William Henry Robinson (1847 – 1926) is little known today amongst the people of the town in which he lived most of his life, yet they have much to thank him for. It was he, and his father before him, who published many of the books, and one of the newspapers, which reveal so much of the town’s history to Walsall historians.
For many years, this prominent local Victorian was at the heart of the cultural life of Walsall and, true to the tradition of his time, Robinson, who was a printer, publisher, journalist, author, historian, astronomer and cyclist, spent many hours in the pursuit of knowledge for his own edification and for the benefit of others.
His father, John Russell Robinson, brought him to Walsall from his home at The Hollies in Cannock, after his birth in 1847. J. R. Robinson set up a printing, publishing, stationery and retail emporium on The Bridge, Walsall – the ‘Walsall Steam Printing Works’ (about where Millets used to be until recently). In 1856, he also founded the original ‘Walsall Advertiser’ which for many years was one of Walsall’s most prominent newspapers (and no relation to the present rag, which has never been published in the town). Although the old Walsall Advertiser ceased publication on Christmas Day, 1915, it can still be read on microfilm at Walsall Local History Centre.
In 1872, J.R. Robinson began publishing a successful and popular series of town directories known as the Walsall Red Books, providing a guide to events, local government, institutions and societies etc, and a street by street directory in later editions. Henry Robinson later took them over, and they went from strength to strength under his management. The Red Books were sold to T. Kirby & Sons Ltd in 1911, and ended in 1939. Now scarce, they have become a valuable resource for local and family historians in the area.
After completing his education at Mr. Jackson’s Grammar School in Aldridge, William Henry Robinson entered the family business. Following the death of his father, young Robinson took over the business at the age of 21, and made a great success of it.
On 7th January 1874, aged 27, Robinson married Lydie Agnes Schnabel, aged 21, at St. Matthew’s Parish Church, Walsall. She was of German extraction and the daughter of Frederick Schnabel, Professor of Languages. They lived for many years at ‘Offendene’, a substantial house on the corner of The Crescent and Sutton Road, sadly replaced in the 1960s by a small apartment block.
Under Mr. Robinson’s leadership the Walsall Advertiser thrived, expanding into larger premises at 133 Lichfield Street in 1907. This building (still in use opposite the Central Library) had been built around the 1840’s and now entered a new lease of life, as the headquarters of The Walsall Press and the Walsall Advertiser. From here, Robinson also continued to print private and business stationery, as well as literary and historical publications, including some of his own books and important local histories such as the work of Frederick Willmore.
Apart from his passion for literature, Robinson was a keen amateur astronomer, tracing his interest back to Donati’s Comet of 1858. A Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and member of the British Astronomical Association, he brought the wonders of science and the literary talents of the day to Walsall, for the benefit of local people, in his capacity as founder member and Honorary Secretary of the Walsall Literary Institute, formed on 25th July, 1884.
He was responsible for its day-to-day operation, organising social events and lectures for the Institute, many of which took place in the Temperance Hall, Freer Street (later the Empire Cinema, now destroyed) including personal readings by such authors as Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens, talks from well-known scientists and explorers like Henry Morton Stanley and Fridtjof Nansen, and soirees with talented musicians and singers.
On 30th October 1895, Walsall Literary Institute recognised Mr. Robinson’s many years of enthusiastic voluntary service, presenting him with the princely sum of 100 guineas and a fine new astronomical telescope with which to pursue his stargazing hobby. Present on this occasion was Sir Robert S. Ball, the Victorian equivalent of Patrick Moore and a prolific lecturer and author. Royal Astronomer for Ireland at Dunsink Observatory, and later head of the Observatory at Cambridge University, Sir Robert had became a good friend of Robinson as well as a regular visitor to Walsall, and in 1899 he became President of Walsall Literary Institute.
At its peak, the Institute had more than a thousand members, and Robinson remained Hon. Secretary until it closed in 1911, acknowledged throughout as the power behind its enormous success. Retiring not long after, Mr. Robinson spent the next several years pursuing his hobbies and writing newspaper articles on local history and astronomy, which offered a small respite for the desperate times endured during the Great War of 1914-18, but the end of an era was approaching, in more ways than one.
William Henry Robinson died on Wednesday 17th February 1926 at 85 Highgate Road, Walsall, survived by three sons, six daughters, and ten grandchildren, his wife having died in 1901. His funeral service took place at St Matthew’s Parish Church on Saturday 20th February 1926, followed by cremation at Perry Barr, and his ashes are interred in the family grave at Rushall Church.
His legacy to the people of Walsall is a remarkable mix of culture, science, history and letters unrivalled in his adopted home to this day.