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Robinson, Michael Massey (1744–1826)

by Donovan Clarke

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Michael Massey Robinson (1744-1826), convict, public servant and poet, was born probably in the south of England, where he attended the University of Oxford and later practised law. He also wrote poetical quips, one of which was the cause of his transportation to Australia. It no longer exists but is known to have been an attack on James Oldham, an ironmonger and alderman of the city of London. In it Robinson revived an old, disproven charge against Oldham of having murdered a former employer; he attempted to extort money from his victim by threatening to publish the verse, whereupon Oldham prosecuted him for blackmail. Robinson was convicted and sentenced to death at the Old Bailey in February 1796, but was reprieved at the prosecutor's request, and transported to New South Wales. On the voyage to Sydney in the Barwell, which arrived in May 1798, his superior manners won him the special consideration of the captain; he was permitted to take his meals with the petty officers, a bottle of wine and a dinner being sent to him daily from the captain's table.

Travelling by the same ship was Richard Dore, to take up office as deputy judge advocate of New South Wales. Dore was a sick man and Robinson ingratiated himself with him by attending to his comfort and amusing him in talk; as soon as Dore opened his commission in Sydney he appointed Robinson, with the governor's sanction, as his secretary. With his legal training, he was probably better fitted than any other man in Sydney for the position. He acted only nominally and was paid no salary, but the emoluments were considerable to a man as tactful as Robinson, and possession of the office gave him moderate status. A fortnight after landing in Sydney Robinson was granted a conditional pardon. In November 1800 he was appointed officer for the registration of agreements, thus beginning the registration of all legal documents in the colony, exclusive of land grants. In December 1800 Dore died, and since Richard Atkins, who was appointed to succeed him, knew little law Robinson virtually ran the office. All movement permits were issued by him and it was easy for him to forge Atkins's signature and pocket the 'consideration' offered by the grateful recipient of an order.

For some time Robinson got away with this jobbery, but on 18 September 1802 he was convicted of 'wilful and corrupt perjury', after having 'most unjustifiably and oppressively demanded' a gallon (4.5 litres) of rum as a fee for the delivery of a bail bond. He was sentenced to Norfolk Island, but he had been making himself useful as a general agent and adviser to Simeon Lord and other merchants, and a number of the most respected gentry in Sydney petitioned for his pardon. Governor Philip Gidley King, seeing that the culprit was indispensable in his office, held the sentence in abeyance and restored Robinson to his post. Some time later his forgery of movement permits was discovered, and he had to be ordered 'never to interfere in any circumstances respecting law transactions in private or public'.

In 1805 he was associated with Maurice Margarot and Sir Henry Browne Hayes in 'promoting discords' in the settlement and making complaints to England, so in August he was sent to Norfolk Island to serve his sentence. Next year Captain John Piper, commandant at Norfolk Island, permitted him to return to Sydney, though Governor William Bligh censured him for doing so. Robinson was allowed to land in December 1806. Soon afterwards he married Elizabeth Rowley, and at 64 became the father of a son, and later of another boy and a girl. In April 1810 he was appointed chief clerk to the secretary's office under Governor Lachlan Macquarie and for eleven years thereafter composed the birthday odes for which he is best remembered, one for the King's birthday and one for the Queen's. In 1818 and 1819 he was granted two cows from the government herd 'for his services as Poet Laureate', but after Macquarie resigned, Robinson was retired by Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane, the odes stopped and were followed by several ballads lamenting the departure of Macquarie and referring scornfully to his successor.

Robinson was not the first writer of verse in Australia. Earlier 'pipes' against King had been common, and in 1809 a satirical verse on the Rum Rebellion, 'A New Song Made in New South Wales' was written, almost certainly the work of an Irish convict attorney, Laurence Davoren, who had been convicted in Dublin in February 1791 and was transported to Sydney in the Boddingtons in 1793. Bligh made a holograph copy of this verse during his imprisonment, but Robinson's was the first verse published here, and the first that can be ascribed with absolute certainty. All Robinson's odes except one were published in the official Gazette, and it became the author's practice to recite his new verse at each birthday levee at Government House. They are stilted and rhetorical in style and lack true imaginative invention, but are not without pathos; they appealed to Robinson's contemporaries through their stimulation of memories of what it meant to be a convict, and they expressed the ardent community spirit which informed Macquarie's Sydney.

Robinson was one of the original shareholders of the Bank of New South Wales, where he had a very comfortable balance in 1820. The previous year he had been appointed deputy provost-marshal; in 1821 he became principal clerk in the Police Office, a post he occupied until his death on 22 December 1826.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 4-10, 12
  • E. M. O'Brien, The Hostage: A Miracle Play (Syd, 1928)
  • M. M. Robinson, Odes, ed G. Mackaness (Syd, 1946)
  • L. Davoren, A New Song Made in New South Wales on the Rebellion, ed G. Mackaness (Syd, 1951)
  • Gleaner (Sydney), 5 Apr 1827
  • manuscript catalogue under Michael Massey Robinson (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Donovan Clarke, 'Robinson, Michael Massey (1744–1826)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robinson-michael-massey-2598/text3569, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 19 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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