ROBINSON, John (1727-1802), of Isleworth, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



5 Jan. 1764 - 1774
1774 - 23 Dec. 1802

Family and Education

b. 15 July 1727, 1st s. of Charles Robinson, merchant, of Appleby, Westmld. by Hannah, da. of Richard Deane, of Appleby.  educ. Appleby g.s.1  m. 1758, Mary da. of Nathaniel Crowe, West India merchant, 1da. who m. Henry Nevill.  suc. fa. 19 June 1760, and uncle Hugh Robinson at Winder Hall, Westmld. 1762.

Offices Held

Jt. sec. to Treasury 1770-Mar. 1782; surveyor gen. of woods and forests 1786- d.


Robinson was apprenticed to his uncle Richard Wordsworth (grandfather of the poet), a Westmorland attorney and steward of the Lowther estates; became with him joint steward in 1751; and about 1760 sole steward and principal law agent to Sir James Lowther, 5th Bt. Himself owner of eighteen burgages at Appleby, he managed on Lowther’s behalf the Appleby election of 1754, and till about 1772 was in charge of Lowther’s electoral interests in Cumberland and Westmorland. Lowther’s connexion with Bute brought Robinson in touch with Bute’s secretary to the Treasury, Charles Jenkinson, with whom he developed a life-long friendship and political alliance.

In January 1764 Robinson was returned for Westmorland on the Lowther interest. Although there was some criticism of his candidature because of his close connexion with Lowther, his property was sufficient to qualify him for a county representative. Two years earlier, when his candidature had been mooted at a previous by-election, Jenkinson had written to Lowther: ‘You certainly act wisely in taking Mr. Robinson ... one whose excellent character is so well known as he is, in the county, must go down better than anyone else who is not immediately of your own family.’2 In 1768 Robinson was again returned after a contest, and the votes cast for him from the east ward were a personal triumph, testifying to his popularity in the Appleby district.3 In Parliament he followed Lowther’s line, voting for each successive Administration except that of Rockingham. In February 1770, through the recommendation of Lowther and Jenkinson, he was appointed secretary to the Treasury, but he did not take over his duties till the autumn.4

Early in 1773 Lowther quarrelled bitterly with Robinson over an issue of local patronage, and their connexion ceased. At the general election of 1774 Robinson abandoned Westmorland and was returned for Harwich on the Treasury interest. Between 1774 and 1780 he sold his Westmorland estates (except for the manor of Winder) to Lord Thanet for £23,000, having first given Lowther the refusal of them: Thanet also bought for a further £6,000 the White House and Robinson’s burgages at Appleby.5

Robinson was not a great parliamentarian, but a competent, industrious and devoted official. He took charge of the Treasury, conducting a considerable correspondence about Government contracts; but, the boundaries of the Treasury’s sphere being vague, his duties expanded as new problems arose. From an early stage he began to assume new, unfamiliar, and laborious responsibilities in connexion with East Indian affairs: he undertook the political management of the East India Company and played a considerable part in developing schemes for the control of the Company’s administration in India. By 1781 he was one of the two or three public men with real experience in this field.6 In 1779 and 1780 he was deeply engaged with problems of Irish commercial, legislative and parliamentary management.7 As the secretary mainly concerned with political patronage, he was responsible for the management of the general elections of 1774 (only partially, because he was taken ill in the middle of the election) and 1780. In the House, of which he had a uniquely intimate knowledge, he acted regularly as Government teller and whip. ‘No man in the House’, Wraxall wrote,8 concerning the events of 1783, ‘knew so much of its original composition, the means by which every individual attained his seat, and, in many instances, how far and through what channels he might prove accessible.’ The English Chronicle, an Opposition newspaper, described him about 1780 as ‘a man of clear understanding, consummate knowledge in the general line of commercial information, and of indefatigable attention to every subject that comes under his consideration’. Diligence, zeal, judgment, power of decision, and an extraordinary capacity for work were the qualities which led Wraxall to describe him as ‘one of the most essential functionaries of the executive government’.9 His work was done behind the scenes: he had no talent for debate and rarely spoke in the House.

The lack of definition of the spheres of policy and administration, and North’s vacillations and indecision, brought Robinson during the American war into the inner circle round the King. Increasingly from 1777 the King began to rely upon him to provide information about North’s state of mind and the conduct of business for which he was responsible; at the King’s direct wish, Robinson disclosed to him the extent of North’s private financial worries.10 In June 1778 the King, having written instructing North to open his mind fully to him about ministerial appointments, forwarded a copy to Robinson, who promised that it should be ‘his most constant and unremitted study and attention to have the line of conduct laid down by his Majesty pursued’, which he was convinced ‘must produce the best effects’.11 Early next year, after Jenkinson’s appointment as secretary at war, a new line of communication was opened. On 13 Mar. 1779 Robinson wrote to the King:12

It is with the utmost diffidence Mr. Robinson presumes to address your Majesty on the following subject, but Mr. Robinson having, as he thinks, collected from several conversations with Mr. Jenkinson and other circumstances, that it would not be disagreeable to your Majesty that he should hold with Mr. Jenkinson a free and unreserved communication on everything relative to your Majesty’s affairs ... ventures to express ... his humble wishes to know your Majesty’s pleasure.

The King replied:

Mr. Robinson may very safely communicate any circumstances he may think necessary for my information, and that requires more explanation than can with ease be conveyed in a letter, or that he may not think worth immediate notice, through the channel of Mr. Jenkinson.

By direct letter but also increasingly through Jenkinson, Robinson continued, until the fall of North’s Government, to pass on political information, especially about the intrigues and manœuvres in the Government camp.13 In this way George III supplemented the information which North, despite his instructions and Robinson's urgings, was ‘not sufficiently explicit in the closet’ to give,14 and found in Robinson a helper to urge North to act. In short, Robinson had developed from a civil servant into a politician—albeit of the back-room variety.

Robinson lost his appointment on the fall of the North ministry, having obtained only modest provision for retirement. In 1780 he secured the reversion of the surveyorship of woods and forests, which did not fall untill 1786. He had also a small grant of land and houses in Harwich worth about £250 p.a.: this was probably connected with the Government's parliamentary interest and most of the income had to be spent on repairs. At the last moment, before leaving office, North secured the King's agreement to the grant of a reversion for two lives (those of Robinson and of his son-in-law) and of an interim pension of £1,000 p.a.: North would have wished it to be £1,500, but the King refused. The grant was fiercely attacked in the House by John Sawbridge on the ground that, since Robinson had been making over £5,000 p.a. from his office, it was a disgraceful extravagance: North defended the pension as a due reward for work in a ‘very severe and laborious office’.15

Robinson's connexion with North remained fairly close till the end of 1783, but after 1782 their political views increasingly diverged. Robinson, with the outlook of the professional government servant, considered his primary loyalty was due to the King and to any government of the King's choice.16To George III's great pleasure, five weeks after Shelburne's assumption of office, Robinson placed his unique knowledge of the House of Commons at Shelburne's disposal; and he assured the King: ‘As it is his bounden duty, so it will be the happiness and pleasure of his life to obey your Majesty's commands to the utmost of his power, and to render any service which he can in support of your Majesty's Government and the Constitution.’17 In the next months he continued to aid Shelburne over parliamentary matters. As North gradually drifted into alliance with Fox, Robinson protested repeatedly that it was North's duty to support the King's Administration,18 and although he is stated to have voted on 18 Feb. 1783 against the peace preliminaries,19 it is most unlikely that he did so. During March he produced for Jenkinson and Henry Dundas an elaborate analysis of the House20 to assist in the formation of a Government which would exclude Fox and so be acceptable to the King; and to Jenkinson he bewailed the division of his loyalties and North's intransigence:

Good God! What a situation I am put into, that I cannot act so as my duty and gratitude and heart lead me. This irritates my mind beyond description. To see the distress, to be clear and positive that it may be relieved and not find myself permitted to endeavour to soothe it, is hard to beat indeed. Do but somehow contrive ground that an Administration may be so settled as to go on and give Lord North ground to say that he is not opposed, and then I think I see daylight.

During the rest of 1783 North, back in office, continued to regard Robinson as his follower. But from the beginning of November Robinson, knowing that it was the King's wish, gave assistance to the plot to destroy the Coalition, whose personalities and policies he regarded as incompetent and disastrous. Through Henry Dundas he supplied Pitt early in December 1783 with an analysis of the House and the constituencies, forecasting the results likely to be achieved by a general election. In January 1784 he continued to provide Pitt's Government with lists and analyses of the House. These activities never came to North's knowledge, but when Robinson, in January 1784, refused to vote against Pitt's East India bill, North closed his door to him and broke off their friendship. Robinson's determination to ensure that he and another supporter of Pitt were returned for Harwich at the next general election caused a briefer quarrel with another of his old associates, Richard Rigby, who, in the Commons, denounced changes in the personnel of the corporation engineered by Robinson, declaring that ‘by this means the independent interest in the borough was overthrown’. Robinson tartly replied: ‘Harwich had always been considered as a Government borough. The right honourable gentleman had never thought it wrong that it should be so until the present occasion.’ Robinson helped greatly with the Treasury arrangements for the general election, and the choice of the moment for the dissolution was made—at least partly—according to his advice: ‘I last night received a summons’, he wrote to Jenkinson on 11 Mar., ‘... I have impressed on Mr. Pitt's mind, that things draw much nearer.’ In April he prepared a survey of the new Parliament for the Government; at the same time he was engaged with the Elections at the East India House, telling Jenkinson: ‘I have been hard at work since a proprietors’ list has been fixed upon ... in the while I have wrote or arranged about 220 persons, having in number 260 votes. I apprehend from the Treasury they will not stir much, but it was understood at our meeting, that I as an individual should.’ In return for these services, hints were given that a place might be found for him, but he showed no eagerness to resume office.21

Robinson appears to have played little part in politics after 1784. In the House he gave general support to Pitt's Government, and he continued to nurse the borough of Harwich, introducing relations and connexions into the corporation.22 As surveyor general of woods and forests after 1786 he took an active care of the timber resources which formed the basis of naval strength, and ‘used to boast that he had planted above 20,000 oaks in Windsor Forest'.23 His interest in naval matters is also attested by a memorandum submitted to the Government in 1787 proposing the creation of a ‘marine militia’.24

Robinson died 23 Dec. 1802.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: I. R. Christie


  • 1. C. B. Norcliffe, Some Account of the Fam. of Robinson of the White House, 38, 39, 44.
  • 2. Jenkinson Pprs. 108.
  • 3. B. Bonsall, Sir James Lowther, 120.
  • 4. Add. 38206, ff. 207-8, 285-7.
  • 5. Norcliffe, 42-43.
  • 6. L. S. Sutherland, E.I. Co. in 18th Cent. Politics, 271-80, 337-48, 352-63, 368-92.
  • 7. His letters to Jenkinson in Add. 38212, 38213.
  • 8. Mems. iii. 236.
  • 9. Ibid. i. 428.
  • 10. Fortescue, iii. 476-8.
  • 11. Ibid. iv. 168.
  • 12. Abergavenny mss.
  • 13. Add. 37834, 38212, 38213, 38567; letters of Jenkinson to George III, Fortescue, v. 87-88, 101-2, 335, 359, 385-6, 389, 402-3.
  • 14. Add. 38212, ff. 56-60.
  • 15. Add. 37835, f. 154; Fortescue, v. 117, 415, 421; Debrett, vii. 101.
  • 16. I.R. Christie, 'The Political Allegiance of John Robinson, 1770-84', Bull. Inst. Hist. Res. 1956, pp. 108-22.
  • 17. Geo. III to Robinson, Robinson to Geo. III, 7 Aug. 1782, Abergavenny mss.
  • 18. Add. 38567, ff. 107-12, 121, 123-4; Robinson to North, 1 Feb. 1783, Abergavenny mss.
  • 19. Morning Post, 27 Feb. 1783.
  • 20. Complete copy in Melville mss; partial copy in Abergavenny mss.
  • 21. Add. 38567, ff. 129-30, 167-8, 169-70, 181-2, 185-6, 187-8; Laprade, 65-105, 113-29; Debrett, xii. 637.
  • 22. J.C. Urquhart to Pitt, 28 May 1796, Chatham mss.
  • 23. Norcliffe, 49.
  • 24. Chatham mss.