William Robinson

Cooperative Middle School student Emmet Bloomer won the Nancy Carnegie Merrill History Award for this essay about William Robinson. Service Credit Union generously sponsored the essay contest and Youth Night, April 19, 2012.

“I have given my mite to this purpose, and if good comes of it I shall not have lived in vain.” wrote William Robinson in one of the last lines of his will. The Exeter native was referring to his plans to fund a girl’s school in Exeter. Robinson left 250,000 dollars of his own fortune in his will to go towards the building of a prestigious girls school to make the women and girls of Exeter and surrounding towns, “female scholars equal to all practical duties of life.” That school went on to be called the Robinson Female Seminary and educated girls for 86 years from 1869 to 1955. William Robinson was an agent of change in Exeter because even after his death, through the school he helped create, he enabled the women of New Hampshire, “to compete, and successfully, too, with their brothers throughout the world.”

Robinson was born in Exeter, NH in 1793, and had two siblings, a brother and a sister. Robinsons father died when he was seven, and William moved from one relative’s home to another. This might have led to Robinsons preference to helping the “poor and the orphan.” Robinson went to the public schools of Exeter and then Phillips Exeter Academy, which at the time was an all boys’ school. After completing his schooling William became a printer’s apprentice, but then moved to Georgia where he lived for the rest of his life, although he still visited his hometown. By all accounts on his visits to Exeter, William Robinson was a “gentleman” and took time to see his old friends. In Georgia, Robinson acquired his fortune as a very successful cotton merchant. In 1837 he retired comfortably, however, Robinson’s real acts of charity didn’t start until after his death.

In the 1800s in Exeter, women’s education was not nearly at the same caliber as men’s. Back then PEA was an all boy’s school and women couldn’t attend. There were “Female Academies” to teach sewing embroidery and drawing, but no options for higher education in Exeter until 1848 when a High School was established. However, Robinson might have believed that the high school wasn’t suitable for women, and may have been looking for the school he planned to build to be an equivalent to his alma mater PEA. In Robinson’s will he left the balance of his property to pay teachers for the, “flourishing Female Seminary” that he hoped would be built. Also in his will he stated that, “in admitting applicants, all other things being equal, always to give preference to the poor and orphan.” a true show of his compassion. In his will he also left money to go to a school in Georgia. He clearly had a passion for the education of young people. Finally on May 13, 1864, William Robinson died.

The next year in 1865 Robinson’s will went into effect and a town meeting was held to begin the plans for a Female seminary. It was decided at that meeting that girls over 9 could attend the school, tuition free. Soon after a board of trustees was elected, consisting of, as one graduate said, “The most influential, responsible, reliable men in the town.” including congressman Amos Tuck. The board chose land to be purchased and a building plan was selected, and finally, in September 1869, Robinson Female Seminary opened. The school taught countless girls in its lifetime, and as graduate Elvira Benfield Collishaw said, “how many memories does that building hold for each of us!” At the seminary women had access to a vast variety of subjects. Latin, algebra, geometry, chemistry, geology, astronomy, natural philosophy, mental philosophy, political economy, French, and German were all required in the original 8-­‐year curriculum. Without William Robinson many of these girls would have never been exposed to these subjects. As graduate Grace Barker Smith said, the women of Robinson Female Seminary are, “Eternally grateful to William Robinson.”

Emmet Bloomer receiving his award at Youth Night.
William Robinson was a great, charitable man, and was responsible for the superior education that countless young Exeter women received at The Robinson Female Seminary. Although he became wealthy he never forgot his humble roots in Exeter. His effect on the town is immeasurable. He changed the lives of the women of Exeter, as they may not have been able to receive such a fine education, if it weren’t for Robinson’s great charitable efforts. In his will, Robinson said that if good came of his efforts to improve education, then he will not have, “lived in vain.” As said by alum Mabel Hayes, “We the Alumnae of Robinson Seminary, the people of the town of Exeter, and the people of Augusta, Georgia can say with all sincerity, Be assured William Robinson, you did not live in vain.”


Susan said…
I bought a book in Maine at a flea market and it had a handwritten letter from Matilda E. Irvine written by a Mr. Cross at the Robinson Seminary, Exeter, N.H., 1897. It is written to Josie, asking her to come back to the school. I was most curious about "seminary" because I always thought it was only for men who wanted to become priests. Thank you for sharing the history of the school on this site. I would like to donate this letter to your society to add to any collection you may have on Robinson Seminary. Please let me know if you are interested in receiving it. Sincerely, Susan Tobias, Plattsburgh, NY

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