British Captain John Robinson and the Henry Folgers

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British Captain John Robinson commanding the Minnehaha in the north Atlantic, 1906

Rosy-cheeked white-bearded poet, painter, and shipmaster Captain John Robinson of Watford, Hertfordshire was a commanding presence on the bridge of the steamship Minnehaha from 1900 until he retired from the American-owned Atlantic Transport Line due to poor eyesight in 1907. His seafaring career spanned a half-century, starting as cabin boy at a shilling a month. When the Henry Folgers met him on board, they discovered a commander not only with extensive seamanship and a genial disposition, but a thorough knowledge of Shakespeare. Other illustrious personalities who traveled on the Minnehaha and became close friends with Capt. Robinson were Susan B. Anthony, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and Mark Twain.

The Minnehaha plied the north Atlantic from New York to Liverpool or London and back. The tramp steamer accommodated the Folgers’ desire for a prolonged crossing where, wrapped up in great coats and lounging on deckchairs, they could read, relax, and listen to the surf. They brought along a selection from their 13-volume Routledge “Handy” edition of Shakespeare’s Works. Henry’s favorite play to read on ocean voyages was The Tempest. “It is fragrant with salt spray picked up from wave crests by driving winds. The enchanted isle of Prospero seems to have risen out of the surf.” The couple looked forward to the Sunday services when stewards made up the choir. The Minnehaha offered spacious suites for 250 first-class passengers. Patrons enjoyed the saloon deck and two promenade decks, while below were crammed automobiles, player pianos, and noisy bovine cargo.

The Folgers treated the Robinsons to Shakespeare plays at Stratford-upon-Avon after the captain retired. Emily Folger noted at a performance of Julius Caesar on August 5, 1910 that “Capt. Robinson cried with pleasure.” “Capt. Robinson, with whom we crossed the ocean many times,” Henry wrote a friend, “said Shakespeare was an admirable and experienced sailor.” Henry continued, “There have been books written to prove he was a Freemason, and the last that I have seen is one by a barber proving Shakespeare was an expert in the sartorial art.” A writer for all people!

Throughout his career, Robinson drew sketches and made oil paintings of marine scenes. After retirement, he turned to depicting rural settings. He sent his painting of Anne Hathaway’s cottage to the Folgers one Christmas. The oil executive responded, “You may guess how satisfactory the painting is when I tell you that it has been hung over Hayman’s portrait of Quinn as Falstaff, painted from life and used as the basis of the well-known engraving, and at right angles to Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of Garrick.” Folger sent to Robinson the complete variorum editions of Shakespeare by Horace Howard Furness, father and son. Mrs. Robinson sent to Mrs. Folger “Shakespeare poppy seeds which grew so prolific in our little garden, and I hope you will be successful with them.” Henry helped the Robinson son, Sandy, obtain employment with the Standard Oil Company.

Atlantic Transport Line steamship schedule New York–London with Folger coffee stain, 1910

In a series of letters written in a neat hand, the captain faithfully shared with the industrialist his observations about literature and politics, his life and the world. “What an eventful year 1910 has been! The eruption of Mount Etna causing destruction to adjacent villages, colliery accidents with great loss of life. The death of Dear Mark Twain with whom I was intimately acquainted, the stranding of the Minnehaha [on the rocks of Scillys], Halleys Comet and the death of the King [Edward VII]. “When beggars die there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” After 15 years as one of the most popular single-class ships in Atlantic shipping history, the Minnehaha was converted into a freighter, carrying munitions in WWI. On September 7, 1917, the vessel was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank.

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Author:Stephen Grant

Independent scholar Stephen H. Grant is the author of the first biography of Henry and Emily Folger, COLLECTING SHAKESPEARE (Johns Hopkins, 2014), which describes how the Brooklyn couple founded and endowed the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC in 1932.
  • Hugh Richmond

    Just a tiny correction: the SS. Minnehaha was not a tramp steamer, she was a 13,000 ton one-class-only luxury ocean liner: the Folgers really travelled in style – no peasants around, just a few friends like Susan B. Anthony, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and Mark Twain. No tramp steamer could accommodate 250 such first class passengers; and liners usually ran a regular route, in this case New york to Liverpool and back. The much smaller tramp steamers just tramped around the world randomly picking up cargoes wherever they could. Incidentally, you don’t get surf in mid ocean, only on beaches, so if they heard surf the ship was running aground. Still its nice to see the Jaobean tradition of Shakespeare aboard continued in Edwardian times. Best wishes, Hugh Richmond

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