Hotel Falcon with an armed escort. By now we all had reason to doubt the truth of the story that we were being sent home. The Hotel Falcon was originally one of the buildings of the POUM. It had been converted into a prison.

It was full with prisoners — and we found there some of the comrades who had left Albacete eight days before we left and who, we thought, had been sent home. Among them were the two Canadians and the French comrades. We heard that in different prisons in Barcelona there were many members of the International Brigade.

When we asked the Captain why we were there, he said he did not know. We asked why he could not set us free. He said he had orders to keep us there. On the fourth day we were told to go down below, and that the police were going to take us to some other place. We were again taken to the Calle Corsiga, where we were asked many questions by the police. We had our photographs and fingerprints taken. Even now we hoped that this might be for passport purposes and that we were going to be set free.

At the Hotel Falcon we were treated like criminals. I was told by the guards that everybody there was a fascist or a suspected fascist — some undoubtedly were fascists. We continually asked the Captain when we were going to be released and he said he did not know. With me were a number of French comrades who belonged to the Communist Party and they refused to believe that their party could have been responsible for putting them in gaol. I wrote a letter to the Communist Party in Barcelona demanding our release. When no reply came even the most loyal Communists began to doubt.

Among the prisoners in the Hotel Falcon was a comrade who had come to Spain as the son of Ras Imru, the Abyssinian prince. He had been lauded to the skies by the Communists and had immediately been made a Commandant in the International Brigade. Photographs of him and interviews with him had appeared in the Communist papers, and here he was a prisoner!

The food ration at the Hotel Falcon meant semi-starvation. We only had two meals a day — the first at 3 p.m. and the second at 10.30 at night. They both consisted of one plate of soup — watery soup with a few potatoes — and a piece of dry bread. The boys were always hungry. Many of the other prisoners had friends in Barcelona who brought them food, but the members of the International Brigade were without friends. No one in Barcelona knew they were in prison. The Communist Party refused to help them and they were in a desperate condition.

I realised that it might be months before we would be freed. Many of the prisoners had been confined for weeks. There seemed no reason to expect liberty before the war ended. I, therefore, sought an opportune time to make my escape.

The Hotel Falcon was carefully guarded, but during heavy rain, when I noticed that the guards were taking shelter, I dropped from the veranda on the first floor on to the street. Everyone was running because of the rain and I just ran with them and got away.

I obtained shelter from Spanish workers who were sympathetic to the anarchists. Once more it was these anarchists who were going to shoot me who helped me.

This had been a bitterly disappointing experience. I went to Spain as a worker to fight the fascists. I responded to the appeal of the Communists. Instead of enabling me to fight the fascists, the Communists put me in prison. I must say the treatment I received might have been expected from fascists, but I never expected it from Communists. My only offence was that I protested against the differentiation of treatment between men and officers in what was supposed to be a workers’ army.

I knew I could not leave the country unless I got leave. I therefore decided to go to the Karl Marx Barracks and ask for my papers. When they knew I had no papers they called the police, so I “beat it”.

Under these conditions I was forced to go to the British Consulate to obtain an identification paper to get out of the country. He told me that there were men coming to him every week from the International Brigade for assistance in getting out of the country. I got on a French ship to Marseilles and returned home.

In Paris I asked for help from the Communist Party. They would give me no help, but when I pointed out that I had left my belongings with them when going to Spain and demanded these they gave me some clothes.

When I got to London I was penniless and went to the ILP. From them I got money to return to my home in Scotland. In Scotland the folk were astonished by my story.

I don’t want to write anything which may make the task of defeating Franco more difficult, but it is necessary and right that what is happening to many comrades in the International Brigade should be known. I cannot forget good comrades of mine — splendid, class-conscious workers — still imprisoned under conditions which must break their bodies if not their spirits, in Barcelona. I write this record in the hope that it will lead to something being done for them and in order that many good comrades whom I know in the Communist Party may understand what their Party is doing in Spain.

On reflection, I think the above article from the Controversy magazine may well have been what my grandmother was referring to.

Following the report of his safe return home, Robert received this very touching letter from William Stewart. He was the father of Greta, the sweetheart of his friend, Robert MacDonald who was lost when their ship was torpedoed. Mr Stewart invited Robert to his home, to give them a first hand account of what had happened.

Letter from William Stewart of Coatbridge
Daughters, Carol and June outside
Ashgrove Ave, Stevenston

Marriage and family

Robert married Helen Forest McDougall on 24 Dec 1938 in Glasgow, in the presence of his brother, William Martin and Helen's sister, Caroline. At the time, Robert was living in Stevenston and working as a Explosives Factory Worker (at the ICI) and Helen was living in Glasgow with her parents and was a drapery saleswoman.

Following their marriage, Robert and Helen lived with Robert's family at "Seaview" in Stevenston until the family moved to Kilwinning Rd in the 1940's and later Robert and Helen had their own home at 6 Ashgrove Ave, Stevenston. During this time, Robert and Helen welcomed three daughters June, Caroline and Irene to their family.

mid 1940s either while he travelled to Persia or Australia

After the war, Robert went to Persia (roughly modern-day Iran) with the ICI.  He also visited Australia sailing from Singapore and arriving in Fremantle on the Charon on 27 November 1946, where he gave his address as the Sea-Mens Mission, Fremantle and The Manse, Indoorpilly, Brisbane. The latter being the residence of his mother's cousin, the Reverend William Cowan.

Passenger List - Charon - National Archives of Australia

Robert returned to Scotland on the Orbita arriving in Liverpool on 22 January 1947.


Robert immigrated to Australia in 1950 on the Cheshire which arrived in Sydney on the 21 August. The Cheshire had sailed from Liverpool via Freemantle and Melbourne. Robert gave his address in Sydney as 2 Gap Road, Watson's Bay. On his application for assisted passage, he indicated that he had a second cousin, the Reverend William Cowan, living at The Manse in Killarney in Queensland.

Passenger List - Cheshire 1950  - National Archives of Australia

Robert bought a house at 219 Elizabeth St, Zetland, an inner city suburb of Sydney and sent for Helen and the children, however, as Helen was now expecting their fourth child, they had to wait until after Robert's birth before sailing in 1951 on board the Ormande arriving in Sydney on 19 July. As Helen had a young baby they were given a cabin on the promenade deck and Carol who was 10 at the time, recalls the voyage as being wonderful adventure.

Passenger List - Ormonde 1951 - National Archives of Australia

They rented rooms out to another family Helen had met on the voyage out to Australia. Later when Robert's brother Jim migrated he and his family also lived with Robert and Helen at their Zetland home. During this time, Robert worked as a Tram Conductor.

Once the family were settled in Australia, Robert went back to Persia to work for an American Oil company. Unfortunately, he had to make his own way back to Australia after his employment was terminated for encouraging the local employees to seek equal pay.

After several years in Australia, Helen and the children returned to Scotland in 1955 on the Seven Seas. Robert followed shortly after, staying on to sell the family home. They lived with Helen's mother and aunt, at Kirkgate in Saltcoats, Ayrshire, however upon their return, they decided to make their home permanently in Australia and returned again the same year.

Derna, 7 Kirkgate, Saltcoats, Ayrshire

Robert and June returned on the Strathnaver arriving 19 September 1955. Helen, Carol, Irene and Bob arrived a few months later on the Strathaird on 7 December.  On their return they lived at 15 Lillian St, Berala which is where their daughter, Carol, was to meet her future husband, Colin Hails whose family also resided at Berala.

Just a few years later in 1957, Robert and Helen lost all their savings a land swindle.  They also lived for a time at the Housing Centre, Riverwood, where there youngest son, Richard was born. They moved into their own home at Merrylands in 1962.

Canberra Times 29 Oct 1957

During this time Robert worked as an Ironworker and a stevedore at the docks. He was still a strong advocate of social equality and was known to spend the odd Sunday at Speakers Corner in the Domain. Speakers’ Corner had began in 1878 and became a place where people could spend a Sunday listening to the philosophies of the day: Darwinism, socialism, single taxation, anarchism, temperance, phrenology, the Salvation Army, Christadelphians, or Calvinism. All possible points of view were represented and argued.

Here is an excerpt of a documentary made by the ABC Four Corners program. It was filmed in 1966.

In 1972, Robert and Helen went on a holiday to the USA to visit with Helen's sister, Caroline and her husband, Alexander Campbell, who had retired to Florida. They also visited Helen's mother, Caroline Anstey McDougall (nee Garrett) and Aunt Liz in Scotland.

Robert and Helen - Florida, USA 1972
Robert died of a heart attack at Merrylands Railway Station on his way to work just two days after his 63rd birthday and was cremated at Rookwood Crematorium. His daughter, June Bancroft wrote the following poem in memory of her father:

Some people come into this world
And one day quietly pass away
We wouldn't even know they're here
So insignificant are they.
My father he was different
A cheery noisy man
And if you didn't like him
He didn't give a dam.
He lived life to the fullest
He'd been most everywhere
Just name a foreign country
He's sure to have been there.
A rebel to society
Yet he loved his fellow man
To anyone who needed him
He'd lend a helping hand.
He dearly loved to argue
And he would always win
For no matter what we had to say
We couldn't out talk him.
He loved to sing and tell a joke
Speak to strangers in the street
I feel real sorry for
Those folks he didn't get to meet.
So I write this poem
And for what it's worth
I am proud to say my father
Left his stamp upon this earth.
And if there is a heaven
I see him large as life and full of fun
Telling God and all the Angels
Just how things should be done.

The Welcome Wall honours and celebrates all who have migrated from around the world to live in Australia. The Martin family are among the 30,000 names that appear on the 81 bronze panels that are joined together and run down the northern promenade of the Sea Museum at Darling Harbour in Sydney. 

Robert's daughter, Carol Hails (nee Martin) at the Welcome Wall in 2008


  1. wonderful to hear this story and things I did not know. I am the artist building a monument to Robert and the International Brigades of the Ciudad de Barcelona the ship he was on. It was his story about Robert MacDonald that started this project as I share the same name. This year the monument goes up (2021) www.solidaritypark.com for more information

  2. Fantastic story, so much wonderful information! Wow!

  3. Enjoyable read! Thanks Vicki.


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