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Sir Thomas Bilbe Robinson (1853–1939)

by Paul D. Wilson

This article was published:

Sir Thomas Bilbe Robinson (1853-1939), shipping manager, agent-general and public servant, was born on 24 November 1853 at Rotherhithe, Surrey, England, son of Robert William Robinson, shipbuilder, and his wife Frances Sarah, née Bilbe. After a varied education, followed by commercial experience and marriage on 21 October 1876 to Elizabeth Phoebe Jane Sarah Jobling (d.1901), in London, Robinson was sent to Rockhampton, Queensland, in 1881 to manage the firm Walter Reid & Co., then to Parbury, Lamb & Co., Brisbane. There he also controlled the Queensland Steam Shipping Co., owned in London by the British India Steam Navigation, Parbury, and McIlwraith, McEacharn combine. When Robinson visited London in 1884 for consultation with the principals, his report on Australian conditions resulted in the British India interests moving more strongly into the Australian trade and the establishment of the Australasian United Steam Navigation Co. in 1887.

A keen citizen soldier, Robinson joined the Queensland Volunteer Force, Rockhampton, soon after his arrival, was commissioned acting lieutenant in 1883, captain in the Moreton Regiment in 1885 and major in 1886. He moved to the unattached list in 1888 and retired in 1893.

He then became McIlwraith, McEacharn's Melbourne manager, later returning to London as a director of that company. On 6 May 1903 he married Rosa Hannah Cowell at Broadstairs, Kent. He retired from active commercial life in 1906, becoming a director of the Federal Steam Navigation Co. and the New Zealand Shipping Co. Robinson retained business and property interests in Queensland and was appointed by the Kidston government as one of three honorary commissioners to the Queensland court at the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908; he also acted for Queensland on loan and stock inscription matters. He replaced Sir Horace Tozer as agent-general for Queensland from 1 January 1910 and was knighted that year.

Robinson worked energetically to encourage British migration to Queensland and to promote the State's export industries. His efforts to co-ordinate the supply of frozen meat to France and the Middle East when war broke out resulted in his appointment as director of meat supplies for the allied armies in late 1914. He also advised the Board of Trade, ensuring a regular, price-controlled meat supply to the British domestic market; and on behalf of the board he gained control of a meatworks on the River Plate, inhibiting, by price manipulation, the attempts by American packers to exploit war shortages.

Robinson was on close and amiable terms with Queensland premiers D. F. Denham and T. J. Ryan. His assessment of market forces and Imperial requirements lay behind the compulsory meat acquisition of both premiers. Looking beyond hostilities, Robinson urged Ryan to ensure a state monopoly of meat production, together with the control of ocean transport of frozen meat. In co-operation with Charles Ross, the Imperial meat officer appointed by the Queensland government, Robinson assisted Ryan in London during the 1916 negotiations on Queensland's export trade. His cable to Ryan, advising that the British government wished the Meat Supply for Imperial Uses Act (1914) to operate for 1916 and possibly for the duration of the war, was read by Ryan to the High Court of Australia during its hearing of the Duncan v. Theodore (Mooraberrie) case in September 1916. Robinson's influence with the British government, after Ryan won the case before the Privy Council in 1918, assured meat supplies for Britain, Queensland's virtual control of Australian meat exports and guaranteed supplies for the Australian domestic market. 'The greatest export butcher the world has ever seen', Robinson oversaw the delivery to Britain of £300 million worth of meat during the war.

Appointed K.C.M.G. in 1913, K.B.E. in 1917 and G.B.E. in 1920, Sir Thomas was also made honorary lieutenant-colonel (1919) in the British Army. He was also appointed a chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by France (1917), a commander of the Order of the Crown of Italy (1918) and a commander of the Order of the Crown of Belgium (1919).

Robinson was replaced as agent-general on 22 October 1919, after Labor disquiet over the post not being held by a Labor supporter. Returning to Queensland, he was invited to enter politics as leader of the anti-Labor forces, but declined. He continued to hold commercial and shipping directorships, was a director of the Queensland National Bank and a member of the Queensland Club. In 1921 he purchased the lease of a grazing property, Walton Downs, near Tambo. A man of 'general culture and marked artistic tastes', Robinson died at his home, Redriff, Broadstairs, Kent, on 15 May 1939 and was buried in the churchyard of St Peter's-in-Thanet Church. His wife, their son and two daughters and a daughter of his first marriage survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Scott, Australia During the War (Syd, 1936)
  • N. L. McKellar, From Derby Round to Burketown (Brisb, 1977)
  • Times (London), 16, 19 May 1939
  • Imperial meat scheme papers, PRE/55, 61, 64, 129 (Queensland State Archives)
  • Premier's London visit papers, PRE/10 (Queensland State Archives)
  • Governor's despatches, GOV/69, p 197 (Queensland State Archives)
  • register of selections (grazing), Charleville, LAN/P161, p 232, selection 1108 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Paul D. Wilson, 'Robinson, Sir Thomas Bilbe (1853–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


24 November, 1853
Rotherhithe, Surrey, England


15 May, 1939 (aged 85)
Broadstairs, Kent, England

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