William Sydney Robinson (1876–1963) was born in Melbourne and was educated at Scotch College and Hawthorn Grammar School. He joined the Age newspaper in 1896 and became commercial editor in 1900. In 1905 he became a partner in the stockbroking firm of his older brother Lionel and in the next few years undertook a series of journeys to Broken Hill and other mining districts. From 1915 onwards he worked full time in the mining and related businesses associated with the Baillieu family. He became managing director of Broken Hill Associated Smelters in 1915 and in 1920 he joined the board of the London-based Zinc Corporation, which was to be his power base for the rest of his career. He was managing director from 1926 to 1947 and chairman from 1947 to 1951. In 1949 the Corporation merged with the Imperial Smelting Corporation to form Consolidated Zinc.
Robinson was one of the most powerful and influential figures in Australian industry in the first half of the twentieth century. His views were often unorthodox and, unlike many of his business colleagues, he was a firm believer in the role of government in economic affairs. During World War I he assisted the Australian Government to develop lead and zinc smelting operations in Australia. He was the personal adviser to the Prime Minister, W.M. Hughes, on the lead and zinc industries. In World War II he worked closely with the Labor leaders John Curtin and H.V. Evatt and travelled constantly to Australia and North America to ensure the smooth supply of raw materials and war machinery.
Robinson had a strong interest in the writings of explorers such as Matthew Flinders and Charles Sturt. With the assistance of dealers in London and Paris, he assembled a collection of Australiana that was displayed in the offices of Consolidated Zinc in London. When Conzinc Riotinto of Australia was formed in 1962, its chairman, Maurice Mawby, arranged for the collection to be brought to Melbourne, as he feared it would be dispersed if it were left in the new London offices of the Rio-Tinto Zinc Corporation.
The W.S. Robinson Collection was deposited in the Library by Sir Maurice Mawby in 1974. In 1980 it was donated to the Library by Conzinc Riotinto of Australia under the Taxation Incentives for the Arts Scheme.
The W.S. Robinson Collection consists of 387 published works (515 volumes), mostly relating to Australia but including a number of works on New Zealand and the Pacific. The great majority are books, but there are also several multi-volume works and two journals: Art in Australia (1916–36) and The Commonwealth (1898–1901).
The collection is strong in accounts of Pacific voyages in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including editions of collected voyages, and also in accounts of the exploration of the interior of Australia. Among the explorers represented are William Dampier, George Anson, Louis de Bougainville, James Cook, Comte de la Perouse, Matthew Flinders, Phillip Parker King, Gregory Blaxland, John Oxley, Charles Sturt, Thomas Mitchell, Paul Strzelecki, Ernest Giles and Peter Egerton Warburton.
Among early works on the Australian and New Zealand colonies collected by Robinson are:
Bischoff, James, Sketch of the History of Van Diemen’s Land and an Account of the Van Diemen’s Land Company (1832)
Brockett, William Edward, Narrative of a Voyage from Sydney to Torres’ Straits (1836)
Butler, Samuel, The Hand-book for Australian Emigrants (1839)
Cunningham, Peter, Two Years in New South Wales (2 vols, 1827)
Dieffenbach, Ernest, Travels in New Zealand (2 vols, 1843)
Field, Barron, Geographical Memoirs of New South Wales: By Various Hands (1825)
Stephens, John, The History of the Rise and Progress of the New British Province of South Australia (1839)
Tench, Watkin, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, in New South Wales (1793)
Tuckey, J.H., An Account of a Voyage to Establish a Colony at Port Phillip in Bass’s Strait … (1805)
Wakefield, Edward Gibbon, The British Colonization of New Zealand (1837)
Wentworth, W.C., A Statistical Account of the British Settlements in Australasia (2 vols, 1824 [signed by Jane Franklin])
Westgarth, William, Victoria, Late Australia Felix (1853).
Later works mostly relate to Australian history, exploration, travel, mineral resources, fauna and flora, Australian Aborigines, political development and economic conditions. There are also a few novels and volumes of poetry. The writers include C.E.W. Bean, Louis Becke, Ada Cambridge, Rolf Boldrewood, Marcus Clarke, T.A. Coghlan, D.B. Copland, Ernest Favenc, W.K. Hancock, Ion Idriess, C.T. Madigan, Louisa Meredith, A.B. Paterson, G.W. Rusden, Walter Baldwin Spencer and Henry Gyles Turner.
There are three notable extraneous works:
Churchill, Winston, ;The World Crisis (5 vols, 1923–29 [inscribed by Churchill to Robinson])
Pasternak, Boris, An Essay in Autobiography (1959)
Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (2 vols, 1776)
Many of the books in the collection had previously belonged to James Edge-Partington, whose outstanding collection of Australiana was sold in 1934. Several other books were inscribed by the authors to Lord Grey, who was Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1846–52.
The W.S. Robinson Collection is kept together as a formed collection within the Australian Collection. All the books have a bookplate. Most, but not all, have been catalogued and the call numbers have the prefix ROBINSON. A list of the books can be found in the acquisition file.
The personal papers of Robinson, dating from 1914–63, are held in Melbourne University Archives. A 257-page list is available.
Richardson, Peter, Robinson, William Sydney (1876–1963), Australian Dictionary of Biography online.
Robinson, W.S., If I Remember Rightly: The Memoirs of W.S. Robinson, edited by G. Blainey, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1967.