Elisha Smith Robinson was born on 12th March 1817 in Overbury, on the Worcestershire / Gloucestershire borders. His father, Edward Robinson, was a papermaker by trade.
Elisha was raised in the home his father had built for them, Silver Rill House, which still survives today. The house is lavish even by modern standards, boasting period features and over 3 acres of garden for young Elisha to play in.
Surprisingly the young Elisha was initially apprenticed to his maternal grandfather, the Rev. Elisha Smith. The elder Elisha was the man that the younger was named after. Unusually he did not follow his father into his successful business. The elder Elisha was a Baptist Minister in Blockley and Chipping Camden. However as well as being a Reverend, his grandfather also ran a grocers. It was here that young Elisha was set to work.
As a young man, Elisha did eventually joined the family paper making business. However shockinly in 1840, his father threatened to replace him with a Londoner. Undeterred Elisha decided to take his chances with his own business. So he ventured to Bristol with a small loan to make his own way in the world.
In the 1840’s food was not pre-packaged, like we see today in the supermarkets. Back then everything in the grocers was weighed by hand. Then it was parcelled up in a twist of paper or in a hand-made bag. The process of packing and parcelling food and bags was a time consuming manual process.
Elisha saw how much time this all took from his work with for his grandfather. So by 1844, just four years after arriving in Bristol, Elisha founded a printing and packaging business, E. S. & A. Robinson. Then his brother Alfred joined the firm in 1848, and within 20 years, the two brothers were the largest buyer of paper in the British Empire. Not bad for the boy who was almost thrown out of the family business.
Clever Elisha had spotted the opportunity to supply shopkeepers with ready-made paper bags, which he originally made by hand at the shop. Ever the keen entrepreneur, he understood the value of branding and would print them with the name of the shopkeeper and a stock design. Shopkeepers quickly saw the benefits and drove demand. Robinson’s original premises were in Redcliffe street. After enlarging them in 1870, proud Elisha Robinson is said to have declared:
“Gentlemen, I have the finest printing factory in the West of England, and neither I nor those who come after me will ever want to enlarge it.”
Despite his bold statement by 1887, just two years after Elisha’s death the company opened new block of buildings in Bedminster. This was only 17 years after the impressive Redcliffe street premises were expanded. His company had grown rapidly, eventually becoming the second largest company in Bristol after Imperial Tobacco. The legacy of his company was not just as the paper bag king but now a provider of all sorts of paper products to the booming city and beyond.
The business continued trading well into the 1960’s. A new headquarters (and Bristol’s first skyscraper) was designed by 1964, and built at One Redcliffe Street, Bristol. You can go and see this building today.
This successful business eventually merged in 1966, to form the Dickinson Robinson Group (DRG). In doing so, it created one of the world’s largest stationery and packaging companies. This company produced household named products including Sellotape and Basildon Bond.
If you’re in Bedminster, you can still seek out Robinsons’ legacy today. Many of the beautiful buildings there are still in use, with part of the site used by another Bristol institution Cameron Balloons. The large five-storey factory building now developed into luxury residential apartments.
According to Bristol Museums, Bristolians are still very much involved with making paper bags. AP Burt at Portishead produces over 6 million bags a day. This includes a whopping 1 million paper bags per week for KFC. Next time you pick up some wings – you’ll know where the paper bag was made. Maybe you will remember the paper bag king man who started Bristol’s paper bag legacy!
Elisha was also extremely passionate about contributing to the wellbeing of those who worked for him, and those in the local community. Elisha was a very progressive employer for the time – Robinson was known for providing good working conditions, including occasional days out for staff. (Though for those of you who have attended the Morbid Curiosity tour – you’ll know that one such trip ended in disaster, after a fatal accident).
In 1866, he successfully ran for Mayor of Bristol. In 1870, he became a Liberal Member of Parliament for the City. And in 1880, he became president for the Grateful Society, one of the city’s oldest, continually active philanthropic organisations. (At that time, focusing on apprenticing poor boys, and supporting lying-in ladies).
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his extracurricular activities. Elisha acted as chairman for a number of other societies, and eventually becoming a Justice of the Peace.
Elisha also had a rich personal life, marrying twice. First to Elizabeth Ring, in 1845, with whom he had eight children before she died, in 1871. Soon after this Elisha married Louisa Thomas, however she died just a few years later in 1875. Both of Elijah’s wives were laid to rest at Arnos Vale. This is where Elisha would join them a decade later.
Elisha himself died at his home, Ivy Towers, aged 68, on 29th August 1885. The ever practical Elijah had designed and built this house in Sneyd Park, Bristol. It was much like his father had before him, with the childhood home he had been raised in.
Inspired by his brothers, Elisha was also a keen cricketer. His and Elizabeth’s descendents include no less than 7 first class cricketers, continuing Elisha’s passion for the sport. Other notable descendants include another Lord Mayor of Bristol, and a stained-glass artist
In Bristol Elisha’s legacy is still remembered today. Unsurprisingly he is memorialized in several locations around Bristol and Gloucestershire. You can also look for the foundation stone on the front Chipping Campden Baptist Church reads “This stone was laid by Elisha Smith Robinson Esq – of Bristol on the 19th June 1872”. There is relief at Colston Hall [now Bristol Beacon], of which he was a founder and benefactor. Plus of course you can visit his monument at Arnos Vale Cemetery – his final resting place.
If you’d like to pay Elisha the paper bag king a visit, you can find him just to the left of the Rajah, along the ceremonial way. Other notable Bristolian entrepreneurs rest nearby, including William Day Wills of the Wills Tobacco Empire, and George Culley Ashmead, a Bristolian Mapmaker, Surveyor and Abolitionist.
Many thanks to our fantastic tour guide Grace for this fascinating blog
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