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Robinson, Sir William Cleaver Francis (1834–1897)

by F. K. Crowley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

William Cleaver Francis Robinson (1834-1897), by George & Walton

William Cleaver Francis Robinson (1834-1897), by George & Walton

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 5960

Sir William Cleaver Francis Robinson (1834-1897), governor, was born on 14 January 1834 at Rosmead, County Westmeath, Ireland, fourth son of Admiral Hercules Robinson and his wife Frances Elizabeth, née Wood. Educated at the Royal Naval School, New Cross, Surrey, he entered the colonial service in 1855 as private secretary to his elder brother Hercules, lieutenant-governor of St Kitts. In 1859 Hercules was appointed governor of Hong Kong, and he accompanied him there. In 1862 William received his first vice-regal appointment, as president of Montserrat in the West Indies. In April that year he married Olivia Edith Deane, fourth daughter of Thomas Stewart Townshend, bishop of Meath. In 1865 he administered the government of Dominica and in May 1866 was appointed governor and commander-in-chief of the Falkland Islands, he later described the colony and its tiny population as a 'remote settlement at the fag end of the world'. In July 1870 he was made governor of Prince Edward Island, which he administered during the discussions that culminated in its union with Canada in July 1873. That year he was created C.M.G. In 1874 he was governor of the Leeward Islands and in January 1875 assumed the administration of Western Australia. He remained there until September 1877, during which time he carried out the instruction of the Colonial Office to discourage the colonists' attempt to seek responsible government and independence from Britain in internal affairs.

In 1877 Robinson was appointed governor of the Straits Settlements, with headquarters at Singapore, and created K.C.M.G. Next year he led a diplomatic mission to Bangkok in order to invest the King of Siam with the insignia of the Knight Grand Cross of St Michael and St George; in return he was invested with the Grand Cross of the Order of the Crown of Siam. He was then appointed governor of Natal, but the British government replaced him before he took up the position and in April 1880 he was reappointed governor of Western Australia. During his second period he acquired a reputation for careful and economical administration, as well as for lengthy and pedantic correspondence with his superiors in London. He found the system of representative government hard to manipulate. He did not have the power and authority of the governor of a Crown colony; nor did his senior advisers have the confidence of the elected majority in the legislature, as would have been the case had the system of responsible government been in operation. He was expected to govern the colony, and to carry out the policy of his superiors in London, and yet he was confronted by a permanent non-official elected majority in the Legislative Council, which could impede his legislative programme or put a brake on government expenditure. This intermediate form of government he thought was 'neither flesh, fowl, nor good red-herring', and he told his colleagues, 'Let no man take charge of such a form of government who is not as patient as Job, as industrious as a Chinaman, and as ubiquitous as a provincial mayor in France'. His devotion to music changed the character of the social round in Government House, and he did much to uplift Perth's cultural life.

Robinson's success as an administrator and his personal qualities led in February 1883 to his appointment as governor of South Australia, the occasion being marked by the public performance of his own composition 'Unfurl the Flag'. He exerted a moderating influence over the vigorous contests amongst local politicians for place and position, but as the parliamentary system centred effective political power in the office of premier and his supporters in the Legislative Assembly, the governor's role was chiefly social and symbolic. Furthermore, the second half of the 1880s was politically uneventful, and he was not called on to face a major crisis of politics or finance. He associated with musical, literary and educational groups, and played a part in establishing a chair of music in the University of Adelaide. Music was the passion of his life and many of the songs which he had composed during earlier years became popular throughout Australia, especially 'Remember me no more', 'I love thee so', 'Imperfectus' and 'Severed'. A comic opera which he composed was later performed at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne. He played the violin and piano, and sang well. He helped in the celebration of the colony's jubilee in 1886, and of the Queen's jubilee in 1887, and was said to have entertained more people at Government House than any previous governor. In Adelaide in 1884 he had published On Duty in Many Lands and in 1886 his paper The Physical Geography of the South-West of Western Australia, which had been read before the South Australian branch of the Geographical Society of Australasia. He was a polished public speaker on a variety of topics; he travelled widely and established good relations with all sections of the upper classes.

In May 1887 Robinson was promoted G.C.M.G. and in the same year declined the governorship of Hong Kong, not wishing to endure its climate. From March to November 1889 he was acting governor of Victoria. He was not permanently appointed though both he and the local politicians expected it; to his chagrin, the British government had adopted a 'new departure' of appointing inexperienced noblemen to prestigious gubernatorial posts.

Robinson declined the governorship of Mauritius, and was then chosen to inaugurate parliamentary government in Western Australia. Before he left London he assisted the colony's delegates and the Colonial Office with the Constitution bill, and took the new Constitution to Perth in October 1890. His arrival as governor for the third time was widely acclaimed. The enactment of the Constitution had marked the end of a lengthy period of political struggle, and the departure of Governor Broome had seen the end of incessant imbroglios amongst the colony's senior officials. Robinson was welcomed because he knew and understood more about Western Australia than any other imperial officer. He arranged for the first elections for the Legislative Assembly; he chose the first premier, John Forrest, whom he had earlier recommended to the position of surveyor-general; and he nominated the members of the Legislative Council. Thereafter his practical role in politics diminished, partly because of constitutional conventions, and partly because Forrest soon established his personal dominance over both cabinet and parliament. Forrest did not take kindly to official advice or admonitions from Robinson, especially when the premier was determined to secure local control over the Aboriginals, which had been the only significant power not transferred to the new legislature and executive.

In 1891 Forrest offered Robinson appointment as the colony's first agent-general in London but, after some hesitation, Robinson declined and retired in March 1895. He then returned to London and accepted several company directorships. He was the senior member of the colonial service, and although the officials of the Colonial Office had a high opinion of his ability and efficiency, he was not offered further employment. Throughout his career Robinson had been in the shadow of his better-known brother; he was probably as able and as successful an administrator, but he was not as genial or as warm in his official relationships, and it was his lot to manage the lesser of the remote colonies of the Empire. The Bulletin, 16 December 1882, had described him as 'tall and slight, with an intellectual cast … by no means an enthusiast in sporting matters … a thorough red-tape ruler … He has a genius for music …' For twenty years he had done much to further the interests of Western Australia and South Australia, and he was sincerely missed in the role of their unofficial ambassador when he died in South Kensington on 2 May 1897. Survived by his wife, three sons and two daughters, he left estates of £74,558 in England, £8600 in Western Australia and £900 in Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Hodder, The History of South Australia, vol 2 (Lond, 1893)
  • W. B. Kimberley, History of West Australia (Melb, 1897)
  • J. S. Battye, Western Australia (Oxford, 1924)
  • F. K. Crowley, Australia's Western Third (Lond, 1960) and Forrest: 1847-1918, vol 1 (Brisb, 1971)
  • P. J. Boyce, ‘The governors of Western Australia under representative government, 1870-1890’, University Studies in History, 4 (1961-62) no 1
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 3 May 1897, p 11.

Citation details

F. K. Crowley, 'Robinson, Sir William Cleaver Francis (1834–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robinson-sir-william-cleaver-francis-4494/text7329, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 15 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

William Cleaver Francis Robinson (1834-1897), by George & Walton

William Cleaver Francis Robinson (1834-1897), by George & Walton

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 5960