Obituary: Robert Robson

Click to follow
Robert Robson, historian: born Haltwhistle, Northumberland 11 August 1929; assistant, Department of History, Glasgow University 1956-57; Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge 1956-95; died Cambridge 16 January 1995. ``Life is a rum business, however you look at it.'' This, from ``the Gospel according to St Anthony (Powell)'', was a favourite saying of Robert Robson, with whose death Trinity College, Cambridge, has lost what many would regard as its life and soul. There were ironies, for he was pathologically modest and his manner, though sometimes soulful, was not lively. Yet his was the quiet voice to which almost everyone listened. This was partly because he so obviously loved the college, even as he lamented that it was going to the dogs like everything else, and partly because he knew its buildings and its history inside out.

No one who saw the way in which Bob Robson's melancholy face could crumple suddenly into mirth can have failed to realise that there were many other contradictions in the character of this bitter-sweet man. He claimed to be misanthropic and sometimes posed as a misogynist, yet he cherished his many friendships and often seemed most at ease in the company of women. He was a stickler for old-fashioned properties, and deplored the modern use of Christian names at high table, yet he was universally known as``Bob''. Although a very private man, he was held in such possessive affection by so many of his colleagues that he was almost public property. He was gentle and courteous, but had a very sharp eye for the foibles of others as well as his own. He was acutely embarrassable and frightened of emotion, yet he was widely adored. He was a generous host and performed many acts of hidden philanthropy, even though he was utterly convinced that ``no good turn went unpunished''.

Above all he will be remembered as a great College Tutor in the Cambridge sense, one of the very last of the old-style tutors whose role was that of the genuine pastor, not just the administrative workhorse of today. Most (though not all) of his pupils saw through his attempts to appear crusty and forbidding. Many became lifelong friends.

He came from the North Country, near-by Hadrian's Wall. His father, who was at first a miner and then a small farmer, fostered his love of books. Money was tight, the family close and hard-working. Hexham Grammar School was followed by national service in the RAF, which he found uncongenial, but at least it whetted his appetite for Trinity, to which he went on a state scholarship in 1950. A double First in History led to research for the PhD, a year teaching history in Glasgow, then back to Trinity as aFellow. Soon afterwards his father died in a road accident. He never ceased to regret that this had happened just when he could have begun to afford to buy the books which he knew his father would have loved to read.

From then Trinity was Bob Robson's life, though the widespread rumour that he hardly ever set foot outside Great Court was a calumny. (His beloved Wren Library was yards away in Nevile's Court.) Nor did he ever stop thinking about Northumberland. He revisited his family each vacation, slipping naturally into local dialect as soon as he stepped off the train.

That he did not achieve high academic preferment within Cambridge was partly owing to his lack of confidence, partly to lack of vigour, and partly to a lack of that aggressive flamboyance which is sometimes called ``cutting edge''. Yet in many ways his publications were ahead of their time. The Attorney in Eighteenth-Century England (1959) can be seen in retrospect to have pioneered the modern study of English professionalisation and the development of the middle class. His studies of the academic life of Trinity in the age of Wordsworth and Whewell, though they struck some of his more pretentious colleagues as parochial at the time, actually anticipated the way in which the study of 19th-century intellectual history was to develop. More recently he had been engaged in preparing an edition of Lord Macaulay's unpublished journals.

In 1985 Bob Robson was diagnosed as having non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It was then that his friends discovered the indomitable will to live of a man who hitherto seemed so world-weary. He bore his illness with fortitude and ironic good-humour, and he died ashe had lived, peacefully.