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Sir John Richard Robinson (1828 - 1903) PDF Print E-mail

John Richard Robinson (hereafter JRR) was born during 1828 in Witham, Essex.  He was the eldest brother of Joseph Fletcher Robinson and the uncle of Bertram Fletcher Robinson (hereafter BFR).  For early biographical details about JRR’s family-life, please refer to the file entitled ‘Joseph Fletcher Robinson (1827 – 1903)’ that is also listed within the ‘Family’ section of the ‘Faces’ menu on this website.

Between 1890 and 1894, JRR’s nephew, BFR, attended Jesus College at Cambridge University.  During the Michaelmas Term of 1892, BFR was appointed to work as a salaried rugby contributor for a periodical entitled The Granta (published by W. P. Spalding, Cambridge).  This journal had been co-founded some four years earlier by its then editor and proprietor, Rudolph Chambers Lehmann.  The Granta was intended to cater for the rising demand amongst undergraduates for "light-verse of topical interest”.  Lehmann was also a leading contributor to a periodical called Punch (his pseudonym was ‘Tis’).  At this time, the staff of The Granta and Punch, overlapped to such a degree that the former was called ‘Punch with a little Cam water’ and the latter ‘the London Granta’.
 
On 16th December 1892, Lehmann invited JRR to attend the third annual dinner for The Granta at the Reform Club in Pall Mall, London.  JRR was at this time both the editor and manager of a London-based newspaper called the Daily News. Lehmann also used this dinner to celebrate the pending publication of the 100th edition of The Granta. Amongst the 19 other people who attended this event was Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle (herinafter ACD).  ACD was the grandson of a former Punch illustrator called John ‘HB’ Doyle.  JRR and ACD were seated next to each other throughout the evening.  Both men were friends of another fellow ‘Reformer’ called Thomas Wemyss Reid (editor of the Leeds Mercury).  It is interesting to note that JRR’s nephew, BFR, later assisted ACD with the plots of 2 Sherlock Holmes tales and that the Leeds Mercury is referred to in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Furthermore, BFR was living with JRR at the time that he assisted ACD with this story.
 
It has long been speculated that JRR persuaded BFR to pursue a career in journalism.  For example, in April 1961, Peter A. Ruber wrote of BFR that: “Being influenced by his uncle, Sir John Robinson, he cast aside his intended pursuit [Barrister-at-Law] to follow a career in journalism.”  More recently in 2001, Richard Lancelyn Green stated that BFR wrote articles for the Daily News during his uncle’s editorship.  This remark has yet to be verified, but in any event, Lehmann had previously appointed BFR to the positions of both rugby contributor (Oct. 1892 – Apr. 1893) and sub-editor (Oct. 1893 – Apr.1895) on The Granta.  Indeed, BFR told his friend, Arthur Hammond Marshall that JRR played no part in his eventual choice of profession.

On 31st May 1893, JRR was at the Reform Club when he took receipt of the following letter from the official residence of the Prime Minister:

Dear Mr Robinson

I have the pleasure to inform you that Her Majesty the Queen has empowered me to propose to you, that you should receive the honour of Knighthood and I trust that it may be agreeable to you to accept the proposal which I now tender in pursuance of Her Majesty’s gracious permission.

I remain faithfully yours, 
W. E. Gladstone.

On 31st May 1893, JRR sent the following reply to Prime Minister Gladstone:

Dear Prime Minister

I accept the mark of Her Majesty’s favour, with gratitude, coming as it does, through the hands of a Minister for whom my respect is life-long and profound.

                                                                    I remain,
                                                                      My dear Mr. Gladstone,
                                                                        Very faithfully yours,
                                                                          J. R. Robinson.

JRR subsequently received his knighthood from Queen Victoria at a private investiture ceremony held at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight on 11th August 1893.

On the 3rd November 1894, ACD wrote to JRR from Amherst House, Amherst, Massachusetts, United Stated of America.  He discussed the first five weeks of his first North America lecture-tour and detailed the arrangements for his return to England.  ACD begins this letter thus:

MY DEAR ROBINSON

May I make you my mouth-piece in conveying my warm remembrances to friends of the Reform, above all to Payn and Reid?

ACD seldom addressed his friends by their Christian names.  It is interesting to note that his same formal greeting later reappears on ACD accredited acknowledgments to BFR within various published forms of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
 
During 1901, JRR was compelled to retire from his position as manager of the Daily News and Lehmann was appointed as editor (JRR had himself held the position of editor of the Daily News until 1896).  This newspaper was founded and edited by Charles Dickens in 1846 and served as a liberal alternative to the right-wing Morning Chronicle.  Later, on 2nd June 1930, the Daily News merged with The Daily Chronicle to form The News Chronicle.  This newspaper was incorporated into The Daily Mail in 1960.   

Also during 1901, BFR’s flatmate, Percy Illingworth, returned to the West Riding of Yorkshire to reside with his family at Lady Royde Hall.  BFR had been residing with Illingworth and another friend called Trevor Lewis at 126 Ashley Gardens since 1896.  Following Illingworth’s departure, BFR took-up residence at the home of JRR at 4 Addison Crescent, Kensington, London, SW1.  Thus only Trevor Lewis remained in residence at 126 Ashley Gardens.  Lewis married in late 1903 and eventually vacated Ashley Gardens in 1908 (the property was then sold to a Mr. Samuel Cutler).

On 15th August 1903, JRR attended the funeral of his elder brother, Joseph Fletcher Robinson, at St. Andrew’s Church, Ipplepen, Devon.  Fellow mourners included his sister-in-law, Emily Robinson, BFR and Gladys Hill Robinson (BFR’s wife). 

On 30th November 1903, 75 year-old JRR died at 4 Addison Crescent from “cardiac failure and congestion of the lungs (4 days)".  Earlier that same day he is reported as having remarked to his domestic staff that "I do not feel the desire to converse – kindly respect my wishes".

Obituaries were published in various newspapers including The Times (see below).  Sir John bequeathed £500 to his only surviving brother, Frederick Robinson.  He also gave £100 to the widow of his friend and former employee called Frederick Moy Thomas.  Thomas had assisted JRR in compiling a vast library of personal papers so that he could write an autobiography entitled Fifty Years on Fleet Street.  This book was published posthumously during 1904 by McMillan & Company Limited of London.   Thomas also wrote the foreword to JRR's autobiography and in this he states:

I am much indebted to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for leave to publish his striking letter to Sir John Robinson on the subject of America and the Americans [dated 3rd November 1894]… and to a number of Sir John’s relatives and friends for similar facilities or for valuable counsel or assistance. 

Clearly, ACD had recently granted permission for his letter to be reproduced in JRR’s autobiography.  This implies that ACD and the Robinson family were still on friendly terms some 2 years after The Hound of the Baskervilles was published as a novel.  This observation refutes any suggestion that ACD and BFR were embroiled in a bitter controversy over the authorship of this story.

The following obituary was published in The Times newspaper on 2nd December 1903:

                                                           Sir John R. Robinson.

We regret to announce the death of Sir John Richard Robinson, for many years the manager of the Daily News, which took place on Monday at 4, Addison-crescent, Kensington, at the age of 75 years.  Death was the result of cardiac failure and congestion of the lungs.

Sir John Robinson was a born journalist and was most fortunate in finding his true vocation early in life.  His parentage (his father was a Dissenting minister) might have suggested other ambitions to him, but his natural inclinations, strengthened perhaps by the fact that in those days that the Universities were not open to Dissenters, led him to connect himself with newspapers almost immediately after leaving the Congregational school in which he was educated.  By the time he was 20 (he was born in 1828) he had gone through the training of a country newspaper office [Shepton Mallet in Somerset], and had begun his journalistic life in London as the sub-editor of Douglas Jerrold’s Newspaper. Jerrold was at that time a frequent contributor to the recently-started Daily News, and in this way it came about, naturally enough, that when that journal essayed the production of an evening newspaper, the Evening Express, Sir John Robinson was transferred to the new paper, the editorship of which was entrusted to him. He soon became closely connected with the conduct of the morning paper, owing to the confidence he inspired in its directors by his faithful and unceasing attention to their interests.  He was always on the spot, and for some time even resided upon the premises.

At this period in his life Sir John imbibed those sympathies with Nationalist movements which endured with him throughout life.  The cause of Kossuth when he came to this country as an exile was taken up warmly by his journal, and the young journalist was brought into personal association with him at the Daily News office and at the welcome given to him by his English sympathizers.  The enthusiasm of those days is recalled in the description of Kossuth which he inspired, if he did not actually write, in the Daily News Jubilee Memorial volume in 1898.  “He was picturesque and perhaps even theatric in his dress and his bearings.  He looked like a picture.  All his attributes and gestures seemed if they were meant to be reproduced by a painter.”  Sir John also noticed the peculiarities of Kossuth’s English, which had been studied from Shakespeare and was not “therefore colloquial language of English drawing-rooms and clubs and streets.”  It is relevant to refer in this notice to Sir John’s vivid impressions of Kossuth, because one of his characteristics was the gift of dramatic reproduction of the manners of the people of whom he spoke.  He was always an excellent although an invariably good-natured mimic.  His narratives of those early journalistic days showed that one of the secrets of his success had been his marvellous quickness of observation, his eye for what was dramatic and picturesque, and, above all, the sense of humour which kept his judgement straight when it might have been in danger from the enthusiasms of his environment.  When Sir John Robinson spoke to any assembly in which he was at home in recent years, his speech was full of this vivid and dramatic way of presenting things.  These gifts made his contributions greatly appreciated in the weekly Press and in the American journals, to which he was a diligent contributor.  It is understood that many of Sir John’s reminiscences have been committed to paper, and, as he saw many famous men in those early days, and besides was a devoted “First Nighter” at theatres and club man for the greater part of his life, these, although they must lack the charm of Sir John’s mimicry of voice and gesture and humorous twinkle of the eye, cannot fail to be both interesting, amusing, and instructive.

In the course of time (1868), Mr. Robinson’s inevitable promotion to the sole management of the Daily News came about.  In the Franco-German war of 1870 he had the good fortune to secure Mr. Archibald Forbes as a war correspondent, and sided by other excellent war correspondents, whom his keen eye for good writing and his judgement of character enabled him to select with discretion, he established a system of war-correspondence which brought him as his journal well-deserved credit.  He was equally well served in the Balkans, and an address from the Bulgarian people was one of the tributes to his managership which he most valued among the presentations made to him on the occasion of the Daily News’ jubilee.  In 1887 Mr. Robinson became titular editor of the Daily News, although he left the night-editorship to the late Mr. Clayden and his assistants.  He continued editor and manager until 1896, when he relinquished the editorship to Mr. Cook, retaining his managerial control until the revolution in the policies and fortunes of the paper during the South African war two years ago.  It is well known that Sir John was in sympathy with the new proprietors who secured the paper rather than the old.  But the crises of that time ultimately involved Sir John’s retirement, as well as that of many of his former staff.

Sir John was knighted in 1893.  He will be much missed at the Reform Club, on the managing committee of which he long served.  He married, in 1859, Jane, daughter of Mr. W. Granger, of Wickham Bishops, but had been a widower since 1876.  He leaves a son and daughter [Oswald Richard Robinson and Emily Robinson].   

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By Paul Spiring © 2007.

 
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