SIR WILLIAM CLEAVER FRANCIS ROBINSON, GOVERNOR OF THREE AUSTRALIAN COLONIES (1834-1897)
Two covers came up for auction relating specifically to the man who had a total of five periods of governorship in three Australian Colonies. The first O.H.M.S. cover was addressed to His Excellency Sir William J. C. (Sic) Robinson K.C.M.G., Government House, Perth, Western Australia and it had a red GOVERNOR OF VICTORIA/[Lion, shield & unicorn]/ FRANK STAMP on a ‘Melbourne Club’ envelope and the vendor stated it was apparently carried by hand to Adelaide where the orange 2d S. A. stamp was affixed and cancelled with a G.P.O. ADELAIDE/ 52/ FE 18/ 81/ S.A postmark, “a most unusual usage” (Figure 1).
The second cover had a copy of the orange 2d stamp with the O.S. overprint cancelled by the duplex SHIP MAIL ROOM/ 53/ NO 4/ 84/ ADELAIDE, S.AUSTRALIA and was addressed to His Excellency Sir William Robinson K.C.M.G., Govt House, Melbourne (Figure 2).
The reverse had the blue Governor seal on the flap and reception postmarks of MELBOURNE/ NO 6/ 84 and SOUTH YARRA/ NO 6/ 84/ VICTORIA (Figure 3).
William Robinson was born on 14 January 1834 at Rosmead, Ireland, fourth son of Admiral Hercules Robinson and his wife Frances Elizabeth, née Wood.. Educated at the Royal Naval School, Surrey, he entered the colonial service in 1855 as private secretary to his elder brother Hercules, lieutenant-governor of St Kitts. In 1862 William received his first vice-regal appointment, as president of Montserrat in the West Indies. In April that year he married Olivia Edith Deane, daughter of Thomas Townshend, bishop of Meath. In 1865 he administered the government of Dominica and in May 1866 was appointed governor and commander-in-chief of the Falkland Islands. In July 1870 he was made governor of Prince Edward Island, which he administered during the discussions that culminated in its union with Canada in July 1873, and that year he was created C.M.G. In 1874 he was governor of the Leeward Islands and in January 1875 he was governor of Western Australia, for the first time, until 1877. He remained there until September 1877, during which time he carried out the instruction of the Colonial Office to discourage the colonists' attempt to seek responsible government and independence from Britain in internal affairs.
In April 1880 he was reappointed governor of Western Australia until 1883. During his second period he acquired a reputation for careful and economical administration, but h e found the system of representative government hard to manipulate. He did not have the power and authority of the governor of a Crown colony; nor did his senior advisers have the confidence of the elected majority in the legislature, as would have been the case had the system of responsible government been in operation. This intermediate form of government he thought was 'neither flesh, fowl, nor good red-herring'. His devotion to music changed the character of the social round in Government House, and he did much to uplift Perth's cultural life.
Robinson's success as an administrator and his personal qualities led in February 1883 to his appointment as governor of South Australia. He exerted a moderating influence over the vigorous contests amongst local politicians for place and position, but as the parliamentary system centred effective political power in the office of premier and his supporters in the Legislative Assembly, the governor's role was chiefly social and symbolic. He associated with musical, literary and educational groups, and played a part in establishing a chair of music in the University of Adelaide. He played the violin and piano, and sang well. He was a polished public speaker on a variety of topics, and he travelled widely and established good relations with all sections of the upper classes. In May 1887 Robinson was promoted G.C.M.G. and in the same year declined the governorship of Hong Kong, not wishing to endure its climate. From March to November 1889 he was acting governor of Victoria. He was not permanently appointed though both he and the local politicians expected it; to his chagrin, the British government had adopted a 'new departure' of appointing inexperienced noblemen to prestigious gubernatorial posts.
Robinson was chosen to inaugurate parliamentary government in Western Australia. Before he left London he assisted the colony's delegates and the Colonial Office with the Constitution bill, and took the new Constitution to Perth in October 1890. His arrival as governor for the third time was widely acclaimed. Robinson was welcomed because he knew and understood more about Western Australia than any other imperial officer. He arranged for the first elections for the Legislative Assembly; he chose the first premier, John Forrest, and he nominated the members of the Legislative Council. Thereafter his practical role in politics diminished.
Robinson retired in March 1895 as governor and he then returned to London and accepted several company directorships. Throughout his career Robinson had been in the shadow of his better-known brother, Hercules; he was probably as able and as successful an administrator, but he was not as genial or as warm in his official relationships, and it was his lot to manage the lesser of the remote colonies of the Empire. The Bulletin, 16 December 1882, had described him as 'tall and slight, with an intellectual cast ? by no means an enthusiast in sporting matters ? a thorough red-tape ruler ? He has a genius for music ?' For twenty years he had done much to further the interests of Western Australia and South Australia, and he was sincerely missed in the role of their unofficial ambassador when he died in South Kensington on 2 May 1897. Survived by his wife, three sons and two daughters, he left estates of £74,558 in England, £8600 in Western Australia and £900 in Victoria. A picture of Robinson is seen in Figure 4.
This paper is a much abbreviated copy of the paper in the on-line Australian Dictionary of Biography.