Robert Huntriss Tolson was born in Kirkheaton, Huddersfield, on 6 November 1884, the sixth child of Whiteley Tolson, a cotton manufacturer, and his wife Jessy. He was named after his grandfather, who had been a waistcoat manufacturer. Tolson was educated at Aysgarth School and King William's School on the Isle of Man. From November 1910 Tolson worked for the bank Beckett & Co of Leeds.
In autumn 1914 Tolson joined the army, initially as a Private. He was commissioned into the West Yorkshire Regiment in January 1915, and in September 1915 was transferred to its Leeds Pals battalion. He served with them in Egypt from December 1915 to March 1916, when the battalion was sent to France.
On 1 July 1916, the Leeds Pals took part in the attack on Serre on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. In the first few minutes after going over the top, 233 men and 15 officers of the battalion were killed. Among them was Second Lieutenant Tolson, who had been leading No.2 Platoon of A Company. He was 31 years old and left a widow, Zoe Annie, whom he had married in 1909. Two of his fellow Beckett's clerks, also both serving in the West Yorkshire Regiment, died on the Somme on the same day.
Tolson's younger brother James also served in the First World War, and was killed in action in October 1918. After the war, their uncle Legh (Whiteley Tolson's brother) donated his home, Ravensnowle Hall, to Huddersfield Corporation, to be used as a tribute to his two nephews. The house was converted into a museum, and is known today as the Tolson Museum.