This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988
William Sydney Robinson (1876-1963), businessman, industrialist and diplomat, was born on 2 October 1876 in Melbourne, youngest son of Anthony Bennett Robinson (1831-1908) and his wife Harriet, née Barton. Anthony Robinson was born at Chilcote, Somerset, England, son of a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. He too joined the navy and then transferred to the mercantile marine. After extensive travelling in this profession, he established himself in the Indian Ocean and South China shipping trade in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). W. S. Robinson's mother came from a well-established Australian family with connexions in law, medicine and politics. Her younger brother was (Sir) Edmund Barton. Born in 1840 in Sydney, Harriet first married Alexander Salmon, and had two children by him. Widowed, she married Anthony Robinson in Melbourne in 1869. He worked there initially with the merchant firm of Henty & Co. before becoming a financial journalist for the Herald and later the Daily Telegraph. Anthony and Harriet raised their close-knit family in Melbourne. Their five surviving sons, including Lionel George (1866-1922), Gerald Henry (1873-1961) and (Sir) Arthur, were to achieve varying degrees of prominence in public life.
After an indifferent school career at Carlton and Scotch colleges and Hawthorn Grammar School, W. S. Robinson followed in the footsteps of his brother Gerald and took up agricultural studies at the recently established residential college at Longerenong in 1892. Successfully completing his diploma in 1894, W.S. joined his brother on his small holding near Ardmona to farm fruit. Low prices during the depression, uneconomic land and a lack of cheap seasonal labour made the venture unattractive and in December 1896 he left to join the Age newspaper where his father had been commercial editor under A. L. Windsor since 1876. After an informal four-year apprenticeship, W.S. succeeded his father as commercial editor in 1900.
Commercial journalism gave W.S. some of his most important friendships and connexions as well as providing the foundations for a formidable understanding of practical economics. On 10 April 1900 at Malvern he and Charlotte, daughter of prominent Melbourne merchant and businessman Lyell Symers Christie, were married by Charles Strong of the Australian Church. Through his father-in-law, W. S. Robinson made his first commercial investment, in the struggling knitting mill originally known as Alexander Stewart & Co. Ltd. Borrowing £2200 from his brother Lionel, W.S. persuaded another brother Frederick Farquhar (1868-1953) to return from managing a Western Australian timber company and take up a partnership in the company. The success of the Robinson family's investment in the spinning and weaving business attracted the capital of more prominent investors and laid the foundation of one of Australia's major textile companies, Yarra Falls Ltd, of which Frederick became chairman and managing director.
In the course of W. S. Robinson's expanding career as a financial journalist and investor he made contact with a family that was to have a dominating influence upon his working life. His first connexion with the Baillieu family was with Richard Percy Clive ('Joe') Baillieu who was a partner in the family stockbroking company of E. L. ('Prince') Baillieu & Co. Originally a professional relationship, the association of W.S. and Joe Baillieu developed into a firm friendship. Through Joe, W.S. first made contact with William Lawrence ('W.L.') Baillieu in 1905, during a visit to the New South Wales mining centre of Broken Hill sponsored by Lionel Robinson.
According to W.S. that visit to Broken Hill 'won me over to mining'. While there, he accepted an offer from Lionel to take up a partnership in his London stockbroking company of Lionel Robinson, Clark & Co. on the condition that he spent two years thoroughly acquainting himself with mining conditions throughout Australia and that he had prior call on his firm's visits to Australia from London thereafter.
In 1906 W.S. resigned from the Age and began a series of journeys, often in primitive conditions, which gave him unrivalled, first-hand knowledge of investment opportunities in Australian mining. In the course of these journeys in 1906, 1907, 1910, 1912 and 1913, he became familiar not only with Broken Hill but also the major copper and gold-mining districts of central and northern Queensland, and identified specific investments which laid the basis for a financial association that was to have lasting Australian and international importance. At Broken Hill, these investments centred on the North Broken Hill and Broken Hill South Blocks mines, and the Zinc Corporation Ltd and the Amalgamated Zinc (de Bavay's) Ltd zinc-treatment companies. In Queensland, the Hampden-Cloncurry, Mt Elliott, Mt Morgan and the Great Fitzroy were all copper companies in which Robinson and his associates were to have a major influence.
Besides his brother Lionel and his senior partner William Clark, the most important financial associations that W.S. developed at this time were with W.L. and 'Prince' Baillieu, Herbert J. Daly, John L. Wharton, Herbert Clark Hoover and Francis Algernon Govett. Through Lionel Robinson, Clark & Co., W.S. also came into close contact with the New Zealand-trained geologist (Sir) Colin Fraser who, after the retirement of W. L. Baillieu in 1932, was W. S. Robinson's most important business colleague. Some of these connexions, especially with 'W.L.', Govett and Fraser, developed into deep and lasting friendships.
W.S.'s subsequent successes and justifiable reputation as one of Australia's founding industrialists has tended to overshadow the importance of his brother Lionel in pioneering the development of this web of business and personal associations. Without Lionel's extraordinary success as a stockbroker in Melbourne, Adelaide and finally in London, little if anything to which W.S. aspired could have been brought to fruition, for Lionel Robinson, Clark & Co. not only offered him a partnership but also provided a considerable portion of the capital upon which these vital early investments were based. When the firm did not act as principals in these matters, very often its connexions both in London and Australia ensured that additional 'friendly' money was forthcoming. This was the case with the North Broken Hill mine, the Zinc Corporation and a related if unsuccessful venture, the Australian Smelting Co. Ltd, Amalgamated Zinc (de Bavay's), the Cloncurry Copper mines, the Mt Morgan and the Great Fitzroy mines.
Lionel Robinson was born on 29 August 1866 in Colombo, was educated at Scotch College, Melbourne (of which he was later a benefactor), and later joined the militia and Victoria's fledgling Defence Department. Temperamentally unsuited to a bureaucratic career, he resigned and took a job as a clerk with the Melbourne stockbroking company of Donaldson & Co. His flair as an operator was quickly displayed in the boom of the 1880s and when 22 he purchased a seat on the Melbourne stock exchange. In conjunction with Bill Clark, Lionel established a major business in mining shares during the Broken Hill and Kalgoorlie mining booms. In 1895 the partnership transferred to Adelaide and in 1899 to London. Within two years, Lionel Robinson, Clark & Co. was the largest broking house in the Australian section of the mining share market. However, the collapse of the Western Australian gold boom in 1901-02 forced the company to diversify away from gold shares. An across-the-board rise in base-metal prices in 1905 encouraged Lionel to sponsor the visit of major Melbourne investors to the Broken Hill mining field which resulted in the offer of a partnership to W.S.
Following the successful identification of major opportunities at Broken Hill, the group of investors associated with Lionel Robinson was enlarged to include W. L. Baillieu, Govett and Hoover, the latter two having worked closely together on the Western Australian goldfields, particularly at Kalgoorlie. The nature of Lionel's involvement with Australian mining thereafter began to broaden from that of a provider of equity capital to that of an investor and director of the concerns with which he was associated. By 1914 Lionel Robinson or his colleagues were to be found on the boards of many of Australia's largest mining companies and assuming functions more often associated with managers than financiers. The outbreak of World War I put a halt to the development of Lionel's career as his company struggled to come to terms with its disruptive effects. In 1915-21 he was a committee-member of the London Stock Exchange, and in 1916 became high sheriff of Norfolk. A racing enthusiast and breeder he owned, with Clark, Old Buckenham stud at Attleborough, Norfolk. In 1921 he fielded a team against Warwick Armstrong's Australians at his Norfolk home, Old Buckenham Hall. Lionel Robinson died there of cancer on 27 July 1922, having taken little part in financial affairs after the war. His wife Mary, née James, whom he had married at St Jude's Anglican church, Carlton, Victoria, on 12 March 1890, and two daughters survived him. He left an estate approaching £240,000.
World War I, however, marked a new beginning for W.S. When the conflict started, he was in Australia with Colin Fraser examining the terms of an option over a controlling parcel of shares in the Mt Morgan gold-mine, granted to the Nagrom Syndicate whose members included Lionel Robinson, Govett and W. L. Baillieu. Serious doubt had arisen as to the value of the shares to be purchased. The protracted renegotiation of the terms of the original agreement provided the ideal opportunity for W.S. to renew his association with W. L. Baillieu and also gave him the chance to examine directly the impact of the war on the Australian mining industry.
The magnitude of these problems, and the opportunity they presented, determined W.S. to end formally his links with Lionel's stockbroking company in 1915 and work full time in the mining and related enterprises associated with the Baillieu family and their London associate, Francis Govett. The problem faced by the government and the mining industry in 1914-15 was that by far the greater portion of the output of the Australian base-metal mining industry was effectively controlled by German companies, or by European or American companies under German influence. As the extent of this control became known to the allied governments in Australia, France and Britain, a political crisis of the first magnitude developed around the question of control of these industries—so important to the production of munitions of war. Baillieu and Robinson and the Federal Labor government under W. M. Hughes quickly appreciated that this situation could be remedied only by establishing smelting works in lead and zinc free from German control, establishing the facilities for the fabrication of copper articles for industrial use in Australia, and by destroying German control of the international metal trade.
Using their extensive influence within the Australian mining industry, Baillieu and Robinson formulated a plan whereby the resources of the major mining companies at Broken Hill were pooled not only to purchase and market lead and zinc concentrates but also to provide the capital for the development of lead and zinc smelting operations of world significance in Australia. This plan was the origin of Broken Hill Associated Smelters Pty Ltd, which purchased and expanded the lead-smelting operations of Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd at Port Pirie, South Australia, in 1915 and established the Electrolytic Zinc Company of Australasia Pty Ltd in 1916.
In carrying out this ambitious and ultimately successful plan, Baillieu and Robinson were materially aided by the dedication of the Federal government to their broad aims and methods. In the early stages of the war Hughes had been extremely suspicious of the German connexions of the major mining companies. With several other important mining firms in Melbourne, the office of W. S. Robinson in Collins House had been raided and papers seized in November 1914. Shortly after, through an intermediary, Robinson made personal contact with Hughes and very soon established close rapport with the then attorney-general. The association became official when Hughes succeeded Andrew Fisher as prime minister and appointed Robinson personal adviser on the lead and zinc industries. This position, which Robinson retained until 1920, took him to the heights of the international metal industry in London and New York and had a lasting influence upon his subsequent career.
The immediate outcome of his appointment was to ensure the success of the plans to develop the base-metal industries in Australia outside German control. Subsequently, Robinson played a major part in limiting alleged German control over the metals trade in the wider arena of the British Empire when he sat on the committee of non-ferrous metals of the British Board of Trade in 1917-18 and helped to implement the British Non-Ferrous Metals Act of 1918, which led to a new balance of economic power in the post-war international metals trade through the formation of the British Metal Corporation. In 1929 he was awarded the gold medal of the Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, London, for his services to the development of British Commonwealth mineral resources.
The changes wrought by the war laid the foundations for the emergence of the companies with which Robinson was associated as major influences in the international mining, smelting, refining and trading of non-ferrous metals. Between 1919 and 1945, North Broken Hill Ltd, Broken Hill South Ltd and Zinc Corporation Ltd, the three companies which had created Broken Hill Associated Smelters and Electrolytic Zinc, became increasingly associated through interlocking management and investments. Generally referred to as the Collins House Group, this association was to rival B.H.P. in its contribution to Australian economic development between the wars. In this diversification Robinson played a major role with W. L. Baillieu, Govett, Fraser and others, following his appointment to the board of Zinc Corporation Ltd in 1920. From then until his retirement in 1951 this English-based company and its associates were W.S.'s major corporate power base.
The common purpose of these men was to safeguard and expand the interests of their companies in the uncertain and increasingly menacing economic and political climate of the 1920s and 1930s. To this end, they embraced policies of national and international significance, including the promotion of collaborative vertical and horizontal integration in the mining and related industries of Australia and Britain. Out of this policy emerged not only Broken Hill Associated Smelters and the Electrolytic Zinc Corporation, but also British Australian Lead Manufacturers, Metal Manufactures Pty Ltd (in association with the Electrolytic Refining and Smelting and Refining Co. Ltd), the National Smelting Co. and the Imperial Smelting Corporation. For the rest of his working life W. S. Robinson retained a close involvement with all these enterprises and several more of less august significance. In addition, he became associated with the development of the famous Burma Corporation's silver-lead-zinc mine in the Upper Shan States after 1923, and in 1930 began the development of international investment in Australian gold-mining which was to result in the creation of Western Mining Corporation in 1933.
While helping to forge these international associations, Robinson also became increasingly concerned with the development of economic and defence policies which affected the well-being of the industries and nations with which he was associated. Throughout the inter-war period he remained close to the small circle of politicians, financiers and journalists in Britain and the United States of America who supported (Sir) Winston Churchill's constant warnings about the dangers of German rearmament and Japanese expansion. Brendan Bracken, proprietor of the Financial Times, (Lord) Robert Horne, a chancellor of the exchequer and chairman of several concerns with which W.S. was associated, and Bernard Baruch were particularly close colleagues who provided both information and means of political influence. Robinson's views were reinforced by his own observations in the course of almost constant international travel in support of his own companies. Concerned at the deteriorating international climate, W.S. proposed in 1936 to Essington Lewis of B.H.P. and others the creation of the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation to aid development of Australian air defences. With the same purpose in mind, he initiated discussions which led to the creation that year of Australia's first aluminium company.
This intermingling of economic and political ideas can be seen in other areas of Robinson's thinking in the inter-war years. Never orthodox in his economic views, he had no ideological commitment to free trade in a world of increasing economic nationalism and autarchic trading blocs. In such a climate, he espoused Empire preference and extensive government intervention in national and international economic affairs. As early as 1917 he had attempted to promote his version of a national zinc-smelting scheme in Britain, using Australian concentrates, in a plant whose rationale was the promotion of British self-sufficiency and the support of an allied mining industry in the production of zinc as a vital raw material for military purposes. Although initially unsuccessful, he eventually negotiated a contract with the British government for the purchase of Australian zinc concentrates at wartime prices for a period of ten years after the war. This much-criticized deal, which effectively resulted in the British taxpayer partially subsidizing the profits of the Broken Hill mining industry, was nevertheless a masterstroke of commercial negotiating.
Robinson was able to secure his ambition of a British-based smelting operation using Australian concentrates when the Zinc Corporation purchased a major stake in the National Smelting Co. in 1923. With its enlargement in 1929 to create the Imperial Smelting Corporation, the basis appeared to have been laid for a strong and self-sufficient enterprise. The onset of the Depression ensured that this was not to be. Throughout the 1930s the Imperial Smelting Corporation and the idea of a British Empire-based zinc-smelting scheme struggled with the realities of contracting world trade and intense competition. Such developments further undermined Robinson's faith in economic orthodoxy, already severely dented by the British government's decision in 1925 to return to the gold standard at pre-war parity, with its subsequent deflationary effect on commodity prices. Consequently, throughout the 1930s he worked actively with Colin Fraser for the establishment of viable international cartels in the zinc and lead industries. On the eve of World War II Robinson's aim of British government support for the zinc industry was finally realized, as the rapidly deteriorating political climate underscored the wisdom of national self-sufficiency in zinc.
Robinson's early departure from economic orthodoxy can also be seen in Australia. As early as 1916, with the development of the Zinc and Copper Producers' associations and the establishment of Metal Manufactures Pty Ltd, W.S. was committed to a degree of government presence in commercial decision-making that often put him at odds with his closest colleagues. The introduction of a major protective tariff in Australia in 1921 further wedded him to the necessity and virtue of a mixed economy for an emerging industrial nation such as Australia. Many of the enterprises with which Robinson was associated benefited directly from the highly protected character of inter-war Australian industry. Metal Manufactures Pty Ltd, Electrolytic Zinc and the Associated Pulp and Paper Mills, established in 1936, probably owed their existence to these measures during the highly competitive and destructive inter-war period. The vicissitudes of Australia's commodity producers on the international market during this time only served to confirm in Robinson's mind the rectitude of his views.
His unorthodox approach to major issues of the day extended to the political arena. His greatest periods of influence coincided with the main periods of office of Federal Labor governments. He was arguably the single most important individual in the moulding of Australian policy on non-ferrous metals during and immediately after World War I. During the term of the ill-fated Scullin government, Robinson used his influence in London financial circles to try and solve Australia's mounting debt-burden in 1930, but to no avail. Finally, during World War II Robinson was again intimately concerned in an official capacity with the problem of dovetailing Britain's demands for base-metals with her sources of supply in Australia and other parts of the world. In this enormous endeavour he was considerably aided by the appointment of his old friend and professional colleague Oliver Lyttelton (Lord Chandos) to the position of British controller of non-ferrous metals, and Essington Lewis and Fraser to senior positions in industrial and metals supply in Australia. As with Hughes and Scullin, Robinson established a close working relationship with Labor leaders Curtin, Chifley, and H. V. Evatt whom he accompanied to London and Washington in 1942-43. In six and a half years of travel during which he made 20 trips to Australia, 40 entrances to the United States of America, 24 to Canada and 12 to Britain, Robinson's main achievement was to smooth the path for vital supplies of war machinery and raw materials without witnessing any of the bottlenecks and price rises that had hampered the allied war effort in 1914-18.
World War II was the zenith of Robinson's career. The strain of his official duties and Fraser's death in 1944 hastened his decision to retire from business activity once peace returned. In 1947 he resigned as managing director of the Zinc Corporation, a position held since Govett's death in 1926. Elevated to the presidency of the company, he resigned this position also in 1951, two years after the merger of the two most important companies with which he had been associated, Zinc Corporation Ltd and the Imperial Smelting Corporation Ltd. During the remaining twelve years of his life, Robinson continued to display a strong interest in the affairs of these companies and saw the merger of Consolidated Zinc and the Rio Tinto companies in the Rio Tinto Zinc Corporation Ltd in 1962. He also lived to see the realization of two aspects of Australian economic development in which he had long believed: the development of an Australian aluminium industry and the mining and export of uranium. He retained a lively interest in economic affairs and a strong belief in the virtues of managed currencies. One of the more active projects of his last years was the promotion of the breeding of Santa Getrudis cattle in tropical Queensland.
W.S. was an imposing but genial figure. Tall and moderately handsome, with a disconcertingly mild manner, he could nevertheless exhibit strong temper when crossed. He was persistent and determined to the point of ruthlessness in the pursuit of his aims and he attached great value to character traits which he himself exhibited: loyalty and a sense of personal commitment to a select group of intimates. This enabled him to exercise authority in a quiet, unobtrusive but definite manner which was the key to his power in international mining and finance industries over three decades. With the passing of Govett, W. L. Baillieu and Fraser this power inevitably declined. During a long life with many international connexions, Robinson's associates and colleagues were many and widespread. Although not without enemies, given the nature of his business career and its length these were surprisingly few. An optimist by nature, Robinson combined a remarkable breadth of vision with a practical ability to achieve results. He died on 13 September 1963 at Alexandra Headland, Queensland, and was cremated with Anglican rites. His second wife, Gertrude Mary, née Pavitt, whom he had married in London on 15 November 1927, and the daughter of his first marriage survived him. His son Lyell Bryant had succeeded him as managing director of the Zinc Corporation Ltd in 1947 and chairman of Consolidated Zinc in 1956 but had predeceased him in 1961. Robinson's memoirs, If I Remember Rightly, were published in 1967.
Gerald Robinson was born at Carlton on 1 October 1873. He was educated at Carlton College and Longerenong Agricultural College, where he was dux in 1892. Next year he became an orchardist on a twenty-acre (8 ha) block at Ardmona, and in 1899 joined the Department of Agriculture. On 28 January 1904 he married Daisy Elizabeth Whamond at the Presbyterian Church, South Yarra.
Resigning from the public service in 1906 to pursue a growing interest in mining and finance, he became a founding director of Australian Knitting Mills in 1909 (chairman, 1936) and of Luna Park Ltd in 1911. Other directorships included J. S. Corden (Vic) Pty Ltd (1925), the Victorian board of the Australian General Insurance Co. Ltd (1927), Hoyts Theatres Ltd (1931), Mt Coolon Gold Mines (1934) and the Land Mortgage Bank of Victoria Ltd (1936). He was appointed managing director of Freehold Assets Ltd in 1936. He died childless on 18 September 1961, survived by his second wife Dorothy Lavinia, née Anderson, whom he had married on 17 March 1947. His estate was valued for probate at over £44,000.
Peter Richardson, 'Robinson, William Sydney (1876–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robinson-william-sydney-8247/text14441, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 25 August 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988