ROBINSON, Frederick John (1782-1859), of Nocton Hall, Lincs.
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Family and Education
b. 1 Nov. 1782, 2nd s. of Thomas Robinson†, 2nd Bar. Grantham (d. 1786), and Lady Mary Jemima Yorke, da. and coh. of Philip Yorke†, 2nd earl of Hardwicke. educ. Sunbury, Mdx.; Harrow 1796-9; St. John’s, Camb. 1799; L. Inn 1802; to France 1802. m. 1 Sept. 1814, Lady Sarah Albinia Louisa Hobart, da. and h. of Robert Hobart†, 4th earl of Buckinghamshire, 2s. 1da d.v.p. cr. Visct. Goderich 28 Apr. 1828; earl of Ripon 13 Apr. 1833. d. 28 Jan. 1859.
Private sec. to ld. lt. [I] 1804-6; sec. to embassy, Lord Pembroke’s mission to Vienna 1807; under-sec. of state for war and colonies May-Nov. 1809; ld. of admiralty July 1810-Oct. 1812; PC 13 Aug. 1812; vice-pres. bd. of trade Sept. 1812-Jan. 1818; ld. of treasury Oct. 1812-Nov. 1813; jt.-paymaster-gen. Nov. 1813-Aug. 1817; sec. to Lord Castlereagh* at Congress of Chatillon 1814; pres. bd. of trade Jan. 1818-Feb. 1823; treas. of navy Feb. 1818-Feb. 1823; chan. of exch. Jan. 1823-Apr. 1827; sec. of state for war and colonies Apr.-Sept. 1827; first ld. of treasury 3 Sept. 1827-26 Jan. 1828; sec. of state for war and colonies Nov. 1830-Apr. 1833; ld. privy seal Apr. 1833-June 1834; pres. bd. of trade Sept. 1841-June 1843; pres. bd. of control May 1843-July 1846.
Capt. N. regt. W. Riding yeomanry 1803, maj. 1814-17.
Dir. Greenwich Hosp. 1819.
Robinson was genial, clever, ambitious and idle. As the younger son of a peer who had died when he was four, he was financially dependent until his mother’s death in 1830, which terminated the trust fund set up by his father, on handouts from her and his brother, his wife’s inheritance and income from political office. He owed his rise through the ranks of the Perceval and Liverpool administrations as much to ‘favour and stipulation’ on the part of Lord Castlereagh*, his powerful patron, as to his talent.1 As president of the board of trade, with a seat in the cabinet, from January 1818, and a thorough disciple of Adam Smith, he played an important part in the liberalization of ministerial commercial policy. Yet, as Lady Granville noted, ‘his nerves were not made to be tried ... high’, and he was ‘not good at a pinch’.2 His lack of a political nerve commensurate with his ambition ultimately covered him in humiliation and contempt. Nor did his abiding devotion to a querulous and neurotic wife equip him for the punishing demands of high office.3
At the general election of 1820 he was again returned unopposed for Ripon on the secure interest of his kinswoman Miss Lawrence. On the presentation by Alexander Baring of the London merchants’ petition for the removal of restrictions on trade, 8 May 1820, he stated that ‘the restrictive system of commerce in this country was founded in error’, but was ‘so deeply rooted’ that reform must be gradual; denied that he and his colleagues looked ‘more to their offices than to the interests of the people’; pointed out that a ‘considerable relaxation’ of the tariff structure had been effected since 1817; promised further revisions, and discounted giving additional protection to agriculture.4 Despite suffering ‘a degree of indisposition’ he expanded on the last point when answering agriculturists’ complaints, 30 May, in what the Tory backbencher Henry Bankes called ‘an argumentative speech5: he blamed distress on the current low corn prices resulting from the inevitable post-war fall in demand. A procedural difficulty prevented him from then proposing, in a cynical move to fob them off, that the proposed select committee’s remit be confined to an investigation of alleged frauds in taking the averages; but he carried this the following day, when he was duly named to the committee (as he was to its successors, 7 Mar. 1821, 18 Feb. 1822).6 He did not oppose Littleton’s motion for leave to introduce a bill to regulate labourers’ wages, 1 June, but expressed ‘great doubts’ as to the wisdom of ‘legislative interference’ in such matters. Later that day he got into a tangle over the linen bounties, having apparently led Maberly, who wanted to consider their extension, to believe that his motion would not be resisted, which put him at cross purposes with Nicholas Vansittart, the chancellor of the exchequer. The motion was conceded, but Robinson thwarted Maberly’s ‘extraordinary’ bid to instruct the committee to levy a duty on imported linen yarn. On its report, 30 June, he again strongly objected to this. Successfully opposing inquiry into cotton weavers’ distress, 29 June, he observed that it was ‘tolerably well known he was no advocate for parliamentary reform and he was the less so, because he was unwilling to convert the House into a college of disputants’. He dismissed Dr. Lushington’s ‘unmeaning rant’ against the plans for the coronation, 3 July, and opposed reception of an individual’s petition alleging that too many Members were returned by corrupt aristocratic influence, 15 July. There was speculation in December 1820 that he might be moved to the board of control to replace George Canning*, but nothing came of it.7
While Castlereagh dutifully told the king that Robinson’s speech against Hamilton’s motion condemning the omission of Queen Caroline’s name from the liturgy, 26 Jan. 1821, when he led the government reply, was ‘very good’, other witnesses were less impressed. Stephen Lushington, the treasury secretary, thought it was ‘animated’, but felt that ‘the latter part of the subject [he] left perhaps a little imperfect’, and another observer reckoned that his ‘most sorry’ exhibition ‘broke down’. The young Whig George Howard*, in the gallery, judged that he ‘began very well indeed, and with a very good manner, but in the end fell into confusion, and concluded abruptly and higgledy-piggledy’. The Tory backbencher Edward Bootle Wilbraham complained in general terms that Castlereagh got little support in debate and, somewhat unfairly, that Robinson ‘seems to do nothing but occasionally answer a question on trade’.8 Robinson ‘deprecated ... any attempt to abrogate’ the 1819 currency settlement, 8 Feb., favoured the traditional remedy of sluicing the corrupt borough of Grampound, 12 Feb., and spoke briefly against the opposition motion on the government’s failure to protect the liberal regime in Naples, 21 Feb. He announced a measure to regulate the method of striking the corn averages, 26 Feb., and, conceding the renewed inquiry into agricultural distress, 7 Mar., said it was now ‘a question of feeling as well as of expediency’, but set his face against interference with the sinking fund. He voted, as previously, for Catholic claims, 28 Feb., and supported the relief bill, 2 Apr., observing that Daniel O’Connell* and his like ‘would always be dissatisfied’. He backed his deputy Wallace’s defence of the government’s timber duties proposals, 5 Apr., and on smuggling, 13 Apr., conceded the ‘expediency of taking away many of the restrictions on the importation of French goods’. He replied to Hume’s attacks on the navy estimates, 4 May. Meeting Grey Bennet’s motion for a reduction of the number of placemen in the House, 31 May, he said it would ‘destroy ... that just, reasonable, and natural influence, of which all statesmen and philosophers had admitted the necessity, in support of the supreme power of the state’. Grey Bennet thought it was ‘a feeble, bad speech, as usual beginning well, but afterwards breaking down, and not at all touching the points in discussion’.9 Robinson defended the appointment of Thomas Frankland Lewis* to the Irish revenue inquiry, 15 June 1821. In November Edward Littleton* recorded the complaint of William Huskisson*, commissioner of woods and forests and the most dynamic member of the board of trade, who was aggrieved at his continued exclusion from the cabinet, that he had been ‘long engaged in rowing the boat, while the cabinet ministers sat idle in it, and instanced Lord Maryborough and Frederick Robinson, who sit there like dead weights, though the latter is a clever man’.10
Robinson objected to Hume’s amendment to the address calling for economies and tax reductions, 5 Feb. 1822, ‘because it went, with one sweeping censure, to condemn a whole system of finance as fallacious’. He carried by 234-126 resolutions embodying the ministerial case for a ‘gradual progressive reduction of taxes’ while upholding the integrity of the sinking fund against opposition’s critical motion, 21 Feb. He was the government spokesman on the navy estimates, 1 Mar., and against abolition of one of the joint-postmasterships, 13 Mar., and opposed Curwen’s call for an increase in the tallow duties and repeal of the candle tax, 20 Mar., when he remarked that ‘if this was to be our rule of commercial policy, we might as well shut up shop at once’. In a major speech, 1 Apr., he sought leave to introduce two bills to open and regulate trade between British Canadian and West Indian colonies and the United States, and with Europe and the rest of the world. These measures (3 Geo. IV, cc. 44, 45), which significantly relaxed the navigation laws and greatly improved Anglo-American relations, were the crowning achievement of Robinson’s period at the board of trade.11 When opposing Lord John Russell’s reform proposal, 25 Apr., he denied that he was ‘an advocate for parliamentary corruption’. He tried to convince Hume that ministers were grappling with the knotty problem of consuls’ fees, 7 May. On the agricultural committee’s report that day he deplored Burdett’s ‘party invective’ and reiterated his view that tax reductions and currency reform would not cure distress. Privately, he considered the amended corn bill to be virtually useless,12 but he opposed a protectionist amendment to it, 3 June. He spoke briefly against the opposition motion criticizing diplomatic expenditure, 15 May, and vindicated ministers’ decision to make it an issue of confidence. He thought legislation would not eradicate truck payments, 17 June, and thwarted an attempt to increase the duty on foreign butter, 20 June. The Whig Member Sir James Mackintosh reckoned that in reply to a wrecking amendment to the aliens bill, 1 July 1822, he ‘answered well in manner but feebly though speciously in substance’.13
Robinson, a pall-bearer for Castlereagh after his suicide in August, was prominent in the subsequent jockeying for position among the ministerial Commons hierarchy. There was a school of thought that while he lacked ‘readiness and nerve’, his ‘acuteness of mind and great natural eloquence of expression’ could be made better use of if only he could be induced to ‘boldly throw himself into the stormy current of debate’, though this remained doubtful.14 According to Hobhouse of the home office, Robinson ‘put in his claim to succeed to the foreign office in preference to any other person except Canning’; and it was thought in Whig circles that if Canning declined to rejoin the ministry Liverpool was considering Robinson ‘as leader of the House of Commons’.15 In the event Canning took the foreign seals and the lead and persuaded Liverpool to try to arrange Vansittart’s retirement from the exchequer and replacement by Robinson. While the obvious choice was Huskisson, Canning’s protégé, it was known that Vansittart would not accept this, whereas he would probably be amenable to making way for Robinson as Castlereagh’s ‘favourite child in the House of Commons’. In the short term Canning envisaged Huskisson’s taking over the board of trade and in the longer the exchequer, on the assumption that Robinson, who in effect was chosen as a sop to Vansittart and the country gentlemen, would soon find it too much for him.16 When the proposition was put to Vansittart in December 1822 he acquiesced, but he warned Liverpool that care should be taken in ‘making the overture to Robinson, who will be very apt to be nervous when it is first started to him’, though he perceived that
he is not without ambition, and I know (though not immediately from himself) that he has had the feeling of being superseded, which this offer, whatever may be its result, must of course remove. But I do not think the exchequer is the object he aims at, for I have occasionally talked with him in a loose way on the subject, and he has always expressed a great dread of the labour and confinement of the situation.
Liverpool was reasonably confident that Robinson, who was staying at Lulworth Castle with the home secretary Peel when the offer was made, would take the job, but his unhesitating and enthusiastic acceptance came as a surprise to Canning, Vansittart and Charles Arbuthnot*, who thought it ‘indicates better nerves than we gave him credit for’. Robinson, who was sworn to secrecy for a few weeks until the contingent arrangements had been settled, learnt from Vansittart that the annual salary was about £5,300 and the patronage ‘nothing’, and that the Downing Street house ‘wants painting very much’.17 Lord Harrowby, president of the council, hoped Robinson would ‘throw off his idleness and take pains to make himself master of subjects new to him’; and Charles Williams Wynn*, president of the board of control, felt that he would be ‘a decided improvement’ on Vansittart, ‘both in manner and popularity with the House’, and that although Liverpool ‘must ... give the orders, and he obey’, he was ‘a man of sense and judgement, though perhaps deficient in energy’. William Fremantle* reckoned that while Robinson ‘may not have been the fittest man, there is none other who would have done so well with Lord Liverpool, and he is a very popular man in the House of Commons’.18 The Whig George Agar Ellis* noted that he had ‘a high character for probity, and a fair one for talent’; and Bootle Wilbraham reflected that he was now ‘in a situation in which he must speak, instead of a situation in which he was generally idle’.19 However, the duke of Wellington, master-general of the ordnance, who had a low opinion of Robinson, thought his appointment ‘very bad indeed’, predicting that he would ‘change his mind ten times a day’; and Lord Colchester observed that ‘nobody thinks [it] will answer’.20 His remaining in office after Castlereagh’s death and replacement by Canning had put paid to the fanciful notion of Castlereagh’s half-brother and successor, the 3rd marquess of Londonderry, of forming a ‘third party’.21
As it turned out Robinson, who confided to his friend Lord Malmesbury, 3 Feb. 1823, ‘God knows how one can get through the labour of such an office in such times and with such a House of Commons, but I am tolerably strong as to health, and hope therefore I may get through it tant bien que mal’, was a striking success, at least for three years.22 While Huskisson, his successor at the board of trade, was the prime mover behind the fiscal revolution of these years, Robinson ably assisted him and took much of the credit. He dismissed Hume’s complaint about crown lands revenues, 14 Feb. In his first budget statement, 21 Feb. (the preparation of which may have made him nervously ill, but which he delivered ‘with distinguished ability, and far exceeding expectations’, according to Bankes),23 he explained that of the £7,147,214 surplus, £5,000,000 would be applied to reduction of the national debt and the rest to facilitate extensive tax reductions in order to stimulate economic activity and consumption. While the radicals inevitably wanted more, his speech (which was marred in its effect by his subsequent admission that he had forgotten to mention his proposed plan to simplify the sinking fund) was received with ‘unprecedented applause’. Its peroration on ‘the wide, the unbounded prospect’ which lay before the country, earned him the nickname of ‘Prosperity Robinson’.24 Speaking, of necessity, more often than previously, he grew in confidence during the session. He preferred his own to Brougham’s measure to regulate the sale of beer, 28 Feb., when he opposed Maberly’s call for more drastic tax remissions. He explained and steered through the national debt reduction bill the following month. On 10 Mar. he defeated Curwen’s attempt to add repeal of the window and house taxes to his mitigation of the assessed taxes. He defended the warehousing bill and outlined plans for the beer duties and excise licences, 21 Mar. He brought in and defended a bill to rectify an omission in the 1822 Act dealing with the funding of naval and military pensions and explained the contract made with the Bank, 11, 18 Apr. He tried to pour oil on the troubled waters stirred by a clash between Brougham and Canning on the Catholic question, 17 Apr., and on the 29th vindicated, at length, British neutrality in the Franco-Spanish conflict. He opposed repeal of the tax on tallow candles, 21 May, transfer of the duty on beer to malt, 28 May, and inquiry into the coronation expenses, 11, 19 June. He defended his beer duties bill, 13 June, and the grant for the King’s Library, 20 June, 1 July. In a statistical review of the finances next day, he asserted that public opinion was ‘generally ... completely satisfied’ with ministerial policy. He got rid of Hume’s resolution on land tax collection, 8 July 1823. He had privately complained to the backbencher Hudson Gurney in June that ‘the business of the country was become so enormous neither the government nor the Parliament could get through with it’.25 Yet his parliamentary stock had risen ‘in an extraordinary degree’ by the end of the session. Fremantle reckoned that Robinson and Peel, the home secretary, had obtained a ‘complete ascendancy’ over Canning ‘as general speakers and men of business’; and Hobhouse wrote that ‘his manner of speaking is fervid and displays an appearance of manly candour, which predisposes his audience in his favour’.26 In October 1823, however, Liverpool, ordering Lord Bathurst to get Robinson to come to London for a cabinet on the need to reinforce the West Indian army, was ‘sorry to say that he loves his ease so much that he will never move if he has an option’.27
Robinson admitted the force of Hume’s complaint about demands for arrears of legacy duty, 11 Feb., endorsed (after a change of mind) repeal of the usury laws, 16 Feb., and defended the Bank and its relations with government, 19 Feb. 1824. Opposing a call for information on Irish Catholic office-holders 19 Feb., he said ‘there was no disposition to exclude’ them on religious grounds. In his budget statement, 23 Feb., he explained that the £2,200,000 windfall from part repayment of the Austrian loan had created a healthy surplus, which he proposed to augment by redeeming the four per cent annuities at three and a half and by removing bounties from whale fishing and Irish linen exports. He offered no direct tax cuts, but outlined planned reductions of the duties on rum, coal, foreign wool and raw silk. He proposed substantial grants for the building of new churches, the repair and refurbishment of Windsor Castle and the establishment of a National Gallery. His speech, with its stirring description of a country blessed with ‘comfort and content, prosperity and order, going hand in hand, and dispensing from the sacred portals of an ancient and constitutional monarchy, all their inestimable blessings’, was enthusiastically cheered. Robert Wilmot Horton*, the colonial under-secretary, reflected that Robinson deserved his popularity, ‘for he has no hum about him’.28 Robinson’s references to the Austrian loan repayment, which he explained to a captious Hume, 25, 26 Feb., as a ‘Godsend’, and to the emperor as a ‘despotic sovereign’, annoyed Wellington and sparked a minor diplomatic row.29 He explained the grant for public building works, 1 Mar. Next day he successfully resisted opposition demands for repeal of the window tax and sale of the land tax. Fremantle reported that ‘nothing could have been more favourable to him’ than this debate, when his critics squabbled and ‘the open and manly manner in which he again explained his objects, had the effect of rendering any other speech from the government quite unnecessary’.30 He defended his proposals for the silk duties, 5, 18 Mar., when he declined to accept praise from opposition at Vansittart’s expense; but in response to petitions he eventually agreed to defer the tariff reductions to 1826. He also compromised on repeal of the wool duties and linen bounties.31 He carried the rest of his budget proposals, both remissions and grants, in the shape in which he had announced them. He failed to prevent the House voting to set up an inquiry into the cost of the new Westminster law courts, to which he was named, 23 Mar. He opposed calls for immediate repeal of the coal duties, 29 Mar., and revision of the legacy duties, 1 Apr. He again resisted inquiry into redemption of the land tax, 6 Apr., and a proposal to advance £1,000,000 to Ireland, 4 May, arguing that the removal of taxes and opening of trade would bring more permanent relief. He introduced resolutions for the regulation of savings banks, 7 May. He refused to countenance repeal of the remaining assessed taxes, 10, 13 May, and secured the defeat by 71-55 of a motion for repeal of the leather tax, 18 May, when he boasted that since he became chancellor he had implemented reductions to the tune of £4,500,000. He defended his beer duties bill against the attacks of monopolist brewers’ spokesmen, 24 May, and explained the marine insurance bill, 28 May 1824.
Robinson was now seen by some inside observers on the pro-Catholic side as a possible premier in the event of Liverpool’s retirement, though his natural ally Canning was perceived to have superior credentials. The duke of Buckingham told Lord Wellesley, the Irish viceroy, that he was ‘the most popular of the ministers but holds aloof from all parties’. The anti-Catholic Peel was reckoned to be jealous of him, and Wellington continued to think him ‘beyond his place in public opinion’ and, according to an indiscretion by Arbuthnot, ‘even asserted he was "a shallow fellow"’. Yet in September 1824 Canning complained to a friend that during the recent cabinet dispute over what line to take on the Catholic question, Robinson ‘had shown no fight ... but had lost with both sides from indecision’. Wellington was now reckoned to be courting him.32 In the House, 14 Feb. 1825, Robinson supported the bill to suppress the Catholic Association, ‘the bane and curse’ of Ireland. He duly voted to consider Catholic claims, 1 Mar., when he was excused for defaulting on a call of the House the previous day, and for the second reading of the relief bill, 21 Apr. In cabinet, where he continued to try to keep the peace, he put the case for introducing, without the king’s consent, a bill to authorize payment of the Irish catholic clergy, but Liverpool put a stop to this, pointing out that it could lead to his impeachment.33 Robinson voted silently for the third reading of the relief bill, 10 May, but, opposing a motion on the state of Ireland, 26 May, he sought to justify the question being kept an open one in cabinet.
His budget statement, 28 Feb. 1825, when he revealed a surplus of £443,528 and announced reductions of the duties on hemp, iron, coffee, wine, spirits and cider, was triumphalist in tone and received ‘loud cheers’. He boasted, when opposing repeal of the assessed taxes, 3 Mar., that his proposals had gone down well in public opinion; and he stood by them when resisting a motion for inquiry into duty remissions on spirits, tobacco and tea, 10 Mar., not wishing matters to be taken out of the government’s hands. He defended the army estimates, 11 Mar., items in the Irish miscellaneous estimates, 18 Mar., and the grants for new public buildings and the National Gallery, 28 Mar. He made a concession on the duties on Cape wines, 22 Mar. He opposed Hume’s call for information on the Indian army, 24 Mar., as a covert attack on Lord Amherst. He expressed the government’s willingness to have the general question of subsidised emigration investigated, 15 Apr., and outlined plans to regulate distilleries and the spirit duties, 22 Apr. Speaking against revision of the corn laws, 28 Apr., he said that ministers would not be goaded into meddling with them. He described the measure dealing with bonded corn as ‘a boon’ and vindicated its element of Canadian preference, 2, 13 May. He opposed motions for repeal of the beer duties, 5 May, and the window tax, 17 May. He denied Hume’s allegation that the proposed increases in judges’ salaries was ‘a link in the chain of augmentation’, 16 May; but he announced a decision to modify the scheme to place more emphasis on retirement pensions, 20 May. He spoke in defence of the grants to the duchess of Kent and the duke of Cumberland, 27, 30 May, 6, 10 June. In reply to Sykes’s bid to secure reduction of the duties on soap and tallow, 7 June, he pointed out that £1,500,000 in taxes had already been got rid of that session; and when announcing a cautious remission of some coal duties, 17 June, he confessed to being ‘afraid of having too many irons in the fire’. He refused to interfere with the newspaper stamp duty, 22 June, and defended the Deccan prize commissioners, who included his critics Wellington and Arbuthnot, 1 July 1825. Three weeks later he stayed at Dropmore with Lord Grenville, whose brother Tom found ‘his manners and conversation extremely agreeable from the natural unreserved and unaffected tone in which he speaks of everything that occurs in society’. Despite appearing to be ‘as strong as a horse’, he was taken ill in the night.34 In September 1825 John Croker* claimed to know that in the divisive cabinet discussion on whether or not to dissolve Parliament that autumn, Robinson, characteristically, was ‘of both opinions’. In December he turned down (as he had that summer) an offer of Whig backing if he stood for Cambridge University; and nothing came of speculation by the leading Bedfordshire Whigs that he might be induced to stand for the county, where his aunt Lady De Grey owned property, to keep out a hated Tory parvenu.35
The commercial panic and financial crash of the winter of 1825-6 destroyed Robinson’s vaunted prosperity and found him personally wanting in a crisis. In September he rejected John Herries’s* advice to raise money by borrowing, to pay off exchequer bills, arguing that an increase in interest rates would be ‘the most legitimate way of doing the thing’.36 On 30 Nov. he told Lord Grenville, who had sent him correspondence with John Horne Tooke† on the subject, that while he agreed that the unrestricted issue of small notes by country banks was potentially dangerous and did not altogether absolve the government and the Bank from blame for ‘our present embarrassment’
much of our difficulty ... arises from ... the extreme difficulty in such a complicated system as ours has progressively become, of bringing practically to bear upon a sound theory, a clear and comprehensive view of those disturbing causes, which affect its application to the actual state of things. Ignorance, prejudice and interest are arrayed against us, and it is not every man who has nerves to apply the actual cautery, even where it may be pretty evident that that is the true remedy for the disease. The more indeed that I contemplate the irregular state into which the late war brought all our relations, political, commercial and financial, the more I feel my own incompetence to grapple all at once with such complicated difficulties; and yet I feel that they cannot be successfully grappled with at all, unless the mind is directed to the most enlarged and comprehensive view of them.37
In other words, he was baffled and indecisive; and when the crisis broke in December 1825 he, like most of his colleagues, was paralyzed. In the event, the financial community saved itself, and it remained for the government to try to prevent a repetition. In January 1826 Robinson and Liverpool, blaming the crash on rash speculation, persuaded the Bank to accept the withdrawal of small notes and to acquiesce in the establishment of joint-stock banks in the country.38 In the House, 2 Feb., Robinson defended the ministry’s general commercial and financial policy and thanked the Whigs for their ‘important aid’ in promoting it. Agar Ellis thought he spoke ‘frankly and well’.39 On the 9th he denied having discussed the formation of branch banks with the Bank authorities and expounded an analysis linking the crash to overexpansion resulting from a succession of poor harvests, which had collapsed when agricultural profits fell with the occurrence of a good season. John Denison* thought ‘he did not speak well; instead of a grave calm statement, he was wordy and noisy, and laboured and strained at trifling points’.40 His speech of 10 Feb. explaining the measures to end the circulation of small notes and permit the establishment of private joint-stock banks did his reputation no good. Agar Ellis considered it ‘a manly frank performance’ but perceived that he ‘spoke rather as a man who is not quite certain of his own knowledge upon the subject’. Charles Ellis*, who heard only the last hour, which ‘certainly was very stammering and laborious and unimpressive’, told Lord Granville that Robinson had been ‘very nervous and spoke much below himself’ and was reckoned to have failed. Gurney thought it ‘a very ignorant speech’. Greville wrote, 12 Feb., that Robinson
is deemed to have made a very bad speech ... [He] is probably unequal to the present difficult conjuncture; a fair and candid man, and an excellent minister in days of calm and sunshine, but not endowed with either capacity or experience for these stormy times, besides being disqualified for vigorous measures by the remissness and timidity of his character. However ... he may well be excused for not doing that which the united wisdom of the country seems unable to accomplish.41
On 14 Feb. he refused to countenance an issue of exchequer bills, which many commercial Members were urging, and angrily told Wilson of London that if he thought ministers were ‘such unskilful pilots in a storm, he ought not to have contributed to support them ... during fair weather’. Three days later he announced the government’s willingness, after incessant badgering by Gurney and others, to compromise by allowing the Bank to issue small notes until October; and he formally secured this amendment to the notes bill, 20 Feb., when he denied any ‘secrecy’ or ‘hidden motive’ behind the concession. He reputation was further damaged, as Greville noted:
Robinson is obviously unequal to the present crisis. His mind is not sufficiently enlarged, nor does he seem to have any distinct ideas upon the subject; he is fighting in the dark. Everybody knows that Huskisson is the real author of the finance measures of the government, and there can be no greater anomaly than that of a chancellor ... who is obliged to propose and defend measures of which another minister is the real though not the apparent author.42
Denison liked his speech resisting further demands for an issue of exchequer bills, 23 Feb., when he ‘spoke pretty well ... very feelingly and with a show of his true honesty’.43 He got rid of attempted amendments to the notes bill, 24, 27 Feb. George Tierney* thought that if Wilson’s motion of the next day for an issue of bills was carried, as seemed at one moment likely, Robinson’s position would be untenable.44 In the event he averted disaster by revealing the government’s decision to authorize the Bank to advance money to merchants on the security of their goods and, opposing Tierney’s call for an issue, gave an optimistic view of the country’s economic situation:
All its sources of wealth, all the springs of its action, notwithstanding this superficial pressure, were in their pristine vigour. Although the leaves and branches of the tree had been shattered, its roots were firmly fixed, and they would shoot forth again with fresh beauty.
On 10 Mar. he treated as a direct censure of himself, which, if carried, would compel him to resign, Maberly’s motion on the government’s transactions with the Bank; it was withdrawn. His financial statement of 13 Mar., when he claimed that ‘the violence of the storm has passed away’, boasted that £27,522,000 in taxes had been remitted since 1816 and forecast a surplus of £714,579, was well received.45 He secured the appointment of a select committee on Scottish and Irish small notes, 16 Mar.; and as a member of it he acquiesced in Peel’s recommendation of no change.46 He tried to justify the proposal to give the president of the board of trade a distinct ministerial salary, 6, 7, 10 Apr., when the majority fell to 11, forcing ministers to agree to combine the office with that of treasurer of the navy. On 17 Apr. he persuaded Onslow to postpone his usury laws repeal bill and moved resolutions to relieve the Bank from a portion of its advances. He favoured reform of private bill committees, 19 Apr. On 4 May he replied spiritedly and at length, but without support from Canning, Herries, Huskisson or Peel, to Hume’s major attack on financial and economic policy. He endorsed the corn bill, 11 May, and assured agriculturists that this temporary relaxing measure would not prejudice consideration of the whole subject next session. He was returned unopposed for Ripon at the general election in June 1826. The following month Canning, discussing with Liverpool a way of avoiding the appointment of Lord Morley to the post office, suggested the possibility of making Robinson a peer and giving it to him, which he felt ‘would not be disagreeable’ to him, and replacing him at the exchequer with Lord Palmerston*. Liverpool was not prepared to create more peers so soon after an unpopular batch, and in any case pointed out that such a move ‘would be considered at this time an admission of Robinson’s failure’ and would ‘very much shake the confidence the country has in the government’.47
Robinson had been harassed by the state of his wife, who in March 1826 had suffered a nervous collapse and contracted religious mania.48 In late August he was in correspondence with Peel about how to deal with defective crops of oats and potatoes and the funding of chancery reform. The next month he produced a memorandum recommending revision of the corn laws and the imposition of import duties on other produce as a means of raising money to subsidize emigration. His scheme was not taken seriously.49 In late October he was dragged from a visit to his mother and aunt at Wrest, Bedfordshire, to his house at Blackheath by his wife’s hysterical claim that she was at death’s door. He found her perfectly well, but tragedy ensued when their mentally handicapped 11-year-old only child Eleanor fell ill with hydrocephalus and died after great suffering on 31 Oct. Lady Sarah took it very badly and on 3 Nov. Robinson, who was himself close to an emotional breakdown, wrote to the king asking leave to ‘absent himself from the approaching early session of Parliament’ in order to look after her at her parental home at Nocton, Lincolnshire. Permission was readily granted and Robinson’s cabinet colleagues were supportive.50 He commented to Huskisson that his absence from the meeting of Parliament might benefit the government:
Hume and Maberly (who are our great financial questioners) will be disposed to hold their tongues when they find they cannot get answers; and I am quite satisfied that under the present circumstances of our money concerns, the less that is said about them the better. We could say nothing positive and nothing very satisfactory. In short it seems clearly to be the policy of the government to say and do as little as possible before Christmas.
He asked to be kept informed of the cabinet’s deliberations on the corn laws, and ‘cordially’ acquiesced in their adoption of Huskisson’s sliding scale scheme, which was preferred to his own. To Herries on 29 Nov. he confided his worries about escalating public expenditure and his leaning ‘towards the idea of having a sinking fund without an accumulation of compound interest’.51 In the ‘rustic bedlam’ of Nocton his wife, who was desperate for another child (he impregnated her in January 1827), was making his life a misery with her paranoia and violent fluctuations of mood.52 On 14 Dec. 1826 he wrote to Liverpool asking to be removed to the Lords and given another office, on the ground that ‘the return to Downing Street and the inevitable solitude arising from my constant attendance in the House of Commons may be more than ... [Sarah’s] bodily health and strength would be equal to withstand’. Liverpool retorted that not only would he damn himself for ever in public estimation but also ‘infallibly precipitate a crisis’ which would destroy the ministry. Robinson agreed to remain where he was and to meet Parliament but, so he later told Peel, he made it clear that if he had not been moved by the end of the session he would retire altogether. The story got out, thanks to the Arbuthnots, who put it about that Robinson, ‘the greatest political coward and the poorest creature in difficulties that ever lived’, had taken fright at the prospect of having to explain a revenue deficiency to the House. Peel was supposed to be ‘very much disgusted with such conduct’.53
Robinson, who participated in the planning of the ministerial agenda for the 1827 session,54 explained the provision made for the Clarences and answered Maberly’s criticisms of the finances, 16 Feb. He opposed abolition of the salary of the governor of Dartmouth Castle, 20 Feb. His name cropped up in the initial speculation following Liverpool’s stroke on the 17th, but after suggesting an early meeting of the cabinet he kept himself in the background, hoping for a satisfactory reconstruction of the government and contemplating retirement.55 He voted silently for Catholic relief, 6 Mar., and outlined the new corn duties scale, 8 Mar., by which time the notion of his becoming a peer and foreign secretary was gaining ground.56 He repudiated Harvey’s charges concerning excise prosecutions, 13 Mar., acquiesced in Lord Althorp’s motion for inquiry into county polls, 15 Mar., and defended details of the corn bill, 19, 23 Mar. On the 26th he refused to answer Maberly’s questions about the finances and in committee simply moved a vote of £200,000 for civil contingencies. Closing the debate on the opposition motion to withhold supplies, 30 Mar., he endorsed Canning’s view that ‘the public exigency required the formation of a new administration’. He opposed inquiry into the Irish miscellaneous estimates, 5 Apr., and spoke on behalf of the revenue commissioners on the case of the County Fire Office, 10 Apr. After the failure of his approach to Peel, Canning saw Wellington and suggested, from whatever motive, that they might both serve under Robinson as premier; but Wellington thought him ‘hardly of calibre enough’ and the idea was dropped.57 On 10 Apr. Canning invited Robinson to join his ministry, and he agreed in principle. He was disconcerted by the wholesale anti-Catholic defections and it was not until the 14th that Canning informed him of his planned coalition with the Lansdowne Whigs, in which Robinson was to become colonial secretary and lead the Lords. ‘Fearful and unconvinced’, he wrote at length next day to Canning expressing his many worries about the instability of such an alliance, the folly of leaving parliamentary reform as well as Catholic emancipation an open question and the ‘insuperable’ problems likely to result from his being placed over Lansdowne’s head in the Lords. Canning waved aside his fears and Robinson, who was additionally mortified to be accused by Londonderry of ‘a dereliction of principle’, agreed to the arrangement, which was made more palatable to him by the postponement of Lansdowne’s admission to the cabinet. His creation as Viscount Goderich, 28 Apr. 1827, removed him from the Commons.58
He turned out to be a ‘wretched’ performer in the Lords, but far worse was to follow.59 On Canning’s death in August he accepted the king’s commission to form a government. It lurched from crisis to crisis as ‘Goody’ Goderich, ‘firm as a bullrush’, plagued by his wife and little comforted by the safe birth of a son in October, presided with ‘utter imbecility’, in ‘a kind of fool’s paradise, convinced his conduct was perfect’. His feeble nerve gave way and he resigned in January 1828 after 146 days as premier, the weakest in British history and the only one never to meet Parliament.60 Astonishingly, after almost three years in the political wilderness Goderich, despite this humiliation, was invited to join the Grey ministry as colonial secretary, which he did, conveniently setting aside his previous hostility to parliamentary reform. He was sidelined as lord privy seal and fobbed off with an earldom in 1833, and resigned the following year with Stanley and Graham over Irish church appropriation. He moved with them to Peel’s Conservative party, formally joining it in 1836. Peel made him president of the board of trade (where William Gladstone†, the vice-president, soon formed a low estimate of his knowledge and competence) and in 1843 put him at the board of control, from which he resigned with Peel on his defeat in 1846. The last 20 years of his stressful life were marred by intermittent bouts of illness, and he died at Putney of pulmonary complications following influenza in January 1859.61 His widow lived until 1867. He was succeeded in the earldom and the Lincolnshire estates which had come to him through his marriage by his only son, George Frederick Samuel (1827-1909), who had a distinguished political career and was made marquess of Ripon in 1871.
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: David R. Fisher
The only current biography is W.D. Jones, ‘Prosperity’ Robinson (1967), a dull and uncritical assessment.
- 1. Add. 38743, f. 279.
- 2. Countess Granville Letters, i. 421.
- 3. Jones, 6-7, 49-52, 64-67; B. Hilton, Corn, Cash, Commerce, 173, 182-3.
- 4. Buckingham, Mems. Geo. IV, i. 21.
- 5. Dorset RO D/BKL, Bankes jnl. 117.
- 6. Ibid. 118 (31 May 1820); J.E. Cookson, Lord Liverpool’s Administration, 222; Hilton, 102-3.
- 7. Croker Pprs. i. 184.
- 8. Geo. IV Letters, ii. 894-6; Castle Howard mss, Howard to Lady Morpeth [28 Jan. 1821]; Colchester Diary, iii. 201.
- 9. HLRO, Hist. Coll. 379, Grey Bennet diary, 93.
- 10. Hatherton diary, 20 Nov. .
- 11. HMC Bathurst, 517-18, 524-5; Jones, 83-87.
- 12. Jones, 68.
- 13. Add. 52445, f. 90.
- 14. Add. 40319, f. 57; Croker Pprs. i. 230.
- 15. Buckingham, i. 365; Hobhouse Diary, 95; Arbuthnot Corresp.; Castle Howard mss, Abercromby to Morpeth, 1 Sept. 1822; Add. 31232, f. 297.
- 16. Add. 38743, ff. 192, 217; 38193, f. 171; Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 194; HMC Bathurst, 537; Harrowby mss XIV, f. 123; Cookson, 382; Hilton, 166-9; Jones, 92-93.
- 17. Add. 31232, ff. 297, 299; 38193, f. 171; 38291, ff. 211, 216, 223, 225, 233, 241, 335; 40862, f. 83; 45063, f. 183; Hobhouse Dairy, 101; Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 199-200; Jones, 93-94; Hilton, 169.
- 18. HMC Bathurst, 538; Buckingham, i. 411, 417.
- 19. Northants. RO, Agar Ellis diary, 12 Jan. ; Colchester Diary, iii. 273.
- 20. Add. 38291, f. 241; Colchester Diary, iii. 270.
- 21. Norf. RO, Blickling Hall mss, Londonderry to Lady Londonderry, 29 Dec. 1822, Hardinge to Londonderry, 24 Jan. 1823.
- 22. Hants RO, Malmesbury mss 9M73/G2543/3.
- 23. Bankes jnl. 141.
- 24. Jones, 98-101; Hobhouse Diary, 103.
- 25. Gurney diary, 18 June 1823.
- 26. Buckingham, i. 475; Bucks. RO, Fremantle mss D/FR/46/11/84; Hobhouse Diary, 103.
- 27. HMC Bathurst, 550.
- 28. Jones, 101-5; TNA 30/29/9/6/2.
- 29. Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 290-1.
- 30. Buckingham, ii. 51-52.
- 31. Jones, 103.
- 32. Buckingham, ii. 85, 99, 105, 127; Add. 37302, f. 302; Fremantle mss 51/5/22.
- 33. Lonsdale mss, Long to Lonsdale, 23 Mar. ; Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 392; Hobhouse Diary, 115, 116; Wellington Despatches, ii. 564; Jones, 112-13.
- 34. Add. 51534, Grenville to Holland, 24 July 1825.
- 35. Croker Pprs. i. 282; Harewood mss, Canning to Robinson and reply, 2 Dec.; Add. 36461, f. 317; 51749, Holland to H.E. Fox 30 Dec. 1825, 18 Jan. .
- 36. Hilton, 213-14.
- 37. BL, Fortescue mss.
- 38. Hilton, 215-18; Jones, 114-17.
- 39. Agar Ellis diary, 2 Feb. .
- 40. B. Gordon, Economic Doctrine and Tory Liberalism, 48-49; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Denison diary, 9 Feb. 1826.
- 41. Agar Ellis diary, 10 Feb.; Keele Univ. Lib. Sneyd mss SC8/79; TNA 30/29/9/5/38; Gurney diary, 10 Feb. ; Greville Mems. i. 156.
- 42. Greville Mems. i. 156-8.
- 43. Denison diary, 23 Feb. 1826.
- 44. Add. 51584, Tierney to Holland, 24 Feb. 1826.
- 45. Agar Ellis diary, 13 Mar. .
- 46. Add. 51659, Whishaw to Lady Holland, 14 May; Denison diary, 19 May .
- 47. Add. 38301, f. 261; 38568, f. 129.
- 48. Miss Eden’s Letters ed. V. Dickinson, 100-1; Jones, 125-6.
- 49. Add. 40388, ff. 305, 325; 40389, f. 55; Wellington Despatches, iii. 432-7; Hilton, 282-3.
- 50. Miss Eden’s Letters, 113-16; Lonsdale mss, Beckett to Lowther, 27 Oct. ; Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1264.
- 51. Add. 38302, f. 103; 38576, f. 110; 38748, ff. 190, 192, 195; Jones, 129-30.
- 52. Miss Eden’s Letters, 118-20, 122-4; Jones, 130-1.
- 53. Add. 38302, f. 113; Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 66-67, 69; Arbuthnot Corresp. 79; Lady Palmerston Letters, 157; Parker, Peel, i. 476-7; Jones, 131-3.
- 54. Add. 38749, ff. 1, 5.
- 55. Croker Pprs. i. 364; Canning’s Ministry, 3, 4, 9, 16, 31; Jones, 136-7.
- 56. Canning’s Ministry, 48.
- 57. Ibid. 116; Jones, 137-8; Add. 51609, Holland to Adair, 15 Apr. 1827.
- 58. Parker, i. 476-7; Canning’s Ministry, 125, 126, 142, 153, 176, 208, 240; Hobhouse Diary, 134; Colchester Diary, iii. 486; Jones, 138-42.
- 59. Creevey Pprs. i. 120.
- 60. Jones, 142-204; Miss Eden’s Letters, 142, 156-7; Croker Pprs. i. 391, 392, 401; Bagot, Canning and Friends, ii. 427-8; Countess Granville Letters, ii. 1; Hilton, 243; Hatherton diary, 10 Feb. .
- 61. Jones, 237-79; Gent. Mag. (1859), i. 318-20.