John Mackinnon Robertson (1856-1933) :
A Biographical Introduction
References to Robertson’s books are in the main bibliography numbered 1-116 at the beginning of this volume. Further references, numbered from 117 upwards, and notes, numbered by superscript, are at the end of the chapter.
JOHN MACKINNON ROBERTSON’S overriding concern throughout his life was his commitment to truth. At the dinner organised by the Rationalist Press Association to pay tribute to him on his seventieth birthday, he said:
Whether it was in mythology, or sociology, or hierology, or politics, or history, or ethics, or economics, I always felt myself to be just finding things out, trying to find the truth about something, wanting to know what really happened in the particular case, and how did the thing go; or, in matters of dispute with regard to aesthetic criticism, what is the right judgment, what constitutes the right judgment, what are the principles of right criticism. One of my volumes has been entitled Explorations. I sometimes think that that should be the title of all of them-Explorations in Seventy Volumes; and, whatever I may have found out, at all events I have had a very good time in the journey. 1
On the same occasion, Professor Graham Wallas, the president of the Rationalist Press Association, commented:
It is, therefore, as the typical Scotchman, intensely devoted to the truth, caring for nothing except truth, who has come to England to teach us half-Scots and noScots how the intellectual life is lived, that I bid you think of him.
Here we have the man: his Scottish origins, the polymathic range of his writings, the intense devotion to the intellectual life, the lack of desire to write merely to please or entertain, his unwillingness to employ the arts of the demagogue as a public speaker, his refusal to compromise as a politician, his utter honesty and integrity, his loyalty as a friend.
He wrote well over 100 books and published articles so innumerable that no bibliographer is likely ever to track them all down. He was often engaged in the controversies of his day, but his major fields of study were the history of freethought and Christianity, economics (with particular interest in saving and free trade), the sociological foundation of societies, and Elizabethan drama. As a public figure he was well known as a journalist and lecturer in progressive circles and he was a distinguished Member of Parliament from 1906 to 1918. He described his friend William Archer, the drama critic, in terms which could with equal aptness be applied to himself, namely as ‘a fighter for the liberation of the general mind from the reign of established error’ whose essays were ‘a true man’s message to those of his fellows who are in earnest about life, truth and the propagation of truth’ (117).
Robertson was born at Brodick, the Isle of Arran, on 14 November 1856. 2 His parents were apparently extremely religious (118) though he writes nowhere of conflict with them; indeed, in keeping with his views on the importance of the individual, he wrote almost nothing of himself and no collection of his personal papers appears to have survived. While he was still of ‘tender age’ (102), he moved with his family to Stirling, where he attended school until the age of thirteen. Here he obtained a little Latin, the beginning of that proficiency in several languages which he later achieved, and a ‘free, flowing and legible’ penmanship which he never lost. He was essentially an autodidact of a kind very characteristic of the second half of the nineteenth century: such self-development could lead to prodigious acquisition of knowledge, perhaps as a measure of self-worth and status which humble origins could not bestow.
He began work with a brief spell as a telegraph clerk at Stirling, and later wrote that ‘in my teens I was in the office of a district agency for a Fidelity Guarantee Company’ (119). He worked at a law office in Edinburgh where, in his own words, ‘I claim to have learnt as little in four years as anyone ever did’ (64). Given his acuteness of mind, it must have been his personal preference for literary endeavours and a distaste for the illogicality of the law which led him to learn so little. Looking back at seventy, he said that at sixteen it had occurred to him that ‘the thing for me to do is to master Spanish, get into the copper trade, make a reasonable fortune in twenty years or so, and then withdraw and devote myself to books’. He did not regret this lost opportunity, for ‘I might have made a fortune after twenty years; but I am very doubtful whether after the twenty years I should have been satisfied to go back to literature’ (64). Despite his quick understanding of economics, he never acquired wealth and made only an adequate living as a writer. The nearest he came to writing for money and popularity was in his youth when he wrote his only novel, which he later described as ‘a pot-boiler’; it appeared as a serial in a provincial newspaper (102).
In Edinburgh he gained literary and secularist friends. An acquaintance, who first met him at that time, later referred to him: ‘Another of the bright-witted and capable Edinburgh Secularists whom I then met for the first time was a dark-haired, dark-eyed, soft-spoken, young man from the North named J.M. Robertson’ (120).
He wrote to his friend Dobell3: ‘I gave up the “divine” notion in my teens: when I came to probe thoroughly the “human” problem I was long past attaching any meaning whatever to the “divine” conception’ (3 February, 1906). He claimed that his first direct contact with freethought was in 1878, when Charles Bradlaugh, the President of the National Secular Society, visited Edinburgh:
I was told he was to lecture on Giordano Bruno in a hall in Edinburgh, and went to hear him. With that lecture, which first brought me in contact with the Freethought movement, I associate the only sensation of pain, and that not a severe one, which attended my abandonment of early beliefs. Thinking inconsecutively for myself, with no Freethought literature to guide me save as so much of Paine as was contained in Watson’s ‘Apology‘ – a work which has led probably many more men to Freethought than it has established in orthodoxy – I slowly reasoned myself out of orthodoxy, and only retained a vague belief in a somewhat abstract Deity, with, I think, an equally attenuated notion of immonality (121).
He always admired Bradlaugh and doubted whether he himself would have become a freethinker without ‘his dauntless sincerity’. He became regularly involved with the Edinburgh Secular Society and a discussion circle of ‘fine, young men, and never a vice between them’, which met at the house of John Lees (122). Members of the group included Thomas Carlaw Martin, ‘a Post Office administrator, afterwards editor of the Scottish Leader … ; W. E. Snell of the Queen’s Remembrancer’s Office, a suave and scholarly exponent of Freethought doctrine; Joseph Mazzini Wheeler, a highly-strung, supersensitive being and a writer of uncommon ability and force; and John Lees, a businessman, as chivalrous a soul as ever lived’ (123). Friends who sympathised with the group, without being so closely linked, were Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), who became a distinguished biologist, sociologist and town planner, and William Archer (1856-1924), who became a leading dramatic critic and translator of Ibsen. Both remained lifelong friends of Robertson.
Archer was a leader-writer for the Edinburgh Evening News and, when he left to take up a post in London, Robertson as a young man of ‘just over twenty … succeeded him’ (102). The Edinburgh Evening News was ‘an organ of advanced Radicalism, whose editor was a disciple of Herbert Spencer’ (102). Robertson later told an anecdote of how the editor, having been asked by a clergyman, ‘To what denomination do your young men in general belong?’, replied, ‘Oh, they’re maistly atheists’ (102).
In half-a-dozen years he became a fluent, prolific and vigorous journalist, and embarked on his career as a more scholarly writer. His opinion of journalists was never high and Quinn referred to an article he wrote on ‘The Farce of Journalism‘, commenting: ‘He played his part in the farce!’ (120). He began contributing to national freethought journals such as Bradlaugh’s National Reformer and Mrs. Besant’s Our Comer. As he wrote:
Even after taking to journalism, which was not the golden road, either, in those days, although it has become auriferous in England since, I still had the surviving economic sense of my race; and I remember planning that the course for me to follow since I had definitely turned my back on the copper trade, was to write plays and novels. I knew there was money in them; and I certainly read a great many plays and novels and studied the history of the Drama to a very _ considerable extent. But always the lure of truth-seeking seemed to overpower all the other lures (64).
Two early pamphlets in which he attempted to give a true picture quite distinct from current views were Walt Whitman, Poet and Democrat (1) and The Perversion of Scotland (87). Walt Whitman shows Robertson’s breadth of reading in poetry and openness to new ideas; he was attracted to Whitman’s commitment to democracy and to his originality of tone. Robertson dealt with the accusation of immorality (Whitman had been
prosecuted in the United States of America by the Society for the Suppression of Vice) without making clear whether he was referring to heterosexual promiscuity or homosexuality, and wrote:
‘There is no reason to believe because of variation on his own part that he does not hold marriage a fundamental institution of the present era. . . ‘. He was attracted by Whitman’s religious heterodoxy, arguing that ‘his religious creed is but the expression of his vitality, not a superstition at which he clutches for sustenance’.
In The Perversion of Scotland Robertson re-examined the Reformation in Scotland, looking at primary sources, and, in the words of his friend J. P. Gilmour, came to the conclusion that ‘it was not, as it is generally
supposed to be, a spontaneous movement, if there can be such a thing, of the religious conscience of the Scottish people, but was largely engmeered by vested interests that stood to profit by the changes that took place’ (64).
These early works indicate strongly the paths of his future studies: his belief that artists grow from within their culture (‘he [Whitman] has been about as much in the movement of the culture of his time as was Shakespeare’); his concern with the economic and social dynamics of religion; his determination-later with Jesus and Shakespeare-to distinguish the supposed truth from the ascertainable facts.
In 1884 Robertson, an admirer of Bradlaugh and an increasingly experienced journalist in the national freethought press, attended a debate in London between Bradlaugh and H. M. Hyndman on 17 April. He reported it in Progress (June 1884) and in the National Reformer (15 June, 27 July 1884) and when he returned to Edinburgh he called a meeting to discuss the debate at which he himself defended socialism against the Edinburgh Secular Society’s capitalist chairman, John Lees (124). It was a debate that much exercised him, since his own political thinking was to span liberalism and socialism, not seeing them, like many of his contemporaries, as incompatible. In correspondence discussing the debate, he wrote that ‘I am a Socialist and Pessimist’, but declared that ‘I believe in Socialism as the goal of social evolution’ (125). Elsewhere, he described himself as ‘a philosophic Socialist-by which he meant that he preferred evolution to revolution when constitutional machinery is available’ (102). Socialism had driven a rift between Bradlaugh and Aveling, and was to drive a rift between Bradlaugh and Mrs Besant (before she absconded to the quite other realms of the Theosophists).
Bradlaugh and Mrs Besant visited Scotland in July 1884. He went fishing in the Highlands while she stayed in Edinburgh. They were on the look-out for a replacement on Our Corner and the National Reformer for Edward Aveling, who had eloped with Eleanor Marx and left debts in all directions. Robertson moved to London and lodged in Mrs Besant’s house, having clearly become something of a protege of hers. Bradlaugh, overtaxed by his continuing struggle to obtain entry into Parliament, seized the opportunity of gaining a talented and competent assistant editor for the National Reformer (126).
The milieu in which Robertson was implanted was well described by George Bernard Shaw, who recounted how he had attended the debating society called ‘the Zetetical‘ in 1879:
The tone was strongly individualistic, atheistic, Malthusian, lngersollian, Darwinian, and Herbert Spencerian. Huxley, Tyndall, and George Eliot were on the shelves of all the members. Championship of the Married Woman’s Property Act had hardly been silenced even by the Act itself. Indignation at prosecution for blasphemous libel was de rigueur; and no words were too strong for invective against such leading cases as those of Annie Besant and Shelley, whose children were torn from them by the Lord Chancellor because, as professed atheists, they were presumed to be unfit for parentage (127).
Shaw, Mrs Besant and Robertson were to be found in overlapping circles. For instance in January 1885, Shaw went to speak to the Dialectical Society in defence of socialism and, because of rumours of a relationship between himself and Mrs Besant, was discountenanced to find her there; Robertson was also present (126). In March Shaw went with Robertson ‘to meet Mrs. B. and Horatio Bottomley coming back from Northampton’ (128).
Robertson spoke at and attended many public meetings: for instance, in 1886 at a conference organised by the Fabian Society at the South Place Institute on ‘The Present Commercial System and the Better Utilization of National Wealth for the Benefit of the Community‘:
‘Among the speakers were Edward Carpenter, William Morris, Sidney Webb, John Robertson … ‘ (126, 129). He would have been likely to attend early meetings of the Fabian Society, held at the house of Bradlaugh’s daughter Hypatia and her husband Arthur Bonner in St George’s Avenue, Tufnell Park where Shaw Wallas, Webb, Hubert Bland and others met (130). Soon’ after his arrival in London he chaired lectures at the Hall of Science, where in 1886 he gained first-class passes in organic chemistry, electricity and magnetism. He taught economics there.
Mrs Besant considered Robertson a great asset to the movement, ‘a man of rare ability and wide culture, somewhat too scholarly for popular propagandism of the most generally effective order, but a man who is a strength to any movement, always on the side of noble living and high thinking, loyal-natured as the true Scot should be, incapable of meanness or treachery, and the most genial and generous of friends’ (129). An account of his lecturing style was given by the freethinker, Arthur B. Moss:
A fine athletic man with handsome, classical features, fine head, jet black hair, bearded like the pard, with a most impressive style of address, and splendid argumentative powers, these, added to remarkable erudition, made him a great attraction as a lecturer at various centres throughout the country. I heard him on several occasions, and was always profoundly impressed by his lucid methods of exposition and convincing power of logic. He was also a very skilful debater as a young man, and this power he has developed to an extraordinary degree during his many years of platform experience. His skill in analysing an argument, in dividing and subdividing its parts, until he had got to the very heart of it, so to speak, was extremely clever, and then to watch while he exposed its fallacies, soon convinced his hearers that they were listening to a logician of the highest order (118).
He could rise from logic to great eloquence, as when he spoke at an anniversary dinner of the Bradlaugh Fellowship at Shoreditch Radical Club; toasting ‘the memory of the late Charles Bradlaugh he delivered one of the most comprehensive and masterly speeches I have heard on the subject. . .’ (118). Sydney Gimson, who knew him in Leicester ‘in the late eighties when he came to lecture to our Secular Society, and stay for weekends with me’, described his lecturing abilities:
In those days not the least of his attractions, especially in the eyes of the ladies of our Society, were his very good looks and a lovely velvet coat that he wore when on the platform. . . . Even in those days we were proud of his learning, although perhaps it sometimes was a bit beyond the depth of us simple businessmen. The fineness of his spirit, as well as the brilliance of his lectures, were an inspiration to us (64).
Gimson also gives a rare glimpse of Robertson in lighter mood: ‘I can clearly see Roberston giving a realistic representation of a growling bear in a cave under my dining room table, being violently attacked from outside by my two yelling and delighted little sons.’ He also refers to Robertson in his bachelor days cooking ‘delicious dinners’. Among other recreations as a younger man was rowing; Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner recalled his boating skills both in Scotland and London: ‘As a Highlander from the Isle of Arran there was little about a boat Mr. Robertson did not know, and sometimes when he came to Portobello on Sundays we would take boats out on water, much to the scandal of the holy neighbourhood’ (122).
However, it was not easy to persuade Robertson to relax, and Gimson considered it ‘something of an achievement when I could get him out for dinner and a band at one of the various shows at Earl’s Court. In doing this I may say that I was always aided and abetted by Mrs. Robertson. I once even took him to a show at the Alhambra’ (64). A lighter, vivacious side of Robertson as a younger man occasionally breaks out in his correspondence with Patrick Geddes,4 making us regret that more of his letters have not survived. He opens one letter: ‘The receipt of that penknife was so entirely unexpected that I overlook all the objurgations which accompanied it. I know thee to be a Socialist, reaping where thou didst not sow: and much experience in matters of pencils had prepared me for the worst. . .’ (1 November, 1884). Another, referring to Geddes’ severe problems with his eyesight, begins: ‘A good new year to you my dear old boy, and may your shadow wax as that of the mustard tree and your eyesight as that of the eagle. . .’ (15 January, 1885).
‘Business before pleasure, however,’ he continued, and that seems to have been the motif of his life. His friends and his prodigious output testify to his formidable powers of concentration and industry. Gimson wrote: ‘Robertson . . . worked twelve hours a day, and seven days a week. There were no forty-two-hour weeks for him’ (64). His natural habitat was the study or library, and pleasure and work merged in his passion for books. Introducing his Courses of Study (116), he advised ‘that book buying is one of the best forms of investment of small sums, and that no study is so thorough as that which is made in leisurely re-perusal of a book always accessible’. Gimson recalled ‘visits in his bachelor days to Broadhurst Gardens, with books everywhere, along the stairs, on the landings, and all over the floors and the walls of the rooms’ (64). John A. Hobson recorded that ‘on one occasion I found him stealing into the room with an armful of books which he was seeking to conceal from the landlady who had expressed alarm lest the weight of the library should break down the ceiling of his room’ (102). His correspondence with the bookseller and publisher, Bertram Dobell, with whom he often discussed book purchases and loans, indicates the regularity and importance book buying played in his life.3 By 1897 he was reported by F. J. Gould to possess five thousand books. Gould saw them as ammunition in the hands of a combative man:
I am not a Theologian. I am not a Christian. I am not a Tory. Hence, when I walked into Mr. Robertson’s study, and looked round at the five thousand books which packed the shelves, I felt no fear of the dissecting-knife. For in drastic analysis, and ruthless acumen, and literary alertness, Mr. Robertson stands unsurpassed among present-day British critics (131).
By the end of his life the collection had grown to ‘20,000 volumes, including a unique collection of works on or about Freethought, which he would fain that the Rationalist Press Association could have acquired after his death; but this was impossible, as there was no space for them in its premises’ (102).
Books were fodder to Robertson’s amazing appetite for knowledge. Gilmour said:
It is true that an invaluable pan of his intellectual endowment was an extraordinary capacious and retentive memory for the written and printed word, and a surprising power for rapidly sorting out the essential from the non-essential elements in a book or argument; but there was more than this in his rare gift, for he was always the master and never the slave of his bookishness. To a correspondent who inquired as to Robertson’s tastes and methods in reading, he replied that he had no habitual resort to any book for solace and comfort. ‘Perhaps,’ he went on, ‘the poet I oftenest go back to for sheer pleasure is still Tennyson; but perhaps, again, my strongest pull of that kind is to Herbert Trench, in respect, namely, of Apollo and the Seaman. There the solace is a complex of the verse values and the thought values. Next I should place Matthew Arnold. . . . But I always keep shrines for Keats, and Coleridge, and Poe. … In prose, again, Lamb and Montaigne come closest to me. … Sir Thomas Browne is a kind of music always on tap. … In fiction I have a hygienic habit of reading thrillers after meals to prevent me from working my brains at those times, which I have found to be injurious. Serious fiction, since Conrad, rarely satisifies me. The novelist I have oftenest re-read is Jane Austen, for the sheer finish of her art. Dickens I can’t re-read. Thackeray I can, with much of my old admiration. For the rest Turguenief remains one of my most esteemed masters, Flaubert next. … I am always reading in many fields—much in biography, for instance (102).
In his own writing, journalism and book-writing came side by side; the groundwork for his books often came in articles and lectures. For instance, as Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner recounts, ‘In 1887-9 he wrote, among other things, a series of articles on “The Rise of Christianity Sociologically Considered”, and in 1889 my father, fully alive to the value of the comparative method of tracing the sources of Christian ideas, proposed to Mr. Robertson that he should write another series on “Christ and Krishna”. In these articles we see the beginnings of that intensive examination into the parallels and similarities of Christian myths with those of other creeds which has resulted in the production of such remarkable works as Christianity and Mythology, Pagan Christs, and the important books on the Jesus problems’ (122).
When Bradlaugh died in 1891, Robertson, who had been covering the Hon’s share of the work for six years, was the natural heir as editor of the National Reformer. At that time he was back in Edinburgh working temporarily on the staff of the Scottish Leader, and Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner, into whose hands the National Reformer technically fell, was grateful that ‘he left his journalistic work there, to come to London and take upon himself the editorial burden of the National Reformer which otherwise would have been on my shoulders’ (102). He announced that, following the journal’s longstanding poficy, ‘my convictions are “Republican, Atheistic and Malthusian” ’ (132). Circulation of the paper, which had been essentially a record of Bradlaugh’s Hfe and work, briefly revived under Robertson, but by 1893 it fell too low for economic survival. Robertson wrote in the last issue that ‘its non-success is merely commercial, not inteHectual; wrought by commercial conditions, not by failure to alter opinions’ (132). He put a brave face on the paper’s demise, claiming, in a rather more rhetorical tone than was characteristic of his style, that ‘during the thirty-three years of this journal’s life the teachings it represents have been rapidly and obviously gaining ground; that they are now gaining ground; and that they are sure to gain more despite the cessation of this particular agency for their diffusion’. He tried to put his finger on the causes of ‘the comparative decline in serious reading’, saying that it was ‘no use merely to inveigh against it either as a vice of the age or as a result of a free and cheap press’. He emphasised that it was due to economic conditions, but there is a tone of disappointment in his allusion to people turning ‘in ever-increasing numbers to snippy and snappy literature’. Rather than cater for the audience of the snippy and snappy, Robertson sought a more select readership and started the Free Review, a monthly priced one shilling, with longer, less topical, more analytical articles. He continued as editor until 1897, when it was taken over by De Villiers and retitled The University Magazine and Free Review (124).
When Bradlaugh had resigned from the Presidency of the National Secular Society in 1890, because of pressure of pariiamentary work and poor health, according to Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner, ‘he would have wished to nominate J. M. Robertson, but he did not think organizing and directing a Society was at all his fine’ (133). G. W. Foote, the editor of The Freethinker, who had been imprisoned for blasphemy, was the alternative, although a small group thought him too raucous and nominated Robertson — who dechned to stand. There always remained an element of rivalry and asperity between them, based presumably more on differences of style than opinion. There are hints of it in accounts of Bradlaugh’s funeral which took place in 1891. Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner asked Robertson to be one of the pall bearers; according to one account, Foote expected a similar place and when not invited placed himself at the head of the procession, but Mrs Besant thrust him aside asking ‘how he dared come between the daughter and her dead father’ (133). Foote wrote to Arthur Bonner, Bradlaugh’s son-in-law: ‘I can hardly suppose an affront was intended to the President of the National Secular Society, or that any one could be disposed to choose, without my comment or knowledge, a representative of the Society on that or any other occasion’ (134). Their co-operation in signing an appeal ‘to raise a fund for erecting a Freethought Hall and Institute in memory of Charles Bradlaugh’ (135) did not last, when a dispute arose over whether to build an entirely new hall or whether to convert the Hall of Science. Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner and Robertson disliked the smoking-and-drinking, music-hall, club atmosphere of the Hall of Science, and after much acrimony the Memorial Hall Co. Ltd. was wound up and the project abandoned (130).
Robertson was also an obvious successor to Bradlaugh in Parliament. In 1892, although Bradlaugh’s Northampton supporters wanted him as a candidate, he agreed not to stand and split the radical vote (130). He did stand in 1895, but failed to achieve a majority at a time when the fortunes of the Liberal Party were at a low ebb (130).
As a politician he was a typical progressive of the period. Among the issues with which he concerned himself were the strike of the Bryant and May match girls, the question of an eight-hour working day, the right of dissent from compulsory vaccination, freedom of publishing, repeal of the blasphemy law, female suffrage and birth control. They were all issues where he felt deeply about the individual’s rights, and he was also determined to provide an individual viewpoint rather than automatically follow the swelling tide of socialism among radicals. He thought that reformers should pay more attention to the consequences of their actions:
In a discussion on the theme at the National Liberal Club, I was told by several philanthropic speakers that I ought to look at it in a more idealistic spirit, which seemed to mean that we ought to speak more of what we should like to do than of what can be done. There has been plenty of that kind of idealism in human affairs: the field of history is strewn with the wrecks of such idealisms; and it is a little disquieting to see how many friends of reform are still disposed to try legislative experiments merely because they are humanely conceived, without staying to consider their chances (72).
In 1888, when a strike at Bryant and May’s factory in Bromley followed Mrs Besant’s exposure of appalling working conditions in an article entitled ‘White Slavery in London’, meetings were organised to encourage and to offer financial support to the girls. Robertson helped at one such meeting, where money collected by progressive and socialist groups was distributed (126). Although in favour of improving the lives of working people, Robertson disagreed with many radicals and opposed a Bill to limit work to eight hours a day. He thought it would lead to declining profits, increased foreign competition and failure of industry resulting in loss of jobs and greater poverty, all likely to be exacerbated by the pressure of population. He thought that ‘restraint of hours is vain without restraint of population. And yet Mr. Shaw, like his Fabian colleagues, makes no attempt to bring the need for restraint of population home to the workers’ (72). Robertson consistently supported such an attempt, wrote regularly for the Malthusian and became a Vice-President of the Malthusian Society.
Compulsory vaccination was initially extremely controversial among some progressives, partly on the grounds of doubt about its efficacy, but mainly because of the principle of compulsion. As he put it in a letter to Geddes, the question was: ‘Supposing you had made up your mind that vaccination was a good thing, would you approve of imprisoning those who opposed you?’ (22 January, 1885). Robertson fulminated against Frederic Harrison, the leader of the Positivists, for advocating compulsory vaccination, referring to his ‘line of brutal and insane coercion’ and felt that he was himself ‘as capable of estimating the value of vaccination as he is and I know men of reasoning powers superior to his who hold the views he so insolently asperses. And if he stands to his position I pledge myself to do what little in me lies to bring him into discredit with all whom my writing can reach as an enemy of righteous freedom and right reason’ (15 January, 1885). Geddes, a biologist, did not support Robertson on this issue.
Not surprisingly Robertson opposed attempts to suppress publication of ‘advanced’ literature. In 1889 he drew up a petition to the Home Secretary protesting about the ‘scandalously unjust’ prison sentence on Vizetelly, for publishing a translation of Zola’s La Terre. He also supported the publication of Havelock Ellis’s pioneer study, Sexual Inversion, and was a member of the Free Defence Committee, which included Grant Allen, Bernard Shaw and Edward Carpenter, opposing prosecution of Bedborough, the bookseller who sold it. His own book, The Dynamics of Religion, was originally published under the pseudonym of M. W. Wiseman by the same publisher, De Villiers, who owned the so-called Watford University Press (124).
In 1887 Robertson travelled to Germany. He wrote from Darmstadt to Geddes: ‘Behold me in the land of Bismarck and bad style’ (8 November, 1887). He was improving his German, but thought he was ‘still shamefully backward in my expression of the tongue — which is indeed a frightful structure—and I miss much that I want to get’. His scholarship shows great facility with half-a-dozen languages, but he probably had greater skill with the written than the spoken language. When interviewed by F. J. Gould, he said that he had learnt Dutch to study Tiele’s History of Religion, but he confessed ‘with a smile’ that ‘I have since forgotten it all’ (131). In Germany he particularly noticed the bureaucracy and militarism: ‘What strikes me most here is the enormous extension of the bureaucracy. D. is a capital-town and there seems to be nothing but officialdom. Officers by the score meet you everywhere; and I sometimes speculate whether the army in any way partakes of the nature of their uniforms, which are made up to a ludicrous extent. But the drill, which seems to go on all over the place, is extremely thorough.’
His correspondence indicates that he spent a short period in Paris in 1896, but the reason and extent of his stay are unclear. Two years later, he had a holiday in Brittany, but did not abandon his work; he thanked Dobell for a note, which ‘followed me to Brittany on my holiday; and having, as usual, work to do every other day even there, I finished correspondence as much as possible’ (6 September, 1898).
He made an extensive lecture tour of America in 1897-8, ‘with some engagements at some of the principal universities’ (102). He had in 1893 married Maud Moser, ‘daughter of Mr. Charles Moser of Iowa, USA’ (136) and ‘she brought into his life a happy companionship of taste and spirit’ (137). The birth of their son in 1896, did not allow him to forget his literary fertility: ‘Both [wife and son] are doing well, but I can’t get to the Museum’ (Letter to Dobell, 4 November, 1896). Neither his son nor his daughter appears to have been involved in political or freethought activity.
Shortage of money at this time led him to revive his youthful idea of writing popular fiction. He told Dobell of his scheme:
Months ago, apprehending money pressures, I began to work out an old scheme of mine for a sensational story to be subtitled ‘Treasure England’, as a variation on the customary resort to the Spanish Main and pirate islands. I am sure the thing could be made popular. It is not at all an ideal literary undertaking: my main aim is to make some money to pay my debts. I don’t want it to be a vulgar story: it ought to be fairly well written; but it isn’t to be a subtle study of character. Well, I have done three chapters for a start, and I want to know whether you care at all to look at the manuscript. An artist friend here is willing to do the illustrations for a moderate share in the profits (9 February, 1896).
In 1900 he visited South Africa ‘to report on the workings of martial law in that country’ (102). He was commissioned by the Morning Leader, one of the few London papers to oppose the Boer War. His articles appeared under the pseudonym of ‘Scrutator’ and were revised and published as a book, Wrecking the Empire. He argued that ‘the policy of crushing the two Dutch Republics in South Africa is on the one hand preparing the dismemberment of the British Empire by creating an irreconcilable hatred of us among the South African Dutch, who are bound greatly to outnumber the British when the Johannesburg gold mines are exhausted, if not sooner; and, on the other hand, is degrading the moral code of the British majority alike in the colonies and the mother country’ (33). Opposition to jingoism and imperialism was a major theme of his political career. From this perspective he took a continual interest in Egypt and visited the country at the time of the incident when fellahin were shot at Denashawai in 1906. His visits abroad also included attendance at the International Freethought Congress in Rome in 1904 (138).
Robertson was torn between the merits of a literary and a political career, writing to Dobell: ‘As to Parliament v. authorship my instincts are all for the latter; but the point of influence has to be considered. Which way can I best get a hearing? We shall see.’ (27 November, 1903).
Parliamentary ambitions won and Robertson was eventually elected as a Member for Tyneside in the Liberal landslide of 1906. It was a seat he had been nursing for some years with lectures and debates in the constituency. He acknowledged that ‘many Nonconformists had broadmindedly aided in his election’ (138). His Parliamentary career was undramatic but successful, in that he was appointed by Asquith as Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade in 1911, and was made a Privy Councillor in 1915. During the wartime Coalition period he chaired a Government Committee on Food Prices. He failed to be re-elected in the post-war Coupon election of 1918, and a further attempt to return to the House of Commons in 1923 was also unsuccessful. He remained active in the Liberal Party, being President of the National Liberal Federation from 1920 to 1923 and Vice-President of the Liberal Council in 1927 (139).
Parliamentary activity and especially the pressure of work at the Board of Trade caused even the ‘workaholic’ Robertson to complain of lack of leisure. He wrote to Sir Sidney Lee5 that, added to his ‘burdens of temporary lameness’, he suffered ‘an almost disabling attack of lumbago’. He hoped ‘ere long to get out of a plague of work and share that little dinner I proposed to arrange. But just now I never know when I shall be able to eat any meal after breakfast!’ (14 April, 1913).
In his early years in the Commons he was a vigorous opponent of armament expenditure, but reluctantly changed his views as more details of German re-armament became known. Conscious that much opposition to militarism was Christian, he took part in founding the Rationalist Peace Society in 1911; he was President, with Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner as Chairman and other freethinkers such as G. W. Foote and F. J. Gould supporting the Society (140).
Gilmour stated of Robertson that ‘politics was not his first love or forte’, although ‘he made a marked reputation both in the House of Commons and as an administrator, and was a recognised authority on all economic questions, with special reference to Free Trade’ (102). He was a man not to follow any views but those of his own reason, and his espousal of Free Trade and dislike of Lloyd George put him aside from the developing current in the Liberal Party.6
As a young man Robertson wrote in lighthearted vein to Geddes: ‘You will be pleased to know that I have added a scientific magnum opus to my list. I am not selfish, however, and you may have the subject for a symposium-discussion. Call it “The cerebral, psychological and moral aspects of the law of the instability of the homogeneous” ’ (15 January, 1885). The list, which was an ambition when he was a young man, had steadily become an achievement. He was still working vigorously on one magnum opus or another in his later years when he took a less active part in politics. He had not ceased writing while a Member of Parliament — indeed his output while active as a man of affairs is extraordinary — but his works had been shorter and more concerned with current events. With more time to devote to writing he resumed some of his major life works. Commentators agree that his History of Freethought Ancient and Modem (102) is his masterpiece, and he continued to produce completely revised editions of what had begun as a series of lectures in the 1890s. He also produced a major sequel, A History of Freethought in the Nineteenth Century in 1929 (99). He revised and added new material to The Dynamics of Religion (9T) for re-issue in his seventieth year. Here he looked at a question which preoccupied him all his life: ‘What is it that keeps ecclesiastical organizations going, in the face of the most destructive criticism of their creeds?’ (97).
In Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner’s opinion, ‘Perhaps the subject most dear to John M. Robertson’s heart throughout his life has been his study of Shakespeare’ (122). He had once referred in a letter to Dobell to his ‘dream of editing Shakespeare’ (5 February, 1901). Much of his study of Shakespeare was an attempt to distinguish what was genuinely Shakespeare’s material from survivals of other authors in plays of theirs that, in Robertson’s view, he had re-written. Recent Shakespeare scholars would not on the whole agree with his conclusions. Shortly after his seventieth birthday his enthusiasm for Shakespeare was confirmed in a letter to Geddes: ‘As for me, I have been doing endless things: the most interesting being one that won’t interest you — the radical revision of the Shakespeare Canon—a return to my first love, in a way. Just at present I am revising, sentence by sentence, a new translation of Montaigne by a friend, for which I have written an introduction; also I am doing a compressed chapter for a new World History on “Thought and Thinkers in the Eighteenth Century”. (I have just published at my 70th birthday a comprehensive book on “The Problems of the Shakespeare Sonnets”.)’ (10 December, 1926).
It was apt that the final work he completed was a new edition of Courses of Study (116), since he never rested with his existing assumptions or knowledge, but believed in perpetual study. He said at his seventiethbirthday dinner that Bradlaugh’s mandate was: ‘Never think you know all about your subjects: always re-think them; always re-study them; always lest your positions or arguments. ’ He continued, Tn a word, the message to the young generation, to our successors, is: “Think new, and think true”’ (64).
It was reported that, a week before the birthday, ‘at the National Liberal Club, he had to put an obstreperous Christian in his place’ (64) and according to one writer ‘he did not mellow with age’.7 He had perhaps never been particularly mellow with opponents. Manny Shinwell, the Labour politician, told of how he had crossed swords with him as a youth:
He referred with contempt to my youthful appearance and my still more youthful arguments.
I retorted by reminding him ‘that a man’s intelligence was not determined by the length of his whiskers’. Robertson — who wore a beard — seemed to regard this as a personal affront, and was furiously angry. He turned on me and poured forth a torrent of phrases that completely shrivelled me up. I said no more (141).
Another anecdote testifying to Robertson’s sharpness comes from the Positivist Quinn:
I had . . . written a little book which I called Words on the Positive Religion. Robertson had somehow got hold of it, and came to see me one day carrying it in his hands, with the intention, as he said, of exposing what he called my ‘sophisms’. He has, as we all know, criticised many men and many things, and I was naturally not a little alarmed when he sat down and opened my poor pages. I think my argument on prayer, such as it was, was what was most offensive to his pure rationalism. I quoted Comte’s definition of prayer as ‘commemoration followed by effusion’. ‘Effuse as much as you like,’ said Robertson; ‘but why call it prayer?’ However, when he had done his best and worst on my litde book, I remarked, ‘Is that all you have to say against it? Why I could say more myself. ’ ‘ Then you ought to re-write it,’ replied Robertson promptly and severely (120).
Rewriting was not a task Robertson shirked himself, and he continued at his literary studies to the last. Also, ‘during his closing years he continued to speak and write on advanced Liberal politics, and on issues such as Peace, Free Trade, and Self-Government for India’ (102). In the autumn of 1932 he suffered a slight stroke, ‘accompanied by partial aphasia and some discontinuity of cerebration’. ‘There is little doubt that the tremendous labour involved in re-writing and bringing up to date his colossal undertaking, Courses of Study, was responsible for his collapse. . .’ (123). It was difficult to persuade him to relax his still unvaried pattern of twelve hours’ work a day. Even though not fully recovered, he attended an important meeting of the Bradlaugh Centenary Committee and lectured to the South Place Ethical Society at Conway Hall, acknowledging the seriousness of his state of health with the words, ‘this may be, for medical reasons, the last occasion of my orally addressing you’ (69). The subject was ‘Contaminated Ideals’ and he criticised any attempt to include political and other propaganda within the programme of organised rationalism, ‘which I regard as one of the most vitally important movements for the betterment of that mental life which is central to all human betterment whatever’ (69).
On January 5, 1933, shortly after listening to a radio talk on saving (a lifelong interest of his) he had a second stroke, which rapidly proved fatal. Following his wishes, he was cremated at Golders Green with no ceremony and a small attendance including his son and representatives of freethought organisations. His wife, whose health was declining, survived him by only a few weeks.
Robertson was much admired by a small circle of loyal friends, but his reserve and his long hours of work meant that he was no socialite. Nevertheless, ‘he mightily relished a “crack” with his cronies, and especially with his old schoolmate Jenkins, with whom he lunched once a week at the National Liberal Club, of which Robertson was a member, and where he had many friends among representative men in politics, literature, and other walks of public life’ (102). When things were going badly he insisted on a good meal:
My wife will remember how in the old days, when, at times, owing to the failure of some payment (that was one of the experiences in those days of a penman), it seemed distinctly doubtful whether I could pay the next quarter’s rent—and she took these matters a good deal more seriously than I did—I had always an unbreakable rule, and that was when things were looking thoroughly bad to go out to a restaurant and have a good dinner and a bottle of wine (64).
Commenting on a pamphlet of Geddes in a letter to him, Robertson said, ‘You and I are both excitable persons, who do well to keep the curb on our diction. Your pamphlet is to me obviously written at high pressure of pulse’ (8 November, 1887). There is probably more such ‘pressure of pulse’ behind Robertson’s cool, reasoned writings than is apparent. In his appreciation of his friend William Archer, he wrote that Archer’s outward ‘coldness’ ‘was really a kind of nervous inhibition which came over him with vivacious strangers or in mixed companies’; he added that he knew from personal experience that ‘for long country walks he was the best of companions’ (117). Did Robertson, who according to J. A. Hobson ‘took daily walks of from five to ten miles’ (102), similarly conceal beneath a cold exterior a warm and passionate nature?
His lack of desire to please or compromise was coupled with a refusal to idealise the ‘common man’. In his pamphlet on Whitman (1) he quoted from an unnamed novel: ‘A man may be a democrat without being a demophile.’ In a letter to Geddes, he says of an unknown Edinburgh writer: ‘And—highest praise of all—he prints books at his own expense’; and he refers to moments when ‘I get sick of human imbecility and brutality’ (15 January,1885). Ernest Newman recorded that he did not believe that change could easily be achieved by simply pointing people to rational solutions:
I remember him telling me how, when he was editing the National Reformer, he tried to put into operation some simple technical reform or other designed to bring a rational consistency into the manner of setting up certain words, and found, to his amusement, the compositors unwilling or unable to abandon the old habit. It taught him, he said, not to expect too much in the way of swift reform in social or intellectual matters of much greater complexity than this (102).
Newman was one of several younger men who were encouraged by him and remained admirers. Another younger man who admired him was Harold Laski, who wrote that ‘ I like to think of him as I saw him last, reciting some lines from Lear with an ecstatic enjoyment of their beauty which I cannot paint in words’ (139). All his friends spoke of his loyalty and integrity; and these qualities are particularly noticeable in his friendship with Bradlaugh’s daughter, Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner, and his consistent defence of the reputation of her father.
Robertson’s reputation has faded somewhat. For all his distinction in public life and as a writer, he is now infrequently remembered or read. Why has a man of such considerable achievement been forgotten? He was uncompromising and took no trouble to court popularity. He made high demands on his audience: ‘The close reasoning of his spoken and written word demanded the sedulous and sustained attention of the listener to or reader of it, to whom he was apt sometimes to credit a higher intelligence and honesty than circumstances justified’ (123). He was not a selfpromoter or advertiser and in no way sought public notice by the large or eccentric gestures of a ‘personality’. ‘With less brains and more bustle he might easily have risen to the highest position in the political world’, wrote Chapman Cohen, editor of The Freethinker (64).
He was a self-taught man (ultimately the best form of education), with all the autodidact’s enthusiasm for knowledge and accuracy, but he remained outside the professional academic world—a barrier which professional exclusivity’ makes it difficult to cross. His writings covered a very wide range at a period during which many subjects, such as English literature, economics or sociology, were becoming a distinctive academic, professional specialism; and—to his credit—he never confined himself to one speciality.
Much of his writing was combative or concerned with topical affairs. The writer S. K. Ratcliffe wrote in an obituary notice: ‘There was no more relentless controversialist in England than J. M. Robertson, and there was no antagonist more scrupulous. His weapons were those of the mind. He admitted’no others. . . ’ (142). Another obituarist wrote that ‘with the pen, indeed, his dogmatism, whether he spoke on Shakespeare or religion, put many people off; meet him, however, and it became impossible to resist the sincerity of the man or his kindness’ (137). He admitted that ‘It belongs to my unhappy constitution that I am more self-possessed in facing hostility than in facing generous kindness’ (64). John A. Hobson wrote that ‘a clearance of intellectual “slums” was his great life-work’ (123). Builders are remembered better than bulldozers, but they could not build without them. ‘He loved reason as other men love physical health,’ wrote Ernest Newman (102). His devotion to truth and reason propelled his life’s work, but they are not a recipe for popular appeal.
He would have wished to survive in his writings and not in an account of his life. Although critical of the Marxist economic interpretation of history, he preferred sociological and cultural explanations to emphasis on the great individual: his disintegrationist view of Shakespeare and his mythicist view of Jesus both indicate this. He expressed a modest wish in a verse quoted by Gilmour (102):
Were I to wish that unborn men
Should sometimes think of me, why then
I should but wish that they, like you
Should know me by a word or two.
May he and the many words he wrote be better known by this book.
I should like to thank Professor G. A. Wells and Nicolas Walter for useful suggestions to the text of this and the subsequent chapter. I should also like to acknowledge the helpfulness of the staff of the London Library, the Bishopsgate Institute, London, the Bodleian Library, Oxford, the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, and the University Library, Bristol.
1 The only substantial personal reminiscence of Robertson about himself was on this occasion of his seventieth birthday, when a number of his friends also made tributes to him. The text was published in full in The Literary Guide, January 1927 (64 in the main bibliography of his works).
The most substantial account of Robertson’s life by a contemporary was by J. P. Gilmour, a personal friend. It appears, together with appreciations by Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner, Ernest Newman and John A. Hobson, as a preface to the 1936 edition of Robertson’s A History of Freethought… to the Period of the French Revolution (102 in the main bibliography).
‘ A useful series of letters from Robertson to the bookseller Bertram Dobell is to be found in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
• I Eight letters from Robertson to Patrick Geddes are in the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.
5 A single letter from Robertson to Sir Sidney Lee is in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
6 For a fuller account of Robertson’s parliamentary career and political views see the following chapter.
2 This phrase was used by E. Maddison, Secretary of the International Arbitration League, in a letter to Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner, in the Bradlaugh Papers, Bishopsgate Institute, London.
117 Robertson, J. M. (Editor), William Archer as Rationalist: a Collection of his Heterodox Writing, London, 1925.
I IK Moss, Arthur, ‘Famous Freethinkers I have known – VIII’, The Freethinker, London, 3 September, 1915.
119 Robertson, J. M. ‘Sociological Notes’, The Reformer, New Series, No 39, London, 15 March, 1902.
120 Quinn, Malcolm, Memoirs of a Positivist, London, 1924.
121 Robertson, J. M., National Reformer, London, 8 February, 1891.
122 Bonner, Hypatia Bradlaugh, ‘John Mackinnon Robertson: a Tribute’, The Literary Guide, London, July 1926.
12I Obituary and tributes by J. P. Gilmour, Eden Phillpotts, John A. Hobson, Professor Harold J. Laski, T. Whittaker, Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner, Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell, Sir Arthur Keith, S. K. Ratcliffe, Ernest Newman, F. J. Gould, F. C. C. Watts, The Literary Guide, London, February, 1933.
124 Royle, Edward, Radicals, Secularists and Republicans, Manchester, 1980.
125 Robertson, J. M., Correspondence in National Reformer, London, 15 and 29 June, 1884.
126 Nethercott, Arthur H., The First Five Lives of Mrs Besant, London, 1961.
127 Shaw, Bernard, Sixteen Self-Sketches, London, 1949.
I2K Shaw quoted in Irvine, St. John, Bernard Shaw, His Life, Work and Friends, London, 1956.
129 Besant, Annie, An Autobiography, London 1893.
I to Tribe, David, President Charles Bradlaugh, London, 1971.
I II Gould, F. J., ‘Chats about Books – VII’, The Literary Guide, July, 1897.
I I.’ Robertson, J. M., National Reformer, 22 February, 1891, 1 October, 1893.
133 Quoted from Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner’s manuscript memoir of Annie Besant by David Tribe (130).
134 Foote, G. W., Letter to Bonner, A.,. 3 February, 1891. No. 2095 in the Bradlaugh Papers, Bishopsgate Institute, London.
135 The Freethinker, 1 March, 1891.
136 Morning Post, 7 January, 1933.
137 Manchester Guardian, 7 January, 1933.
138 Gould, F. J., The Pioneers of Johnson’s Court, A History of the Rationalist Press Association from 1899 Onwards, London, 1929.
139 Page, Martin, Britain’s Unknown Genius, An Introduction to the Life-Work of John Mackinnon Robertson, London, 1984.
140 Bonner, Arthur, and Bonner, Charles Bradlaugh, Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner: The Story of Her Life, London, 1942.
141 Shinwell, Manny, Star, 7 January, 1933.
142 Ratcliffe, S. K., The Observer, 8 January, 1933.