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History of Thomas Robinson & Son

Modified on 2012/04/16 08:02 by Jeff Joslin Categorized as Uncategorized
From a 1938 promotional brochure.

Looking into the Past

In an old Ledger of 1813, two years prior to the battle of Waterloo, there is an entry recording the purchase by William Robinson the elder Brother of Thomas Robinson, founder of thee firm, of timber from a neighboring estate.

Ninety-six oak trees and thirty cypress were bought for 159 pounds.

The entry is interesting from two points of view. it throws light on the social changes of the period, when the rapid spread of industrialism in Rochdale was altering the face of the surrounding country, and it reveals the source of the Robinson tradition that good material is the first requisite in the construction of a good machine.

William took his brother Thomas into partnership in the year 1835, and Thomas became proprietor, on William’s death, in the following year. Thomas, who, following the approved canon, it will be convenient to designate Thomas the first, took his son Thomas (the Second) into partnership in the year 1838, thus setting up the firm of Thomas Robinson & Son, the partnership, appropriately enough, commencing January 1st 1838.

Two years later, in 1840 the original premises in Drake Street, Rochdale (now a modern shopping thoroughfare) were given up in favor of a new plot of land in Water Street, consisting of some 3,320 square yards. Thomas the Second passes out of our history in 1846, when he left to take up a responsible post in the timber trade in Liverpool, and a partnership was now struck between Thomas the first and his second son, John Robinson. It was the entry of this son, John, which gave the first great impetus to the business.

At this Time, there were very few woodworking machines either available, or in use. The firm of Thomas Robinson & Son indeed brought the first woodworking machines into Rochdale, and john Robinson who was a man of great natural mechanical gifts, set his mind to the task of improving them. The firm was engaged in the manufacture of Household Joinery and by the use of their improved machines gained so great a hold on the market that other firms began to seek the reason for such outstanding success. Thus, the fame of the machines spread and as a natural outcome, Robinson's were soon pressed to make machines for other firms. At this point the progress of a less broad-minded firm would have stopped. It would have been urged that to supply machines to competitors was to undermine hard-won advantages for the sake of an immediate profit on the sale of a machine. Thomas Robinson & Son saw further ahead than this. They began to supply the machines, and in doing so laid the foundations of the present great engineering concern.


Thomas Robinson died on February 13th 1859, leaving John Robinson sole proprietor of the firm, and John Robinson died in 1877, leaving the business to be carried on by his sons, James Salkeld, Philip Henry, Thomas Nield, Charles John, And Arthur Maurice. During the tenure of office of this, the third generation, the firm experienced a very great widening of its influence, and in 1880 it was formed into a limited company.

History, it is almost platitudinous to remark, is prone to repeat it self. it is not much the case that Thomas Robinson & Son engaged in the manufacture of woodworking machinery, as that the manufacture of woodworking machinery enlisted the services of Thomas Robinson & Son: and it was under similar circumstances that the firm in the 1880 became interested in the manufacture of flour milling machinery. A few years previously, the great revolution in flour milling had taken place. the gradual reduction system had literally swept the world. in those days most of the machinery was made abroad. On the occasion of a consignment arriving in England in a badly broken condition, Robinson's were called in to effect repairs which they did to the complete of the owners. One Job led to another, until, seeing in this new mechanization of flour mills a fertile field for further expansion, the firm of Thomas Robinson and son Limited seriously commenced the manufacture of this class of machinery, in the year 1883. The word “seriously” is used advisedly, for this meant, and always has ment, an almost complete segregation of the one branch of the business from the other.

Robinson’s started as flour milling machinery engineers with several advantages. There were, for example, existing pattern shops and foundries; there was an established reputation both in wood-working and in engineering; and there was the further advantage that they could equip themselves with wood-working machines of the latest precision types at a lower cost than any competitor. Separate drawing offices, machine shops, and erection bays were soon developed to cope with the new business, and in a comparatively few years, the firm was marching abreast of its competitors, and in many respects was showing evidence of its pioneering spirit, An article in “Milling” in the year 1893, a mere ten years later, says, “As builders of modern Flour Mills, Messrs. Thomas Robinson and Sons occupy a foremost position. Since the date of their earliest mills they been gradually improving their system, their machines and their of erection. In their earliest mils they were noted for the perfection of finish displayed in their machines, and exceeding neatness and compactness of erection... unlike many of their competitors, Messrs. Robinson's have many specialties in wheat-cleaning machines. They are perhaps the only English engineers who can turn out an entire wheat-cleaning plant of their own manufacture”.

At this point it is interesting to observe by way of digression that the firm now manufactures practically every type of machine required in a Flour Mill, and their originality in the design of many key machines has at various times brought about revolutionary changes in the construction of Milling Machinery.

More recent developments include the manufacture of special machines for the production of Breakfast Food, for Seed Separating and for Malting Processes.

Of the five sons who represent the third generation, James Salkeld was Chairman of the Company for twelve years, i.e., from 1880 to his death in 1892, Philip Henry died in 1883, Arthur Maurice died in 1902 and Thomas Nield held the Chairmanship from 1892 until his death in 1909, when he was succeeded by Mr Charles J. Robinson, who relinquished the reins of supreme direction only so recently as last year, in favor of Mr J. C. Robinson, who now occupies the post (1938).

It has not been felt necessary to make any particular mention of the various leases of land that, of necessity, were negotiated in order to accommodate the growing works, and it would be merely tedious t attempt to detail the growth of the firm generation by generation, Indeed, considerations of space preclude the inclusion of such details.

The article in “Milling” to which reference has already been made was written in 1893, on the occasion of the reconstruction of the Company and quotes the number of employees at that date as 1,200 men. The firm has always been alert to the well-conducted publicity, both in the form of the printed word and in showing at leading exhibitions. Its catalogues in many Languages, have long been familiar in the most parts of the civilized world, and awards at leading exhibitions form a very impressive list. Before passing to the more recent history of the firm, there is one historical association that falls into place here and rounds off the picture of the industrial development of the period, so well illustrated by taking the firm of Thomas Robinson and Son limited, as an instance, even if an instance of some-what outstanding character. In the “Manchester City News” of 25th February 1865, there appeared No. 1 of a series of articles, entitled, “the Work-shops of Lancashire”, which described the growth and activities of the firm. A passage from this article runs thus-

“It was in this building (the fitting Shop) that the Member for Rochdale, Richard Cobden, Esq. addressed his constituents in the Autumns of 1863 and 1864. On the last occasion it was estimated that 6,000 people found sitting and standing room in the one half of Messrs. Robinson’s Machine Shop, and the grandeur of the spectacle which the room then presented will never be effaced from the memory of those whose fortune it was to witness it. The great apostle of Free Trade could not have found a more appropriate forum in which to enunciate his opinions in his matchless “unadorned eloquence” than in a building like this”.

“It is by hammer and hand that all arts do stand”.


“Amidst that varied reflections that the Nineteenth Century is in the habit of making on its condition,” writes Professor Froude, “there is on common opinion in which all parties coincide-that it is an age of progress.”

Early in the Century the two great industries of woodworking engineering and milling engineering had determined basic principles, and it remained for further progress to manifest itself in practice through the medium of improved machines design.

The contribution by Robinson's to this progressive movement has been, in both industries, a most substantial one. In the woodworking industry, the late nineteenth and the twentieth century saw a gradual speeding up of machinery-due in part to the ingenuity of the designers and in part to improved metallurgical technique, enabling the development of high speed cutters, and their safe use.

In Flour Milling the tendency has been towards complete mechanization of the industry, until today the process of flour manufacture is entirely automatic, and in the more modern mills of recent Robinson construction there is even carpet laid down.

In the years of which this chapter is a meagre sketch, rather than a history, the name Robinson has acquired a connotation that is at once the envy and the admiration of contemporaries.

Those amongst whom this book will circulate are already aware of the many famous machines turned out by Robinson's in their own line of business, and how many of these machines are still to be found today rendering yeoman service in all part of the world. Flour millers will immediately think of the Robinson Koh-i-noor Purifier and other noteworthy productions. Those engaged in woodworking will just as readily recall their own instances. Indeed, if detailed commentary were wanted on the progress of these two great industries anyone possessing a set of the catalogues issued by Robinson's throughout this period would find such commentary in those pages.

Railway Works in War Time

The Great War of 1914-18 enlisted Robinson's in national services and enormous quantities of war material of very varied nature were produced. Missiles, from hand grenades in the highest class, through a range of bombs on 18 lb., 33 lb., and 60 lb. weight up to 112 lb. aerial bombs and 8 in. high explosive shells were prominent in the production program.

Parts for anti-aircraft guns, control gear for 6 in. guns, mine sinkers, mine firing mechanism and gear cases for the “Tanks”, heavy machine tools, such as milling machines, lathes with 12 and a quarter centers, gun-boring lathes, 23 ft. 3 in. long, besides a great number of lathe beds for other engineering establishments poured out in a steady stream.

Explosives machinery destined for the filling factories was being loaded on lorries in one part of the yard simultaneously with milling machinery for the Foodstuffs Department in another part, and even their own woodworking department hummed day and night with the noise of machines turning out by the hundreds such items as wood boxes for packing hand grenades and Newton bombs, etc.

In a recent issue of the “Manchester Guardian”, Ivor Brown, that perennially popular contributor to its columns, referred with delightful understatement to the Great War as “The Great Unpleasantness”. Twenty years have passed since that particular form of Unpleasantness terminated and in that period the firm of Thomas Robinson and Son has perhaps made the greatest strides of all.

The claim to leadership has never yet gone unchallenged in any sphere of life. It seems that it should not. the dust of Olympia is the price of its spoils. The newer age brings fresh demands and Robinson’s, by training, by experience and by the the very traditions of the firm, have quitted themselves in the spirit of the founder.

Wherever wood flows in shapely form from the mouths of modern mechanical marvels the name robinson predominates. Wherever the golden grain encounters the chilled rolls or passes over the searching silks the most efficient processes are of Robinson origin. It is an achievement of which to be proud.

An Invitation

Visitors to Railway Works are always welcomed and can make the visit in the full confidence that they will spend an enjoyable and indeed instructive time. Not the least of the aims of this booklet is to demonstrate that the firm of Thomas Robinson and Son is not to be regarded as one firm dividing its energies between two industries, but rather as two firms operating under one Directorate and fused at the points where their interests converge. Visitors will see for themselves how this fusion of activities enables the firm all the better to uphold the name Robinson not only as a tradition but in itself as a guarantee of competence.

Thomas Robinson & Son, 1938.

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