The passing of an archbishop

Recently (11 September 2018) I attended Donald Robinson’s funeral. Don was my father’s cousin, 10 years older than Dad. Their mothers were sisters, Gertie and Winnie Ross. I remember Don fondly because, among other things, he was the keeper of the family history, and a large part of his family history is also mine. He did a massive amount of research back in the 70s and 80s when I was at school and university and before I had really spared more than a passing thought for my heritage. I suspect he started long before that being, as a clergyman in Sydney, surrounded by history in his early parishes, churches dating back to the very earliest days of the colony. He had ready access to church archives at a time when there was no, nor indeed any Internet at all to provide access to resources which could assist in constructing the family tree.

Of course he would have had to access many other records apart from church archives, but he was a tenacious researcher with an enquiring mind and a vivid imagination, and must have spent many hours assembling information about the ancestors which were much closer to his generation than to mine. I believe he once organised a huge family reunion with as many people as he could assemble from the family tree, but I was overseas at the time, and missed the opportunity to speak to him in person about his enquiries. Sadly, by the time I had caught the ancestry bug I was overseas again, and still could not easily “pick his brain.” And then, as happens so often in these days when we are living so long, his mind gradually succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimers dementia, and he spent his last years in a nursing home in Sydney, where, though he was cared for with great attentiveness by family members and old clergy associates, I did not have the opportunity to visit him.

Don was a scholar who devoted the majority of his life to theology – the study of God. He went to school in Sydney from the late 1920s to the early 40s. He was almost 17 when the Second World War broke out. He studied English and Greek at university, but broke his studies for military service in the Second World War, where he served in intelligence as a code breaker. After university he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter the ministry, and using the money he had saved from his time in the army managed to complete his theology degree at Cambridge University in England. He became a minister and then a teacher in theology at Moore College in Sydney, then a bishop, then an archbishop, but in the end returned to Moore College as a lecturer. In his spare time he was devoted husband and father, but he also engaged his mind in the family history, leaving masses of notes and articles which he handed down to his children.

Don’s daughter, Anne, gave a moving and very personal eulogy in which she painted a wonderful picture of her father and told the fascinating story of the life he lived. Much of his life story can be found online, so I won’t try to repeat that, but rather add some web links at the end of this page. However, a few things that were said about Don caught my attention because of my interest in his family history research, so I thought I’d record some reflections here.

The Holford-Robinson connection

First some background about the connection between the Robinson and Holford families. It all started in Lithgow, NSW, a small country town on the western fall of the Great Dividing Range, where my grandfather, Charles Holdorf (later Holford), who had grown up in Goulburn and Sydney, found himself working in 1916, the year after he left school. Grandpa, who was then just 16 years old, was the oldest of the five children in his family. His father had shipped out to the war in Europe at the end of 1915, and was fighting the German Reich on the Western Front (notably at Fromelles). Charles’ five younger siblings lived in Manly with their grandmother, who had been the primary caregiver after their mother died in 1908 leaving their father a widower with five children under 10. His father himself was a travelling salesman and part time soldier and was often on the road.

Charles secured a job at the Small Arms Factory in Lithgow through his father’s military connections. He boarded there with a couple who were keen members of the Anglican Church, and in this way got to know the minister and his wife, Bradley and Gertie Robinson. The Robinsons were also from Sydney, though as far as I know the Holdorf family, who were not particularly religious, did not know them. Charles was greatly influenced by both his landlord and the Robinsons, and appears to have embraced the Christian faith during that time in a way that was somewhat more intentional and committed than any of his younger siblings back in Sydney.

Donald was the third of Bradley and Gertie Robinson’s four children, and the only boy. However, he was not born until November 1922, after Charles had left Lithgow and returned to Sydney for tertiary studies. But the connection between Charles and the Robinsons did not end when he returned to Sydney, because during his time in Lithgow he had made the acquaintance of Gertie Robinson’s younger sister, Winifred, who was a year or two younger than him. After the War, Charles’ father found a house in Mosman, in Sydney, as chance would have it in the very same street as Winifred lived with her parents. Charles may have lived there with his father and siblings and the friendship between the Holford and Ross families grew. A romance blossomed between Charles and Winifred, which led to their marriage in 1925 at the local Anglican Church, St Clements, Mosman. The Robinsons were there, of course, with young Donald by then a toddler, almost 3 years old.

Gert (Robinson) and Winn (Holford) were two of five daughters born to William and Alice Ross, of Mosman. William, born in England, was the son of a Scot who had left Ross-Shire at the time of the Highland Clearances. Alice, Australian born, was the daughter of an Irishman from County Kerry, who had come out to Australia in the 1860s. So the Ross girls were of solid Scottish and Irish stock. Gert, as we have seen, married DB (Bradley) Robinson, also of Scottish roots. Winn married my grandfather, whose own background was German and English.

It is the Scottish-Irish heritage of the Rosses that we share with the Robinsons, and which Donald, who died last week at the age of 95, so thoroughly researched, during his extraordinary life as a Sydney clergyman. My father, though eleven years younger than Don, was very fond of his older cousin, and despite geographical distance, they maintained their friendship throughout Donald’s life. Dad was sad, as we all are, when Don passed away last week and we will miss him greatly.

Don’s connection to his past

Donald’s first curacy, in 1951-53, was at St Matthews, Manly, where his Irish great grandfather, John Christopher Hickson (Don always referred to him as JCH), had been a prominent member until his death in 1944. JCH had come to Australia from County Kerry in the late 1860s and Don did extensive research into his life. His notes remain an extremely valuable resource in understanding this man, who is in many ways the central figure in our Irish ancestry.

John Hickson came from a family of nailers in Killorglin, Kerry, but he could trace his family line back to an Anglican clergyman who came to Ireland hundreds of years earlier during the Elizabethan “plantations.” Some of the Hicksons remained part of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy even into the nineteenth century, but John Hickson’s branch were far less assuming. His father was a nailer, something akin to a blacksmith, but JCH never wrote of this as far as I have been able to discover. He was more proud of his aristocratic connections, as distant as they may have been, and wrote of the “ancestral seat” – one of the “big houses of Kerry” – as though it was his own, though I’m not sure that he had ever even entered the stately home in Dingle which was the home of another branch of the Hickson tree.

JCH, after his arrival in Australia, married Martha Watts, the daughter of a convict couple, transported to Australia respectively from England and Ireland. William Watts (English) and Mary Magenity (Irish) had married at St Phillips Anglican Church in Sydney in the 1840s while they were still serving their time. By the time Martha, who was the sixth of their thirteen children, was born, they were free. I believe Martha was baptized at St Phillips Church, like a number of her siblings. Over a hundred years later, in the mid 1950s, Donald Robinson, Martha’s great grandson, did his second curacy in the very same church.

Don was always very proud of his great grandmother’s convict heritage, though I’m not sure that JCH was. I suspect he was more inclined to converse in polite Sydney society about his own aristocratic Irish ancestors than his wife’s convict parents. John and Martha’s first child was Alice, who, as mentioned, married William Ross, a Sydney accountant 12 years her senior, in 1895. It was perhaps not the happiest of matches, but they made a good go of it and raised a family of five girls, Gertie and Winnie among them.

William’s father, James Ross, was Scottish, the son of a blacksmith, born in Ross-shire, Scotland. James left Scotland around the time of the Highland Clearances, moving south to England. By the time he migrated to Australia in the 1860s, at much the same time as John Hickson (who was a good deal younger), he was married with four children. His son William was born in England and was only about 6 when he arrived in Sydney. He went to St Andrews Cathedral School and I suspect his parents were acquainted with John and Martha Hickson. He married their daughter Alice, under circumstances that are somewhat obscure, a match which apparently pleased her father greatly, but Alice less so. She had, it seems, fallen in love with a young Irishman of whom her father disapproved for some unknown reason. Whatever, William and Alice had five daughters, as mentioned above, the oldest of which was Gertrude, Donald’s mother, and the fourth of which was Winifred, my father’s mother.

Don did a huge amount of research into the Ross family background too, and visited Scotland on a number of occasions, where he saw the little village of Gledfield where James Ross had grown up. Many years later I also had the opportunity to visit Gledfield where I too saw the ruins of the blacksmith shop where James’ father had plied his trade in the 1830s. Before he migrated south to England, it would seem James lived for a time in a village called Ferintosh, on the Black Isle, across the water from Dingwall, some way south of where he had grown up. Spiritual revival had broken out in the Scottish Highlands in the 1830s, and James had come under the influence of a well known evangelist called John McDonald, who is remembered as “The Apostle of the North.” In Ferintosh there is a little burn in a dell (“the preacher’s dell”) which was the site of massive outdoor communion meetings in the 1840s, where John McDonald preached to thousands. James Ross was there and never forgot those exciting days in his youth. Later in life he would name his Sydney home Ferintosh, a name which has been passed down through the generations. Now Martin Robinson’s home in Sydney bears that name, a memory of the spiritual heritage which we share with the Robinson family.

Interestingly, spiritual awakening was also a feature of John Hickson’s background in Ireland. When he was 13 there had been a revival in Kerry, much less well known than the Scottish revivals. The result was the formation of many Plymouth Brethren assemblies in Kerry, and there is little doubt that John Hickson and his family were influenced by this movement. His brother, William Hickson, married a girl called Mary Needham, whose family appears to have been at the epicentre of the Kerry revival. Most of the Needham family migrated to North America, where four of Mary’s brothers ended up becoming clergymen, all deeply involved in the spiritual awakening that surrounded the ministry of DL Moody in the late 1800s.

Fruit of revival

Don Robinson may not have been a revivalist in the normal sense of the word – he was, after all, a respected minister who became an archbishop of the Anglican Church – but one gets the feeling that his life was in some ways the fruit of the nineteenth century revivals in Scotland and Ireland. As such, he became a theologian, deeply committed to the centrality of the Bible in the Christian faith. Through his years as teacher and leader in the church in Sydney over the second half of the twentieth century he has profoundly impacted hundreds, perhaps thousands of current Christian leaders, who in turn have had impact on tens of thousands of others, ordinary Christians like me.

I am proud to be related to this man of God, the humble archbishop who so often had a twinkle in his eye. Now he is with his Saviour. Rest In Peace, Donald Robinson.

Article from Sydney Anglicans publication

Wikipedia article

Bishopscourt, where the Robinson family lived for 10 years


2 thoughts on “The passing of an archbishop

  1. Thank you David my name is Jamie Ross I am a descendant of Andrew Ross whom settled in the Bellinger Valley. My brother John and I are very grateful for your research and information gathering. Other family members have mentioned Donald Robinson’s tireless researching. We are sad to hear of his passing.

    1. Thanks for the contact Jamie. Funny how names repeat themselves. My ancestor was James Ross, who came out with his family in 1866 if I remember rightly. His son William was my great grandfather. He had a brother named John who died in England I think, but who is buried in the Highlands. He had another brother Andrew, who migrated to the Bellinger Valley, so he must be your ancestor. I have recently made contact with some of the Ross descendants who live in the UK. One of them lives in Guernsey now, but owns a holiday home in Dornoch, very close to where our Ross ancestors come from. So if you are heading over, let me know and I will give you his contact details. It would be good to hear your family stories some day too. I have often wondered about the Ross families of the Bellinger Valley.

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