Robbins, (Richard) Michael (19152002), transport administrator and historian, was born at 51 Rotherwick Road, Golders Green, Middlesex, on 7 September 1915, the eldest of the three children of Alfred Gordon Robbins (18831944), journalist and publisher, and his wife, Josephine, daughter of R. L. Capell of Northampton. His mother was the first woman to be employed by the Northampton Daily Echo. His father, after working as a journalist in Yorkshire, joined the editorial staff of The Times in 1908 and was the parliamentary correspondent from 1914 to 1920 and day editor from 1920 to 1927. He subsequently joined Ernest Benn Ltd, of which he became deputy chairman.
Robbins was brought up in Hampstead Garden Suburb, and entered Westminster School as a king's scholar in September 1929. There he met Jack Simmons, a member of the same election and a lifelong friend in an association in which the railway was a third party. Captain of the school in 1933, Robbins went on to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1934. He was a classicist, and it is an interesting measure of his personal qualities that he prevailed upon the college and the university to allow him to proceed to Greats, literae humaniores, without the (to him) superfluous preliminary of reading for classical honour moderations in his first two years. He was awarded a second class in literae humaniores and a Dixon scholarship in 1937, but did not graduate BA until 1952. He spent a year abroad after his final examinations, in Vienna until the Anschluss and then in Switzerland.
After leaving Oxford, Robbins was thinking of journalism as a career, an interest drawn from both sides of his family, but a chance meeting between his father and Frank Pick led to his appointment in the summer of 1939 as a management trainee with London Transport. In December of that year he was called up for military service: he joined the Royal Engineers and was commissioned in December 1940. In 1941 he was posted to Persia with the 190 Railway Operating Company. In the course of the Second World War he also served in Egypt and Iraq, but his chief responsibility lay with the railway linking the gulf with Azerbaijan and the Soviet Union. He was promoted major in 1944. Meanwhile, on 21 October 1939 he had married (Rose Margaret) Elspeth Bannatyne (19171993), elder daughter of Sir Robert Reid Bannatyne, civil servant, of Ardingly, Sussex. They had a son and two daughters, and their family life was a constant source of strength to Robbins in a busy and demanding career.
On demobilization Robbins returned to London Transport, and became secretary to the chairman, Lord Ashfield. The war disrupted the managerial programme, and no graduates had been appointed since 1939. In the meantime Robbins had acquired not only practical but also administrative experience that included diplomatic and political exigencies. He was the first officer of London Transport to attend the staff training college at Henley, and subsequently became secretary to the London Transport executive and its chief commercial and public relations officer in 1955. He was secretary to the London plan working party, which projected Route C, the later Victoria Line, and opened the first stage of that line in 1969. In 1971 he became managing director (railways), responsible among other ventures for the Heathrow extension of the Piccadilly Line in 1977 and the first stages of the Jubilee Line in 1979. He was president of the Chartered Institute of Transport in 19756. He was a notably effective manager of committees, a product of his mastery of technical detail and a range of diplomatic skills.
Immersed as he was in the practical problems of London Transport, Robbins also found time for a remarkable number of historical studies. His long friendship with Jack Simmons was rooted in a shared interest in railways and especially the history of railways. While still at school they launched a periodical, Locomotion, which ran from 1931 to 1939 with an imprint which survived as the Oakwood Press. At Oxford, Robbins drafted The North London Railway, published in 1947, a study of a quality far beyond the general run of such literature. After the war he compiled an account of his experiences in the Middle East under the title 190 in Persia, privately printed in 1951. His interests ranged more widely, however. He was an energetic and observant walker, and when Jack Simmons was planning a historical and topographical series to be called A New Survey of England, for Collins, the publishers, Robbins offered to contribute a volume on Middlesex. He delivered the text within two years, and the book appeared in 1953. It was an exemplary survey of a county which hardly fitted into the established pattern of local antiquarian studies. In the event only one other volume appeared, Devon, by W. G. Hoskins, and the series foundered, but Robbins's contribution, which was of lasting interest, was characteristic both of his energy and of his discriminating judgement. He became an active officer of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, and was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1957. He served as treasurer of the society in 1971 and as president in 198791. In the meantime he was consulted by Nikolaus Pevsner over the Middlesex volume of the Buildings of England series, and Pevsner successfully proposed him as the chairman of the Victorian Society in 1978.
Robbins's reputation as a historian was confirmed by his collaboration with Theodore Barker in the History of London Transport, the second volume of which (1974) was almost entirely his work. He was also interested in museums. He was responsible for the preservation of Metropolitan Railway Locomotive no. 23 and eventually saw it installed in London's Transport Museum in Covent Garden. He was a founder trustee of the Museum of London and chairman of the governors between 1979 and 1990. After English Heritage was established in 1984, in succession to the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, he was appointed to the ancient monuments advisory committee (198691). In 1987 he became vice-chairman of the Greater Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. He was also an active member of the international metropolitan railways committee of the International Union of Public Transport from 1976 to 1981. He was appointed CBE in 1976. His practical experience was of great assistance to the many societies and institutions in which he held office, but his scholarship was as widely valuable as his administrative expertise.
Robbins's public and professional manner was generally formal: his dress, with a watch-chain bearing the silver medallion of the transport executive and a universal railway pass, his carefully groomed moustache, and his habit of addressing his staff only by their surnames, were redolent of Edwardian manners. His private persona, however, was warm, amused, and even boyish when a topic aroused his enthusiasm, though his style was unfailingly elegant. First and last he exemplified the potential of a classical education. He died on 21 December 2002 at his home, 18 Fullerton Court, 27 Udney Park Road, Teddington, Middlesex, following a heart attack. He was survived by his three children, his wife, Elspeth, having predeceased him. A service of thanksgiving for his life was held at St James's, Piccadilly, on 19 March 2003.
G. H. Martin
The Independent (28 Dec 2002) · The Times (3 Jan 2003); (10 Jan 2003) · Old Westminsters · WWW [194150; 195160] · WW (2002) · personal knowledge (2006) · private information (2006) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.
London's Transport Museum
photograph, repro. in The Times (3 Jan 2003) · photograph, S. Antiquaries, Lond.
Wealth at death
£666,624: probate, 2 May 2003, CGPLA Eng. & Wales