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.
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’
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.
As the sun shone down on Sulgrave Manor, classic cars from as far away as Yorkshire and South Wales were flagged off by W Bro Charles Bennett, Assistant Provincial Grand Master of Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire
This marked the start of the fourth and final Midlands route of the Classic 300.
The participants, on Sunday 27th August, followed a route taking them 78 miles from Sulgrave Manor – the ancestral home of Bro George Washington’s family - to the Blenheim Palace Festival of Transport - where Bro Sir Winston Churchill was born.
On the way, the classic vehicles passed through the Cotswolds including Bourton on the Water and Burford. This route was organised by W Bro Dermot Bambridge and W Bro John Harmer – members of Silverstone Lodge No. 9877 and on the Classic 300 Midlands organising committee.
Before the first car departed from Sulgrave, W Bro Charles Bennett handed W Bro Peter Manning, Assistant Provincial Grand Master of Warwickshire, a specially made gavel to carry on the route.
The gavel was made from the con rod of a Jaguar D-type, which was the legendary model that won the 24 Hours at Le Mans for England no less than three times during the 1950s. This and four other identical gavels are being ceremonially carried by a car on each route.
The Classic 300 is a series of events for classic cars and was started by the Grand Master at Windsor Great Park in May. It is part of the Tercentenary celebrations of the United Grand Lodge of England and will finish at Brooklands on 1st October.
Two million historic Freemason records published online
Newly digitised collection offers fascinating insight into one of world’s most intriguing organisations
More than two million historic Freemason membership records have been published online for the first time, revealing the names of some of the most famous and well-connected men in British history.
Digitised by Ancestry, the world’s largest family history resource, the UK and Ireland Freemason Membership Registers 1733-1923 span 190 years and offer fascinating insight into the inner workings of one of the world’s most intriguing organisations.
Rich in detail, each record reveals the Freemason’s name, profession, residence, date of initiation or date that they joined the organisation, age at initiation and lodge location. Accordingly, this collection will be of vital significance for anybody looking to locate, or find out more about, a Freemason ancestor.
The records also feature numerous famous Freemasons, including:
Oscar Wilde – Following his initiation on the 23 February 1875, Irish-born Wilde is listed as a member of the Apollo University Lodge, Cambridge. A novelist, essayist, and one of the most popular playwrights of his time, his novels The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest remain popular today.
Sir Henry Wellcome – Scientist, businessman, philanthropist, archaeologist and collector, Wellcome is best known for his pioneering approach to medical research. His legacy, the Wellcome Trust, continues to provide grants to pharmacology departments to educate and train young researchers.
Winston Churchill – Appearing in the records at the age of 26, Churchill was initiated into Studholme Lodge on the 26 May 1901. He went on to become a British statesman, orator, author and eventually prime minister across the years 1940–45 and 1951–55. Many credit ‘British Bulldog’ Churchill for leading the country to victory in World War II.
Joseph Rudyard Kipling – Writer, poet, and novelist, Kipling's works of fiction include children’s favourite The Jungle Book and Kim. Born in Bombay, Kipling was initiated in the Lodge of Hope and Perseverance No 782, in Lahore in 1886.
Novelists and scientists aside, further analysis of the records reveals that engineers, merchants and clerks were the most common professions of English Freemasons. Similarly, in Ireland, farmers, clerks and engineers make up the top three most frequently occurring member roles. A plethora of other professions also appear, not least 14,882 ‘Gentleman’, and even a solitary ‘Cloth Shrinker’.
'As freemasonry approaches its 300th birthday in 2017, we are pleased to be able to provide access to details of past members. The records demonstrate the extensive involvement which Freemasons have had in British society at national and local level and I hope that they will provide a fascinating insight.' - Diane Clements, Director of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry
Miriam Silverman, Senior UK Content Manager from Ancestry comments: 'We’re delighted to be able to offer people an online window into a relatively unknown organisation. Whilst we can’t reveal the inner workings of Freemason ceremonies, what we can tell you is the details of over two million historic members. So, if you want to find out more about a Freemason ancestor or locate a famous member, now is the perfect time to get online and start your search.'
To search the UK and Ireland Freemason Membership Registers 1733-1923 and more than 16 billion historical records worldwide, visit www.ancestry.co.uk
A part of the launch, Sir Tony Robinson took a tour of Freemasons' Hall with Dr James Campbell who was able to debunk some of the common myths surrounding Freemasonry
'A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma'
This was how Winston Churchill described Russia in 1939. Seventy three years later his words were repeated in introducing ‘less well known groups’ at a recent meeting of the Hull and East Riding Interfaith Group at the Guildhall in Hull.
Jeffrey Gillyon, Deputy Provincial Grand Master, Province of Yorkshire North and East Ridings, spoke about freemasonry, which he described as: ‘Not a religion but an approach to life’. Others spoke on different topics including 'The Greens and Paganism', 'The Bahai in Principle and Practice', and 'The Russian Orthodox Community in Hull'.
Those attending questioned Jeff on the issues of secrecy and Freemasonry and on the origins of the Craft. The evening proved interesting and thought provoking, with the basic tenets of Freemasonry being openly discussed.
The co chairs for the evening, Professor John Friend and Reverend James Hargreaves, encouraged open interactive discussion between the representatives of different faiths and groups. The consensus at the conclusion of the evening suggested that Churchill’s aphorism, whilst not inappropriate, was not entirely applicable: the riddle was being unwrapped, the mystery reduced, and the enigma addressed.
It is hoped further opportunities will arise across the Province enabling similar interaction with different faiths and community groups.
David Harrison looks at the foundation of the lodge and its illustrious members and friends
Authors’ Lodge No. 3456, upon its foundation in November 1910, received letters of goodwill from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Henry Rider Haggard and Jerome K Jerome.
Conan Doyle and Kipling were both Freemasons. The latter had been initiated into Freemasonry in the Hope and Perseverance Lodge No. 782, based in Lahore, India, in 1886, and went on to become an honorary member of the Authors’ Lodge. Conan Doyle was initiated into the Phoenix Lodge No. 257, at Southsea, Hampshire, on 26 January 1887.
There is no proof that Rider Haggard or Jerome were Freemasons, but we can certainly say that they were sympathetic; the letters of goodwill they wrote prove that.
Leagues of gentlemen
The Authors’ Lodge had a direct connection to the London-based Authors’ Club, which had been established in 1891. The latter’s membership included other literary Freemasons such as Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill; the new lodge was founded by a number of the club’s masonic members. Jerome was a member of the Authors’ Club; for many years Conan Doyle was its chairman and he often read his manuscripts to members prior to publication. One of the founders of the Authors’ Club – though not of the lodge – was the prolific novelist and Freemason Sir Walter Besant, who went on to be a founder, in 1894, of the Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076 – the London lodge dedicated to masonic research.
The consecration of the Authors’ Lodge reveals the intricate relationships between certain gentlemen’s clubs and the world of Freemasonry. Victorian gentlemen’s clubs had links to Freemasonry during the period. Indeed, many Victorian writers, artists and politicians were members of both, the thriving social scene offering opportunities for networking and social advancement.
The founding of the lodge was seen at the time not only as a way of promoting the Authors’ Club among Freemasons but also as providing a means of promoting Freemasonry within the club, since attracting literary men into the Craft, according to one of the founding members of the lodge, journalist Max Montesole, ‘could not fail to add lustre to the Order’.
Kipling and Rider Haggard were very close friends, and they both famously conveyed Freemasonry in their work. Indeed, masonic themes can be seen in Rider Haggard’s late Victorian works King Solomon’s Mines and the wonderfully exotic novel She, a story that deals with death and rebirth. Both of these works present the idea of the heroic explorer searching for hidden knowledge in lost civilisations. These, along with Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, testify not only to the popularity of Freemasonry at the time but also to the acceptance of the Craft in Victorian society which, within these literary contexts at least, also conveyed an element of mystery and the occult.
Conan Doyle occasionally referred to Freemasonry in his Sherlock Holmes stories, such as in The Red-Headed League, when Holmes – who was obviously very familiar with masonic symbolism – recognised that a certain gentleman was a Freemason, the particular gentleman being surprised that Holmes knew of his membership: ‘I won’t insult your intelligence by telling you how I read that, especially as, rather against the strict rules of your order, you use an arc and compass breastpin.’
He also referred to Freemasonry in other Sherlock Holmes stories such as The Adventure of the Norwood Builder and The Adventure of the Retired Colourman.
In addition, adding to the nuance of mystery and the occult, Conan Doyle, along with other Victorian Freemasons such as Arthur Edward Waite, had embraced psychic research and spiritualism, an interest that developed after the death of his wife and several other close family members. Until his death in 1930, he consistently sought proof of life after death.
Conan Doyle’s 1926 work, The History of Spiritualism, also lent his support to seances conducted by various psychics at the time, and their supposed spiritual materialisations. One of the spiritualists that Conan Doyle supported, Daniel Douglas Home, was also supported by fellow Freemason, Lord Lindsay, who had – he said – witnessed the spiritualist apparently mysteriously levitate out of a third story window and return through the window of an adjoining room.
Jerome K Jerome’s masonic membership is hotly debated; although he certainly mixed in masonic circles – Jerome having been good friends with fellow writers and Freemasons Conan Doyle and Kipling – proof of membership is lacking.
Jerome also contributed to a masonic publication: a souvenir of the Grand Masonic Bazaar in aid of the Annuity Fund of Scottish Masonic Benevolence in 1890 and produced by the Lodge of Dramatic and Arts, No. 757 (SC), for a fundraising bazaar held in Edinburgh in December 1890. The publication, given the rather humorous title of Pot Pourri of Gifts Literal and Artistic, included the Jerome story ‘The Prince’s Quest’, a rare and much sought after piece of Jerome literature. We need to be cautious: the preface written by the artist William Grant Stevenson, then Master of Lodge, states that many of its contributors were not members of the Craft.
Being friends with Conan Doyle and Kipling, Jerome would have been familiar with Freemasonry. Perhaps future findings may reveal some masonic membership. But the letters of goodwill these authors wrote testify to their respect for the founding of the Authors’ Lodge, a lodge that celebrated its centenary late last year.
With thanks to Ron Selby, Secretary of Authors’ Lodge
The following letter was subsequently published in Freemasonry Today Winter 2011:
In his article Authors’ Lodge: A History in the Summer/Autumn edition of Freemasonry Today, David Harrison was uncertain whether Sir Henry Rider Haggard had been a Freemason. I can confirm that he was initiated in the Lodge of Good Report, No. 136, in 1877. His membership ended in 1890, when he resigned. During that thirteen-year period he published eighteen books, including his best-known novels King Solomon’s Mines (1885), Allan Quartermain and She (both in 1887). I have often wondered whether any of his characters were inspired by lodge members.
Richard Sharp, Lodge of Good Report, No. 136, London