Robinson, Henry Crabb (DNB00)

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ROBINSON, HENRY CRABB (1776–1867), diarist, youngest son of a tanner who died in 1781, was born at Bury St. Edmunds on 13 March 1775. After education at small private schools, he was articled in 1790 to Mr. Francis, an attorney at Colchester. He heard Erskine conduct a case at the assizes, and fifty-four years afterwards he had a perfect recollection of the charm in the voice and fascination in the eye of the great orator. At Colchester he heard John Wesley preach one of his last sermons. In 1796 he entered the office of a solicitor in Chancery Lane, London; but in 1798 an uncle died, leaving Robinson a sum yielding a yearly income of 100l. Proud of his independence and eager for travel, he went abroad in 1800. He was in Frankfort when it was occupied by the French. After acquiring a knowledge of German, he set out on a tour through Germany and Bohemia, chiefly on foot, and in 1801 reached Weimar, where he was introduced to Goethe and Schiller. He settled at Jena, where he was matriculated as a member of the university on 20 Oct. 1802. The fees did not exceed half a guinea; his lodgings cost him under 7l, a year. He made the acquaintance of Madame de Staël, and imparted to her the information about German philosophy which appears in her work on Germany, He left Jena in the autumn of 1805, returning home by way of Hamburg, and crossing the sea in the packet which carried the news of the battle of Austerlitz.

Having a thorough knowledge of German, he first tried to add to his small income by translating German pamphlets. After vainly seeking a place in the diplomatic service, and offering his services to Fox, who was then foreign secretary, he made the acquaintance of John Walter, the second of the dynasty, from whom he accepted the post of 'Times' correspondent at Altona. His letters 'From the Banks of the Elbe,' between March and August 1807, gave the English public the fullest information then obtainable concerning affairs on the continent. He was compelled to return home, when Bonaparte had made Denmark his vassal, and then he became foreign editor of the 'Times,' being able, from personal experience, to print in that newspaper facts which helped the ministry to defend their policy in ordering the bombardment of Copenhagen and the capture of the Danish fleet.

When the Spaniards rose against the French in 1808, Robinson was intrusted by the conductors of the 'Times' with the duty of special correspondent in the Peninsula, being the first English journalist who acted in that capacity. He landed at Coruña, whence he forwarded a series of letters headed 'Shores of the Bay of Biscay' and 'Coruña,' the first letter appearing on 9 Aug. 1808, the last on 26 Jan. 1809. During his stay Lord and Lady Holland arrival, accompanied by Lord John Russell, a lad of sixteen, whom Robinson styled 'a Lord Something Russell.' Robinson was in the rear of the army under Sir John Moore at Coruña. He heard the cannonading, saw the wounded and French prisoners brought to Coruña, and waited till the enemy had been driven back, when he embarked for England, 'reaching Falmouth on the 26th. He reoccupied his post in the 'Times' office till 29 Sept. 1809. In November he began to keep his terms at the Middle Temple. He was called to the bar on 8 May 1813, and joined the Norfolk circuit, of which he rose to be the leader. His first cause—a successful defence of a prisoner tried in August 1813 at Norwich for murder—was humorously apostrophised by Robinson's friend, Charles Lamb, as 'Thou great first cause, least understood.' Robinson made a resolve, which he kept, of leaving the bar as soon as his net yearly income should amount to 500l. In 1828 he retired, and he said that the two wisest acts he had performed were joining the bar and leaving it.

Robinson had acquired the friendship of the most notable men in this country, France, and Germany during the earlier years of this century. Lamb, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey are a few out of his many intimate friends. He accompanied Wordsworth on tours in Scotland, Wales, and Switzerland, and was with the poet in Italy from March to August 1887; Wordsworth dedicated to him the 'Memorials' of this tour, published in 1842, in verses beginning 'Companion! by whose buoyant spirit cheered.' As the valued friend of great men his name will survive. From the ample store of his personal experience he contributed liberally to Mrs. Austin's 'Characteristics of Goethe,' to Gilchrist's 'Memoirs of Blake,' and to similar works. Apart from his posthumous 'Diary,' he wrote little that is noteworthy; but he was associated with many notable institutions, being a founder of the Athenæum Club and of University College, London. The collection of Flaxman's drawings and casts at University College was enlarged by gifts from him, and its maintenance was insured by a legacy. He was elected F.S.A. in 1829, and contributed in 1833 a paper on 'The Etymology of the Mass' (connecting it with the English suffix 'mas' in Christmas, Archæologia, xxxvi.) His bodily health and faculties remained unimpaired until his death, at the age of ninety-one, at his house, 30 Russell Square, on 5 Feb. 18(57. He was buried at Highgate, where a long inscription marks his grave. He was unmarried.

As a conversationalist he made his mark, and his breakfasts were as famous as those of Rogers. He left behind him a 'Diary,' 'Letters,' and voluminous memoranda, which give a truthful and unrivalled picture of social and literary life and literary men, both in this country and on the continent, during the first half of this century. The originals, including thirty-five closely written volumes of 'Diary.' thirty volumes of 'Journals' of tours, thirty-two volumes of 'Letters' (with index), four volumes of 'Reminiscences,' and of 'Anecdotes,' are preserved at Dr. Williams's Library in Gordon Square. Robinson had intended to sift these himself. A careful but too fragmentary selection was made from them by Thomas Sadler, and published as the 'Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of H. Crabb Robinson' (London, 1869, 3 vols. 8vo; 3rd edit. 2 vols. 1872); prefixed is a portrait, at the age of eighty-six, engraved from a photograph by W. Holl, and appended are some vivid recollections of Robinson by Augustus de Morgan. There is a portrait panel, by Edward Armitage, at University Hall, Gordon Square, where there is also a bust, executed by Ewing in Rome about 1831.

[Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson, by Dr. Thomas Sadler; Letters of Charies Lamb, ed. Ainger.]

F. R.