Biography

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John Robinson (1727-1802)

This article was written by William Prideaux Courtney and was published in 1897.


John Robinson, a politician, born on 15 July 1727, and baptised at St. Lawrence, Appleby, Westmoreland, on 14 August 1727. He was the eldest son of Charles Robinson, a thriving Appleby tradesman, who died on 19 June 1760, in his fifty-eighth year, having married, at Kirkby Thore on 19 May 1726, Hannah, daughter of Richard Deane of Appleby.

John was educated until the age of seventeen at Appleby grammar school, and was then articled to his aunt's husband, Richard Wordsworth, of Sockbridge in Barton, Westmoreland, clerk of the peace for the county, and grandfather of the poet Wordsworth. When he was admitted as attorney he practised in his native town, and became town clerk on 1 October 1750; he was mayor in 1760-1. On 2 February 1759 he was entered as a student of Gray's Inn.

In 1759 Robinson married Mary Crowe, said to have been daughter of Nathaniel Crowe, a wealthy merchant and planter in Barbados, obtaining with her an ample fortune. He also inherited from his grandfather, John Robinson, alderman of Appleby 1703-46, much property in the county, and eighteen burgage tenures, carrying votes for the borough, in Appleby. On the accession of Sir James Lowther, afterwards Earl of Lonsdale, to the vast estates of that family, the abilities of Robinson, ‘a steady, sober-minded, industrious, clever man of business,’ and a man ‘whose will was in constant subjection to his understanding,’ soon attracted his notice. He became his principal law agent and land steward, was created a magistrate and deputy-lieutenant of Westmoreland in 1762, and through the influence of Lowther, who is said to have qualified him, as was not uncommonly done at that date, for election, was returned as member for the county on 5 January 1764, and continued to represent it until the dissolution in September 1774.

In 1765 Robinson rebuilt the White House, Appleby, which was described as ‘a large oblong-square, whitewashed mansion,’ and lived there in much splendour. He entertained in it Lord North, when prime minister. Lowther's politics were tory, but he differed from North on the American war, and zealously co-operated with the whigs. He expected his nominees to follow him on all questions, but Robinson, who had been created secretary of the treasury by Lord North on 6 February 1770, declined, and a fierce quarrel ensued. Lowther sent a challenge to a duel, but the hostile meeting was refused. Robinson at once resigned the post of law agent to the Lowther estates, and was succeeded in it by his first cousin, John Wordsworth, the poet's father.

Robinson held the secretaryship of the treasury until 1782. Through his quarrel with Lowther it was necessary for him to find another seat, and he found refuge in the safe government borough of Harwich, which he represented from October 1774 until his death. In 1780 he was also returned for Seaford in Sussex, but preferred his old constituency. While in office he was the chief ministerial agent in carrying on the business of parliament, and he was the medium of communication between the ministry and its supporters. The whig satires of the day, such as the Rolliad and the Probationary Odes, regularly inveighed against him, and Junius did not spare him. Those whom he seduced from the opposition were known as ‘Robinson's rats,’ and Sheridan, when attacking bribery and its authors, retorted, in reference to shouts of ‘name, name,’ by looking fixedly at Robinson on the treasury bench, and exclaiming, ‘Yes, I could name him as soon as I could say Jack Robinson.’ He brought, on 3 July 1777 an action against Henry Sampson Woodfall, printer of the Public Advertiser, for libel, in accusing him of sharing in government contracts, and obtained a verdict of forty shillings and costs. The means of corruption which he was forced to employ were distasteful to him, and his own hands were clean. He declined acting with North on his coalition with Fox. On his retirement from the post of secretary of the treasury, he came into the enjoyment of a pension of £1,000 a year.

His correspondence and official papers, including many communications from George III, are in the possession of the Marquis of Abergavenny at Eridge Castle. The substance of part of them is described in the 10th Report of the Historical Manuscripts Commission. Excerpts from the whole collections are being edited by Mr. B. F. Stevens for the Royal Historical Society.

After their quarrel Robinson offered his estates in Westmoreland and the burgage tenures in Appleby to Lowther, and, on his declining to purchase, sold nearly the whole property for £29,000 to Lord Thanet, who thus acquired an equal interest in the representation. About 1778 he purchased Wyke Manor at Syon Hill, Isleworth, between Brentford and Osterley Park, where he ‘modernised and improved’ the house. He was created a D.C.L. of Oxford on 9 July 1773, when Lord North, as chancellor, visited the university; he declined a peerage in 1784, but in December 1787 Pitt appointed him surveyor-general of woods and forests. He planted at Windsor millions of acorns and twenty thousand oak trees, and both as politician and agriculturist was a great favourite of George III. In 1794 he printed a letter to Sir John Sinclair, chairman of the board of agriculture, on the enclosure of wastes, which was circulated by that board.

Robinson had a paralytic stroke in 1782, and he died of apoplexy, the fate he always dreaded, at Harwich, on 23 December 1802, and was buried at Isleworth on 2 January 1803. His wife died at Wyke House on 8 June 1805, aged 71, and was buried at Isleworth on 5 June. Their only child, ‘pretty Mary Robinson,’ was baptised at St. Lawrence Church, Appleby, on 24 March 1759, and married, at Isleworth on 3 October 1781, the Hon. Henry Neville, afterwards second Earl of Abergavenny. She died of consumption at Hotwells, Bristol, on 26 October 1796, and was buried in Isleworth churchyard, where a monument was erected to her memory. Her home was at Wyke House, and all her children were born there.

By his will Robinson left legacies to Captain John Wordsworth and Richard Wordsworth of Staple Inn, London. The enormous wealth which it was currently reported that Robinson had amassed had no existence in fact. His means were comparatively small. There was no fixed salary in the surveyorship, and Robinson was authorised by Pitt to take what he thought fitting. After his death his accounts were called for, and it was some time before they were passed, and the embargo placed by the crown on the transfer of his Isleworth property to Lord Jersey removed. Robinson was a liberal benefactor to Isleworth, Appleby, and Harwich, leaving books to the grammar schools in the last two towns, and building at Appleby ‘two handsome crosses or obelisks one at each end’ of the high street.


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