Robinson Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Robinson Surname Meaning

Robinson is a patronymic name meaning “son of Robin.” It was said that the name Robin was originally made popular by Robin Goodfellow, whose mischievous tricks were later described in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and perhaps even more so by Robin of Locksley, otherwise known as Robin Hood.

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Robinson Surname Ancestry

England. The first recorded reference was to a Richard Robynson in Yorkshire in 1324. It has been mainly a Yorkshire and north of England name since that time.

William Robinson was a wealthy York merchant in Elizabethan times. His descendants played a notable role in national politics, one as Lord Grantham as Foreign Secretary in 1782 and another as Viscount Goderich briefly as Prime Minister in 1827.

Other Yorkshire Robinsons included:

  • the Robinsons at Cleasby in north Yorkshire who went back to Elizabethan times. Christopher Robinson of this family embarked for America in 1670.
  • a Robinson family from Brignall in north Yorkshire which had
    acquired the Rokeby estate in 1610. They later held estates in Kent and Ireland. Matthew Robinson was an eccentric 18th century member of this family.
  • and Richard Robinson who heard George Fox preach at Sedbergh in 1652 and was an early Quaker convert at his home at Countersett Hall on Wensleydale.

A Robinson family founded the Robinson brewery in Houghton-le-Spring, Durham in 1754. The brewery continued in Robinson hands until the outbreak of war in 1914.

Robinson has also been a prominent name in Cumberland (now Cumbria). Among these Robinsons have been:

  • William Robinson from Penrith who made his fortune in the 17th century in London as a merchant and returned to found Robinson’s School in his home town.
  • another William Robinson, a Quaker, who was also a merchant in London. He, however, set off in 1657 on the tiny vessel Woodhouse for America. In Boston he met religious intolerance, was arrested, and was hanged.
  • Gerard Robinson who was a mariner from Whitehaven who in 1752 also left for America, in this case Virginia.
  • while Mary Robinson, who was a shepherdess in the Lake District in the early 1800’s, was known as the Maid of Buttermere in Wordsworth’s poem The Prelude.

Robinsons from Lancashire moved to the Isle of Man around the year 1800. Two brothers, John and Henry, were responsible for the architectural facelift that Douglas on the Isle of Man received in the 1840’s.

Ireland.  The Robinson name is mainly to be found in Ulster. It was thought that the Robinsons of Glenam in Antrim may have originally been Scottish Robertsons.

One Robinson family began in Dublin in the 1650’s with Bryan Robinson, thought to be from the Newby Hall Robinsons in Yorkshire. The Rev. Christopher Robinson was rector of Granard in county Longford in the 18th century.  His offspring were:

  • Admiral Hercules Robinson of the British navy
  • and his son Hercules, a British colonial administrator.
  • and Sir Bryan Robinson, a colonial judge in Newfoundland.

Romney Robinson of this family was a longtime director of the Armagh Astronomical Observatory.

One Robinson family began in Dublin with Bryan Robinson in the 1650’s. They were physicians and doctors of medicine. Later Robinsons of this family served as Victorian colonial Governors. Romney Robinson was a longtime director of the Armagh Astronomical Observatory in the 19th century.

America.  Christopher Robinson emigrated to Virginia from Cleasby in north Yorkshire in 1670. Eight years later he built his home, later called Hewick, in Middlesex county along the Rappahannock river. The Robinson family there became one of the leading families of Virginia. Hewick still stands today.

The Rev. John Robinson was a Puritan pastor at Leyden who never made it to America. He died in 1625. But two of his sons, Isaac and John, did get to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1630.  Other early New England arrivals were:

  • Increase Robinson who was in Dorchester by 1637 and later
    settled in Taunton
  • and Thomas Robinson who had reached Hartford, Connecticut by 1640 and later settled in Guilford.

Canada. A later Christopher Robinson of the Virginia Robinsons, an Empire Loyalist, took his family to Canada in 1788:

  • his son Sir John was a leading figure in early Ontario politics
  • and his grandson John was Lieutenant Governor of Ontario in 1880.

One of Sir John’s brothers, William, was a fur trader; another, Peter, a promoter of Irish emigration to Canada. The Irish emigrants under this scheme which began in 1822 were in fact called Peter Robinson settlers.

South Africa. Robert Robinson, a butcher from the Isle of Sheppey
in Kent (although of earlier Yorkshire roots), was one of the 1820 settlers to South Africa. He and his family made their home in the Cradock district of the Eastern Cape. His children eventually numbered fourteen, of which the fourteenth and last, born in 1840, was Joseph. Joseph Robinson was later to make a huge fortune in
South African gold mining.

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Robinson Surname Miscellany

The Robinsons of York.  This family was descended from William Robinson, an eminent Hamburg merchant, who was mayor of York and its MP during the reign of Elizabeth.  He died in 1616 at the grand old age of ninety four.  His son Thomas was described as a Turkey merchant (probably the country rather than the fowl).

Later Robinsons were MP’s and mayors of York during the 17th and 18th centuries. Thomas Robinson took on diplomatic missions for the Government and was made Lord Grantham in 1760.  Subsequent Lord Granthams were Foreign Secretary in 1782 and briefly Prime Minister in 1827.

Two Robinson Merchants from Penrith.  Two Robinson
merchants came from Penrith, but both worked elsewhere.

William Robinson

Robinson’s School opened in Penrith as a result of a bequest from William Robinson, a native of Penrith who had gone to London and grown wealthy as a coffee merchant.  In his will of 1661 he left a benefaction of £55 to be paid annually by the Grocers’ Company to the town of Penrith out of the income of his London properties.

Included in that amount was “the sum of £20 per annum forever was to go to the churchwardens of the parish of Penrith for the educating and bringing up of poor girls to read and seamstress work or such other learning fit for that sex being the poorer sort whose parents are not able to pay for their learning.”

The School duly opened in 1670 and lasted for three hundred years until 1971.

James Robinson and Son

The first James Robinson was born just north of Penrith in 1839, the son of a village blacksmith.  As a young man he went to Carlisle and started a grocer’s shop.  The selling of groceries and provisions was not James’ only business. In 1877 he was advertising as a miller and bacon curer as well and at some time he also made confectionery and toffee at the nearby James Street factory under the name of Eagle Confectionery Company.

Although only one of James’ sons followed him into the business they were all well versed in the trade in their youth.  One son wrote later:

“I learnt the grocery, provision and corn trade thoroughly. These were the days when the trade had to be learned. We blended our own tea, learned to buy coffee in the bean, cured much of our own bacon etc.”

James junior was the one who followed in his father’s footsteps. He was taken into partnership in 1903 at the age of 33, having worked in the business all of his life.  He took over the business when his father died in 1913.  The business then passed to his son Arthur in 1936.  James Robinson and Son eventually shut up shop in the 1960’s as the supermarket competition arrived. 

The Maid of Buttermere.  Mary Robinson, born in Buttermere in the Lake District in 1787, was known as the Maid of Buttermere. She was a shepherdess and the daughter of the landlord of the Fish Inn.

In 1802 a certain Colonel Hope arrived in the village and wooed her.  The marriage of a celebrated local beauty to the brother of an earl (as he claimed) was widely reported.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in the London Morning Post of “the romantic marriage.” However, Colonel Hope was exposed as John Hatfield, an impostor, bigamist and forger.  He was arrested, escaped, captured in South Wales, and then tried in Carlisle for
forgery and hanged in 1803.

Mary’s story captured the public imagination and subscriptions were raised on her behalf.  In 1807 she married a local farmer named Richard Harrison and they had four children.

Robinsons in the Isle of Man.  John Robinson was born in Liverpool and came to the Isle of Man sometime in the late 1790’s to work as a millwright at the newly-constructed Nunnery Mill.  He settled in Douglas and was the builder of a number of residences in the outskirts of the town.

Two of his sons – John and Henry – followed in the same business, the former taking up the architectural and the latter the practical side of the building business.  Douglas was then but a small fishing village and it was just getting known as a seaside resort. These Robinsons realized the opportunities that were available to them.  John Robinson was in fact responsible for much of the look of 1840’s Douglas, a town of wide streets and handsome houses.

John Robinson, Pilgrim Pastor.  John Robinson was the pastor of the Pilgrim Fathers before they left for America on the Mayflower in 1620. He sent the departing company on their voyage with the following combative words:

“I charge you before God that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow the Lord Jesus Christ.  If God reveals anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth by my ministry.  For I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.

For my part, I cannot sufficiently bewail the condition of those reformed churches which will go at present no further than the instruments of their reformation. The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw; whatever part of His will our God had revealed to Calvin, they will rather die than embrace it; and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented.”

John Robinson was born in the village of Sturton in Nottinghamshire in 1576 and came from a family of yeomen farmers there.   He became an early leader of the English Separatist movement and is regarded as one of the founders of the Congregational Church.

The Robinsons at Hewick.  A historical marker for Hewick in Middlesex county, Virginia reads:

“Three miles east of Hewick, built about 1678 by Christopher Robinson, clerk of Middlesex County.  It was the birthplace of John Robinson, Speaker of the House of Burgesses and Treasurer of Virginia, 1738-1766, the leading man of the colony!
Hewick has been lived in continuously since 1678 by Robinson
descendants until 2005.”

In England, Christopher Robinson was the elder brother of John Robinson, the Bishop of London.  He emigrated to Virginia in 1670 and built his home, originally called The Grange (later Hewick), along the Rapahannock river.   He was one of the best known residents of the colony and his home soon became the gathering place for many of the important early families of Virginia.

His son John Robinson served as acting governor of Virginia in 1749.  John’s son Christopher, upon inheriting the estate, renamed the plantation Hewick after the ancestral home back in
England.  His brother John was Treasurer of Virginia and Speaker of the House of Burgesses. Meanwhile Carter Braxton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, had married Judith Robinson, granddaughter of the original owner Christopher.

As with many fine houses in Virginia, the last few hundred years have not been kind to Hewick.  In fact it sat unoccupied by descendants from 1926 to 1990.  By 1987 neglect had left it in a sorry state.  However, since that time it has been restored to something like its earlier state.

Hewick stands today just outside the town of Urbanna on a plot of 66 acres.  The first Robinson family reunion took place there in 1991.  The family history was recounted by a 14th generation descendant Vera Robinson Long in her 1971 book The Robinson Line 1468-1938. A later book is Philippa Elmhirst’s 2011 The Saga of the Robinsons: 1520-2011.

The Swiss Family Robinson.  The Swiss Family Robinson was a novel first published in German as Der Schweizerische Robinson in 1812. It was about a Swiss family of immigrants whose ship, en route to Port Jackson in Australia, went off course and was shipwrecked in the East Indies

Written by the Swiss writer Johann David Wyss, the novel was intended to teach his four sons about family values, good husbandry, the uses of the natural world and self-reliance.

Although movie and television adaptations typically name the family as Robinson, it is not in fact a Swiss name. The German title translates as The Swiss Robinson which identifies the novel as part of the Robinsonade genre (i.e. after Robinson Crusoe), rather than a story about a family named Robinson.

Reader Feedback – Robinsons in Ulster and in Melbourne, Australia.  One of my Robinson forebears, George Robinson who was married to Mary McCombe, hailed from Londonderry in Ulster. No dates here other than that of a son Daniel who was born in 1809.  George’s occupation was listed as a cooper. He appeared in the 1831 census as the head of the family in the barony of Templemore with six males and four females in the household.

The son Daniel emigrated to Melbourne around the year 1855 aged 44. Why did he leave the parental home? Was he married in Londonderry with a family?  There is no evidence of Daniel in shipping records at all from the Victorian immigration website, whether it be assisted or unassisted?  Daniel met Mary Morrisey from Cork (born there in 1838) in Melbourne, but there is no marriage certificate in evidence.  Orange or green?  Adulterer or bigamist?

Any info. about this branch of Robinsons in Ulster would gratefully received.

Tim Murphy (murphytim1957@gmail.com)

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Robinson Names
  • Jack Robinson is a fictional name in the usage: that something is done faster “than you can say Jack Robinson.” Its origins are uncertain.
  • John Robinson was the pastor of the Pilgrim Fathers before they left for America and is considered as one of the founders of the Congregational Church.
  • Sir John Robinson was a leading political figure in Upper Canada in the early 1800’s.
  • Joseph Robinson, the son of an 1820 settler, was a South African mining magnate.
  • Edward G. Robinson, born Emanuel Goldenburg from a Romanian Jewish family, was an acclaimed American movie actor in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
  • Jackie Robinson was the black baseball player who broke the color bar in the national game.
  • Sugar Ray Robinson was an acclaimed American boxer.
  • Mary Robinson was the first woman President of Ireland.
Robinson Numbers Today
  • 188,000 in the UK (most numerous in Tyne and Wear)
  • 174,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 71,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)
Robinson and Like Surnames  

Patronymic surnames can be with either the “-son” or the shorter “s” suffix to the first name.  The “son” suffix is more common in northern England than in the south and in lowland Scotland.  Here are some of these surnames that you can check out.

AtkinsonGibsonMorrisonStevenson
DawsonHarrisonNicholsonTyson
DixonHutchinsonRichardsonWilkinson
EmersonJacksonRobinsonWilson


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