Henry Crabb Robinson 1775 – 1867 diarist, was born in Bury St. Edmunds, England. He became the first war correspondent when The Times of London dispatched him to cover Napoleon Bonaparte‘s Peninsular Campaign in Spain.
Henry Crabb Robinson was a friend of Robert Browning, Lord Byron, Thomas Carlyle, John Chapman, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Dickens, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Augustus Tulk, James John Garth Wilkinson*, and William Wordsworth.
The Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers of Henry Crabb Robinson (1762-1867) preserved at Dr. Williams’s Library, London, is one of the most important literary archives of the late eighteenth to mid nineteenth century.
It spans Crabb Robinson’s long life and includes his prolific correspondence with many of the leading literary, artistic, scientific and political figures of the day. The collection documents in detail Crabb Robinson’s extraordinarily wide ranging cultural interests and provides a unique contemporary insight into the lives and works of many of Europe’s most famous figures during the first half of the nineteenth century including Robert Browning, Lord Byron, Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Dickens, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley, Alfred Lord Tennyson and many others.
The collection consists of holograph letters, together with note books, copy letters and miscellaneous papers currently housed in 32 guard mounted volumes and 15 bundles or packets of loose documents whose condition is such that they are not easily made available for research.
Henry Crabb Robinson was born on May 13th, 1775 at Bury St Edmunds, a community 65 miles north east of London and some 25 miles east of Cambridge. He had two brothers: Thomas who ran a tannery at Bury, and, Habakkuk (“Hab”) who was in a not too successful timber business at Bagshot.
As a boy growing up, Crabb Robinson had the good fortune, though she be “several years older” than him, to become close to the sister to one of his playmates, Catherine Buck…
Because he was a “dissenter” Robinson (Unitarian) never went off to a public school or to an English university. At the age of 15, in 1790, Crabb Robinson articled himself to a Mr. Francis, an attorney at Colchester.
Tiring of the work he had with Mr. Francis, Robinson made his way to the big city of London, where, in April of 1796, he found a position as a clerk in another lawyer’s office. He soon left the drudgery of a legal office back, thanks to his deceased uncle who left him a legacy of £100 per year.
In 1800, Crabb Robinson took himself off to Germany and there he remained until 1805. Here, in Germany, after he had passed the entrance requirements, Robinson attended university. While in Germany he met many of the German thinkers of the time, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller being among them…
After his five year stay, Crabb Robinson came home from Germany in 1805… On 23rd July, 1808, Robinson embarked at Falmouth in a government vessel, Black Joe and landed at Corunna, Spain… to cover the battle fronts in Spain as the world’s first war correspondent working for The Times…
By November of 1809, Robinson was taking “his dinners at the Middle Temple.” Having completed his articles of clerkship with a Barrister by the name of Littledale, Robinson was admitted in 1813….
Robinson maintained his friendship with Catherine Buck who by then was known as Catherine Clarkson, having married Thomas Clarkson in 1796. Catherine, because of her marriage, had become well known in London society… in a group interested in Romanticism… It was Catherine who introduced Robinson to the literary circle then in London… to Charles Lamb, and then later came introductions to William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge…
Like so many of the young English thinkers of the age, Robinson had been an admirer of the spirit and ideals which brought on the French Revolution, however, upon his return from Germany in 1805, Robinson “had lost his former admiration of the French and he loathed Napoleon Bonaparte and all his ways.”
Walter Bagehot makes the point:
“Mr. Robinson had known nearly every literary man worth knowing in England and Germany for fifty years and more. He had studied at Jena in the ‘great time,’ when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, and Wieland were all at their zenith; he had lived with Charles Lamb and his set, and Rogers and his set, besides an infinite lot of little London people; he had taught Madame de Stael German philosophy in Germany, and helped her in business afterwards in England; he was the real friend of William Wordsworth, and had known Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Southey almost from their ‘coming out’ to their death.
“And he was not a mere literary man. He had been a Times correspondent in the days of Napoleon Bonaparte‘s early German battles, now more than ‘seventy years since’; he had been off Corunna in Sir John Moore’s time; and last, but almost first it should have been, he was an English barrister, who had for years a considerable business, and who was full of picturesque stories about old judges.
“Such a varied life and experience belong to very few men, and his social nature – at once accessible and assailant – was just the one to take advantage of it.”…
Crabb Robinson in his life had three great causes and while he was noted for his patience and as a lawyer was use to listening to all sides, to those against these three causes he showed no patience: slavery, the greatness of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the poetry of William Wordsworth.
Robinson led the crusade to get legislated relief to those who were subject to various and galling legal disabilities, all, simply, because they were not members of the Church of England. He was up against some very influential opponents; his dear friend, William Wordsworth, being among them…
Thomas Clarkson who led a life long crusade for the abolition of the African slave trade. Undoubtedly Robinson was influenced by Thomas Clarkson, as so many people who made Thomas Clarkson‘s acquaintance were. In any event, Crabb Robinson’s views on the subject of slavery were unshakable…
Henry Crabb Robonson was articled to an attorney in Colchester. Between 1800 and 1805 he studied at various places in Germany, and became acquainted with nearly all the great men of letters there, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, Johann Gottfried Herder and Christoph Martin Wieland.
Fifteen years later he retired, and by virtue of his great conversational powers and other qualities, became a leader in society.
He died unmarried, aged 91, and his Diary, Reminiscences and Correspondence was published in 1869.
Robinson’s Diary contains important reminiscences of many of the central figures of the English romantic movement including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Lamb, William Blake, William Wordsworth, and others.
Although the diaries contain no particularly significant revelations they are important documents regarding the daily lives of London writers, artists, political figures and socialites.
He was buried in a vault in Highgate Cemetery alongside his friend Edwin Wilkins Field.
* On 17th April 1848, James John Garth Wilkinson dined out with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Crabb Robinson. Clement John Wilkinson quotes from one of James John Garth Wilkinson’s letters to his wife Emma about this meeting ‘Crabb Robinson is one of the most entertaining and interesting old gentlemen I ever met. He is one of the Council of University College, an old friend of Mr. Tulk’s (Charles Augustus Tulk) and one of the executors of Flaxman (John Flaxman 1755 – 1826) . He knew Blake (William Blake) well… it was he who gave Blake 5 guineas for the Songs of Innocence. He warmly invited me to call upon him, when he will show me several of Blake’s Originals, both poems and pictures.’ Clement John Wilkinson, James John Garth Wilkinson; A Memoir of His Life, with a Selection of His Letters. (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, 1911). Page 22.