Robert Spencer Robinson

Robert Spencer Robinson

Admiral Sir Robert Spencer Robinson KCB (1809-1889) was a British Naval officer, who served as two five-year terms as Controller of the Navy from February 1861 to February 1871, and was therefore responsible for the procurement of warships at a time when the Royal Navy was changing over from unarmoured wooden ships to ironclads. As a result of the "Captain" disaster, Robinson was not given a third term as Controller. [ Online biography Robert Spencer Robinson] ] Robinson has been "described as having one of the best brains of any Victorian admiral".

Personal life

He was born at Welford Park, [There is a website for [ Welford Park.] A history of the house can be found on [ Berkshire History.] ] Berkshire, the son of Sir John Robinson Bt. (1754–1832), Archdeacon of Armagh.

On 10 May 1841 he married Clementina, daughter of Admiral Sir John Louis.

Early Naval Career

Robinson entered the Navy on 6 December 1821. He was promoted to Lieutenant on 27 September 1830, and from 5 May 1831 until 1834 served as lieutenant in the 50-gun razee frigate "Dublin", [ [ Online history HMS "Dublin"] ] commanded by Lord James Townshend. "Dublin" was flagship on the South America station. In 1836 he was appointed to the 84-gun two-decker "Asia". The "Asia" was commissioned on 18 March 1836 by Captain William Fisher, and served in the Mediterranean. [ [ Online history HMS "Asia".] ] On 26 September 1837, he was appointed to the 28-gun frigate "Tyne", which had been commissioned on 5 September 1837 by Captain John Townshend, and was also serving in Mediterranean. [ [ Online history HMS "Tyne".] ] On 28 June 1838 he was promoted to commander;

In April 1839, he completed a book: "The Nautical Steam Engine Explained, and Its Powers and Capabilities Described for the Officers of the Navy and Others Interested in the Important Results of Steam Navigation". [Robinson, Commander R.S., [ "The Nautical Steam Engine Explained, and Its Powers and Capabilities Described for the Officers of the Navy and Others Interested in the Important Results of Steam Navigation"] , pub Saunders and Otley, 1839.]

On 20 July 1839 he was appointed captain of the 6-gun paddle-sloop "Phoenix", serving in the Mediterranean. [ Online history HMS "Phoenix"] ] However the captain of the 4-gun paddle-sloop "Hydra", Commander Anthony William Milward died, [ [ Online biography Anthony William Milward ] ] [ Online history HMS "Hydra"] ] and Robinson was appointed to "Hydra" (also serving in the Mediterranean). A replacement for Robinson as captain of the "Phoenix" was appointed on 1 March 1840. Under Robinson "Hydra" took part in Commodore Charles Napier's attack on Sidon in September 1840. [ [ W.L. Clowes on the 1840 Syrian Campaign] ] Robinson was promoted to captain on 5 November 1840; a replacement for Robinson as captain of "Hydra" was appointed on 26 December 1840.

Captain Robinson

In 1847, he wrote "Observations on the Steam Ships of the Royal Navy".

On 15 February 1850, Robinson was appointed as captain of the 46-gun screw-frigate "Arrogant" in the Channel Fleet off Lison, where he replaced Captain Robert Fitzroy. "Arrogant" paid off at Portsmouth on 26 September 1852. [ [ Online history HMS "Arrogant"] ]

On 15 June 1854, Robinson commissioned the new 80-gun screw two-decker "Colossus" at Portsmouth. "Colossus" served on the North America and West Indies station in 1854, and then in 1855 in the Baltic during what is now called the Crimean War. Robinson left "Colossus" on 24 January 1856. [ [ Online history HMS "Colossus"] ]

On 13 February 1856, Robinson was appointed captain of the 102-gun screw three-decker "Royal George", which was one of the ships that transported the British Army back from the Crimea after the conclusion of the campaign there. The "Royal George" paid off at Sheerness on 28 August 1856. [ [ Online history HMS "Royal George"] ]

On 25 August 1856, Robinson was appointed Superintendent of the Steam Reserve at Devonport, flying his flag in the 60-gun screw 'blockship' "Ajax". [ [ Online history HMS "Ajax"] ] from 1 February 1858 until May 1859, he was captain of the 90-gun screw-two-decker "Exmouth" guard ship of Ordinary, Devonport. [ [ Online history HMS "Exmouth"] ]

Robinson was promoted to Rear Admiral on 9 June 1860.


On 7 Feb 1861 Rear Admiral Sir Baldwin Wake Walker resigned as Controller of the Navy. Rear Admiral Robinson was appointed to replace him. [Pages 79-82, Lambert, Andrew "Battleships in Transition, the Creation of the Steam Battlefleet 1815-1860", published Conway Maritime Press, 1984. ISBN 0 85177 315 X]

As Controller, "Rear Admiral Robert Spencer Robinson... was an iron-willed administrator for an ironclad age. Bitterly dissatisfied with the private contractors as well as dockyard obfuscation, Robinson steadily applied pressure on the Board for greater control and greater centralisation, not just in the hands of Their Lordships, but more his own. It was the only way to directly insure the work would be completed as required. In the person of Chief Constructor, Edward J. Reed, the Controller was able to combine the new architecture of naval power with its execution.'" [ [ Fuller, Dr. Howard J., "Review article: Portsmouth Record Series, Portsmouth Dockyard Papers 1852–1869: From Wood to Iron, C. I. Hamilton (ed.)", January 2007 issue "Journal for Maritime Research".] ]

Robinson was promoted to Vice Admiral on 2 April 1866. He was made K.C.B. (Knight Commander of the Bath), on the civil list on 7 December 1868, and Fellow of the Royal Society on 3 June 1869.

One of the types vessels Robinson had built when he was Controller were "shallow-draft ironclads which were passed off as 'coast defence vessels' but which were... viewed by their designers at the Admiralty as offensive weapons, specifically intended for attacking coastal fortifications and naval arsenals. In urging the construction of several such vessels in 1866, Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Spencer Robinson, stated that they were 'intended either for coast defences, or the attack of shipping in an enemy harbour.'... In short, the Royal Navy developed an alternative strategy to the close blockade, an alternative built round destroying enemy vessels before they could utilize their ability to evade blockaders. The 'coast defence' battleships, along with the gun- and later torpedo boats were, in the words of Lambert, 'the cutting edge of British strategy, their function... to destroy fleets sheltering inside their bases..." [Page 30, Beeler, John "Steam, Strategy and Shurman: Imperial Defence in the Post-Crimean Era, 1856-1905", chapter 2 of: "Far-Flung Lines: Essays on Imperial Defence in Honour of Donald Mackenzie Schurman", edited by Greg Kennedy, KeithNeilson, pub Frank Cass, 1997, ISBN 0714642193]

"Throughout the 1860s [Robert] Spencer Robinson consistently rated the British ironclad fleet inferior to its cross-Channel rival, in order to lend weight to his campaigns for enlarged and accelerated shipbuilding programmes. In late 1867, for instance, he wrote that a 'comparison was made between the armoured ships of England and those of France; it was pointed out [in the autumn of 1866] that, on the whole we were manifestly inferior in the number of our ironclads to that Power, taking into account those that were building... The inferiority in the number of ironclad ships, which existed in 1866 still exists in 1867.' [Remarks of Spencer Robinson in Report on the State of the Steam-Ships of the Royal Navy, 12 December 1867, Milne Papers, NMM: MLN/143/4/1,] [Robert] Spencer Robinson counted thirty-nice English ironclads to forty-six French."Page 35, Beeler, John F., "Birth of the Battleshp. British Capital Ship Design 1870-1881", pub Chatham, 2001, ISBN 1-84067-5349 ] "At no time after 1865 was Britain's lead in completed ironclads endangered. [Robert] Spencer Robinson [and his colleagues] Milne and Corry thus serves as wonderful examples of what defence analyst Edward Luttwak has termed 'amoral navalism'; professionals agitating for the enlargement of the force at their disposal without regard for either the constraints imposed by politics and foreign policy (or any other factors for that matter), or the actual menace posed by rival forces."

In the 1868 General Election. the Liberals, won a majority, and William Gladstone became Prime Minister on 9 December 1868. The custom in those days was for the Board of Admiralty to resign when there was a change of government. On 18 December 1868, Vice-Admiral Robinson was appointed Third Naval Lord. [ The Commissioners ("Lords") of the Admiralty 1828 - 1995] ] The new First Lord of the Admiralty, Hugh Culling Eardley Childers "initiated a determined programme of cost and manpower reductions, fully backed by the Prime Minister, Gladstone described him [Childers] as 'a man likely to scan with a rigid eye the civil expenses of the Naval Service'. He got the naval estimates just below the psychologically important figure of £10,000,000. Childers strengthened his own position as First Lord by reducing the role of the Board of Admiralty to a purely formal one, making meetings rare and short and confining the Naval Lords rigidly to the administrative functions... Initially Childers had the support of the influential Controller of the Navy, Vice-Admiral Sir [Robert] Spencer Robinson." [Page 14, Smith, Paul (editor), "Government and the Armed Forces in Britain, 1856-1990", pub Hambledon Press, 1996, ISBN 1852851449
Note that the original anachronistically says 'Sea Lord'; at the time the title was Naval Lord.

"In 1870 [Robert] Spencer Robinson counted the British ironclad force at thirty-nice ships, and that of France at forty-one, claiming that France had a superiority of numbers in heavy guns, and concluded that ' [a] t this moment an alliance between France and so small a naval power as Holland would turn most seriously the naval preponderance against England...' With all this [the First Naval Lord] [Sydney Dacres| [Admiral S.C.] Dacres] cordially concurred, pointing out especially that ' [t] there is no doubt that we are outnumbered by some ten vessels of the special service class [i.e. coast and harbour defence vessels] of French ships.'"" After the end of the Franco-Prussian War and "Robinson's departure from the Admiralty, calmer more balanced heads prevailed, and more rational assessments of the technological disparity between the two battlefleets were soon forthcoming."

When Robinson's subordinate, the Chief Constructor, Edward James Reed resigned in July 1870, Robinson described this as a national disaster. [ HMS Captain - biography of Edward J Reed.] ]

Robinson's second five-year term as Controller came to an end on 9 February 1871. He was not appointed to a third term because the Prime Minister William Gladstone decided against it, in the light of the loss of the "Captain", for which Robinson was quite unfairly blamed by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Hugh Childers. Robinson's replacement as Third Naval Lord and Controller was Captain Robert Hall. [ [ Online biography Robert Hall.] ]


Robinson was put on the retirement list on 1 April 1871. [ [ Online biography Robert Spencer Robinson]
The original says 1 April 1870, but that must be a misprint, as he was still serving as Controller.
] He was promoted to Admiral on 14 July 1871.

In 1871 he wrote "Results of Admiralty Organisation as Established by Sir James Graham and Mr Childers".

The "New York Times" published the following on 13 September 1871: "The entire ship-building interest of Hull, England, is reported to have been purchased by a Company, of who the leading officers are Vice-Admiral Robert Spencer Robinson and Naval Constructor Reid [sic] ." [ ["New York Times" 13 September 1871] ]

In 1873 he stood as independent Liberal critic of Gladstone's naval policy at the Hull by-election, without success. [Page 400, Parry, Jonathan Philip, "Democracy and Religion: Gladstone and the Liberal Party", pub Cambridge UniversityPress, 1986, ISBN 0521367832]

Robinson died at his residence 61 Eaton Place, [ [ The Illustrated London News 1889] ] London on 27 July 1889, and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery. [ [ Notable personalities at Kensal Green Cemetery] ]


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