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The quiet entrepreneur

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

As well as launching a television rental empire and revolutionising the British horse racing industry, Freemason David Robinson also shared his prosperity with worthy causes, as Paul Hooley explains

The culmination of more than a year of preparation, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 brought three million spectators to London’s streets to witness her procession. It was the first British coronation to be televised and the subject caused considerable debate, with Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill opposed
to the idea. Elizabeth was convinced otherwise, however.

The event highlighted public interest in television, but few people had been able to afford to purchase their own set – so Freemason David Robinson saw an opportunity. He formed a television rental business through his existing chain of shops, carrying out repairs in a pre-war workshop behind his garage.

Born in Cambridge in 1904, Robinson was the son of a local bicycle-shop owner. In 1930 he bought a garage in Bedford and developed it into a substantial business. Later, he opened a radio and electrical shop in the high street and then similar shops in several neighbouring towns.

By 1962, Robinson Rentals had expanded nationwide and was making an annual profit of £1.5 million. Robinson sold the business to Granada for £8 million in 1968, and turned his attention to his great love – horse racing. Over the next few years, he set up three separate and competing stables at Newmarket and purchased Kempton Park Racecourse.

RIDING HIGH

Horse racing in those days was something of a closed shop. But Robinson was his own man and had little regard for the racing establishment or the slapdash way in which the industry was run. He dismissed many antiquated ways of running stables and developing horses, bringing in his own methods.

Robinson revolutionised the ‘sport of kings’ and made it what it is today. He never bred horses himself but spent lavishly at the yearling sales, where his buyers were known as Robinson’s Rangers. He was always looking for a return on every investment, first on the racecourse and then on the resale of the horse as a stallion.

Robinson proved that efficient management could make horse racing profitable. He ranked all his horses, jockeys and the courses they ran on by colour – red, blue or green, according to ability – and woe betide any trainer who ran a red horse with a blue jockey at a green course. In the 10 years he was actively involved in horse racing, Robinson topped thenumber-of-winners table eight times, setting a new record of 115 wins in the 1973 season. At that time, he had 157 horses in training and his career total was a staggering 997 winners.

‘While Robinson’s charitable giving was legendary within the Craft, he never sought to go through the chair’

LASTING LEGACY

As spectacular as Robinson’s achievements were, it was his support of worthy causes and altruism that most impressed those who knew him. In Bedford, he paid for the building of an Olympic-sized swimming pool and sports complex, and in Cambridge his donations paid for a nursing home, an arts centre at his old school and new developments at Papworth and Addenbrooke’s Hospitals, including a maternity unit. When the Penlee lifeboat sank with the loss of the entire crew in 1981, Robinson paid £400,000 for a replacement and went on to fund a further three boats. He made many other donations – often anonymously – the greatest being the £18 million he gave to the University of Cambridge in 1973 to build Robinson College.

Although he accepted a knighthood in 1985, Robinson had little time for honours, social climbing or self-promotion. Equally, while his charitable giving was legendary within the Craft, he never sought to go through the chair, preferring instead to sit quietly among the backbenchers.

Robinson was initiated into Etheldreda Lodge, No. 2107, Cambridge, in 1929 and was made an honorary member in 1984. He was also a member of Robert de Parys Lodge, No. 5000, Bedford, from 1931 until 1982.

A devoted family man, Robinson married Mabel Baccus when they were both 18 and they had a son and a daughter. He led by example and was a remarkable entrepreneur and philanthropist, amassing a fortune so he could give it away to deserving causes. Robinson died in 1987 and was buried at sea by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.