Another of the outstanding personalities of the watershed years of Mather & Platt was an engineer who enjoyed the distinction of being the first of three Salford Iron Works youths who, having joined the firm as ordinary apprentices, without the influence of family connections or financial backing, were selected for promotion and proved themselves capable of administering the affairs of a trading department at Park Works with such marked efficiency that they were, in turn, rewarded with a seat on the board of directors of Mather & Platt Ltd.
James Robinson, the son of a Clifton schoolmaster, was educated at Manchester Grammar School, that nursery of distinguished men. When young James decided on an Engineering career his father secured an introduction to Mr. William Mather at Salford. In later years James was very fond of quoting from his recollections of the interview.
That was in 1884. Eighteen years later, in August 1902, we find Sir William Mather, M.P., in the Chair at the Annual General Meeting of his Company and James Robinson elected to the Board of Directors. Good progress for an ordinary boy!
Although as an engineer he was destined to devote his energies to the world of textiles, James Robinson was wont to make a smiling boast that as an apprentice he worked on the Mather & Platt electric light installation at the Theatre Royal, Manchester, said to be the first theatre to produce its own electric light, where the current was generated by an Edison-Hopkinson Generator driven by a horizontal steam engine.
While still a young man, James Robinson decided to specialise on the textile engineering side of the firms activities and he became a great ambassador for British Textile Engineering. He has been aptly described as a practical engineer, salesman, technician and advisor all in one.
The reason is not far to seek. Having decided to specialise on the needs of the Textile Industry, James Robinson devoted himself with typical thoroughness to every detail of its requirements. He studied every minute detail of each individual process until he could be described as a walking encyclopaedia on the textile finishing trade. He set out to know all there was to be known and he achieved his purpose to an unusual degree. As a result, whenever there was a prospect of finishing machinery being required James Robinson was capable of visiting the scene, studying all local conditions, noting the nature and quantity of fabric to be produced and giving expert advice on the plant necessary to achieve the desired results. He would then follow every detail from drawing board, foundry, machine shops, erection and testbed to satisfy himself that the customer would get exactly what was needed.
The reputation of James Robinson was not confined to the British Isles. He travelled in the Far East, China and Japan in l902, He visited India in 1906; Brazil in 1895 and in 1912 he made several visits to the United States and Canada. The Continent of Europe was familiar ground to him. Every year, over a long period, he visited Russia where he was held in high regard both for his character and his knowledge. A Paper he prepared for the Textile Institute of Great Britain was published in a book form and in the Russian language was regarded as the standard handbook on Textile Finishing.
It is part of the job of an ambassador to create an impression of dignified integrity. James Robinson did this to a remarkable degree and wherever he travelled he made friends. His capacity for listening to the troubles of other men made him a confidant as well as a business acquaintance. His charm of manner, his enthusiasm for engineering achievement, his forward-looking mind, created comradeship in industry just as surely with men in foreign lands as they did with customers at home. After the lapse of many years he could name every mill he had visited in distant lands. What is more, he remembered the name of every man with whom he had discussed business.
To appreciate what it meant to be an Ambassador of trade one has only to read the diary of this man. We find every incident of any importance recorded in minute detail - a long day in business followed by an evening devoted ostensibly to social events but in reality frequently spent in cultivating the acquaintance of people who mattered in the business community, sitting up late or rising in the small hours of the morning to make written reports of one day before, starting out to keep appointments of the next and always looking for any possible connection which might lead to a new application of the products of the firm not only his own particular department but for other branches of the company.
It was not just by accident that James Robinson built up big business in South America and other countries to which the export of Textile Machinery assumed considerable proportions. He was ever alive to an opening, capable of convincing clients that he was the man to advise them and that Mather & Platt Ltd, were the people to give technical advice, to design plant for any desired output and finally to undertake the manufacture and erection of all the necessary machinery.
In his capacity as Director in charge of the General Machinery Department, he told a Sales Conference in 1920, "Success is not only of one kind; it does not only relate to monetary success, to big turnovers and making big profits, to build up a great company. Employing large numbers of men, finding work for them and living for their families, gathering round us a fine staff such as we have here tonight and which is only a part of a still greater one, that in itself is surely a success as great as any that we have achieved and one of which we are just as proud."
James Robinson continued to direct the policy of the General Machinery Department at Park Works until the time of his death in 1945. He served the Company with great distinction for over 60 years and - as a workman in the erecting shop at Park Works said at the time of his death - he was a very loveable man; I never heard anyone say an unkind word about him.
For some years before his death James Robinson had been assisted in the administration of the General Machinery Department by Roy C. Mather, a grandson of Cast Iron Colin.