March 16, 2015 | 2 Comments | Filed under: 2015, April 2015

John Robinson gave another of his bravura performances when he explained the remarkable history of his family firm at the March meeting of the History Club. Innovation and invention have been the watchwords for the Robinsons right from the time when they were potters who had branched out into making clay pipes for smokers around 1670, only 75 years after tobacco had been introduced. Much later they started making textile goods and even employed French P.O.W.’s in making gloves during the Napoleonic Wars.

John Bradbury Robinson (1802 – 69) was really the founder of the manufacturing side of the company. Starting off as a chemist he soon realised that there was a big demand for cardboard pill-boxes and boxes made from peeled willow and turned wood for greasy ointments. All these products required great ingenuity to conceive of and design the machines required to produce them.
As an example of his inventiveness, he blew steam down a metal tube which contained a fan and thus invented the steam turbine 30 years before Charles Parsons, who later harnessed its power to propel ships.

After the Crimean War began, he took soft woven cotton material, chopped the weave with a knife and produced lint dressings. Being acquainted with Joseph Lister (he of ‘sprayed anti-septic during operations’ fame), he started to produce anti-septic dressings for the army. By mistake, he sent off bandages with an open weave to a customer, but instead of being told off, he was congratulated on sending a much more useful product, so that led on to another line of goods. By this time they were importing bales of raw cotton from the U.S. and going through the entire process themselves. This line of thinking would eventually lead to the invention of the sanitary towel, cotton wool and much later to the introduction of disposable nappies (Paddie-Pads) to great acclaim.

John showed us a list of about 20 patents which the firm had taken out over the years, including one for cellulose wadding which would eventually lead to the introduction of loo-roll. One of their greatest inventions came when one of the family, out shooting, was intrigued by the crimped-down end of a shotgun cartridge. This eventually led to them sending 4 million Smartie tubes per week to Rowntrees in York. There, one of the Robinsons saw 50 ladies double-handedly scooping the sweets into the tubes. So he then introduced one of his own machines and made a 7-fold improvement in efficiency!

Alongside their great inventiveness, they were a firm who set great store on the welfare of their workers. Florence Robinson (1888-1976) created training schemes for young school-leavers, started an operatic society in which all levels of the workforce took part and was in on the mass exodus from Chesterfield, when the company took about 2500 of their workforce on a day out to London. This had been the subject of a previous highly entertaining lecture by John. What a man. What a company!

Do come and join us on April 9th in the Institute at 8pm when Glyn Waite will be telling us about
“The Origins and Development of Railways in the Millers Dale Area”.

Brian Woodall



  1. martha owen April 18, 2016 at 6:20 pm

    My Mother, now aged 95, was one of Robbo”s Angels who went on the train trip to London when she was 18 years old. She still has the commemorative book that was presented to all the employees who went that day. We have just been looking at it today. She has very fond memories of working at the “round box” and of Miss Robinson’s attention to health issues.

    • Anita Gould January 14, 2017 at 8:57 am

      Lovely to read about your mum, my mum was also one of Robbo’s Angels and went on the trip to London it was a big event in her life and she talked about it often, she worked on round box sadly passed away in 2001 . Her name was Ivy Hollis I wonder if your Mumnew her .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.