Historicist: The Fighting Words of Black Jack Robinson

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Historicist: The Fighting Words of Black Jack Robinson

For nearly 40 years as editor-in-chief of the Telegram, John R. Robinson aggressively covered local issues, building a loyal readership among Toronto's conservative Protestant working class.

John R. Robinson in Sutton, October 27, 1927. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 11977

John R. Robinson in Sutton, October 27, 1927. From the City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 11977

John R. Robinson would have been well suited to the internet age. The style “Black Jack” employed editing the Telegram between the Victorian era and the Roaring Twenties easily fits Twitter and other social media platforms—short, snappy, obsessed with local politics, and filled with bile and venom. His outbursts knew few grey areas, an attribute which pleased politicians the paper supported and aggravated anyone who aroused his wrath. As one biographer put it, “to Robinson, every battle was Armageddon.”

In person, Robinson wasn’t a dashing figure. His black hair was dishevelled and his clothes were so baggy that they looked as if they’d been sewn in a tent factory. Mail and Empire columnist J.V. McAree depicted him as someone who was always on the prowl, who strode the streets with eyes down, coat flapping and full of newspapers, so lost in thought that he was oblivious to his daughters if they passed by him. He read little more than the Bible, didn’t seem to have any cultural interests, and gave all of his children names beginning with J.

Born in 1862, Robinson’s journalism career began at age 13 when he apprenticed at the Guelph Mercury. Moving to Toronto in 1881, he worked as a reporter at the Globe before joining the Telegram two years later. He developed a strong rapport with Telegram owner John Ross Robertson to the point where they anticipated each other’s thoughts. Both were extremely loyal to the Orange Order and the British Empire, dedicated to exposing municipal corruption, and loathed Americans, Catholics, and Quebecois. “The gospel according to one John was the gospel of the other,” one historian noted.

Both men’s sentiments captured the essence of working class conservative populism in Toronto. The Telegram voiced the resentment of an unsophisticated, poorly educated audience toward snobs and anyone with an air of superiority. As media historian Paul Rutherford observed, “all this served to express class antagonisms (the poor against the rich) and yet emphasize a sense of community (the people of the nation against its enemies). The contradictory blend, perhaps best labelled populist, had proved a fine way to curry the public’s favour.”

Composing room, the Telegram, 1904. Toronto Public Library.

Composing room, the Telegram, 1904. From the Toronto Public Library.

Robinson mastered the concise style of covering local news and dispensing political commentary Robertson developed over the previous two decades in reaction to the long-winded rambling that characterized the Toronto press. As Saturday Night editor E.E. Sheppard noted in 1888, Robinson was “a young writer who can draw blood in fewer words than any daily scribe in town.” After Robinson became editor-in-chief in 1889, Robertson ceased writing editorials. “Whenever Robinson attacked the language Robertson was satisfied,” observed Robertson biographer Ron Poulton, “because he felt that he could not have covered the subject better himself.”

One of Robinson’s first editorial battles stemmed from work begun as a reporter in 1887 to demand asphalt paving for city streets. With another reporter he filled sacks of rotten block paving from a stretch of Arthur Street (present-day Dundas between Bathurst and Ossington) and placed them in the Telegram’s lobby. The paper accused the contractor of being part of a ring which ignored the city engineer’s specifications and profited from using poor materials. The contracted sued for $20,000 in a libel suit. The court ruled in favour of the Telegram, prompting Robinson to proclaim “the utter failure of this attempt to silence this journal is the shadow cast before the coming event of a thorough reconstruction of the Works Department.”

Of politicians, Robinson observed that “you can’t appeal to their heads because they have been turned. You can’t appeal to their hearts because they haven’t any. But thank God they all have hides.” Combined with the efforts of the Orange Order, the Telegram shaped city council, often playing kingmaker when it came to mayoral candidates who suited the paper’s view of municipal governance. Some of Robinson’s opponents felt his relationship with City Hall was so cozy that ruled over the city in a dictatorial manner.

From the Telegram, December 29, 1923.

From the Telegram, December 29, 1923.

Robinson was especially loyal to Tommy Church, who received praise so breathless that you’d think he was a god walking among Torontonians. Support of Church reached an absurd climax in 1923, when Church attempted a mayoral comeback after sitting as an MP for several years. Page after page deified Church, printing letters of praise from foreign dignitaries, depicting him as the staunch defender of prohibition and all other things “Toronto the Good” stood for, and printing praise from politicians who’d been dead for years. Allies of Church’s opponent W.W. Hiltz were portrayed, under rambling headlines, with photos resembling rows of mug shots, all in thrall to the evils of the Globe, Star, and Conservatives who disagreed with the Telegram’s favoured politicians.

For once, the paper’s fearmongering failed: when voters cast their ballots on January 1, 1924, Hiltz won. Robinson’s reaction on the next day’s editorial page was the printed equivalent of a Twitter meltdown:

WRONG NUMBER
Hiltz 10,116 plurality

WORDS OF CHEER
ARE WE DOWNHEARTED? Aye, aye, sir, answered the brave tar.

THOMAS THE TRUE
THESE COLUMNS STILL RELY ON T.L. CHURCH.

VOTE SHORTAGE
New Year’s Day 1924, was ideal except that supporters of T.L. Church seemed to note an acute vote shortage in the closing hours thereof.

CHEER FOR TORONTO
CHEER BOYS! CHEER for Toronto. Irrespective of who goes up or who goes down at the polls, regardless of the newspapers that suffer defeat or share the victory the civic patriot will continue to PRAY FOR THE PEACE OF JERUSALEM. THEY SHALL PROSPER THAT LOVE THEE.

T.L. CHURCH THE BEST MAYOR WHO EVER SERVED TORONTO
New Year’s Day shipment of adversity duly received, contents noted and in reply would say that Toronto’s loss will prove T.L. Church’s gain. Toronto loses more than T.L. Church loses in the defeat of the best Mayor who ever served a city, and the most faithful defender who ever guarded the rights and property of the citizens.

PARTNERS IN DEFEAT
Defeat in the good company of T.L. Church is more glorious than victory in support of any other candidate.

Two years later, when the Telegram celebrated its 50th anniversary, Robinson still fumed over the result. “Fifty years of unbroken success at the polls interspersed with the defeat of T.L. Church by Mr. W.W. Hiltz and a few other regrettable incidents,” he wrote, “have left scars on the finer feelings of these columns.”

For politicians who weren’t as sacred as Tommy Church, Robinson’s abusive tone just as often demonstrated his bigotry and prejudices as much as anger over perceived misdeeds against the public interest of the city he loved. “Mr. Robinson never stopped to consider consequences,” the Mail and Empire reflected in 1928. “He was a master in the use of bitter invective and withering sarcasm. At times his attacks on persons seemed cruel in the extreme and quite unwarranted, but he always claimed such attacks were in no sense personal.”

Sample front page, the Telegram, December 31, 1923.

Sample front page, the Telegram, December 31, 1923.

A good example of Robinson in action occurred when he was summoned to Ottawa in June 1919 to testify at a hearing of a special parliamentary committee looking into the cost of living. In a series of editorials, Robinson criticized the committee’s examination of the William Davies Company (the giant meatpacking firm which inspired Toronto’s “Hogtown” nickname) executive E.C. Fox. Robinson was generally uncooperative, getting into verbal rows with enemies, like former Toronto mayor Horatio Hocken. When asked if Fox knew anything about butter fat percentages in Davies’ products, Robinson replied “he ought to know as much about butter fat as type metal.”

When Robinson demanded time to reply to Hocken’s charges that the Telegram was a lie-filled rag, the following argument ensued between the journalist and Oxford North MP Edward Nesbitt:

Nesbitt: Sit down

Robinson: You sit down.

Nesbitt: You are roaring like a bull.

Robinson: And you have less brains than a donkey.

(wild uproar)

Nesbitt (shaking his fist): Don’t think you are going to run this committee.

Robinson: Reserve your sympathy for your Austro-Germans in North Oxford.

The sergeant-at-arms was called in to restore order.

Among the Telegram’s press rivals, Robinson reserved special scorn for the Star. The papers had been relatively cordial to each other ever since Robertson supplied equipment to the Star when it launched in 1892. Though their politics were polar opposites, Robertson developed a friendship with Star publisher Joseph Atkinson, each complimenting the other for sticking to their principles. Atkinson biographer Ross Harkness provided an amusing example of their relationship:

Meeting him on the street [Robertson] would ask, “Well Atkinson, did you make any money last month?” At first the answer was always “No,” to which John Ross would jokingly respond “Better give it up; I’ll give you a job.” When at long last the answer was “Yes, we had a little over last month,” Robertson tipped his high silk topper in benign congratulations and continued his august ambulation.

Telegram paper box at 908 Queen Street East, July 23, 1930. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 58, Item 1257.

Telegram paper box at 908 Queen Street East, July 23, 1930. FRom the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 58, Item 1257.

After Robertson’s death, Robinson unleashed his hatred of everything the Star stood for. “Day after day Mr. Atkinson was pictured to readers of the Telegram as an evil old man, hunched in his office spinning Machiavellian plots for the destruction of the Empire, Protestantism, and Western civilization,” Harkness noted. “Since the Telegram still had a circulation within the city greater than that of the next two papers combined, most residents of Toronto knew Atkinson only from the distorted picture presented to them by his enemies.” Robinson went to ridiculous extremes to portray Atkinson poorly, such as claiming the Star’s suggestion to widen Bloor Street was based on Atkinson’s desire for a speedier ride between the office and his home in Forest Hill.

One of Robinson’s most obsessive crusades was the promotion of public ownership of utilities, especially hydro. Were Robinson around today, you can bet he’d be leading the charge against selling any part of Hydro One. Robinson stood faithfully by Sir Adam Beck and others who believed a publicly run system was better for ratepayers than falling prey to price gouging by private operators. Robinson also backed Beck’s unsuccessful plans to build a network of radial railways out of the city. Following Beck’s death in 1925, Robinson frequently spoke in public about the need to preserve Beck’s legacy amid political squabbling.

By the mid-1920s, Robinson’s power declined. Following Robertson’s death in 1918, the Telegram was passed onto a group of trustees, including his widow Jesse and son Irving. Both increasingly resented Robinson. Jesse was annoyed by his provocation of libel suits, which were unsuccessful, filed by Minnesota lumber tycoon E.W. Backus (for allegations over a sweetheart timber rights deal in northern Ontario) and Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (for allegations that cabinet ministers had accepted bribes of liquor). Irving resented Robinson’s authority and contempt for his friends.

Robinson’s failing health showed on the editorial page. “Old hates clouded Black Jack’s vision, impelling him to constant editorial outbursts that many began to find excessive and tiresomely repetitive,” Poulton noted. “He forgot that a crescendo a day scares the reader away, if he was ever aware of the rule.” During Robinson’s last year at the helm, he constantly slammed the Canadian Pacific Railway and displayed an increasingly bitter anti-Catholic bias. He and Irving constantly quarrelled. Following a board meeting in 1927, a glum Robinson declared “they’re all against me.”

His final editorials appeared in the March 3, 1928 edition. He criticized the vanity of proposed downtown skyscrapers and commented on a public speaking contest at Jarvis Collegiate. He also took a shot at Irving, who considered himself a snappy dresser, by commenting on a recent decision by the Business Club of Nottingham in England to fine a member for wearing plus four pants at a public function.

Shortly after, Robinson suffered a heart attack. Initially confined to his Wellesley Street home, he soon moved to his summer home in Beaverton. On May 1, 1928, for the first time anyone could remember, the classified ads were removed from the front page. Though temporary at first, the removal of this anachronistic element was seen as a sign of battles behind the scenes (the classified were permanently banished from the front in August).

From the  Telegram, September 29, 1928.

From the Telegram, September 29, 1928.

On September 28, 1928, the front page of the Telegram announced Robinson’s death. Across all papers he was remembered for his concern for the underdog, concise writing style, loyalty to church and empire, and his dedication to the city. The Telegram’s editorial page began with a quote from Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” which summed up Robinson’s motivations: “To Strive, to Seek, to Find, and Not to Yield” Despite their differences, Irving Robertson wrote about how Robinson’s dedication probably harmed his health. “Again and again he was urged to save his health and delegate his duties. But he had the restless spirit of Ulysses who, having drunk delight of battle with his peers, was impelled to be a participant and not a mere spectator of the pageant of life.”

Robinson asked for a simple service, requesting that the only flowers present be ones he grew in Beaverton. Two years after his death, his family presented a portrait to city council, which one alderman request be hung next to Adam Beck’s. Mayor Bert Wemp, a former employee of Robinson, noted that side-by-side they depicted “two staunch friends” who fought for public interests.

His journalistic legacy lived on through his daughter Judith (1899-1961), who joined the Globe as a reporter the year after his death. During her distinguished career, she co-founded the Second World War era weekly News, and served as a respected political columnist with the Telegram.

We give the final word to the Globe’s obituary of Robinson. “He fought because he was spiritually and mentally incapable of remaining neutral. Everything was white or black to him; there was no grey or middle tone.”

Additional material from J.E. Atkinson of the Star by Ross Harkness (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963); The Paper Tyrant by Ron Poulton (Toronto: Clark, Irwin & Company, 1971); A Victorian Authority by Paul Rutherford (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982); the June 21, 1919, September 29, 1928, and December 16, 1930 editions of the Globe; the September 29, 1928 edition of the Mail and Empire; the January 2, 1924, April 19, 1926, and September 28, 1928 editions of the Telegram; and the Spring 2010 edition of Urban History Review.


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