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Sir David Robinson

Robinson, Sir David (1904-1987), entrepreneur, College founder, and philanthropist, was born 13 April 1904 in Cambridge, the third of six sons and third of nine children of Herbert ‚ÄčRobinson, cycle shop and later garage owner, and his wife, Rosie Emily Tricker. He was educated at the Cambridge High School for Boys, which he left at the age of fifteen in order to work in his father's bicycle shop in Cambridge. In 1930 he moved to Bedford, where he took over a garage and developed it into a large and prosperous firm.

His fortune, however, was made in radio and television rental business. In the late 1930's he opened a radio and electrical shop in the High Street, Bedford, and in the late 1940's opened similar shops in Northampton, Kettering, Luton, Peterborough, Stamford and Hitchin. Having observed the impact of the Queen's coronation as a television spectacle in 1953, he set up his own television and rental business based, at first, on his chain of shops. By 1962, the Bedford firm of Robinson Rentals was making a profit of 1,500,000 a year and in 1968 he sold it to Granada for 8 million and turned his attention elsewhere.

The turf had interested him for a long time. Although his racing colours of green, red sleeves, and light blue cap were registered as early as 1946, and although in 1955 his 'Our Babu' won the Two Thousand Guineas, it was not until 1968 that he seriously turned his mind to horse-racing as a business. He set out to prove his theory that, given efficient and business-like management, organisation, and accounting, racehorse ownership could be made to pay. The results spoke for themselves. For eight seasons between 1968 and 1975 Robinson consistently headed the owners list of individual winners and races. Although leading owner in terms of prize money only once (in 1969), he eventually won a total of 997 races. In the ten years from 1968 Robinson made a great contribution to British racing, at his peak having 120 horses in training.

He continued to apply and expect the same high standards of business efficiency even when it came to giving his money away. If potential recipients of his munificence did not come up to his own ideas of management efficiency, they went away disappointed and empty-handed. He set up the Robinson Charitable Trust. Its beneficiaries included Bedford - a swimming pool; his old school - an Arts' Centre; Addenbrooke's Hospital - the Rosie Maternity Unit named after his mother; the Evelyn Nursing Home - a new wing; and Papworth Hospital - a large sum for heart transplants. When the Penlee lifeboat foundered with the loss of the entire crew in 1981, he provided 400,000 to purchase a new lifeboat named after his wife, Mabel Alice, and he went on to provide three more, including the David Robinson at the Lizard.

In the late 1960's it became known that he was considering a large academic benefaction, and eventually Cambridge University accepted his offer of 18 million to endow a large new College. Planning began in 1973. The design was prepared by the Glasgow firm of architects, Gillespie, Kidd and Coia; the building was started in 1977 and was virtually completed by October 1980, when the first sizeable number of undergraduates entered the College. By 1983, the College had grown to 35 Fellows and 370 junior members and by 1993, had reached a steady state of 56 Fellows and 485 junior members - one of the larger and friendlier Cambridge Colleges.

Robinson College was formally opened by the Queen on 29 May, 1981. Typically, Robinson avoided the opening ceremony, tendering his apologies to Her Majesty on the grounds that he had become increasingly immobile and his wife had for some time been incapacitated. He was knighted in 1985.

Robinson's life was centred on his enterprises and his benefactions. He worked hard, with little relaxation and few social contacts; and he expected others to work hard. He kept up appearances, being tall, bald-headed and bespectacled, and always smartly dressed, but he was very reticent and shunned publicity to the end. He was not only a great entrepreneur, but also a self-effacing philanthropist who gave all his money away and, in spite of his disenchantment with academics, whom he regarded as vacillating and insufficiently business-like, founded a College in his home town with a record benefaction, in record time.

In 1922 he married Mabel Alice, daughter of Fred Baccus, stonemason, when they were both eighteen years old. A devoted couple, they had a daughter and a son, who died in 1981. Robinson died in Newmarket on 10 January 1987 and was buried at sea off Great Yarmouth by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.


The picture above of Sir David Robinson is of an Oil on Canvas painting done by the Artist Carlos Luis Sancha 1920-2001.   The painting was finished in 1981 and measures 200cm (H) x 250cm (W).