John Robinson (1833-1909)

John Robinson

Written by Les Shore

Occupation: Civil Engineer

A civil engineer who was ‘actively engaged in the construction of important railway and dock’ projects in Great Britain and abroad. His notable projects were: the northern stage of the Perth and Inverness Junction Railway; a stage of the Ost Preussische Südbahn (an East Prussian railway); the southern extension of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway; the Lewes and East Grinstead Railway; the first Barry Dock and the associated Barry Railway; and the King Edward VII Bridge, Kew.

He was born at Kendal, on 3rd February, 1833, to Richard Robinson [b.1801], a Kendal-born tailor, and Isabell, who was born in 1806 at Wray, then in Lancashire. John Robinson’s ‘fore-elders’ resided in adjoining parishes of Sedburgh and Cartmel and his brothers were Alfred [b. 1835] and Frederick James [b. 1847].

In 1851, his father’s Kendal tailor business employed two workers and two apprentices, and his family resided at 112, Highgate. That year, the 17-year-old John’s occupation was ‘pupil teacher British School’, suggesting he was educated at Kendal’s British School, which in the 1840s had a school roll of between 200 and 300 pupils, and subjected to an annual examination in the ‘presence’ of ‘friends and visitors’. ‘Senior monitors’ examinations included reading passages from English history, and ‘grammar and slate mental arithmetic’. As some indication of his promise as a civil engineer, ‘quickness and ability’ in numeracy and grammar would have been identified.

After completing what was an introductory stage of training as a teacher in Kendal, he removed to London for qualifying for the teaching profession. Afterwards, he took up an appointment in Reading, Berkshire. ‘But teaching was not his bent. As a lad he had shown a talent for building construction, and his skill in map making was remarkable, so much so that he even then began to show developing qualities in the profession he adopted. Without any patronage he pushed himself forward’. 

Pupil engineer (1853-1858)

In 1853, he commenced training as a pupil engineer with Charles Sanderson [1824-70], based at 17, Fludyer Street, Westminster, London, which is where the Government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office now stands. His first duties concerned works for the Great Western Railway (GWR). Through accepting engineering work as a subcontractor for the GWR in 1844 enabled Charles Sanderson to establish a record qualifying himself in 1853 for election as an Associate Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He transferred to Member status in 1867. Having not been attached to the GWR, by 1853 he had grown a general civil engineering business such as town drainage work. However, in 1860, he accepted the offer of the chief engineer’s position with the Bombay and Baroda Railway and was to die at Mumbai (Bombay).

It seems the last phase of Robinson’s training began at the end of 1855 as an assistant to Robert Syer Hoggar Associate Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers. Few details were found about Hoggar but in 1851 he produced a map of the city of Oxford useful for drainage improvements. The Kendal man though was tasked by Hoggar to carry out a survey, the nature of which has not been found, in the parish of Middlebie, Dumfriesshire, Scotland. Hoggar’s testimonial, written in 1857, declared: ‘Mr John Robinson was manager of a very extensive survey for me and, and I think him well qualified for any similar station of responsibility and trust, where judgment and talents are required to be combined with integrity and energy of mind and character’. The testimonial was written by his father-in-law

On 30 December, 1856, John Robinson’s marriage to Emily Hoggar was registered at Cosford, Suffolk. His bride was born at Hadleigh, Suffolk, circa 1832. Her mother’s name was Martha. The Robinson marriage bore one son, Richard Syer, born on 17th August, 1862, at Hadleigh, Suffolk.

In 1857, John Robinson became assistant to William Baker [1817-1878], chief engineer, London and North Western Railway (LNWR). He was delegated survey work, designing wrought iron bridges, and setting out tunnelling work for widening the railway between London and Bletchley. A visit by Joseph Mitchell [1803-1883] in early-1858, the Engineer for the Highland Railway Company (sic), to the LNWR’s Camden good sheds to inspect newly-erected hydraulic cranes involved a meeting with Robinson. As a result of the meeting, Mitchell recruited him as an assistant engineer for road and bridge contracts and probably also in anticipation of the expansion of railways in the Highlands of Scotland.

During the construction of the Caledonian Canal, Mitchell, born at Forres, was an apprentice to Thomas Telford [1757-1834], the first president of the Institution of Civil Engineers between 1820 and 1835. Although in 1846 a Parliamentary Bill to build a railway directly through the Highlands from Perth to Inverness failed, Mitchell persisted with this and other railway ideas to shape the early development what became the Highland Railway Company, which was formed in 1865. 

Engineer - Perth and Inverness Junction Railway (1860-1864)

During the remainder of 1858 and up until mid-1860, Robinson was tasked by Mitchell to inspect and report upon the state of Highland roads and bridges in the counties of Inverness, Ross, Argyle, Sutherland and Caithness. Roads and bridges were then the responsibility of Government Commissioners and not the counties. He also produced design drawings of shipping piers such as one for Kirkwall. He was also directed by Mitchell, in conjunction with Messrs W. and M. Patterson and J. Fraser, to commence surveying the course of the Ross-shire Railway, from Inverness to Dingwall and Invergordon, as a basis of plans for Parliamentary inquiries.

Then in the summer and autumn of 1860, he was assigned to surveying a railway from a location, later called Birnam Station, just over three miles north-north-west of Perth, and near Dunkeld, northwards through the Highlands to Forres, which lies 24 mile east of Inverness. The railway’s course was 104 miles long and surveying was achieved without the aid of an Ordnance Survey map. Perthshire’s Ordnance Survey maps became available between 1859 and 1864, whilst Inverness-shire’s not until between 1866 and 1876. The beauty of the scenery along the line’s course can be extolled but nature’s obstacles presented problems for engineers to solve. For example, a ten-arched viaduct and a 120 yard tunnel were identified as essential to tame the Pass of Killiecrankie’s ruggedness. When laying railway over the ‘dreary wilds’ of Drumochter Pass’s summit at 1,480 ft (460 m), the highest elevation for a standard gauge railway in Great Britain, there was ever the prospect of heavy rain, or falls of snow. Based at an Inverness office after surveying was completed, he, with Messrs W. and M. Patterson, progressed with more detailed railway setting work and produced drawings for land plans, viaducts and bridges.

Between June 1861, and May 1862, after the passing of the Perth and Inverness Junction Railway Act, 1861, nine build contracts were let. In October 1861, at Forres, the Countess of Seafield cut the first turf to inaugurate railway construction. John Robinson was appointed Resident Engineer (RE), which was a notable advancement and a milestone in his career, for the construction of the northern stage of the Perth and Inverness Junction Railway, from Forres to Kingussie, which was 40 miles long. The RE’s role was to ensure a contractor met the Engineer’s design specification, work quality requirements, construction schedule and costs of projects agreed with an ‘Owner’, the Perth and Inverness Junction Railway. The contractor who built the northern stage was Messrs Meakin. As the RE, Robinson resided at Grantown, Strathspey. In late-1862, he led a party of dignitaries to inspect railway works between Kingussie and Forres. Features inspected included rock cuttings at Grantown and the building of Edinkillie (Divie) Viaduct, which featured seven arches and was 110 ft high. In August 1863, he was present for the opening of a 36 ½ miles stage of the line laid south from Forres to Aviemore. At a celebration marking the opening of the stage, held at Aviemore, a Captain Menzie proposed ‘the health of the resident engineer—a gentleman who had discharged his duties in a most efficient manner’. 

The whole run of the Perth and Inverness Junction Railway was approved by a Government railway inspector in autumn 1863. At Birnam Station connections could be made with the Perth and Dunkeld Railway, and thence to the Scottish Midland Junction Railway, whilst at Forres with the Inverness and Aberdeen Junction Railway. Later owners of the railway were the London Midland & Scottish, in 1923, and British Railway, who closed the line from Forres to Aviemore in 1965. However, as a result of a heritage initiative, the Strathspey Railway Company operates 10 miles of Robinson’s line from Aviemore to Broomhill. The company was set up in 1972 and began a steam-powered passenger operation in July 1978.

The chairman of the Highland Railway, the Hon Thomas C. Bruce [1825-1890], posted to Robinson an ‘unsolicited’ testimonial, dated 6th April, 1864, addressed to his home at Grantown, Strathspey. Bruce reflected: ‘I had occasion to observe closely the progress of the works under your charge, and I can bear testimony to the great care and attention which you gave to them, and your wish to have every detail carried out in the best manner. I believe it is greatly owing to your constant efforts under circumstances of considerable difficulty, that we owe the complete portion of the line’. He added: ‘Our engineer-in-chief has always spoken highly of your professional attainments’.

Projects overseas (1865-1875)

In 1864, Robinson left Scotland to join the staff of George Barclay Bruce [1821-1908], who between 1887 and 1889 was president of the Institution of Civil Engineers and knighted in 1887. Barclay Bruce, born at Newcastle upon Tyne, as a 15-year-old was apprenticed to the Robert Stevenson and Company, had no known family tie with the Hon Thomas C. Bruce. As the Chief Engineer for the construction of a number of railways in Germany, he assigned Robinson, as RE, to the Ost Preussische Südbahn — an East Prussian railway laid from Könisberg (today Kaliningrad, Russia) to Pillaus (today Baltiysk, Russia), a Baltic Sea port, and from Könisberg to Lyck (today Ełk, Poland) then on the border with Russia. His first assignment, when based at Barnstein, concerned a 38 mile section of railway via Eylau and Rastenburg (today Kętzyn, Poland), and removed to Könisberg to oversee the completion of the whole line. 

The contractor, Joseph Bray, who built the East Prussian railway, bid for and won an 88 mile long railway contract, the southern extension of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway between Koolburga and Raichore. Robinson accepted Bray’s offer of a post as chief engineer, or chief agent, and took up residency in India, at Deccan, in February, 1866. That year, partly due to Joseph Mitchell as his proposer, Robinson was elected an Associate Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers and so signed a promise to ‘promote’ the institution’s objects on 25th June. In India, he eventually overcame labour recruitment difficulties to employ at the peak between 9,000 and 10,000 men. At the end of the contract, in the autumn of 1868, he returned to England.

In 1870, he was engaged by Messrs Waring Brothers and a Mr McCandlish to manage a number of assistants for the construction of the central stage of a Honduras Inter-Oceanic Railway, incorporated in 1852 and again in 1857. The central stage ran from Ogos de Agu to Comayagua and his base was a ‘picturesque place in the right bank of the Rio Humuya, near Espino’. The duration of his stay in Honduras appears to have been much foreshortened as in 1872, work on the Honduras railway was temporality abandoned due to differences between the contractors and the Provisional Government of Arias. Honduras  was also described as being politically in a ‘very unsettled state’ at the time. Thus the contractor’s engineering staff were ‘recalled home’, with Robinson and his assistants returning via the United States of America and a part of Canada.

Back in England, in 1871, George Barclay Bruce engaged him to survey a proposed railway from Market Harborough, through Tilton-on-the Hill and Melton Mowbray, to Worksop, with a branch to Nottingham and then to prepare line drawings for Parliamentary inquiries. On 30th April, 1872, the Institution of Civil Engineers granted Robinson Member status.   

At the outset of 1872, John Wolfe Barry [1836-1918] appointed him chief of staff for preparing plans for opening a Buenos Ayres (sic) and Rosario Railway. Arriving by boat on the Rio de la Plata, he learned Buenos Aires’s authorities had imposed a quarantine period due to an outbreak of yellow fever outwith Argentina. He and his staff took refuge in Ascunión, Paraguay, until the quarantine period ended. After entry was made into Argentina, the surveying task was completed with the addition of branch lines to Zarate, Bardero, and San Pedro, on the River Parana, with shipping piers at Zarate, San Nicolas, and Rosario. The railway plans were submitted in September 1872 to the national Government. Subsequent to further instructions from John Wolfe Barry, in December 1872, he provided the Governor of Buenos Aires with plans for railways to San Andres de Giles, Carmen de Areca, Salto, and Rojas, and San Nicolas to Pergamino and Rojas, with a branch to Arecifas from the main line. The total length of proposed Argentinean railways surveyed and transposed to plans was 426 miles. 

In 1874, Robinson rejoined George B. Bruce to prepare working drawings for the Rio Tinto Railway, Seville, Spain; the Huelva Railway, the Huelva Pier, Spain; and New Zealand Government Railways, and surveys for railways in Nottinghamshire and Cumberland. He also carried out field visits in Holland to file reports about railways being prepared for building in the provinces of Groningen and Friesland.

From 1876 to early 1881, he was employed again by John Wolfe Barry for the construction of the Lewes and East Grinstead Railway and for surveying the Oxted and Groombridge branch of the Brighton Railway. Barry was the fifth son of architect Sir Charles Barry [1795-1860] who, with A. W. N. Pugin’s assistance, designed the Houses of Parliament. That Wolfe Barry had established trust in the abilities of Robinson was profoundly important. Prior to 1867, when Barry established his own civil engineering business, his formation as a professional engineer followed a model, graduate study followed by practical training, which did not become the norm until decades later. Following schooling at Trinity College, Glenalmond, Perthshire, he studied at King’s College, London. After completing his university education, he acquired an introduction to the practical side of engineering in the works of Messrs Lucas Brothers, builders, who in 1858 completed a ‘new’ opera house at Covent Garden. Next he became a pupil of (Sir) John Hawkshaw [1811-1891], president of the Institution of Civil Engineers 1861-1863. Hawkshaw employed him as RE on ‘some important works—namely, the Charing Cross and Cannon Street Railway Stations and bridges over the Thames’. Such beginnings heralded the career of a civil engineer who at the time of his death in 1918 was viewed by his peers as ‘the acknowledged head and representative of the profession in Britain. It was thus the public regarded him. Literally, his work is known from “China to Peru.”’ Indeed, an example of his work known around the world is Tower Bridge, London, opened in 1894.

The Lewes and East Grinstead Railway Act, 1877, authorised the railway’s construction for the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway Company. As the RE for railway construction, Robinson based himself initially at Newick and finally at Kingscote, near East Grinstead. The railway, later nicknamed the ‘Bluebell Company’, was completed in August 1882, with six stations placed along its length of 18 miles until it was closed in 1958 by British Railways. However, in August 1960, the Bluebell Railway Society began operating a 4 ½ mile stretch of the line between Sheffield Park and Horsted Keynes to become, it is claimed, the first preserved standard gauge steam-operated passenger service in the world.

Australian Trans-Continental Railway exploratory survey 

Due to a George Barclay Bruce recommendation, in 1881 the directors of the Australian Trans-Continental Railway Syndicate, chose Robinson to join an exploration party, headed by Major General the Hon William Henry Adelbert Feilding [1836-1895]. The work of the party, which included also geologists and a naturalist, was to scope a proposed Great Trunk Line railway northwards from Brisbane to Carpentaria. The aim of the railway was to open up the ‘vast fertile western territory of Queensland, and joining them in one grand system of communication the extensive settled districts in Southern Australia, New South Wales, and Queensland, together with the populous capitals on the south and eastern shores of the Northern Coast, a scheme which had long engaged the attention of colonial statesmen and men of enterprise and experience’. Robinson embarked from London on 3rd June, 1881, and arrived in Australia on 18th July. After agreeing a contract with the Colonial Government, he was authorised to ‘make all preliminary investigations and surveys’. His survey work began on 2nd August, 1881, at Roma, situated 320 miles west-north-west of Brisbane, and was completed at an unknown location in December of the same year. Visited for surveying in Queensland, in addition to Cloncurry mineral district, were two of the South Wellesley Islands, Sweers and Bentinck, and the course of the Batavia River (today called Wenlock River), in the Cape York Peninsula. His work, when united with extensive survey work undertaken by Robert Watson [1822-1891], a civil engineer, made the total length of the Great Trunk Line proposal 1,115 miles. General Feilding also tasked Robinson to survey a proposed railway, 42 miles long, from the ‘central railway to Eupatoria Point [?], and including a wharf at Port Alma.

After returning from Australia, in 1883, he took up residence at Pamplona, Navarra, Spain, as chief engineer for tramway and light-railway projects.

RE for Barry Dock and railways (1882-1892)     

Between the years 1884 and 1904, when he retired, with the exception of a number of assignments, he became ‘closely identified with Sir John’s undertakings, especially the first Barry dock’. In 1882, the Barry scheme of a dock and railway emerged as a riposte by a number of Rhondda valley coalowners to the steam coal shipping inadequacy of Bute Docks, Cardiff. The subsequently formed Barry Dock and Railways Company contracted John Wolfe Barry as company ‘Engineer’. After a campaign in Parliament, involving a clash with Bute Docks and the Taff Vale Railway, the Barry Dock and Railway Act, 1884, was realised. During the campaign, the coalowners’ case was advanced by an analysis given of the coal resources and output of the South Wales Coalfield by Thomas Forster Brown (q.v.), and the advocacy by E. H. Pember QC, who a year later received praise from the civic leaders of Manchester for successfully doing likewise for the Manchester Ship Canal Bill.

Upon returning from Spain in early 1884, John Robinson was again engaged by John Wolfe Barry. He first prepared sketches and cost estimates for the Barry scheme for use at Parliamentary inquires, which ended with the 1884 Act. Next, he undertook two further tasks. First, he was RE for the Whitechapel extension of the East London Railway, which was completed in March.

Last, he produced working drawings of the structure used to support a roof over the courtyard of the Royal Exchange, London. The surface area of the roof was the equivalent of just over twice that of a tennis court and glass coffers allowed the courtyards to be lit by sunlight. His work realised for the contracted architect, Charles Barry Jnr FSA [1823-1900], John Wolfe Barry’s eldest brother, the integration of the roof design into the existing building. The Morning Post, 4th September, 1884, noted the ‘engineering construction’ had ‘required much consideration’. Structural analysis found the ‘two girders carrying the dome’ were subjected to the highest strains and so Robinson used box-section design for the ‘principals’. Courtyard ventilation was controlled by the operation of louvres assembled at the dome. ‘All the wrought-iron arched-roof roof principals were lifted into position by means of an upright timber or derrick’ and the lifting operation attracted ‘great’ public interest, and ‘many expressed their astonishment at the simplicity of means employed, as no scaffold was used for the purpose’. After painting and decoration work was completed, city bankers and merchants met in the courtyard under a roof shielding them from falls of rain or snow.

With the dock and railway drawing work completed by John Wolfe Barry for the Barry scheme, at sometime before November 1884, John Robertson took up residence on the south coast of the county of Glamorgan, Wales, in the vicinity of Barry Island and the village of Cadoxton. The sea channel between the island and the mainland was adapted as the site for the dock. Here Robertson was appointed RE for both dock construction and most of the length of the railway built to the Rhondda valleys for steam coal traffic. The contractor whose work Robinson monitored was T. A. Walker [1828-1889], who had earlier rescued the Severn Tunnel from a flooding disaster for the GWR. He had also been the contractor for the Whitechapel extension of the East London Railway.

Not unusually for large projects, Barry dock and railway construction expenditure was greater than the budget, but John Wolfe Barry judged that fellow civil engineers would view such a cost overrun as low. The dock was officially opened in July 1889 and the next day the first shipment was made of steam coal, which was sent to France. With the addition of another dock in 1898, for which Robinson did preliminary drawings, after 1901, Barry Docks became south Wales’s leading shipper of coal and coke. In 1913, Barry Docks set a dock world record for the export of coal and coke at 11 million tons, which as a British record will never be surpassed.

In 1890, the Institution of Civil Engineers awarded John Robinson its prestigious Telford Medal with a premium, a set of volumes of the proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers. The award acknowledged the ‘high literary scientific character’ of his paper, ‘The Barry Dock Works, including the Hydraulic machinery and the Mode of Tipping Coal’, published in Minutes and Proceeding, Institution of Civil Engineers in 1890. In 1893, he presented a brief paper to the Institution of Civil Engineers about Barry graving-docks. He had also presented an earlier paper about the subject, ‘A Description of the Barry Dock and Railways’, to the South Wales Institute of Engineers during its 1888-1889 proceedings.

His employer, John Wolfe Barry, who had been awarded the medal in 1867, observed in 1889, ‘Mr John Robinson, (my trusted friend and coadjutor), came to the then small village of Cadoxton, and secured as his office a small place then, and little betokened the marvellous progress it had since made’. Cadoxton is today a suburb of the town of Barry, which grew and flourished due to the coal trade. After the dock and railway was opened, the Barry Company retained John Robinson’s services as RE until late 1892 and for many years previously he had resided at East Barry House.

His involvement in local affairs did not square with a view held in his profession of him having a ‘retiring disposition’. In 1892, a résumé of his extramural activities revealed him to be chairman of the Barry and Cadoxton Burial Board, member and late chairman of the local Public Works Committee, and president of Barry Cricket Club, Quoit Club and YMCA. He was also vice-president of the Westmorland Society’s School in London. He was a member of the Church of England and ‘ardent member of the Conservative Party, and he took a keen interest in the Primrose League after its formation in 1883 In June 1893, as a ‘token of the high appreciation and esteem’ held for him in the Barry and Cadoxton district, he was presented with an ‘illuminated address and massive silver ink stand, together with an ivory-handled Malacca walking stick with an engineer’s yard rule enclosed’. At the time he had removed from Barry to take up ‘an engineering appointment in London’. The appointment was at the Delahay Street, Westminster, the office of John Wolfe Barry, a street later razed to build Government offices. 

Final projects

In late 1894, surveying began on behalf of the Callander and Oban Railway Company for an extension northwards of a line from Connel Ferry, situated north of Oban, to Ballachulish and Fort William, and possibly to Inverness. The ‘Engineers’ for the project were Wolfe Barry and Charles de Neuville Forman [1852-1900], who was Glasgow-based. Forman’s ‘most important undertaking’ was the Glasgow Central Railway, operated from 1896, which integrated Lanarkshire coalfield traffic into the Caledonian Railway’s network for shipping from a Glasgow dock. Robinson prepared ‘plans’ for the railway extension. The Callander and Oban Railway, Act, 1896, granted the company powers to raise capital for building and operate the line. The Connel-Ballachulish line, opened in August 1903, was 28 miles long and its notable structural engineering feature was a cantilever bridge, 700 ft long, placed just below the Falls of Lora, the outfall of Loch Etive, and near to Connel. The bridge, upon completion, was the second longest clear span bridge in Europe. With Robinson nearing retirement from his profession, at the outset of the extension he would have learned about the Highland Railway and the Callander and Oban Railway Company were giving consideration to building a railway from Inverness to Fort William. If this had occurred, he had grounds to reflect about his career having ended where as a RE it had begun with the Perth and Inverness Junction Railway.

During 1895, Wolf Barry tasked Robinson to prepare drawings of preliminary designs for the reconstruction of Kew Bridge across the River Thames. In June of the next year, Wolfe Barry presented two bridge design options, one built of steel and the other of stone, to Middlesex County Council for consideration. A year later, the council decided upon a stone-built bridge and instructions were given to Wolfe Barry to prepare working drawings and detailed specifications for tendering purposes. Robinson produced the working drawings. The bridge was opened in 1903 by HM The King Edward VII, and the plaque commemorating the event notes Sir John Wolfe Barry acted in partnership with Cuthbert A. Brereton as ‘Engineers’.

By 1897, John. Wolfe Barry, who was knighted in June that year, served as the consulting engineer to the Caledonian Railway Company having an ambition to extend their docks at Grangemouth, thereby creating the largest dock in Scotland. During Parliamentary inquiries into the associated 1897 Bo’ness Town and Harbour Bill and Grangemouth Bill, he made it known that he was the current President of the Institution of Civil Engineers and ‘had a large experience of the construction of dock works’. The company’s legal councel registered that the civil engineer knight ‘had gained much by his experience in south Wales’. Robinson acted as the RE at the start of the Grangemouth Docks extension, which was not completed until in 1906.

Probably the last time Robinson was engaged by Wolfe Barry as RE concerned the North Eastern Railway Company’s extension at Middlesbrough Docks, located on the southern bank of the River Tees, and in February 1898 the railway company invited tenders for this project referring interested parties to view the contract drawings and specification Sir John Wolfe Barry’s Delahay Street Office. The extension was not completed until 1907.

By 1901, John and Emily Robinson had taken up residence at 8, Vicarage Terrace, Kendal, which as a home in Westmorland was geographically more convenient than one in London, for RE work at Grangemouth and Middlesbrough. The Institution of Civil Engineer’s records state Robinson retired in 1904. 

Kendal death

Later in retirement, he suffered a period of rapid failing health before his death on 21st February, 1909, at his Kendal home aged 76 years. The Westmorland Gazette astutely observed he had ‘belonged to the generation of civil engineers which came to maturity when there was a demand for English engineers all over the world—on the continent of Europe, in the East, in the North and South America, and India’. His career had also included an assignment in Australia. The newspaper reflected: ‘Kendal may well be proud to send out into the world men of Mr Robinson’s stamp, capable conscientious, indefatigable, enterprising, to do indispensible service for their own and succeeding generations, at home and abroad. The one misfortune is that during the years of their active life Kendal loses them, and their professional experience and capacity for initiative are not available for local concerns’. Yet, the newspaper, maybe reluctantly, conceded such an event was ‘inevitable’.  Robinson had also been a Member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Fellow of the Geological Society and the [Cumberland and?] Westmorland Archaeological Society. 

Probate records, dated 31st March, 1909, reveal John Robinson left £8,523 19s. 6d. shared among at least Richard Syer Robinson, civil engineer, whose address was given as Vicarage Terrace, Kendal; his brother, Frederick James Robinson, banker’s cashier, of 55, Water Lane, Brixton, Lambeth; and a grandson, John Robinson, civil engineer, of ‘Runnymede’, Broad Street, Barry. His wife was bequeathed life policies for £200 and bonuses, household effects and the use of his Kendal house for life. Emily died on 11th December, 1914, at Fernbank Limekilns, Dumfermline, and left £816 3s. 3d. His works on engineering were given to his grandsons, John Robinson and William Barry Robinson.[1]  Tragically both grandsons died in the Great War. John, aged about 25, fell in action in 1916 serving as a Lieutenant with the South Wales Borderers and his brother was gassed sometime earlier. Both grandsons had had periods of employment in the engineering department of the Barry Railway Company. 

His obituary in the Institution of Civil Engineer’s 1909 Minutes of Proceeding acknowledged he had possessed a ‘thorough knowledge of his profession, especially in regard to geodetic surveying and in the practical execution of important works. He was of a retiring disposition but his sterling qualities and kindly and helpful nature were highly appreciated by his professional colleagues’. Maybe of greater import, Sir John Wolfe Barry regarded him as a trusted friend and an invaluable assistant. As eminent as Sir John Wolf Barry was, both as an executive civil engineer and the figurehead of his profession, when it came to the delivery of his practice’s plans as functional artefacts, such as docks, railways, and bridges, the stalwart support of John Robinson had been profoundly vital.


  • ‘Biography of Mr Robinson’, Barry Dock News, 14 November 1890
  • ‘John Robinson’, Application – Form A, The Institution of Civil Engineers, No. 2098
  • ‘John Robinson’, Obit., Minutes of Proceeding of the Institution of Civil Engineers, vol.176, (1909)
  • ‘Death of John Robinson, Kendal’, Westmorland Gazette, 27 February 1909
  • [1] ‘Will of the Late John Robinson MICE’, Barry Dock News, 9 April, 1909, p.6
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