ENGLISH FAMILY ROBINSON
story of E S & A Robinson of Bristol, whose centenary fell
in 1944, must be typical of the stories of many
other great businesses which have
changed with the changes of the last momentous hundred years, and with
larger opportunities have gradually increased from small beginnings.
began in Bristol, and Bristol is still the very heart and nucleus of the
business, but it has spread far from its native city. To-day it has its
emissaries, its factories and its subsidiary companies, not only in
other parts of England and Scotland, but in Canada, South Africa. and
the United States. It has long since become a limited company, and
naturally owes much to many who are not of the blood ; but it has
always had, and still retains, a strong family feeling and atmosphere,
and the Robinsons have always been a family of strongly marked
characteristics. They are essentially English, essentially of the
country rather than the town, having an essentially family pride and
patriotism. They are strong and prolific and "count cousins"
with an ever growing tribe, so that to the outsider trying to wrestle
with their ramifications they seem to take on the alarming proportions
of a clan. They have been fond of their business and their work-people,
of their cricket and of their horses; they have from the beginning
taken a full share in the public life of their city. An eleven of
Robinsons taking the field in the annual match against Flax Bourton,
while almost innumerable Robinsons of elder and younger generations look
on joyfully and prayerfully, makes a delightful, a moving, and a
formidable spectacle. "Who shall stand against all resistless
Graces ? "sang Francis Thompson, and there is something
"resistless" about the Robinsons, although it is
very kindly and friendly resistlessness. They seem to stand for all that
is best and deepest-founded in family pride and family affection.
Naturally the story of the business must begin with that of the family,
and very particularly of Elisha Smith Robinson, the founder of the firm.
He was the son of Edward (I will call him Edward I), who was the son of
Phillip who was the son of John. That is as far as we need go back,
though there were Robinsons described as "naylers" in the
Forest of Dean at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Perhaps it
is further back than is strictly necessary, but there is so pleasant an
account of John written by the Rev. George Robinson to his son in 1861
that I cannot refrain from quoting it. "Your
great-grandfather," he wrote, "was a sharp active man, about
the middle stature, very like my sister, the late Mrs.Williams of
Woodside, Little Dean. He wore a strait buff coat, buttoned in summer
and winter, with square and cork-toed shoes and boots. He commenced
business in comparatively humble circumstances, and raised himself by
his own genius and industry to the first class of society in this
neighbourhood. His business transactions were marked by probity,
regularity, order and despatch; and he seems to have won the respect
of all around him. His mind seems to have been characterised by originality,
independence and nobility."
John carried on one of those miscellaneous businesses which were once
characteristic of rural England. He had many irons in the fire, for he
was coal proprietor, grocer, draper, tallow chandler and maltster. As a
result he appears to have left his son Philip handsomely off, a
gentleman at large: but Philip, though an admirable person, was very
fond of horses, and had twelve children. Through this combination of
circumstances he ran through his money, and Edward I, who was born in
1791, had to begin on a more laborious rung of the ladder. At the age of
twelve he was apprenticed to his cousins, Nathaniel and Edward Lloyd, of
the Postlip paper mills at Winchcombe, the forerunner of the well-known
firm of Edward Lloyd, and thus paper first comes into our story. Later
he and a brother took over the Overbury paper mills, close to Tewkesbury
and just over the Worcestershire border, and it was at Overbury that
Elisha was born, at a house with the pretty name of Silver Rill.
ENGLISH FAMILY ROBINSON
On its roof was a weathercock of a fox, for Edward I, too, loved horses.
Thus we come to the big and fascinating figure of Elisha. He was not
apprenticed to his father, who thought presumably that his son ought to
see something of the outside world and of other businesses before
settling down at Overbury. So he was bound apprentice to his maternal
grandfather, the Rev. Elisha Smith, after whom he had been named. Those
who have driven from Bourton-on-the-Hill to Broadway must have noticed
the sign-boards on the right-hand side of the road which beckon so
persistently to him to come to Blockley. If he has yielded he will have
found it a typical charming grey Cotswold village. It was here at
Blockley that Mr. Smith had his shop. Some of the Robinsons of today
hold that it was the infusion of Smith blood that gave the family the
fire and energy which it had before lacked, and certainly Mr. Smith must
have been an energetic gentleman. He was primarily the Baptist Minister
at Campden, but this activity did not content him; he kept a grocery and
general shop at Blockley, the scales from which were, until destroyed in
the blitz, at the head office at Bristol, and was further
described as a druggist. He wore a brown wig and bore a highly
honourable character, and it was through his instruction, as well as
through his own keenness and industry, that the young Elisha learned the
needs of grocers, a piece of knowledge to be in some degree the
foundation of his fortune.
served his time at Blockley, Elisha went to glean further knowledge at
Pershore, at Coventry and at Birmingham, and then returned to his father
and the family paper mill at Overbury, deeming himself no doubt, and as
the issue showed justifiably, an experienced young man of business.
Perhaps his father did not agree with this estimate, thinking that young
men should know their place; perhaps Elisha was of so independent a
temper that he must inevitably have broken loose. A family legend says
that the father, dissatisfied with the orders obtained, threatened to
engage a "young gentleman from London, "and that the son could
not brook the implied slur. At any rate he left the Overbury business
(it fared poorly in the end without him), borrowed £100 to add to his
savings of £90, and with this slender capital set out to play a brave
lone hand in the great city of Bristol.
BRISTOL IN 1844
The year 1844 was well suited to the young adventurer, for this
was an age of reform and of advance, when people were stirring in their
sleep and strange new things coming to pass. It was not yet an age
mechanised as is that of to-day, but it was one in which manufacturing
held potentialities of almost infinitely greater wealth than before. At
Bristol, as everywhere else, this tide of advance and novelty was
flooding in. The city had had a great history, full of the enterprise
and romance of the sea. It had been, together with Norwich, the second
city in England. It had been a great port in the American trade,
especially in respect of slaves and tobacco. It had a name which stood
for hopeful adventure.
There must be many people who still see Bristol in their mind’s eye as
Jim Hawkins saw it when he set out along the docks in search of John
Silver, gazing on the figure-heads of ships, and the pig-tailed,
ear-ringed sailors, and snuffing eagerly the salt and the tar. By 1844
the eighteenth century Bristol of Treasure Island was greatly
changed, but it was still in many respects old-fashioned and even
primitive, ill-paved, ill-lighted and, according to an official report,
worse supplied with water than any great city in England." Traces
of the Elizabethan age survived, but municipal reform was in the air.
The Municipal Reform Act of 1835 had begun a process the end of which is
not yet. By giving a local franchise to rate- payers, it had transferred
power, in Dr. G. M. Trevelyan’s words, "to new classes, to
dissenters and shopkeepers." The reformers, enthusiastic if not
always enlightened, had begun to tuck up their sleeves. In 1845 the
Improvement Committee had condemned certain streets as "narrow,
inconvenient and dangerous," and recommended the making of a new
thoroughfare to be loyally named Victoria Street. Particularly in the
matter of transport things were moving fast. The last mail between
Bristol and Gloucester had gone the way of all coaches; the railway boom
with which the name of Hudson is connected, not wholly to his discredit,
was at its height. The Prince Consort had lately been to Bristol to
launch the then "mammoth" ship, the Great Britain, and,
to descend from the
sublime, the first tricycle had
made an impudent appearance in the neighbouring streets of Bath. We are
apt to think of the coming of trains and the vanishing of stage coaches
as they affected the passengers, but of course the railways were
immensely important in the transport of goods, and so facilitated and
expanded business. So did two other institutions that came into being at
much the same time, the penny post and the electric telegraph. It was
not merely the private citizen who could afford more letters; the
business man found a far greater volume of correspondence possible and
profitable, and could, if need be, clinch the bargain by telegram.
Business was, in our modern idiom, speeding up.
A vast deal that is pow familiar in Bristol still remained undone.
Twenty years were to pass before the Clifton Suspension Bridge was
opened; Clifton was as rural as when Sam Weller struggled across the
Downs holding his hat on in a high wind; whole neighbourhoods which are
now thickly populated suburbs were pure country. Durdham Down, the
sacred turf on which W. G. Grace, born four years later, played much of
his youthful cricket, had not been bought by the Town Council, nor had
Clifton Down been given to the city by the Merchant Venturers. Many more
public enterprises were to be undertaken in Elisha Robinson’s life
time, but improvement was on the march.
ELISHA THE FOUNDER
To this Bristol, in
process of being transmuted, Elisha Robinson came in his twenty-eighth
year. I have seen no picture of him in his youth, and there is naturally
no one now who can speak of him save as an elderly man. However, the boy
is father to the man, and from his picture in his later years, and the
recollections of his grand-children, some of whom very well remember him
and have kindly told me all they can, it may be possible partially to
reconstruct him. In the portrait before me as I write he is a strikingly
handsome man with a fine dome-like forehead, a straight nose, beetling
eyebrows, a firmly set mouth and a full beard. This beard is not
positively patriarchal in dimensions since it allows a glimpse of a
light coloured necktie tied in a bow, having about it a tentatively
suggestion, well in accord with his coat of broadcloth. He looks, it
must be admitted, decidedly formidable, and he had no doubt the capacity
for well-timed severity which is necessary for any man who controls a
number of men and a large business. At the same time it is not an
unkindly face, and it is pleasant to know that his grandchildren were
not at all frightened of him and liked to be in his company. One of his
granddaughters has the happiest recollections, as of a great treat, of
snuggling by his side as he drove his horses to Brighton.
It is clear from some of the little stories of him which survive that he
had two invaluable gifts—a sense of humour and a fine
unselfconsciousness. One of these stories tells how he was inter-
viewing a possible traveller for the firm and there was an imperfect
understanding; the two did not seem to be getting on. "Look here,
Richards," said Mr. Robinson with a sudden inspiration, "let
us change hats." The traveller had a very small head and the
prospective employer a very large one. The exchange was made; each
assumed an incongruous headgear and the talk went like a house afire.
The other story relates to those visits to Brighton which he made
regularly in later life. He always read family prayers, and was one
morning in full tide of discourse when his eye was caught by a fine
trotting horse as it passed by. He stopped abruptly, walked to the
window, watched the trotter along the front and back again, while the
family waited in silence, and then went on where he had left off without
betraying by the slightest sign that such conduct might be regarded as
The interest in cricket, so marked in later generations of Robinsons,
seems in his case to have been theoretical rather than practical. He
clearly approved of it, for in order that one of his grandchildren
should begin betimes he had a little bat made in ivory for him to cut
his teeth on. His love of horses was deep and ineradicable. He rode
daily to his office, and on his visits to Brighton would sometimes send
his carriage horses forward and himself make the whole journey on
horseback. He did not disapprove wholly of racing, as is shown by
another agreeable family tradition. One day in London he met two of his
sons, who appeared a little disconcerted at
meeting. He asked them where they were going, and they shamefacedly
admitted it was to Sandown Park. "Very well," said he, "
I’ll come with you."
There was another feature of Elisha’s character not, one may surmise,
often to be found in the average English business man of the period.
Most of them probably regarded "abroad" as a vague and
dangerous country with which to do business but not to visit. He sent
his son Edward to Paris as part of his education. Elisha Robinson not
only saw the commercial value of foreign countries, but took a
broad-minded interest in them for their own sake. Though full of a
consuming ambition in his work-a-day life he had always made time for
other interests. Already before coming to Bristol he had read to the
Tewkesbury Literary, Scientific and Mechanics’ Institute a paper
entitled "A comparative estimate of the effects produced on mankind
by military achievements and philosophical discovery," a feat which
to all lovers of Stevenson’s Wrong Box must instantly and pleasantly
suggest Uncle Joseph Finsbury. When in his later years the prosperity of
his firm gave him leisure, he went to the United States with results, as
will be seen, very profitable to the business. He made several tours on
the continent, and when over sixty took his youngest son with him on a
visit to India.
In municipal affairs he took a prominent part, being Mayor of Bristol in
1866, a Justice of the Peace, chairman for many years of the Port and
Pier Railway and a consistent supporter of the scheme for the Avonmouth
Dock. Nor did these local duties content him, for he was keenly
interested in politics in a wider sense. He was a strong Liberal, and
perhaps he would have been called in those days a Radical. When he had
been growing up the French Revolution was not yet so very distant an
event, and though its anti-religious tendencies had terrified many
people, yet its insistence on liberty and equality appeared an immensely
hopeful portent. The Reform Bill of 1832 was more recent and exciting
history. The Radicals, to whom the epithet "low" was often
applied by their opponents, were everywhere expressing new views and
challenging old ones in a way to fill with horror many old gentlemen,
rubbing their puzzled eyes in country houses and lamenting the opening
uprooting of landmarks. Almost as many people were convinced that the
country was going to the dogs as others were sure that a new era of hope
The fact that Elisha had one of his sons christened Kossuth and another
Gladstone shows the bent of his mind, his liberalism and his sturdy love
of freedom. In 1870 he stood as a Liberal for Bristol and was elected,
only to be unseated on a technicality. Ten years later he stood again,
but this time as an Independent Liberal. It would seem that his various
journeys abroad, and particularly in India, had altered and enlarged his
views and made him what was rare in those days—a Liberal with a strong
feeling for the British Empire. At any rate, we are told that he
differed from his party leaders on foreign policy—he was, never afraid
to acknowledge a change of views—and lacking official support he was
left at the bottom of the poll.
About the time of this election there happened something with a pleasant
Dickensian flavour, reminiscent of Eatanswill. On his Indian tour he had
written home to the local liberal paper some descriptive letters, in one
of which he told how he found in a ruined Delhi temple a paper mill
making "a very common whitey-brown paper by hand," and had
remonstrated at such antiquated methods. Mr. Pott and Mr. Slurk were not
yet extinct, and this gave too good an opportunity to be missed by the
conservative journal. Mr. Robinson, very thinly disguised, is
represented addressing the multitude in a Buddhist temple as follows:
"Men of India, men of the dark and glossy skin, fellow-brethren, I
am come among you to study your costume, your eccentricities and the
costume of your Nautch girls. My friend the Duke of Buckingham (loud
cries of 'Off with his head !) I say, my fellow sinners, that my friend
the Duke of Buckingham has shown me, in one of the government carriages,
your museums, your horticultural gardens, and your deer feeding upon
nothing. But how, I say, can these things be appreciated by men ignorant
of the difference between coloured double crown and white demy? You, my
fellow sufferers, have your burning suns, your snakes, your elephants
and your dancing dervishes. But how can you appreciate all your
blessings unless you have a large
plain and coloured tea-papers, reams of brown wrapping paper and great
quantities of paper bags?"
These letters of Elisha’s from India, which aroused the malignant wit
of the opposite side, contain many references to missionary work, and so
throw light on another aspect of his character as a staunch Baptist. His
grandfather Philip had been a member of the Church of England, but
Elisha, perhaps through the influence of his other grandfather of
Blockley, was brought up in the Baptist faith. On being once twitted
with changing his mind he replied that he was always ready to do so if
he were convinced, and that he might yet become a Roman Catholic or a
Conservative. He became neither; he was a lifelong Baptist and took a
considerable part in the building of Tyndale Chapel. He constantly had
missionaries on leave from abroad to stay with him at his home, and was
a great supporter of foreign missions. Here again he showed his
independence of character, for his belief in them was not wholly
founded, as one gathers, on any particular points in their religious
teaching, but on their value as emissaries of Empire. The
English-speaking race had in his eyes a general and world-wide mission.
His steadfast adherence to his Baptist bringing-up afforded him another
opportunity of showing both his independence and his unconventionality.
On the house in which he at one time lived a church rate was demanded,
and this was a point on which feeling ran very high in any community in
which dissenters were strong and numerous. Elisha resolutely refused to
pay, with the result that his goods were distrained upon. Rather than
endure this he resolved to build a house for himself, and set out like a
persecuted saint into the wilderness to look out for a habitation. There
was an estate called Sneyd Park where there were then no houses. Walking
there one day he found two oak trees which pleased him. They stood on
rising ground having a great stretch of view, which is still green and
pleasant though to-day dotted in places with the distant roofs of little
red houses. Here he decided to build according to his own plans and
desires. It had been written of his great-grandfather, John Robinson of
the Forest of Dean, " As an architect he drew the plans of Mr.
Taylor’s house and also of his own," and this
and talent must have been hereditary. Elisha spurned the services
of an architect; he designed his own very considerable house, curiously
castellated and battlemented, and called it appropriately Ivy Towers.
The house as well as the oak trees is still there and one of his
generations lives in it.
SUCCESS COMES EARLY
I have kept the young Elisha waiting a long time to set up his business
in Bristol, and have disregarded the chronological order of my story,
but it seemed to me the best plan to try to show something of this
remarkable and engaging figure as a whole, in order that the reader
might see at the earliest possible moment what manner of man he was who
was to found and build up Robinsons of Bristol. Yet even if I have in
any degree succeeded, that is very
far from showing exactly why he succeeded. Whatever the enterprise it is
extraordinarily interesting to enquire, and as difficult to find out,
why and how success comes so rapidly to a few particular men. We want to
know what were the qualities that made for the success and the first
steps by which it was achieved. As to the qualities we may make a guess,
but those early steps are often grown too dim to be discovered. Who gave
his earliest briefs to some future Lord Chancellor so that he quickly
rose to eminence at the Bar, and why did they give them? How exactly was
it that Butler, Thring and Percival went to Shrewsbury, Uppingham and
Clifton respectively, to find the merest handful of boys, and almost
instantly, as it now seems, attracted a steady stream of pupils to the
school ? What was it that induced those earliest parents to send their
sons there ? Those are the questions we always want to ask, without as a
rule getting adequate answers. We want to ask them about Elisha Robinson
and cannot be wholly satisfied. The fact that he throve, and throve
quickly, is at least incontestable. He set up with his tiny capital in
humble premises very near to the site of the company’s present
offices; and he made £300 in his first year. His stock-in-trade soon
began to double itself year by year, and before long he was reckoning
his income in thousands,
and a considerable number of them. He was from the first an indomitable
worker, cleaning his own windows, polishing his own brass plate,
sweeping his own floor, and one trace of these early labours is
remembered by those who knew him: he always betrayed irritation if he
saw anyone stand a broom the wrong way up. He had likewise one
invaluable piece of knowledge: he knew from practical experience what
grocers and their customers wanted. And here something may be said in
parenthesis, the truth of which will become more apparent as the story
of Robinsons develops, namely that those who direct such businesses must
know more than a little of other people’s businesses as well as of
their own, and must keep constantly in touch with them. Elisha and his
successors were to help others in the "packaging" of their
various goods, and to do that it is essential to know about the goods,
the materials of which they are made, how best they lend themselves to
particular forms of package, and what kind of printing and design are
best suited to them. In short, he who would make a paper bag must have a
working knowledge of what is put inside it.
When Elisha Robinson started he knew that both grocer and customer
wanted paper in which purchases could be wrapped or packed and carried
home. In this matter the wheel seems in war time to have come round full
circle; the triumphant purchaser must needs leave the shop with his
pockets bulging, and there is little paper in which to wrap even the
stickiest of spoils. The house-wife, and in many cases the virtuous
house-husband too, goes out shopping with a string bag. A hundred years
ago the lady took her bag of calico with her on her marketing
expeditions. The grocer might wrap up her goods for her, but at best he
did so in a piece of paper of which he "twiddled" up the end.
If he had time he might make for himself a supply of home-made paper
bags, and very likely the young Elisha had occupied some spare hours at
Blockley in this task. So his start in business consisted largely in
supplying wrapping-paper, in particular to the grocery trade. From
Messrs. Leschelles of London (now Charles Morgan & Co., a branch of
Wiggins, Teape & Co., Ltd.), he obtained on a long term of credit
£400 worth of paper, consisting of odd lots and sizes, and this he
ingeniously adapted to his grocery customers, while in a short time he set
seriously about making paper bags by hand. In two years’ time his
business had already need of more space, and justified a move to premises
in Redcliffe Street, which though changed out of knowledge are still the
Meanwhile the young gentleman from Overbury had launched out in another
direction: in 1845, on the strength of his first year’s modest profit,
he married. The lady was Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Ring. The Rings
were a well-known family of potters, descended from Joshua Ring, who in
1786 had begun to make the "Queen’s Ware" which is to-day
prized by collectors. Mr. Ring thought it a poor match for his daughter
and refused his consent, but—the quotation comes too pat from Hazlitt’s
Fight to be resisted— "the Bristol man was not so
tamed." Whatever he thought when he was himself a father the ardent
young suitor was not of the kind to pay too much attention to parents; the
couple eloped to Cornwall, were duly married there, and lived happily ever
The business continued to grow. To paper and paper
bags there was added a small printing plant, and type printing was
soon followed by lithography. This had been practised as a fine art since
the end of the eighteenth century, but had only in comparatively recent
times been used in commercial printing. It was in 1850 that lithographic
hand presses were installed. At this time there were three lithographers
in Bristol, as compared with at least twenty copperplate printers. Cricket
romantics may like to know that one of the three was Alfred Pocock, the
"Uncle Pocock" who instilled into the youthful Gilbert Grace the
virtues of a straight bat and a patient defence. Six years later came the
first litho-machine, and by 186o the Bristol Directory contained this
advertisement of "things worth seeing" at No. 2 Redcliffe
Street: "A lithographic printing office, seventy-five feet long,
containing eleven lithographic presses, and two lithographic machines
worked by steam power, perfectly unique and peculiar to this
establishment; doing as much work as all the presses put together, and
executing the work with greater precision than can be obtained by hand
labour . . . A paging machine capable of numbering consecutively or
alternately from 1 to 999,000".
This is however, if almost
inevitably, to anticipate. Long before 1860 Elisha
Robinson, now a prosperous and busy man, had felt the need of help. In
1848 he took into the business, in a not very clearly defined capacity,
his youngest brother Alfred, and the firm took the name it has kept ever
since of E S & A Robinson.
Alfred Robinson was of all the
greater value to his brother because he was ready to acknowledge himself a
secondary figure in comparison with the head of the firm, to tackle work
that some men would have thought unattractive, and do it thoroughly,
leaving the wider decisions to be taken by Elisha. To begin with he
devoted himself to travelling. Travellers have always been of the very
greatest importance in the Robinson business, and never more so than in
its earlier days. What may fairly be called the romantic and ceremonial
side of travelling is to-day not what it was. It was perhaps at its height
when the travellers drove themselves from place to place, even as did Tom
Smart with the neck-or-nothing gig with the clay- coloured body, the red
wheels and the vixenish mare with the fast pace. That interpolated story
in Pickwick gives a delightful picture both of the traveller’s hardships
in point of wind and weather and the rich recompenses that awaited him at
the end of his journey in the matter of snug fires and hot punch. The
travellers’ room was something of an esoteric mystery with a ritual of
its own known to the elect, with many jokes and much good comradeship, and
in particular a great institution in the mid-day dinner. To the gig
succeeded the train, and to the train the motor car, but a greater change
gradually came, which did away with something of the old corporate life. A
firm would have a representative who not merely covered a particular
district but lived in it, and would thus make his rounds so as to return
nightly to his base in the shape of his own house. As a single example,
Mr. Herbert Tanner travelled for Robinsons in Scotland for a number of
years and had his home there, from which he radiated until he was recalled
to headquarters at Bristol. It is much the same change that in the legal
world has come over some circuits, and while
makes for convenience and economy has taken away something of the old
fraternal life of the road.
Into this life Alfred Robinson threw himself with zeal and enjoyment,
travelling in particular all through the West country as far as Penzance,
breaking new ground and introducing in face of much prejudice the novel
idea of ready-made paper bags. He was at once courteous and pertinacious
and extremely successful. It was a time when it was essential to call not
merely on a few large customers but on a large number of small ones.
Robinsons have always been glad to deal with the small man, who was
originally so faithful a standby, but the trend of business towards great
multiple companies has gradually and unavoidably made the small man rather
less important than he once was. He was very important when Alfred
Robinson took to the road, and the traveller in his turn was very
important to him. In many cases the traveller had the customer’s
confidence so entirely that he would look over his stock, make out the
order and even draw the cheque, the customer’s sole task being to sign
it. Since travellers could do so much to make or mar, the choice of the
right man meant nearly everything. Both the Robinson brothers were shrewd
judges of character and took great pains in choosing their men. One maxim
of Elisha’s may be quoted for its widely applicable wisdom: "If you
want to know all about a man tell him a little about yourself first."
After some time of travelling the steady growth of the business brought
Alfred Robinson back to Bristol. To use his own modest phrase he
particularly looked after the "bread and cheese" side of the
business, plain paper and plain bags. "Ah! That’s how all bundles
should leave this house, that’s the mark of quality," is a comment
of his which is still remembered as showing his enthusiasm for efficiency
in detail and his dislike of anything slovenly. He was so punctual that
the office could set its watches by him, and gave himself wholly to the
work of the firm, refusing all temptations to enter the public life of
Bristol, with the remark that it was not in his line. In point of taste
and interests he was really a country gentleman, but this never distracted
him from his work, from which he only retired amid many marks of affection
in 1893, when the business became a limited company.
THE BUSINESS GROWS
personal character of one of its earliest members has carried us too far
forward, and we must retrace our steps to the ‘fifties where
we left the business on an upward grade both rapid and steady.
Following the litho-machine was the making of account books, and then came
an event which marks an epoch—the installing of the first machine for
making paper bags. That was in 1860, in which year, only sixteen years
after its foundation, Robinsons as among paper merchants already held the
greatest supply of paper in any firm in the kingdom. Eighteen hundred and
seventy-three affords another landmark, for in that year Elisha Robinson
visited the United States. There, as later in India, he wrote letters to
the local paper in which he criticised New York somewhat unkindly: its
uneven pavements, its "thriftless and untidy shops" and the
generally "second rate" aspect of Broadway. But he saw one thing
at least that pleased him, and was of much greater importance than any
general impression, namely, a machine for making paper bags of "satchel" shape, that is to say, a bag folded with a
"gusset." He promptly bought the patent for £1,000 and came
home declaring that it would revolutionise the bag-making industry of
England. It unquestionably gave great impetus to his own, and did much
to give the firm the position it has held ever since in this particular
A little while before his American expedition he had embarked on
colour-printing with a particular view to almanacks, and to this end had
bought the printing works of Ensor & Co. in Marsh Street, keeping it
specially for colour-printing work, and replacing obsolete machinery. The
almanack has always been a popular institution as supplying a felt want.
For the private citizen racking his brains for a Christmas offering that
shall be pleasant and useful, and shall not cost too much, it has been a
very present help. In the commercial world, with which Elisha
was chiefly concerned, it combines a modest compliment with a delicate
advertisement. At the time when Robinsons began to interest themselves in
the subject a tradesman’s almanack consisted as a rule of a coloured
ornamental border surrounding either a picture of his premises (possibly
conceived in a
spirit, as Joe Gargery would have called it, " too architectoora-
looral ") or of the goods he sold. Running down the side was a
calendar together with dates of historic events. Some of these, copied no
doubt from one to another, had grown rather démodé, such as, in 1777, the
execution for forgery of Dr. Dodd, of whose sermons Dr. Johnson had said
that "they were nothing, sir, be they addressed to what they
may." That was in a harsh moment, for Dr. Johnson in kinder mood
composed his last sermon at Newgate for him, and likewise his petition to
the King. However, nobody cared much for Dr. Dodd by 1870; the calendar
of events was carefully revised year by year, and the artistic quality of
the almanacks greatly enhanced. Elisha decided to reproduce in them paintings of considerable artists, and his son Edward, who joined the
firm in 1869, used annually to visit the Royal Academy and other exhibitions in search of copyrights to buy, a practice continued by his
successors to this day.
The reproduction was an elaborate process. The
pictures were lithographed in twelve or more colours, the work on the
separate stones being drawn in dots and lines on "polished"
stone, or in lithographic crayon on " grained" stone, a single
stone sometimes occupying a fortnight. These almanacks were printed on
paper as large as thirty-seven inches by twenty-six inches. By the year
1876 twenty- five different subjects were being issued each year, and a
particularly popular one would reach a circulation of two hundred thousand
copies. Of these launchings-out into so many and so various directions,
Elisha Robinson was, and remained during his life, the chief moving
spirit, but it is worth noting as evidence of good organisation that from
a comparatively early time in the firm’s history he did not find it
necessary to be constantly on the spot. His municipal and political
activities took up much of his time, but he was a good judge of men and
had what some able men never acquire—the power of delegation, so that he
could afford to be away knowing that trustworthy people would carry on the
work. Moreover he was always, so to speak, in the offing; he was perhaps
coming, he might pounce, and one awful legend relates how the office boy,
thinking that his master was not coming in for his lunch, devoured the
fruit from the garden
which made up most of his frugal meal; but alas! his master was only late,
and that story may be taken as a parable. Wherever he might be the weight
of his hand could be felt from afar, and be was always consulted, as once
when he was at a watering place and news was sent him of a fire at the
warehouse. His telegraphic answer was brief and to the point. "Put it
out. Robinson." As long as he lived be was decidedly and decisively
in control, and he laid down one guiding principle which has been
remembered and acted on ever since. "People" he said,
"remember the quality long after they have forgotten the price."
As the business grew, so its premises must needs grow with it, but for
some time they only did so in a comparatively hand-to-mouth way. When No.
2 Redcliffe Street was not big enough, adjacent houses were taken in one
by one, and even so the fit was ever too tight. As an example, though the
head of the firm had a room to himself, his brother Alfred must make shift
with a desk in the outer office, a dark cheerless room in which the gas
burned all day. A building scheme was essential, and in the early ‘seventies
this was set on foot to take in the corner block of Redcliffe Street and
Victoria Street. The latter, for all its imposing name, was then
comparatively primitive, paved with cobbles, and over against the corner
stood an ancient inn, The Talbot, a great resort of farmers on market
days, where the Robinsons stabled the horses on which they daily rode to
and from business. This time it seemed there was to be no making of two
bites at a cherry in point of premises; the new building was to contain
Robinsons, however greatly it developed, and was to see the very stars
out. It was in fact a fine large building judged by the standards of its
day. Whether or not the style called "Bristol Byzantine "is in
itself admirable may be a question of changing taste, but the whole was
unquestionably imposing; the tower became a landmark and everyone knew the
frieze illustrating the various industries of the firm.
Here at last
there was room to turn round, with private offices, a new artists’
department, a kitchen and various other amenities then of the most modern.
Some had not yet been dreamed of, and one of these was a lift. The paper
lived in the cellar, while the bag-making
department was on the top floor, and thither it had to be carried up weary
flights of stone stairs. There must have been giants among the
warehousemen of those days, for some reams weighed 190 lbs. and were
often carried up in a single journey. This has now a prehistoric sound,
but the present chairman, Mr. Foster Robinson, remembers at the beginning
of the present century taking his part in these heroic and toilsome
ascents. In this new building was housed not merely the bag-making, but
every other department of the business except the colour-printing, which
was for the time being still in Marsh Street. The bags which were
then, and have always been, the backbone of the business must later have a
section of this narrative all to themselves. Under the same roof with them
were the letterpress printing, books, bookbinding, boxes and stationery
branches. "A proud man was Lars Porsena upon the trysting day."
When the building was completed Elisha Robinson thus addressed the
architect, the builders and the clerk of the works : " Gentlemen, I
have the finest printing factory in the West of England, and neither I nor
those who come after me will ever want to enlarge it." How limited
can be the vision even of the most far-seeing !
MASTERS AND MEN
At this moment of the triumphal opening of the new building, we may
perhaps step aside from the various and steadily developing branches and
take for a moment a more human view of the business, of the workmen as
well as the masters, and the relations between the two. It was still
what would have been called, no doubt, for all its go-ahead qualities, a
good old-fashioned business, and it was a family business. It is a well
recognised phenomenon that businesses sometimes deteriorate, either
because the members of the second and third generation, being "born
in the purple" lack the energy of the founder, or because they do not
happen to possess the particular aptitude and interest needed in a
particular line, and are slow in admitting others, not of the family, who
do possess them. This obvious pitfall Robinsons have always avoided.
First, because the family has produced men of the right quality who have
devoted to the work, and secondly, because it has been ready to con- fide
in and give power to those from outside its circle. In 1877 the business
was still essentially patriarchal in character. Two of Elisha’s sons had
come in as young men, Edward II in 1869 and Arthur in 1874, and were
learning the business from the bottom stage by stage. They were "Mr.
Edward" and "Mr. Arthur," and these pleasant titles (the
present chairman is still "Mr. Foster ") give a clue to an
intimate and friendly relationship. The business was not yet so large but
that the masters could know their men. Every Christmas Eve, when the
packing department was finally clearing up, Elisha Robinson would walk
round the warehouse greeting all he could, seeing that those who lived a
distance were in time to catch their trains and often giving Christmas
boxes. There is something in this little picture agreeably Dickensian,
with Elisha in the part of old Fezziwig in the Christmas Carol.
is a later picture from the Jubilee of 1887 of Alfred Robinson dealing out
a brand new shining Jubilee half-crown to every apprentice with a friendly
word or two. Trade Unions, which had received a temporarily crippling blow
from the Law Courts in 1867, had had their privileges restored to them by
Act of Parliament by the end of 1871; and the bureaucracy of limited
companies was already beginning to supersede in many businesses the
paternal system, but when the new building was opened neither of these
inevitable developments had disturbed the old idyllic state of things in
It was one to breed "characters" among the
employees, and the memories of one or two, now typical of a vanished age,
still survive. There was for instance the head cashier, Thomas Frame
Osborne, a Tewkesbury man. If Elisha on Christmas Eve is old Fezziwig
telling Scrooge and his fellow apprentice to put up the shutters, Thomas
Osborne suggests Tim Linkinwater, cashier of another "good
old-fashioned business," Cheeryble Brothers. Intensely conscientious,
appalled by the thought of an inaccuracy, revelling in a big account paid
in solid gold, so hating to part with it that he would remind Elisha
himself that he had too recently drawn cash, he seems, so far as one can
piece him together, a type of faithful
service and a most engaging figure. So rigid was he in his economies on
the firm’s behalf that he would not waste one of its own bags on his
daily visit to the bank, but stowed all his precious freight wrapped in a
red handkerchief inside his tall hat. One day an unsympathetic wind blew
the hat off and there was a scene of frantic recovery on Bristol Bridge.
Tall hats were not the prerogative of cashiers only. Many of the workmen
wore them, exchanging them in the factory for paper caps, while the
machine boys, not allowed to aspire so high, wore "cheese-
cutter" caps. When, by the way, any boy came to the end of his
apprenticeship the stroke of noon was a signal for an authorised din made
with hammers, spanners or anything else that came handy, and the
apprentice, now transformed into a craftsman, had then and there to pay
his footing—a loaf, a saveloy and a pint of beer to every journeyman in
The work was hard, and the hours to our notions to-day
seem almost inhumanly long. In the early ‘seventies the men began work
at six in the morning, and even the clerks came at six on Saturdays. On
that day there was a half-holiday, which had been given in 1858, and
received with a silver ink-stand in token of gratitude. A little later the
factory hours were from eight a.m. to seven p.m., and for several weeks
before Christmas, overtime, a regular institution and almost enthusiastically looked forward to for its reward, went on till nine-thirty p.m.
There were the public holidays and there were no others, except the annual
outing on a July Saturday, until the institution in 1889 of a week’s
holiday with pay. Whether or not the firm were absolutely the first to
grant this boon they were undoubtedly among the pioneers. To read of the
life in factories in the earlier part of the nineteenth century is to gain
an impression of general harshness which is probably in many cases unjust
to individual employers, many of whom were kind to their workpeople.
Systems and standards had greatly altered for the better in the latter
part of the century, but they were still very different from those of our
own day, and such things as organised welfare work, the giving of playing
fields to the operatives, and so on, were still afar off. Elisha Robinson
and his brother were beyond doubt kind and thoughtful in their relations
with their men and took
a deep personal interest in
them. If those men did not enjoy many things that their successors have done, it is to be remembered that they had no more dreamed of such possibilities than had their employers.
Improvements come by stages, and one age cannot be blamed for not accomplishing all that a following age has achieved.
The workmen of the 'seventies may seem to us now to have led a life of very drab toil, but it was not perhaps either as hard or as dull as we think, nor was it resented as we may incline to resent it for them.
What the men thought of their masters is shown by this: when Elisha stood for Parliament in a particularly stormy election of
1880 they on their own initiative formed a bodyguard to protect him and to keep order at his meetings. This is surely a very practical piece of evidence of goodwill, redounding to the credit of both.
IN REDCLIFFE STREET
It was about 1877 or 1878 that the new building in Redcliffe Street was finally completed, and for some considerable time it served its turn with the building in Marsh Street as an auxiliary for colour-printing.
If there was one trade in particular which was the backbone of the business it was still grocery, for the seed sown in the little shop of the Rev. Elisha Smith at
Blockley had fallen on fertile ground, but drapery was also a valuable ally.
Both trades wanted bags not merely to hold but to advertise their wares. Those of the drapers were adorned with pictures of the latest fashions; the grocers particularly delighted in a series of wrappers for their teas which were known
as "chromo teas." On these attractions jostled one another; the Proverbs of Solomon in illuminated text, a calendar, a calendar picture and a puzzle all rejoiced the tea-drinker's heart. There were also various series of picturesque scenery, and the printing and bag-making departments were kept hard at work. And yet even at the end of the 'eighties there were but five machines for making bags, whether flat or satchel, a large proportion being still hand-made by young women, and though the output was large and increasing, the figures to which it has soared
today would then have seemed ludicrously incredible. Office stationery was another important
department. The austere simplicity of modern business notepaper was unknown.
The headings were full of ornamental lettering and elaborate shading, and the shop or the factory did not suffer from unsympathetic artists but rather "swelled wisibly" under their hands.
There was bookbinding too---ledgers, day books and so on, made with a scrupulous craftsmanship as if to defy the shock of ages, and making "Robinson's Guinea Ledger" worthy of the most beautifully dotted i's, looped l's, thin up-strokes and thick down-strokes of the most perfect copperplate writing.
There was one department, however, in which the business was clearly outgrowing its home, and that was colour-printing.
Marsh Street was not big enough. It was not only the almanack, though that was as popular as ever, and more so, but the taste for colour in posters and show-cards was steadily increasing.
Mere prosaic black and white could not stand against it; colour must have a more spacious home in a factory all of its own, and by 1887 it had it in a fine new block of buildings at Bedminster.
This in its turn was only to be big enough for five years, but that is to look ahead.
Two years before the move there in 1885, Elisha Robinson had died.
He was still in full possession of all his powers, having only a few months before received and refused another invitation to stand for Parliament, as imperious and enterprising, as scornful of small rules and as faithful to great causes of fairness and liberty as he had been all his life.
With him there goes out of the story its most dominant and picturesque figure.
THE SECOND GENERATION
The new dynasty in his two sons, Edward and Arthur, was by now fully ready to succeed to power, for both had been well and truly grounded.
The nearer we approach to modern times the more obviously difficult it becomes to write freely.
It is harder to get a clear picture of a recent past from those who were in their younger days part of it.
They cannot stand back from the figures that have been very close to them and see them with the same cool and
unprejudiced eyes with which they look at an earlier generation; nor
would it be decent or natural that they should. So if I attempt any portraiture it must needs be a little less clear-cut.
Edward Robinson -Edward the second in the family tree- was clearly a man of fine character, and in some ways, as I judge from what I am told, of more complex character than his father.
He was inclined to be shy, which made him not always very easy of approach.
Elisha's eccentric inspiration of changing hats with a commercial traveller would hardly have been his, and this instinctively retiring nature probably made it an effort to him to follow in his father's footsteps in the matter of public work in Bristol.
He made the effort, however, and that whole-heartedly.
He was a J.P. from 1889 and was finally the senior of the City Magistrates; he was Vice-chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, President of the Anchor Society, and in 1906 Lord Mayor of Bristol.
He was largely responsible for founding the Queen Victoria Jubilee Convalescent Home on Durdham Down and was later its President.
He was an intensely conscientious man, who would torture himself with the thought, which troubles so few people, that he was making more money than he ought.
He certainly did his best to assuage his conscience, since his gifts both to his own employees and to his native city were most generous; in particular he celebrated his golden wedding by buying a slum property in Bedminster and giving the site to the city as an open space.
He followed his father as a Baptist in faith and a Liberal in politics, though unlike him he had no desire for Parliament.
Like his father, too, he took a great interest in foreign missions and subscribed largely to them; they were to him one of the most important things in life.
He was true to type as a lover of horses. He was always kind and thoughtful to all who worked for him, though he had not perhaps in any great degree the gift of being on easy terms with them.
In an eminently practical way he did many things for them, which they fully appreciated.
Generally speaking he appears to the outsider a rather more indistinct figure than his father; without traits so strongly marked that they demand those bold strong colours which are so helpful to one that tries to paint them.
He is the more difficult subject because he seems to call for half-tones and finer shades.
But to say
this may be to do grave injustice to one who was head of the business for many years and saw it grow immensely in volume and prosperity.
Emphatically he gave his proofs. If another had lighted the torch and handed it on he kept it burning brightly.
There is this, too, which decidedly needs saying: time did not stand still in Elisha's time; the world was changing, and besides the changes that took place there were more and more crucial ones clearly coming.
But these did not greatly effect Elisha; the business increased immensely under his leadership, but it was still essentially the same as it had always
been- " the good old-fashioned business" on patriarchal lines.
This could not go on for ever, and to Edward Robinson fell the difficult task of adapting himself and his views to new conditions on which he might at first, both from instinct and upbringing, look with mistrust.
He and his younger brother Arthur had had a long and arduous apprenticeship.
He had entered his business life in 1869 when he was sixteen years old and had learnt it thoroughly, department by department, not as a young prince with a kingdom waiting for him, but from the very bottom.
Arthur Robinson, who had come in five years later in 1874, when he was nineteen, had gone through the same mill; he had worked at the packing bench, he had served his time at bookbinding, he had for years called regularly on customers all over the Midlands, in Wiltshire and the Isle of Wight. Loving cricket, and being the first of a number of the family who have played for either Gloucestershire or Somerset, he had sternly decided against county cricket and in favour of business.
This strenuous and admirable training made the two brothers well fitted to lead the business when the time came, but it might have made them too firmly wedded to the ways that had so far been successful and had produced nothing but friendly relations with their workmen.
Those ways were now to be challenged all over England in one, as it may then have seemed, almost revolutionary respect, by the growth of the Trade Union movement.
This had for some time past made the workman more aware of his own dignity as a human being and of his own power; it had made him in the words of the drill sergeant "stand up and look as if money were bid for him."
There was also the Co-operative movement which had
to be important in the 'fifties and 'sixties. Let me again
quote from Dr. G. M. Trevelyan's English Social History: "The Co-operative movement was of more than financial importance.
It gave many working people a sense that they also had 'a stake in the country.'
It taught them business habits and mutual self-help, and drew them together in societies that encouraged the desire for education and self-improvement."
This drawing together naturally became a stronger and a closer process as the Trade Unions felt their feet. They had had up to the 'seventies a somewhat chequered career. They had been made legal as long before as 1825, but their growth was relatively slow, and in
1867 they received a temporary but severe blow when they were held illegal as being in restraint of trade.
This was, however, only a temporary set-back, and in 1871 and 1875 they received from the legislature on whom they could now put pressure by the votes of their enfranchised members "a new charter of rights corresponding to their growing power."
That charter was to be further enlarged in the early years of the next century by the legislation which followed the famous Taff Vale judgment, but that was still comparatively distant; from the point of view of our story, the 'eighties are the important years.
It was natural that many employers of labour, conscious of having always tried to treat their employees justly and generously, and having dealt with them as individuals without friction, should stand in the old ways and have no wish for any new body to come between them.
This I imagine to have been the point of view of Edward Robinson and his brother, and they were prepared to make a firm stand. I have been told, not by one of their own family, the story of their conversion; and it is one which illustrates their essential fairness, their ability to put themselves in another's place, and that quality of their father's of not being ashamed of a change of mind.
One of their printers, I think a foreman, was a determined union man, and
, Edward Robinson sent for him for a serious talk, pointing out to him that he had excellent prospects in the business, that he had a wife and children, and that they would inevitably suffer if he had to leave, as leave he must.
The printer said he fully realised all this, but he felt that he must stick to his fellow workmen. There the
interview ended. Edward Robinson, uneasy and distressed in
went in the evening to talk the matter over with his brother. "If you were a printer," said one brother, "isn't that what you would do?"
"I think I should," said the other, and thereupon the matter was decided.
That was not a mere surrender to the inevitable but a determination taken on principle as being just and fair.
And this feeling for his workmen found many other outlets in Edward Robinson's life.
One example was the granting, four years after his father's death, of a week's holiday with pay to all having twelve months' service; and if it now sounds a matter of course it was in 1889 an innovation of almost startling beneficence.
As his business increased he was always anxious to share its prosperity with those who contributed to it, as was testified by a gift of
£5,000 afterwards largely increased, as a nucleus of a pension fund.
Later he introduced a scheme of profit-sharing, since extended to all the subsidiary companies in this country.
A LIMITED COMPANY
was another respect in which the second generation had to face
change from the patriarchal system. All over the country the old
family businesses had tended to outgrow the dimensions that were usefully possible, and so to convert themselves into the more impersonal form of the limited liability company.
It was a step, often no doubt regretfully taken, as doing away with old and intimate relationships.
Sometimes it was taken too late, since the family partners, while lacking the requisite gifts or energies, had yet relied too much on themselves and not been willing to trust to the paid skill of appropriate outsiders.
Into this mistake the Robinsons, as I said before, never fell.
The members of the family took a vital interest in the business, but at the same time they were ready to delegate and to trust.
In 1893 Edward and Arthur Robinson took the step of turning their business into a limited company, and took as their fellow directors those who had been their faithful helpers from their earliest years and had proved themselves in the business.
That system, which began over fifty years ago, is to-day still the system of the company, wherein all the directors have been bred up to the business and have steadily climbed the ladder almost from boyhood.
Of those outside the family circle who were thrown into greater prominence under the new regime one or two deserve a special word.
The first secretary of the new company, to become in a few years a director, was Henry Addiscott, familiarly known as H. A., who in his earlier days had been a most successful traveller for the firm, a kindly, humorous man, with a most retentive memory, a passion for accuracy, and a gift, almost uncanny, as it appeared to the machine room, of finding out small printing mistakes.
Those old enough to have served with him seem to connect him in their memories, and that always pleasantly, with one gesture. Those who know
their Bleak House will recall Mr. Bucket, the first and by no means the least distinguished of the long line of detectives in fiction.
On any knotty point he always held a conference with his fat right
forefinger so that it "seemed to rise to the dignity of a familiar demon."
Mr. Addiscott's forefinger was equally formidable, for it would suddenly shoot out to detect a mistake with a long drawn "Ah!"
of triumph followed by a forgiving chuckle.
When he became a director he was followed as secretary by another valued servant of the company, William Bodey, who was forty-five years with Robinsons; but unquestionably the most prominent among the new directors was Thomas King. Imposingly tall, serious, austere, he was a man who not merely knew his business thoroughly but possessed real imagination and vision.
In 1893, when the company was formed, he was in charge of the office, becoming subsequently a director and then managing director; and at a time when Edward Robinson was ill and the younger generation of the family were still young, it was pre-eminently King who bore the load. There are some things which have to the outside world a trivial and almost a frivolous sound and yet are matters of great import and profit to those intimately concerned with them.
Of such are cigarette cards. The passion for collecting them, and the mighty prizes that the more sanguine were always going to win from them, seem strangely dim now when we are glad enough to get our cigarettes without any trappings; but they were very bright in their day, and the grave figure of Thomas King is, though unknown to the general world, connected with them in the annals of Robinsons.
Farseeing in the matter of colour-printing it was he who developed a relationship with the great tobacco firms of Bristol, and the printing machines were kept busy for many a day over pictures of Generals in the South African war on cigarette cards.
Roberts, Buller, Kitchener, White, and perhaps above all Baden-Powell----their portraits seem to come vaguely back, nor did the collector disdain Botha and the elusive De Wet.
So popular were these cards that a "general" and a "cigarette card" were for a while almost interchangeable terms. Nor were these cards all, for there was also a great increase in posters and show-cards, and not only for the lords of tobacco but
also for those of biscuits. King was in short a man of great energy, enterprise and character, and he did much not merely for the company as a successful business but for the workmen who helped to make it so.
In the words of the present chairman he left an indelible mark on the business.
BEDMINSTER AND COLOUR-PRINTING
This story is constantly and unavoidably outrunning strict chronology, sometimes by many years, sometimes by only a few, and it must now return to one of the first events in the new reign, the moving of the colour-printing department to a new building in
Bedminster in 1887. It is to-day a very large block, but then consisted only of a single floor containing printing machine rooms and the almanack finishing department.
The move marks a point at which something ought to be said of the steadily improving processes in colour-printing, but this is a task which an ignorant amateur obviously cannot essay unaided; so I shall avail myself of the help of one of long experience who knows all about it, and it would indeed be an impertinence to use any but his own words. Beginning with the move to Bedminster he writes as follows:
"The lithographic machines were then of course of the old 'flat-bed' type and the largest sheet printed was forty inches by thirty inches, though before long the size was doubled.
The introduction of the 'rotary' lithographic machine, with a thin plate of
aluminium as a printing medium instead of a heavy stone, caused an entire change of method; and a further new departure, resulting in a great advance in the quality of lithographic printing, was the introduction in the early years of the present century of the now
familiar 'offset 'process. In ordinary lithographic printing direct contact is made between the inked stone or plate and the paper, the drawing being made in reverse; but in the offset printing the drawing appears on the stone or plate 'the right way' and the impression is taken first by a rubber-covered cylinder which transfers it to the paper.
The credit for this remarkable advance belongs to an American citizen, Ira D. Rubel, who visited the company in 1907, when in the midst of his experiments,
the full success of which he unfortunately did not live to see.
The first offset machine was installed at the Redcliffe Street works and was ordered by Mr. Foster Robinson, the present chairman, on the first of his many visits to the United States.
So far it had not been possible to print lithographically (except on a 'tin-plate' printing machine) on other than smooth papers; but it will easily be seen that the resilient rubber surface carrying the impression will make perfect contact with the roughest or most 'artistic' texture; indeed, as an experiment, an offset print of a fine engraving has been made on a corrugated packing material.
"The tiny letterpress department at the new Bedminster works grew, during the later years of the last century, to be one of great importance, with the introduction of the revolutionary 'three-colour' process (which for some time proved quite a serious rival of chromo-lithography) and the consequent installation of the most modern machinery. Half-tone or three-colour block illustrations are such a
commonplace to the present generation that it is hard for them to realise that there are veterans, still happily among us, who worked for Robinsons before the half-tone process existed, when photogravure, now freely used in printing bags and general commercial work, was a highly
'secret' process applied only to 'fine art' printing. They vividly recall the sensation caused by the publication in the late 'eighties of the first illustrated daily
newspaper in this country, the Daily Graphic, which enlivened the day's news with a few
'line-blocks' reproduced from pen and ink drawings."
These are for me deep waters, but since I have the aid of that kind supporting hand, perhaps I had better venture a little further before struggling to the safety of the bank again:
"The story of colour-printing at Bedminster is long, complex and technical, too long for detailed telling, but there is one landmark immediately after the first not to be omitted.
In 1919, as soon as the war was over, a fairly large 'photo-litho' plant was installed.
It has since been considerably extended and now includes other processes such as photogravure.
Bedminster was kept busy at 'half-tone' work in colour, applied to bags, and the photographs of various
premises, printed by the offset process, rose to greater glory which was reflected on the bags.
The process was further successfully applied to other colour reproductions such as calendars, labels and, later on, large posters.
The use of the photo-litho process made it possible to reproduce pictures more accurately than before in little more than half the colours used in 'hand-drawn'
"Now to descend from the very particular to the more general and go back to the beginning at Bedminster.
Colour-printing leaped forward at a great pace; not only in this country, but overseas, there was an ever increasing demand.
Within five years it had outgrown its new home. First of all two more floors had to be added to part of the building, and not long afterwards fresh land was acquired at its back and another new building of four floors put up.
This was not wholly due to colour-printing, since there had been another overflow from the Redcliffe Street headquarters.
A new department, that of the cardboard box, had become altogether too large a young cuckoo for the Redcliffe Street nest, and had been transferred to Bedminster, which in its turn had soon become inadequate to hold it.
To touch on boxes in any detail before bags may seem like putting the cart before the horse.
I am the more conscious of this since I have gained the impression that the directors of Robinsons have personal predilections and enthusiasms in the matter, some of them being devoted to the box and others to the bag.
If so I apologise to the bagmen, if I may so term them, and must plead that the box fits best at this point into the jig-saw of the story.
To-day in this "packaging" age we are familiar with all sorts of goods in cartons or boxes, fixed and folding, and incidentally the folding ones do so with an ingenuity and neatness astonishing to the ignorant eye, and so occupy in mass an astonishingly small space.
Till later in the nineteenth century, however, folding boxes were unknown until developed in the United States by Robert Gair, with whom and his successors Robinsons have had long and friendly relations. He had had a career not unlike that of Elisha Robinson, beginning as
a dealer in paper in a modest way and on slender capital.
By 1887 he was manufacturing various things made of paper, including paper bags, and it is a curious and rather ironical circumstance that this new rival, the box, was discovered from a defect in a particular consignment of bags.
A shipment of seed bags had been rejected because many of them were cut.
A printing rule working too high in the "forme" had caused these cuts, and the accidental mishap suggested a notion to Gair's mind.
If a press could, in one operation, crease and cut a paper bag, why should it not do the same to boards for folding cartons?
This notion proved practicable; the mass production of the carton was now possible, and the whole industry transformed.
This new department grew so steadily and so fast at Bedminster that in time it demanded a whole building to itself in the suburb of Fishponds; but that was not until a good deal later.
At the same time the fixed box business had greatly increased and had to be moved to a factory at St. Philip's.
Meanwhile the new building at Bedminster was yet again outgrown, and something in the nature of a surgical operation was decided on.
This was the adding of two new floors, not by taking off the roof, but by raising it bodily and, as it were, slipping in the new floors underneath.
It sounds like a miracle in the art of jacking. At zero hour a gong sounded, every man on the job pulled his lever over and the roof rose gently and slowly until there was room for the bricklayers to set to work. It was a lantern roof, moreover, with many hundred feet of glass, and not a foot, nor an inch of it, was broken.
THE THIRD GENERATION
That miracle was accomplished in 1902, and with the new century we come to another new generation of Robinsons, not by any means yet in control, for Edward Robinson remained chairman till 1929, but beginning to learn the business as their father and uncle had done before them.
In 1901 Mr. Foster Robinson, who is now the chairman, came from Oxford and began his business life.
Three years later came his younger brother, Harold, who had been working at engineering at McGill University in Canada. These two became
directors in 1910 and 1916 respectively, and later, after the first war, they were joined by a third brother, Colonel Percy Robinson, on finishing his career as a regular soldier.
At the end of his last term at Oxford a friend said to Mr. Foster Robinson,
"Are you going to bury your head in a paper bag for the rest of your life ? I'd rather be dead."
He was undeterred by this stifling prospect; he took a great interest in bags from the beginning and has been their very particular devotee ever since.
That being so, and since various developments of the paper bag business seem more or less to synchronise with his arrival in Redcliffe Street, now is perhaps the time to "bury our heads "in paper bags for a little space, if not too alarmingly deep.
We have seen how Elisha Robinson had in 1873 bought in America a patent for the then new satchel bag, which he declared would revolutionise the trade.
The bag-making business had very greatly developed between then and the beginning of the twentieth century, but even so there were in 1902 only seventeen bag-making machines, and four hundred workers were employed in making bags by hand.
In either case there was a double and laborious process; lithographic and letterpress machines printed sheets which were afterwards made by hand into bags, while certain machines were given over to printing on one side bags already made.
Clearly some new and simpler method would vastly expand the business; and Edward Robinson had long been convinced that it ought to be possible either to make bags from previously printed material or to print the bags "in the reel" on bag machines.
The method was eagerly sought for and many experiments made.
The actual discovery came not by accident but from a happy idea conceived on an accidental visit.
Mr. Benwell, then the manager of the bag-making department, chanced to see at the Hele Paper Mills Company, makers of the famous "Devon Valley" writing paper, and now a branch of Wiggins, Teape & Co., Ltd., a cutting machine in which the flow of paper was being regulated in a primitive way.
He dashed home like another Archimedes filled with
a notion for regulating the flow of paper already printed on a bag machine. The company's engineers joined in the game and soon the bag machine was turning out bags printed in colours on two sides, and that much cheaper than before.
At the same time it happened that some large manufacturers had conceived a happy thought of their own, namely to sell to their customers bags bearing advertisements of their goods at a reduced rate.
They sold the bags for less than they themselves paid for them, but for a trifling loss on each bag they gained a multiple advertisement that was not evanescent but enduring.
Here was a great notion; the bag-making machines were ready in the nick of time to take full advantage of it and a hundred million of these new bags were swallowed up in a few weeks.
The great packers of self-raising flour were next converted to the satchel bag, and then Mr. Foster Robinson thought the time ripe to introduce the new machine for "printing and
re-reeling" into the United States. A letter was written to a great New York business, the Union Bag Company, and the answer came by cable, "Come at once."
So taking Mr. Benwell with him Mr. Foster Robinson sailed for New York, not like his grandfather, to buy a patent, but to sell one.
On the day after his arrival he sent a cable home to Bristol. Whether it was worded
Veni, vidi, vici, I do not know, but it announced that the thing was done.
Nor was this, one of many voyages to America, without other fruits, in the shape of new
printing machines bought and the introduction in Bristol of loose-leaf account books and the card index system of filing.
Moreover, from the Union Company's plant at Hudson Falls came the inspiration for another new factory, that known by the name of Malago at Bedminster.
Fas est ab amico doceri.
This Malago factory, which was finished in 1912, was made of ferro-concrete, and electrically driven throughout; it consisted of four floors, each half an acre in extent, afterwards increased to five.
It has a flat roof to which it is pleasant to climb and survey a noble view of the city of Bristol and the Avon Gorge, while the noise and hum of the factory grow fainter beneath the feet.
The completion of the work was one of the notable landmarks in the history of Robinsons and had notable results. By 1930 it was
producing weekly twenty-five million bags, and swallowing up every month seven tons of flour in making paste.
Meanwhile the attempts to improve the methods employed had not stood still. The object to be attained was always, in work-a-day language, the boiling down of the two processes into one, the
printing of the web of paper on the actual bag-making machines. A continental patent was bought for printing from rubber plates with inks of which it was the very essence that they should dry quickly.
This process was steadily improved until it gave way to the present process which is known by the name "densatone."
As there were gradual changes in the processes so there were in the materials of which the bags were made. That which was ultimately to produce a revolutionary change was the introduction of cellophane and of the now familiar envelope having a little
cellophane "window." If a window envelope why not a window bag?
The notion was alluring, was dallied with for a while, and was then postponed on the ground of expense.
However, cellophane grew commoner and cheaper, and some sample bags were made having this window through which, if the metaphor is permissible, the buyer would get a glimpse of the pig inside his poke.
These samples were taken over by Mr. Foster Robinson to America and shown to Mr. Royal, of Philadelphia, with whom the Robinson company was by this time connected.
Ideas were compared and pooled and the window bags carried all before them, until they were in turn superseded by bags made wholly of cellophane. Strachan and Henshaw, an engineering business now one of the subsidiary
companies of Robinsons, had designed a machine for making paper bags without serration of thin paper, to run on cellophane.
Finally the "colodense" process for printing on cellophane was installed from America.
To-day the ignorant and wondering onlooker at Malago sees the cellophane go in at one end, pass through various valleys and climb over various hills of machinery, being sprinkled on its way with various coloured inks, and emerge at the other end a beautifully neat, shining, folded bag, bearing a complex legend in different colours as to its future contents.
To me all machinery is a marvel and a mystery: "it strikes an awe and terror of my aching sight;"
and after a while I am so stunned as almost to lose the power of wonder.
Yet as I gaze on the cellophane bag before me on the table as I write, literally "gleaming in purple and gold," with its elaborate inscription, and think it was made and adorned in front of my eyes, almost with the speed of thought and as one in an endless chain, I wonder whether it was not all a waking vision.
Nevertheless I am told that this is but a beginning, and there will inevitably be many more developments in the future of cellophane.
And before I went to see Malago I had had a hazy notion of a paper bag as the receptacle for a penny bun, which when blown up can be made to give an
agreeable pop! There are more things in paper bags than are dreamed of in most people's philosophy.
Before the bag had reached its present state of elaboration there had come into being the paper sack, and presently that must have its own little niche all to itself, particularly as its beginnings have a history at once romantic and amusing.
For the moment, however, the story must concern itself with a more general development.
This is the great expansion of the company's overseas business, which dates roughly from the beginning of this century.
Prosperity must always be a little prosaic as compared with struggle, and this
overseas business has now long since settled down to a prosperous
existence; but some of its beginnings on then comparatively unknown seas and untravelled continents have a flavour of the old merchant adventurers of Bristol.
It was in 1886 that the first seed was actually sown. This was by Mr. Griffiths, a representative of the firm who made a voyage for his health to Australia and New Zealand.
He insisted on making a busman's holiday of it, took his case of samples and returned bringing his sheaves of orders with him.
That was a good, but still only a small, beginning. Until late in the last century one man at Bristol, Mr. Moses Taylor, who had, moreover, other things to do, managed the overseas business single-handed.
It consisted chiefly in selling calendars and sugar bags to South Africa, and was done through agents in Cape Town and Durban. With the
present century was begun a more serious attack on South Africa.
In 1901 Mr. F.W. Tanner, then a young man of twenty, was sent there on a quest which was the more adventurous since the South African war was still going on, and he had to penetrate into sometimes
dangerous places in the discomfort of a Cape cart.
This had been thought of as no more than a trial trip, but having gone there for a few months he stayed six years. When he came home from South Africa to control the export department at Bristol he left behind him a firmly established and prosperous connection.
Until 1920 this business was managed by direct representatives of the company, but its steady increase together with certain tariff difficulties led to the setting up of a factory on South African soil and the formation of one of those subsidiary companies, E S & A Robinson (South Africa) Ltd., which make so marked a feature of the twentieth century story.
Early in 1921 a picked band of adventurers set sail from Bristol to Cape Town, and on the very day after they landed they began work in a
building in Commercial Street. Anybody who has, whatever the nature of his enterprise, been a stranger in a strange land faced by new and strange conditions, must sympathise with those pioneers.
However, they had the great help of Mr. Beard, who had been the company's representative, and despite inevitable difficulties they went straight ahead.
In 1921 there were twenty-one employees, and nine years later there were two hundred.
In 1927 a move was made to the present factory in Clare Street which has modern machinery for the making of all sorts of paper and paper bags, and in 1929 the bag machines were humming cheerfully to the tune of two hundred million bags a year.
Four years later came the multi-wall paper sack, to the story of which I shall arrive in a page or two, and this led to the forming of another subsidiary company, Paper Sacks (South Africa) Ltd., and the building of a factory at Port Elizabeth which had to be greatly enlarged in 1939.
The early success of the South African adventure and the memory of Mr. Griffiths' earlier journey made Australia the next objective.
In 1902 Mr. Taylor, son of the original export manager, set sail there, followed by Mr. Young to New Zealand a year later.
Both worked hard and did well, but in the end the tariff wall grew too high to be surmounted, and as far as direct representation was concerned
the company retired from these two Dominions. Before that, in 1903, Mr. Young had fallen ill in New Zealand, and from that apparent evil came good; for he came home experimentally by China, the Straits and India, and so well repaid was the experience that he was appointed to travel the far East and did so for seven successful years. Incidentally, one piece of work for China, as fascinating as it was difficult, was the reproducing, year after year, on a special calendar, of a beautiful old Chinese picture printed on silk.
A traveller, more especially in these distant climes, must, though not in point of pace, be like a snail, who carries his house and his household goods on his back.
Home, office and goods he takes with him, and this fact and the name of India serve to introduce a faithful friend of the company.
This is the late P. J. C. Solomon Sam, who was the bearer to several successive travellers, and came to regard himself as an indispensable member of the firm.
I must quote part of his charming letter of farewell, illuminated and
presented to one departing traveller: "From the day of your assuming office I had enjoyed from you good support and privilege which you did to me, not as a master would do to his servant, but as a father would do to his pet child. I have no space to enumerate all your amiable qualities of head and heart, and will only say that you have within you all the marvellous qualities of a perfect gentlemen.
Your noble quality at social circle, your competent ability at the office, your courtesy and kindness and a friendly attitude are really praiseworthy characteristics.
It will not be an exaggeration to say that your parents are really blessed couple to have beared such sweet fruit."
After the far Eastern enterprise came another, nearer home this time, to the Mediteranean by Kenyon Robinson, son of Arthur, who died too young.
This led to new names among the peaceful battle honours on the company's
colours---Gibraltar, Tangier, Malta, Alexandria, Cairo, and later again were added Palestine, Basra, Kenya and the West Indies.
In 1912 there was the beginning of an "awfully big adventure" when Mr. Pinkham on the company's behalf invaded Canada.
The story follows much the same lines as that of South Africa.
There was a period, in this case of twenty years, of increasing business and direct representation, and then came the
determination to open a factory in Canada itself. Again a new subsidiary company, E S & A Robinson (Canada) Ltd., was founded, and in 1932 it began its career at Dupont Street in Toronto, making chiefly, in its early years, multi-coloured printed paper bags for tea, coffee and cocoa and dry cereals, besides bags of special types, waxed paper bags in different forms, and various colour-printing.
I wish I could in some way vary the story, but truth is great, and it seems here again to follow the same steady, and to the poor historian almost monotonously successful, lines; beginning with the usual band of brothers sent out from Bristol and ending with its travellers on their rounds from Vancouver in British Columbia to Halifax in Nova Scotia.
There was the usual outgrowing process, so that within six years further premises were needed and acquired in
Pelham Avenue. King Street and Bathurst Street helped to appease the cry for space and more space, but in 1940 it was necessary to consolidate all these bits and pieces in one factory.
Once more a big building scheme was embarked on and the new factory built at Leaside, north of Toronto.
This is a truly imposing building, three storeys high, with a frontage of just short of a hundred yards and a depth of four hundred and fifty-two feet, with its own railway siding and its own research laboratory, and even so it is in process of being doubled.
Since this factory came into being during the war its energies were naturally diverted in many ways towards the war effort, as, for instance, the various paper wrappers and bags needed for emergency rations.
Already there have been several new departures, and departments, such as the "paraflim" coating for the covering of paper and cellophane.
The new company is but ten years old, and of those ten, half have been war years, but already it can hold its head high among the paper businesses of the Dominion.
The voyage to the United States of Elisha Robinson in the 'seventies, and of his grandson thirty years later, have already been mentioned, and the company has had so many relationships there, both friendly and important, that it is impossible to enumerate them.
Two in particular will appear separately: one in the account of Thomas Royal & Co., of Philadelphia, now an associated company, and the other in the story of paper sacks and the exciting Mr. Bates of Chicago,
who made his first famous valve out of the tail of his shirt. Perhaps having thus whetted the reader's appetite I had better try to tell that story now.
Mr. Bates was a commercial traveller who had a natural gift for selling anything. Towards the end of the nineteenth century he was directing his abilities in particular to salt. His cards were
playfully inscribed " Adelmer M. Bates, Saltcellar, Chicago," and he was soon selling it faster than his firm could pack it.
There were three separate processes involved: first you must catch your bag, then you must fill it, and then you must close it up.
Mr. Bates thought that if the bag could be closed first and filled afterwards much time would be saved, but this was deemed altogether too self-evident a proposition and was received with ribald merriment.
And then Mr. Bates had a dream. He dreamed of a sack that should have a valve in one corner, leaped out of bed, seized his shirt, and with the help of the pins on his wife's dressing table made the first Bates valve.
There is at least this confirmation of the story that he was called " Shirt-tail Bates" to the day of his death.
To make a sack of jute or cotton having a valve was one thing; to fill it was quite another, but he was not a man to be easily beaten; he gave up his safe and profitable job and devoted himself, his own small capital, and such money as he could borrow, to building and developing a filling machine.
Then came bitter disappointment. Both sack and machine were excellent in their way; they had only one defect: they could not pack salt.
Again Mr. Bates remained undefeated. Salt could not be packed but cement could.
The great Chams of cement in America were persuaded, and by 1906 the Bates cement packer with sacks made of fabric was an established success.
In 1908 the single-wall paper sack with a valve was introduced, but not for another sixteen years did it oust its fabric rival, and this is the point in the story where Robinsons come in.
Mr. Foster Robinson met Mr. Bates and convinced him that a multi-wall sack of kraft paper was stronger than single-wall sacks. A four-ply
kraft sack was made and Mr. Robinson accompanied Mr. Bates when he interviewed the Lehigh Portland Cement Company and got from them the first order for the paper sacks of to-day.
A licence to use the patent in this country was given to Robinsons; Paper Sacks Ltd., one of the most important of their subsidiary
companies already mentioned, was formed, and the first English paper sack factory was opened in Bristol.
Here again for a while it was one thing to make a sack and another thing to make people use it.
The cement trade was inclined to be sceptical, but fortunately the chairman of the Associated Portland Cement Manufacturers, Sir Malcolm Stewart, Bart., agreed to adopt paper sacks if his customers wanted them.
Then followed what may be described as two test matches.
A Bristol merchant agreed to receive a consignment of cement in sacks, but the stevedores on no discoverable evidence said that the sacks cut their hands and declined to unload it. Then came one of those odd little pieces of luck which can turn the fortunes of the day. The manager of Paper Sacks Ltd. recognised among the recalcitrants two men who had served under him in the war.
This was a bond; the two became more amenable and persuaded their fellows, and the sacks were duly unloaded.
That was an impromptu match, but the second was a formal one.
The same merchant received a consignment, half packed in one-cwt. paper sacks and half in two-cwt. jute sacks. The stevedores were divided into two teams and under the spur of competition set to work.
At half time the paper sack team were ahead both of their rivals and their own timetable, and the defeated party took this so ill that they vowed to strike if they didn't have the paper sacks in the second half.
Some little time after this triumph, the paper sack company took over a new site at Keynsham, as pretty and peaceful a spot as one could wish to see, where a very old brass mill looks down on a
pool of water shaded by trees, and there is the constant splashing of a weir.
In 1930 the Keynsham factory was given over to another purpose and the paper sack business moved to that home of cement,
Northfleet. Later two more factories came into being, one at the Fife Paper Mills at Markinch and one previously referred to in Port Elizabeth in South Africa.
These successes could not of course be achieved without arousing competition; there were various lawsuits on
account of infringements of patents, all of which were satisfactorily settled.
By 1932 the validity of the original patent was fully established. Some years later came a sack which was definitely English in origin, the "staggered-end" sack, which for cement and lime is the nearest in approach to perfection yet reached.
And now what besides cement is packed in paper sacks?
The answer seems to be, in a general way, almost anything.
Among the earlier passengers were bunches of bananas, a hole being punched in the bottom of the sack through which the stalk coyly appeared, while other holes in the side gave the fruit ventilation on the voyage.
Later, in 1933, the sacks enlarged their scope to carry mattresses, those capable of holding a four-foot-six-inch spring interior mattress being probably the largest made on a commercial scale.
Yet these paled their ineffectual fires before the sack made on a special order to hold a grand piano. Any lover of
The Wrong Box, and I have already proclaimed myself an inveterate and impenitent one, must instantly wonder whether there was a body inside the piano.
It is not such a wild speculation as might appear, for a paper sack has undoubtedly been an exhibit in a murder trial, and others are said to have served as coffins in China.
They have been used for the transporting of gold quartz, and for something still more valuable, pitch-blende, from which radium is obtained.
This is mined in Northern Canada and carried hundreds of miles in its paper sacks by aeroplane to the refineries.
Another cargo, for which at times men would willingly exchange all the gold and radium in the world, has been packed in paper sacks.
This is the fond dream of the thirsty man, bottled beer.
Had I the pen of a Macaulay I would describe it in a gorgeous purple patch, millions of bottles of it, travelling in sacks across the mountains of Kenya and the parched plains of Australia, and even across unnumbered miles of ocean from Australia to England.
Special sacks, specially treated so that they shall not burst into flames, have had bitumen poured into them at a temperature of four hundred degrees fahrenheit.
Others by contrast have borne peeled potatoes floating in water and fresh fruit embedded in ice.
Carcases of frozen lamb,
motor tyres, carpets, soot and face powder, saucepans and umbrellas - the catalogue is as various as it is unending.
It would not be fair or true to say that the paper sack has put the nose of the paper bag out of joint, for each has its separate uses and idiosyncrasies, but it has enormously extended the bagman's kingdom.
There is another comparatively recent innovation, that of waxed paper, which must have a little bit of the general story to itself. Waxed paper may sound superficially dull, but it is connected with a number of good things to eat, and to the eating of them in comfort and cleanliness.
In these days of the monthly sweet ration nearly everybody has at some time expended a part of it on something delicious but sticky, and carried it home in triumph in any piece of paper that the shop would condescend to provide.
He has likewise found that after a short time it has stuck firmly together in a glutinous and coagulated mass from which he has with extreme difficulty broken off a fragment, and then found that all the "multitudinous seas" would scarcely wash the stickiness from his hands.
That is the black side of the picture, but let him on the other hand recall toffee or butterscotch or the succulent caramel, each piece wrapped in its own little covering, the peeling of which has at once added to the pleasures of anticipation and left his fingers miraculously clean.
That little lump of delight has been wrapped in waxed paper so that it could be devoured comfortably, decently, and without a furtive licking of the fingers.
I give that as an example that may appeal to all, but waxed paper makes for cleanliness in the handling and transporting of food and other things in all sorts of ways.
Both loaves and biscuits wrapped in it, to give but two instances, have been now for a good many years familiar.
Robinsons began to turn their attention to it in 1924, and now there is yet another subsidiary company devoted to it, the Robinson Waxed Paper Co. Ltd.
First of all there was a department at the Malago factory with the first waxing machine brought from the United States. Then four-colour rotary presses were
installed, and the now popular process called "Gossamer" which prints a white
"lace" background to the design, was inaugurated.
After this came another process, the usual one of outgrowing the original home, which has become almost a commonplace in this narration.
In 1929 the waxed paper department was moved to a fine new factory at Fishponds, and that factory has had in due
course - again it is a familiar story - to be enlarged.
From it waxed wrapping paper has gone forth to the ends of the earth: to New Zealand, Malaya, China, India, Ceylon, the West Indies, Egypt, Palestine, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden.
Its highest achievement, at least in a literal sense, has been to provide wrappers for the gingerbread taken on the last Mount Everest Expedition.
I cannot help reflecting that I have still a boyish love for a gingerbread that has grown soft and fluffy through staying forgotten for some days in a pocket, but no doubt in the long run waxed paper is best. Incidentally, there is close by this Fishponds factory a working-class suburb carefully planned and laid out in pleasant surroundings and with plenty of gardens and open spaces.
Here live many of those who work in the factory, and factory and suburb together make as good an
example as need be of modern working conditions such as would have astonished both masters and men of an earlier age.
IN WAR TIME
So far this story has been allowed to glide along more or less at its own sweet will in one uninterrupted flow, but there have, of course, been two great interruptions, the major tragedies of the two wars, bringing with them many minor tragedies to Robinsons, as to everyone else.
So something ought to be said, however briefly, about the business and its employees in war time.
The difficulties of carrying on, though overcome with great success, were numerous and obvious.
The fateful 4th August, 1914, not only saw a number of reservists in the company's employ called to the colours, but a rush to enlist among the younger members of the staff.
Apart from a considerable number, largely girls, who worked at munitions, eight hundred and nine in all joined the forces, and the War Memorial in Redcliffe Street attests the fact that ninety of them did not come back.
Among those killed were two members of the Robinson family, Claude and Eric. It is a touching little coincidence that Eric Robinson was found mortally wounded in a shell hole by two employees of the
company then serving as stretcher bearers, and that he had just strength to murmur "Come on, Robinsons."
The gaps left by those serving were filled up to a great extent by girls, and one lady took her husband's place as traveller and kept his "ground" covered for him till he came home again.
Particularly in the second world war we have grown used to women doing almost every and any male job, and doing it very well, but this instance remains unique in the company's annals.
The company saw to it that the dependents of those on service should be well looked after in their absence, while a house magazine, then founded for the first time, brought welcome Bristol news to those overseas or vice versa.
Each factory had its war savings association and, by the way, in the war savings movement our old friend the paper bag played a not undistinguished part.
War savings advertisements were printed on it, and by 1918 a hundred million
of these bags, rubbing in a patriotic duty, had been issued by the company.
An allotment holders' association dug vigorously for victory, though that motto had not yet been invented, and, in a word, Robinsons did their best and their full share.
That war seems now a long way off, and has been overshadowed by the instancy of its still more tremendous successor.
The story of the second world war is, as regards the departures to join the forces, with all the inevitable sequels, much the same as that of the first, though the numbers involved are greater by reason of the increase of the business. From the parent company and its various subsidiaries fifteen hundred men and two hundred women have joined the forces; further, large numbers have been transferred to munitions and some of the girls have joined the Women's Land Army.
Moreover the company itself has transferred many of its energies to government work, from maps and petrol tanks made of paper to
aircraft wings, sparking plugs, bullet-fitting machines and gun carriages.
Meanwhile there is one great difference between this occasion and the last, in that Bristol, and Robinsons with it, now took their place in the front line, and had the horrors of air warfare brought home to them to the full on their own doorsteps.
That Bristol suffered cruelly is common knowledge, though only those who have seen, however superficially, the empty skeletons and shells of houses still standing, and the yawning gaps where even they have vanished, can begin to appreciate what they had read of it. Robinsons suffered with the rest, suffered indeed one very severe though not a crushing blow.
Yet when it is considered how many hostages they had given to fortune in the shape of their factories in different parts of Bristol it may now be said, and in a good hour be it spoken, that there is cause for thankfulness.
It may be added, and with a just pride, that Robinsons rose to the occasion.
From June 1940 onwards the siren had been a familiar sound in Bristol, and there had been an occasional bomb, but it was not till a Sunday night, the 24th November, that the real blow fell, in a perfectly indiscriminate air raid on the city which lasted six hours.
To Robinsons it was a double blow. Very little high explosive fell on the main
office in Redcliffe Street, but a number of incendiary
bombs did, and the fact that the water main burst made it impossible to stop the fire from spreading. At the same time, the box factory at St. Philip's, not long since improved and expanded, was to all intents and purposes burnt out.
Thirty years before, in 1903, there had been a disastrous fire In Redcliffe Street, and everyone had turned to with a will to make the best of it.
So it was now. So fierce were the flames that it was not until the Tuesday that it was possible to approach the building. Then, though there were fires still unextinguished, the work of salvage began.
From that moment it went on steadily, and by Wednesday in the following week, ten days after the raid, the boilers had been lit up, and a bag machine in the basement, which could be seen from the street, was once more running, an outward and visible sign of the indomitable spirit of Bristol.
Much of value had been lost, but the dislocation of business, great as it was, was infinitely less than it might have been owing to the safety of the book room. Offices were found here, there and everywhere through the kindness and helpfulness of other people, in the Baptist College and in an old house in Berkeley Square, once the palace of the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, at Clifton.
The Bedminster works made room for other departments.
In one way or another the show went on. The dome and the top storeys were condemned as unsafe and the famous tower was partly taken down; of the original hundred and twenty thousand square feet of floor space some thirty-five thousand were gone, but the second floor survived, and a flat roof was in course of time built over it.
Masses of debris had to be moved, and the work must needs be interrupted because the men to move them were wanted in many other places in Bristol, but by March, the first of the exiled departments returned home, and by October, eleven months after the raid, the offices were again in full swing.
There were, as all the world knows, many other raids on Bristol, and with them many hours of intense anxiety, but every conceivable precaution in the form of roof-spotting and fire-fighting was taken, and though there was many a near thing there was no more calamity. In January 1941 incendiaries showered down on the Bedminster factory but they were quickly put out, and one huge bomb which made
the factory rock did no more than pitch eight tons of debris fifty feet up on to the roof of the artists' department.
Another six-hour raid on the night of Good Friday saw incendiaries fall on various of the factories, again to be put out.
Other people's bombs are dull things, though our own are so strangely interesting, and this part of the story has been compressed accordingly; but it would have been impossible to say less without doing injustice to the grit and sticking power which carried on and recovered, a power exhibited, not by one firm or one city alone, but by the whole country.
There is one most interesting contribution made by Robinsons to the war effort which merits a special word, namely, the development of the "aircraft template reproduction process."
Here is something which would be absurd for me to try to explain and so, as on a
previous occasion, I have prayed in aid one who knows all there is to know about it, and has had a very great deal to do with it. This is what he says :
"In the manufacture of aircraft it is necessary to have steel templates for most of the metal parts which go to make up aircraft components, but owing to the methods employed throughout the industry when the war started, we had great difficulty in
obtaining accurate templates. At that time each template had to be laboriously marked out by hand from scale drawings, or from master lay-outs on ply-wood.
In our peacetime printing we employ the most up-to-date photographic projection and reproduction processes, but because great accuracy to fine limits was required in aircraft engineering, we were not satisfied that photographic methods were reliable
enough. After a lot of hard thinking we evolved an entirely new method of preparing full-scale lay-outs on eight feet by four feet flat aluminium sheets from which prints could be pulled by a modified lithographic process direct on to all types and thicknesses of tool, jig and template metal.
"In the American aircraft production journals there was considerable space given to illustrate the uses of expensive equipment and photographic reproduction methods, but because of our previous experience with photography and projection, we felt convinced that a direct lithographic printing method could be evolved, which would be far superior to any known methods of reproduction used in
America. A special mission of British aircraft engineers proceeded to America to study the methods of American aircraft firms.
It returned with the good news that the majority there agreed that our method was simpler, cheaper and more accurate.
We were eventually successful in convincing practically the whole of the British aircraft industry that our process of reproduction was superior to any of the other methods employed. To-day eighty per cent of the main aircraft firms in Great Britain are using our process which is saving hundreds of thousands of man hours throughout the aircraft trade. In a letter received from Sir Stafford Cripps, then Minister of Aircraft Production, after he had inspected our process, he stated, 'I was particularly struck by the litho-lofting work which has done and is doing so much to help our aircraft constructors both in quantity and quality.'
THE SUBSIDIARY COMPANIES
THE present century has seen one movement which even the least businesslike, and I must class myself in their ranks, cannot have
failed to observe, namely, the movement towards bigger and bigger businesses.
It is easy to think of great concerns that have absorbed many others and so have struck into new lines of country.
Everybody has heard at times that A and B and C are in fact, if not in name, X or Y.
The "Big Five" banks provide one obvious example of this swallowing process, and it is not hard to see, if only with the eye of ignorance, that this concentration into one central body makes for greater power of enterprise and for greater flexibility, if it may so be described, in the rushing of reserves to that point in the field where they are at the moment most needed. This is, however, a subject for economists, and certainly not for me who have no such pretensions.
It must be enough to indicate this general trend which has shown itself in a notable degree in the business of Robinsons.
There have already been told the stories of some of their subsidiary companies, such as those which have grown up overseas, and now something must be said about a considerable number of others, not so much branches from the parent tree as smaller trees of various kinds that have been grafted on to it, and grown into bigger ones in the process, so that together they make a compact and flourishing wood.
Before taking them in order however, there is one feature of the business which these absorptions have made more than ever necessary, namely, a London office, It had loomed in the distance as an ever more urgent necessity for some time before 1912, when it actually took a then modest shape at Norwich House, Southampton Street, Holborn. Beginning with a total staff of eight it proved more and more valuable as a meeting place for the widely scattered representatives of the company, and, as it were, an exchange for ideas. Its early career was overshadowed by the first world war, but it never
ceased to be, and as soon as the war was over it very rapidly expanded.
In 1933 its lines of communication with Bristol were improve by the installing of the teleprinter, and at the end of that year it
move to Victoria House on the island site with Southampton Row on the east, Bloomsbury Square on the west, and the British Museum as near and highly respectable neighbour.
Here also are today London offices of four of those subsidiary
companies now to be briefly described.
STRACHAN & HENSHAW LTD.
Let us begin, not quite in the strictest chronological order, with the engineering business of Strachan & Henshaw which became one of the Robinson subsidiary companies in 1920.
It represented an interesting new departure for the company. Moreover, it was a pleasant return to the Robinson fold of those who had originally been numbered in it.
Mr. Strachan and Mr. Henshaw had originally been apprentices at Messrs. Hodges, the builders of the satchel-bag machines for Robinsons, and having served their time they decided to strike out for themselves as engineers.
Naturally they had learnt much of Robinsons' needs, especially in paper-bag machinery, and from the beginning they did a good deal of work for the company; their chief interest was in machines connected with printing and paper, but they also acquired a good name as general engineers and millwrights.
Those beginnings were made in a small way at Long Row, off Victoria Street, in some old converted houses, and the fit was so tight that after a big bag-making machine had been assembled there was no room to pack it, and the packing had to be done in a railway receiving
office, close at hand. Part of it was a cast iron fly-wheel some six feet in diameter, and this was solemnly trundled across a main Street to the admiration, doubtless, but also perhaps to the irritation, of the passers-by, since all the traffic had to be held up.
The old cry for space arose, and there was a move to Lewin's Mead.
With room to turn round, the firm soon became known as one of the chief makers of paper bag-making machinery with customers abroad and in the Dominions.
They also developed a "rotary- stereo" machine for the printing of bags in the making.
At the same time, since Bristol was one of the first cities in England to have
electric tramcars, Strachan & Henshaw became interested in electric traction, and supplied the overhead equipment for tramways as far afield as Bahia, in South America. More new premises meant the striking out in more new
lines - goods hoists, speed reduction gears and water pumps, and then in the first world war came a turn over to war work, in particular the designing and making of mechanical targets for aerial gunners. The original mainstay of the business, in the shape of bag-making machinery, had never been forgotten.
When the war was over, and Robinsons could freely develop once more, it became more important than ever, and there seemed a particularly good opportunity for what Mr. Bumble would have called "the jining of hearts and housekeepings."
One party knew all about paper bags, the other knew all about the machines for making them, and in 1920 Strachan & Henshaw Ltd. (it bad been a limited company since
1900) became a subsidiary company of Robinsons, and the union led to rapid developments; machines had been printing a little over three hundred completed bags a minute and now they touched the thousand.
The "multi-transferring" machine for the making of lithographic printing machine plates
likewise came into being through the fusion of resources and ideas.
In other directions much of the company's work has been the making of "handling" plants, and here are two records which in point of speed are calculated to take the ordinary person's breath away.
The "railway wagon tipper" can take a wagon and its contents, weighing in all thirty tons, turn the wagon down, empty it and return it to its normal position in twenty-eight seconds.
Another plant, electrically driven, and made for South Africa, took and loaded a wagon weighing eighty-eight tons, lifted it thirty-five feet, deposited the contents in storage hoppers, and returned the wagon for removal along the railway track in a hundred and twenty seconds.
Which is the more remarkable record I must leave to other people to determine.
OTTERY ST. MARY BAG & PAPER CO. LTD.
Now back again to paper bags. Three years before Strachan and Henshaw had been taken over, Robinsons had acquired control of a business in Devon.
All those who, like me, have an affection for Pendennis have one also for Ottery St. Mary because it is
generally supposed to be the village of Clavering in the book, even as Exeter is the cathedral city of Chatteris.
In fact, however, this Ottery paper mill makes Thackeray seem modern enough, for the manor of Ottery together with its mill was given to the chapter of St. Mary of Rouen by Edward the Confessor, and the "leat"
providing the water power is believed to have been dug before the battle of Hastings.
The factory is of more than respectable age, for the first stone was laid in 1788.
First it made serge for the East India Company and then until 1885 it made silk.
After an interregnum it was reopened with an odd mixture of businesses such as would have pleased that versatile old gentleman of the Forest of Dean who was Elisha Robinson's great-grandfather.
Printers, stationers, chemists, bottle-agents and electricians -
all these trades were carried on there until 1917 when Robinsons bought the factory, and turned it over to the making of paper bags.
It prospered exceedingly till the war necessitated its temporary closing.
FIFE PAPER MILLS LTD.
Next a brief excursion over the Scottish border to the Balbirnie Mill at Markinch and the
Millfield Mill at Leven. Balbirnie, now nearly a hundred and twenty years old, was taken over by Messrs. Grosset and Dixon in 1864 as a paper mill.
Their business increased steadily, and in the 'eighties they installed the first bag-machine.
In 1920, the business was acquired from J. & W. Dixon by Robinsons, who made it the centre of supply for Scotland both of paper bags and multi-wall paper sacks.
Millfield had come into existence about 1879 when Mr. Grosset dissolved partnership at Balbirnie and built the new mill on the site of old flax spinning works at Leven. Both paper and paper bags were made there, but since Robinsons took it over in 1918 it has made chiefly envelope, manilla, and bag machine-glazed papers.
JOHN LAIRD & SON LTD., GLASGOW
Still keeping to Scotland and in the same year of 1918 in which
Millfield was bought, but crossing from the east to the west we come to John
Laird & Son, a firm of paper and paper-bag makers and letter- press printers established in Glasgow in 1874.
Long before 1918
Robinsons had been doing business, and quite good business, in Scotland, but it had become clear, as in the case of the overseas factories, that it would be made much better still by manufacturing on the spot.
Mr. Nigel Laird and Mr. Foster Robinson had often met at meetings of the Paper Bag Association, and this friendly connection led to Robinsons buying Lairds.
At once larger premises were wanted and a factory in David Street was bought accordingly.
At the same time, as a starting point for a folding box department, the Albion Folding Box Company was taken over, and Mr. Robert Patrick from that company joined the board.
A waxed paper department was added, and then in 1912, just as the eternal cry for more space was again arising, Providence forced the company's hands; the factory caught fire and much of the plant was destroyed.
So the present premises, one very large building and one smaller one, in Carstairs Street, were bought, and for once in a way, though only for a little while, there seemed more space than was needed. This exceptional state of
things - I have never had to refer to it before - was soon put to rights.
A few years earlier, in 1925, Robinsons bad taken over the well-known Edinburgh colour-printing business of Dobson Molle Ltd.,
and now was the time for moving it to the Glasgow buildings.
These two Scottish businesses of Lairds and Dobson Molle were fused
accordingly, and by the transfer from Edinburgh of the litho and letter-press printing plant there was developed a flourishing trade in labels, show-cards and multi-coloured cartons.
As waxed paper for wrapping bread was going full steam ahead there was no further problem of filling Carstairs Street, and in fact just before 1939 more premises in Swanston Street reinforced it. When the war came not long
afterwards some of the factory space and a number of the men and women employed there were turned over to the production of munitions.
THOMAS M. ROYAL & CO., PHILADELPHIA, U.S.A.
Now from Glasgow across the Atlantic to the business of Thomas M. Royal & Co., of Philadelphia, with which Robinsons became associated in 1923.
It was founded in 1895 by Mr. Royal, who has
directed and inspired it from that day to this.
America drinks not tea but coffee, and coffee bags have been the main prop and stay, though by no means the only one, of this business.
And the American coffee bag is a bag. It is elaborately printed in three or four colours, and gold plays a prominent part in its decoration, a fact calculated to arouse romantic yearnings in the breast of those who had in youth gold paint in their paint boxes. There is nothing quite like it here, and in America itself Royal's bags excite envy and admiration among their competitors.
Not only are they glorious without, but within also, being lined
with "glassine" or grease-proof paper which helps to keep the coffee's fragrance.
From this has developed the "Flay- 0-Tamer" bag, now generally accepted as the best bag for coffee.
The company has branch offices scattered all over the continent at New York, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Fort Worth, St. Louis and Philadelphia; and the traveller for the company who makes a circular tour of them all proves himself worthy of his name, for it takes him eight solid weeks travelling. The two businesses, Robinsons and Royals, have been ever the best of friends, as witness this cable from Mr. Royal:
"We congratulate you on your one hundredth anniversary and invite you to our fiftieth in 1945."
NEW MERTON BOARD MILLS LTD.
Next in order of date come the New Merton Mills, in which Robinsons had a substantial interest from 1926, and acquired all the ordinary shares in 1929, when Mr. Foster Robinson became chairman.
Though the Mills are now called "New" this title casts a slur on the antiquity of Merton.
There were mills there from time immemorial, and the river Wandle might almost be called with the Thames "liquid history."
It is named in Domesday Book as providing power for the King's flour mills.
In 1376 the first fullers, and in 1500 the first printers on calico and silk, came from abroad to use "the clear waters of the Wandle, which abounded in trout and other fish,"
a eulogy to-day, alas, scarcely justified. In the eighteenth century there was a copper mill on the site of the present mill, with a great hammer worked by a water wheel. A curious little piece of history
records further that the men who worked there "wore a hat of peculiar shape which they made themselves," and it is extremely doubtful if anyone now living possesses the secret.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century Nelson was occasionally at Merton, since Lady Hamilton bought for him the estate of Merton Park.
There were still trout in the Wandle then, and the Dorking coach, calling at Merton, used to prolong its stay while passengers tried to catch one.
A hundred years or so later there was a paper mill on the site of the old mill, and when this was burned down in 1895 a new one was built which underwent various changes of
ownership until the New Merton Board Mills Company was formed.
It was altered and extended and a new "fibre-board container" factory built hard by, to which staff and plant came from the St. Philip's factory at Bristol.
There followed in 1937 yet one more new building in Priory Road, and this was planned to accommodate another subsidiary company, R. L. Shirley & Co., Ltd.
This firm were letter-press and lithographic printers and specialists in folding boxes and window displays.
In particular they made certain "outer" boxes as they are called, which not merely contained goods but acted as a show-card for them as well, and earned the seductive title of" Shirley's Silent Salesmen."
Still later the box-making firm of Warbey & Co. made yet another subsidiary company.
In 1942, under the "concentration of industry" scheme, Shirleys, whose board was joined by Mr. A. E. H. Warbey, undertook the making of Warbey's goods and both were housed under the comprehensive roof at Merton.
Even this is not all the story of Merton, for there must be added to it what will, it is hoped, be the happy ending of quite another and very famous story.
Near the Merton mill there stood the works of Morris & Co., and Morris & Co. was William Morris, poet, artist and craftsman.
Here Morris's own designs were hand-printed, here Burne Jones's were translated into stained glass.
In the end, after Morris's death, the battle gradually became a losing one, and finally, in 1940, a bomb shattered at once the business's home and its struggling hopes.
The New Merton Mills then bought the ground, and some day it is hoped that the fine tradition which was nurtured there may be revived under these new auspices.
KENT KRAFT MILLS LTD.
The name of Northfleet suggests to most people two things, cement and paper.
Here was built the first wood pulp mill in this country, on a site where had once been built some of the ships which helped to overthrow the Spanish Armada.
This was in 1882, and the builder was a Swede, Carl Ekman, the pioneer of the suiphite pulp industry.
Kraft paper has already been mentioned in connection with paper sacks, and to-day the mills of the two companies stand on this Northfleet site.
It was in 1928 that two explorers from Robinsons, Mr. W. N. H. Orr and Mr. W. E. Grosset, started for America to study the whole question of kraft, and on their return the mill was built.
In 1928 the hundred and eighty-inch paper machine was installed and in 1930 production started.
At first the bulk of the paper was sent to Keynsham, then the home of paper sacks, but in the following year, as has before been said, paper sacks came to Northfleet to the obvious advantage of both companies.
KEYNSHAM PAPER MILLS LTD.
Keynsham has already come twice into the story, but only
incidentally. It has emphatically, however, a story of its own.
It was in 1927 that Robinsons first came to this pleasant spot, halfway between Bristol and Bath, which plays its part in the original legend of Prince Bladud.
The old brass mills there were the very oldest in the country, and still stand looking across the water in a picturesque retirement after their long career.
In 1932 Robinsons built a paper mill on what is as near as may be a perfect site, close to Bristol docks, close to the railway, with unlimited water power at hand and in the midst of the Somerset coalfield.
HADDOCK & BAINES LTD. and T. G. GARROD LTD.
We must now break fresh ground and go to East Anglia to the ancient town of Ipswich for another subsidiary company bearing the united name of Haddock & Baines and T. G. Garrod.
Mr. Haddock and Mr. Baines began quietly as paper bag makers in
1905, the two partners travelling through Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and
Bedfordshire. A second Mr. Baines joined the firm; Lincolnshire was added to its territory, and in 1920 the business became a limited company.
In 1926 our old friends Strachan & Henshaw put up the first bag-making machines, and the connection with Bristol thus begun, ended four years later with the company becoming yet one more subsidiary of Robinsons with more bag-making machines and a general expansion of trade.
Two years later T. G. Garrod Ltd., who had done all the letterpress for Haddock & Baines, likewise joined the family party.
And here is an odd little example of the game of "consequences."
The premises next door caught fire, and Mr. Baines fearing for his office cat went to look for it.
He found the cat and he also found that his own top floor was alight.
It was not too late - the cat had saved its own home but not its neighbours'.
The company thereupon bought up the next door site, and on it was built a fine printing works and factory, in which not only the business of Garrods' but a plant for making collapsible boxes was also housed.
Since then there have been developments in the shape of other kinds of boxes and colour-printing.
The cat will not, I suppose, be given credit for it all, but there are some people who throw doubts even on Dick Whittington's cat.
ARTHUR SPERRING LTD. and ROWLAND COLES LTD.
Finally we go back to the west again for what is, perhaps only temporarily, the end of the subsidiary companies' story.
Arthur Sperring Ltd. is a building business and their subsidiary company Rowland Coles Ltd. (here, as Mr. Weller would say, are "wheels within wheels")
deal more especially in joinery and woodwork. Both businesses are at Peasedown St. John, near Bath, and have done much work for the Somerset County Council.
This was something in the nature of a new line for Robinsons, who bought both businesses in 1941, but it was a most appropriate time, as their services were very valuable when Bristol in general, and Strachan & Henshaw in particular, had suffered so severely from air raids, and there was more work to do than workmen to do it.
Moreover, part of the rigid box department, which had been bombed out, found a temporary and more peaceful home at Peasedown.
TIMES have changed since we saw Elisha Robinson walking round the warehouse on a Christmas
Eve, giving little presents, wishing merry Christmases, and telling his men not to miss their train home.
He set an example of kindness and thoughtfulness to employees and interest in their doings which his successors have always followed; but since his day, and with the constant growth of great businesses, the whole conception of the duties of masters towards men has altered, and the idea of what is generally called welfare work has come into being.
The appointment during this war of welfare officers to the troops and the constant appeal for books and games, to give but two examples, are eloquent signs of the times.
The relationship between employer and employed now places on the one the obligation of looking after the other, not only in his working but in his leisure hours, of taking an interest in his pursuits, his amusements and his health. Neither is this duty a purely altruistic one, for it is a commonplace that the better, fuller and more
contented the life of the workman, the better will be his work.
Apart from a general and friendly interest in their employees which has never been lacking, welfare work specifically so called began in Robinsons in 1912 with the provision of a rest room for the girls and a matron to look after them.
A year before that girls who were convalescent after illness had been able to go to the Arthur Robinson Cottage Home, near Henbury, which, to make a long jump forward to 1941,
is now reinforced by a pleasant house and garden in the village of Congresbury.
There girls also had the part-time services of a lady doctor, and her advice only became unnecessary when all young persons were insured on going into industry at the age of
fourteen, and so had their own panel doctors. A second matron soon came to the aid of the first, and in this same year 91 2, the first canteen was opened at the Malago factory, to be followed as a matter of
course by other canteens as other factories arose. Then came drilling classes for those who liked them, and presently the dining room at Malago broke out into ropes and rings and ladders.
After that came a class for country dances, and generally speaking there were more and more evening entertainments to occupy the girls' leisure.
All these things were popular, but it is natural that people should not want to spend all their time, however amusingly, in the shop, but should like to go outside.
Two movements which have enabled them usefully to do so are those of social clubs and municipal evening classes, and the company has long since been paying the fees of those who regularly attend evening classes under the Board of Education.
In the matter of outdoor amusements, hockey and lawn tennis have now for some time been flourishing, but I shall come to them in a moment: so let us leave the girls and turn to the men.
Welfare work among the men and boys began some eight years later, in 1920, with the appointment of a welfare officer, and that his office is no sinecure is shown by the fact that in one recent year he visited nearly six hundred sick men in their own homes, besides those in hospital.
But the most interesting thing about the welfare work is that it is not managed from cold Olympian heights above, but to a great extent by the men themselves.
In each factory there is a committee, presided over by the manager, which discusses a very wide range of subjects connected with the factory's concerns.
Another body drawn from all sources, with a director as chairman, and called the "Temporary Help Committee,"
deals with all cases of hardship through sickness.
Intimately connected with the subject of welfare is that of the Athletic Club and its various branches. This was not actually founded until 1912, but long before that there had been organised games among the company's employees.
The earliest of these was cricket, which goes back to 1 891, before the company as such existed.
This was natural when it is remembered how much cricketing talent there has been in the Robinson family, who have always keenly and generously encouraged the game.
In 1893 Bedminster played a match against Redcliffe Street, and as a result Redcliffe Street formed a regular club. A year later the Bedminster Club got a ground of
their own, and an advertisement for a second-hand pavilion produced an offer of an old yacht; it would, the writer said, be just the thing since the ground was generally under water. Next Bedminster and Redcliffe Street amalgamated and the present fine ground was acquired in St. John's Lane.
The ladies, not to be outdone, formed a cricket club of their own in 1924.
Of course the football players were not long behind the cricketers, and an association club, founded in 1905, had one of the best local teams of the day.
Bristol is a centre of rugby football, and to-day there are two rugby sides and one association.
After football came lawn tennis in 1912, and in 1929 the company made six hard courts, four at Fishponds and two at St. John's Lane.
Nineteen hundred and twelve was altogether a year of great activity, for it saw the first annual sports meeting, only interrupted by the war, and the beginnings of hockey which, twenty-one years later, provided five girls' hockey teams and two men's simultaneously in the field.
Nor have the more elderly been content with the merely passive part of watchers, for they formed a bowling section of the club, and in their own spare time made a green which is now one of the best in the West of England.
Finally there is a flourishing swimming club which appeals more or less impartially to all ages.
Now having dealt briefly with all these cheering activities of the Athletic Club let me cut loose for a moment from the too strictly relevant and wander down an agreeable by-path of memory to the great annual cricket match between an eleven of the Robinson family and Flax Bourton.
This match was first played sixty-six years ago, and even so it is but a noble fragment of what must have been a wholly unique family festival.
Each year the Robinsons had a reunion of two or three days in which they encountered one another in almost every known form of competition.
They drove their trotting horses against one another; they ran foot races on the road that skirts the Flax Bourton ground (they would be run over by motor cars if they did it now); they showed the produce of their gardens against one another; they had a lawn tennis tournament, and they once essayed croquet but found it too agonisingly competitive even for them.
Now only the cricket matches, one on the Saturday before August Bank Holiday and one on bank holiday itself, survive.
To-day the Flax Bourton club are the family's only and most cherished enemies, but once they played the Graces in all their pride.
Perhaps the greatest of all the great Bristol prize-fighters, Henry Pearce ("The Game Chicken") once said of his opponent, "He must be a smart chap and get up very early in the morning to beat John Gully."
It might have been justifiably said of the Graces, and the pleasant trick that they played on the Robinsons is still remembered, not without a certain bitterness by the elders of the family, but in a perfectly forgiving spirit by their juniors.
Dr. Henry Grace, the eldest brother, was getting old and slow in the field, and it seemed fortunate for the Graces that a telegram arrived bidding him instantly attend a patient.
A substitute was demanded, and by a still more happy chance one was instantly forthcoming in a distinguished member of the Gloucestershire eleven who proceeded to perform prodigies in the deep field, save numberless boundaries, and was one of the best batsmen on the Graces' side. Alas for the depravity of human
nature - this was a deliberate plot which whether or not conceived in the resourceful brain of W. G. must have made an irresistible appeal to him. Dr. Henry Grace soon returned from his fictitious call, and chuckled happily in the shade for the rest of the afternoon, and the Robinsons were defeated.
I have twice been privileged to watch this match, and can answer for its being one of the best and most entertaining in the world.
I saw too, something which can hardly be seen again.
This was in 1936, when there was playing Mr. Theodore Robinson, who had played in the first match of all in 1878.
Then at the age of twelve he had gone in last with sixteen needed to win; he and one of the older generation had knocked off the runs and the boy had been carried round the field in triumph.
Now after that interval of eight and fifty years - he had played for Somerset in the
meanwhile - here he was, not merely playing, but fielding at short slip with a nimbleness and flexibility which baffle description. The Robinsons have their own colours of dark blue, chocolate and light blue, and when I say Robinsons, I mean Robinsons.
It is no manner of use for a man to have had a Robinson for a mother, or to have married a Robinson, as has one of the most formidable of the
Flax Bourton batsmen; these are aliens not to be admitted within the sacred circle.
For that matter, it is of no use to be a Miss Robinson, though there have been, by all accounts, one or two who would have strengthened the side.
Nobody but a male Robinson will do, and though most of these are to be found in the Bristol neighbourhood, some have been known to come as far as from Scotland to do their share.
There are eleven Robinsons in the field, but they are but a drop in the ocean of those looking on. Their cars lie very thick upon the ground.
One of the great moments of the day comes with the interval, when the kind ladies of the clan dispense tea, and its younger members, scorning these delights of the flesh, rush on to the ground in swarms and play catch with hereditary energy and precision.
The family do not always win, for Flax Bourton has no mean eleven, but I am glad to say that when first I saw the match they did win (it was the first time for five years) on both
days - on the second day almost on the stroke of time; indeed, it was so near a thing, that some of the older and fiercer of the family onlookers, and they grow more blood-thirsty with the years, were heard to lament that the tea interval had been unduly prolonged.
The next time I saw the match, but a little while before the war, it was drowned in
unseasonable rain, and now there has been an interval, not for tea, too sadly
long. Whether the younger generation will be quite so
formidable as their predecessors is regrettably to be doubted.
Commander Vivian Robinson may not be able to keep up an end for ever, and though I have seen Mr. Foster Robinson, once captain of
Gloucestershire, make the winning hit, that too, is one of the things, I suppose, that may never happen again.
Already, before 1936, one of the most illustrious of the family, the wicket-keeper, D. C., had retired from the fray.
However, this is perhaps to be pessimistic. The family name appeared in the eleven chosen from the "Lord's Schools" this year (I am writing in
1944) and that was a good omen. And so away with melancholy and Delenda est Flax Bourton
On that cheerful and vigorous note let this story of a cheerfull and vigorous family and its business end. if it must end during the war at least it does so when hopes of a better time soon to come are high.
It ends happily too in this, that the two years before the war saw the arrival at Redcliffe Street of three members of the fourth generation, John Foster, Philip and Michael Robinson, all three serving with the forces, of whom the first is now a director.
Having tried to describe something of the growth of a hundred years, I had thought to describe also, however briefly, what I saw myself at Bristol.
Now I think that my own impressions of all that busyness and turmoil, and of the magic of the machinery, must needs be so cursory and ill-informed as to add less than nothing, and I have abandoned the rash project.
Vigour and cheerfulness - of those two virtues I did gain an abiding impression, and let that suffice.
Floreat ! Florebit.
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