Robinson, Thomas (1700?-1777) (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 49
Robinson, Thomas (1700?-1777)

by William Prideaux Courtney
Date of birth 1702/3 in the ODNB.

ROBINSON, Sir THOMAS (1700?–1777), ‘long Sir Thomas,’ governor of Barbados and amateur architect, born about 1700, was eldest son and heir of William Robinson (bapt. Rokeby, Yorkshire, 23 Sept. 1675, d. 24 Feb. 1720), who married, in 1699, Anne, daughter and heiress of Robert Walters of Cundall in Yorkshire; she died on 26 July 1730, aged 53, and was buried in the centre of the south aisle of Merton church, Surrey, where a marble monument was placed to her memory. Sir Thomas, her son, also erected in the old Roman highway, near Rokeby, an obelisk in her honour. Another son, Richard Robinson, first baron Rokeby [q. v.], was primate of Ireland.

After finishing his education, Thomas travelled over a great part of Europe, giving special attention to the ancient architecture of Greece and Italy and the school of Palladio. He thus cultivated a taste which dominated the rest of his life. On returning to England he purchased a commission in the army, but soon resigned it in favour of his brother Septimus, and at the general election in 1727 was returned to parliament, through the influence of the family of Howard, for the borough of Morpeth in Northumberland. On 25 Oct. 1728 he married, at Belfrey's, York, Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of Charles Howard, third earl of Carlisle, and widow of Nicholas, lord Lechmere. While in parliament he made several long speeches, including one very fine speech which, according to Horace Walpole, he was supposed to have found among the papers of his wife's first husband. About this time he designed for his wife's brother the west wing of Castle Howard, which, though pronounced to be not devoid of merit, is out of harmony with the other parts. Later in life he and Welbore Ellis persuaded Sir William Stanhope to ‘improve’ Pope's garden, and in the process the place was spoilt.

Robinson was created a baronet on 10 March 1730–1, with remainder to his brothers and to Matthew Robinson of Edgley in Yorkshire, and from November 1735 to February 1742 he was a commissioner of excise. His expenditure was very extravagant both in London and on his own estate. He rebuilt the mansion at Rokeby, enclosed the park with a stone wall (1725–30), and planted many forest trees (1730). These acts were recorded in 1737, in two Latin inscriptions on two marble tables, fixed in the two stone piers at the entrance to the park from Greta Bridge. He practically made the Rokeby of which Sir Walter Scott wrote and which the tourist visits (cf. Whitaker, Hist. of Richmondshire, i. 184). He built the great bridge which spans the Tees at Rokeby. Among other works which he designed are parts of Ember Court, Surrey, then the residence of the Onslows, and the Gothic gateway at Bishop Auckland in Durham. In London he ‘gave balls to all the men and women in power and in fashion, and ruined himself.’ Horace Walpole gives an account of his ball ‘to a little girl of the Duke of Richmond’ in October 1741. There were two hundred guests invited, ‘from Miss in bib and apron to my lord chancellor [Hardwicke] in bib and mace’ (Miss Berry, Journals, ii. 26–7). A second ball was given by him on 2 Dec. 1741, when six hundred persons were invited and two hundred attended (Walpole, Corresp. i. 95).

The state of Robinson's finances brought about his expatriation. Lord Lincoln coveted his house at Whitehall, and, to obtain it, secured for him in January 1742 the post of governor of Barbados. Arriving in Barbados on 8 Aug. 1742, he was at once in trouble with his assembly, who raised difficulties about voting his salary. His love of building led to further dispute, for, without consulting the house, he ordered expensive changes in his residence at Pilgrim, and he undertook the construction of an armoury and arsenal, which were acknowledged to have been much wanted. In the result he had to pay most of the charges out of his own pocket. Another quarrel, in which he had more right on his side, was as to the command of the forces in the island. Eventually a petition was sent home which resulted in his recall on 14 April 1747. His first wife had died at Bath on 10 April 1739, and was buried in the family vault under the new church of Rokeby. He married at Barbados a second wife, whose maiden name was Booth; she was the widow of Samuel Salmon, a rich ironmonger. She is said to have paid 10,000l. for the honour of being a lady, but she declined to follow Robinson to England. On his return to his own country the old habits seized him. He again gave balls and breakfasts, and among the breakfasts was one to the Princess of Wales (ib. ii. 395). In a note to Mason's ‘Epistle to Shebbeare’ he is dubbed ‘the Petronius of the present age.’

Robinson acquired a considerable number of shares in Ranelagh Gardens, and became the director of the entertainments, when his knowledge of the fashionable world proved of use. He built for himself a house called Prospect Place, adjoining the gardens (Beaver, Old Chelsea, p. 297), and gave magnificent feasts (Lady Mary Coke, Journal, ii. 318, 378, iii. 433). At the coronation of George III, on 22 Sept. 1761, the last occasion on which the dukes of Normandy and Aquitaine were represented by deputy as doing homage to the king of England, Robinson acted as the first of these dukes, walking ‘in proper mantle’ next the archbishop of Canterbury (Gent. Mag. 1761, p. 419). Churchill, in his poem of ‘The Ghost,’ erroneously assigns to him the part of Aquitaine. Mrs. Bray speaks of his fondness for ‘books, the fine arts, music, and refined society,’ and mentions that he had long suffered from weakness in the eyes. At last he became blind, and her father used often to read to him (Autobiography, pp. 46–8).

Robinson was forced in 1769 to dispose of Rokeby, which had been in the possession of his family since 1610, to John Sawrey Morritt, the father of J. B. S. Morritt [q. v.] He died at his house at Chelsea on 3 March 1777, aged 76, without leaving legitimate issue, and was buried in the south-east corner of the chancel of Merton church, a monument being placed there to his memory (Manning and Bray, Surrey, i. 260–1). A second monument was erected for him in Westminster Abbey, and by his will a monument was also placed there to the memory of ‘the accomplished woman, agreeable companion, and sincere friend,’ his first wife (Stanley, Westminster Abbey, 5th edit. pp. 233–4; Faulkner, Chelsea, ii. 315). He was succeeded in the baronetcy by his next surviving brother, William.

Robinson was tall and thin, while his contemporary of the same name was short and fat. ‘I can't imagine,’ said the witty Lady Townshend, ‘why one is preferred to the other. The one is as broad as the other is long.’ The nose and chin on the head of the cudgel of Joseph Andrews, ‘which was copied from the face of a certain long English baronet of infinite wit, humour, and gravity,’ is supposed to be a satiric touch by Fielding at his expense, and he is identified with the figure standing in a side box in Hogarth's picture of the ‘Beggar's Opera.’ His appearance was ‘often rendered still more remarkable by his hunting dress, a postilion's cap, a light green jacket, and buckskin breeches.’ In one of the sudden whims which seized him he set off in this attire to visit a married sister who was settled in Paris. He arrived when the company was at dinner, and a French abbé, who was one of the guests, at last gasped out, ‘Excuse me, sir! Are you the famous Robinson Crusoe so remarkable in history?’ (cf. Pichot, Talleyrand Souvenirs, pp. 145–149).

Robinson was a ‘specious, empty man,’ with a talent for flattery, remarkable even in that age for his ‘profusion of words and bows and compliments.’ He and Lord Chesterfield maintained a correspondence for fifty years, and Sir Thomas kept all the letters which he received and copies of the answers which he sent. At his death he left them ‘to an apothecary who had married his natural daughter, with injunctions to publish all,’ but Robinson's brother Richard stopped the publication. Chesterfield, in his last illness, remarked to Robinson—such is probably the correct version of the story—‘Ah! Sir Thomas. It will be sooner over with me than it would be with you, for I am dying by inches;’ and the same peer referred to him in the epigram—

    Unlike my subject will I frame my song,
    It shall be witty and it shan't be long.

Sir John Hawkins records (Life of Johnson, p. 191) that when Chesterfield desired to appease Dr. Johnson, he employed Robinson as his mediator. Sir Thomas, with much flattery, vowed that if his circumstances permitted it, he himself would settle 500l. a year on Johnson. ‘Who, then, are you?’ was the inquiry, and the answer was ‘Sir Thomas Robinson, a Yorkshire baronet.’ ‘Sir,’ replied Johnson, ‘if the first peer of the realm were to make me such an offer, I would show him the way down stairs.’ Boswell, on a later occasion, found Robinson sitting with Johnson (Life, ed. Hill, i. 434), and Dr. Maxwell records that Johnson once reproved Sir Thomas with the remark, ‘You talk the language of a savage.’

[Foster's Yorkshire Families (Howard pedigree); Plantagenet-Harrison's Yorkshire, pp. 414–15; Wotton's Baronetage, iv. 225–8; Archdall's Irish Peerage, vii. 171–2; Walpole and Mason (ed. Mitford), i. 278–9, 440; Walpole's Notes to Chesterfield's Memoirs (Philobiblon Soc. xi. 70–2); Walpole's Letters, i. 95, 122, ii. 284, 395, iii. 4, v. 403, vi. 427, viii. 71; Walpoliana, ii. 130–1; Lady Hervey's Letters, 1821, pp. 164–5; Nichols's Hogarth Anecd. 1785, p. 22; Churchill's Poems, 1804 ed. ii. 183–4; Saturday Review, 5 Nov. 1887, pp. 624–5; Dictionary of Architecture; Schomburgk's History of Barbados, pp. 326–7; Poyer's History of Barbados.]

W. P. C.