Sarah Robinson was born at Peckham, Surrey, on 1 August 1834, the fourth of the six children of John James Robinson and his wife, Rebecca, née Morris and was baptized at the Grove Independent chapel, Camberwell, Surrey, on 4 October 1834. She displayed an enthusiasm for military things from an early age often playing toy soldiers with her two younger brothers. Between the ages of 10 and 14 she attended an academy for young ladies in Brighton. In August 1851 she was inspired by a sermon given by the Reverend James Vidal at Chiddingly Church and from that day on became a devout Christian.
During the Crimean War (1854-56) Sarah followed the career of Florence Nightingale but felt that she would be unable to emulate such an heroic woman. She did not feel the same way about Mary Seacole, the Jamaican Creole daughter of a Scottish officer, who travelled to the Crimea at her own expense and set up the British Hotel which catered for the needs of the soldiers in a way that the army could not. Sarah saw in this work something which she could attain herself and though she did not know it at the time would be visited by Mary Seacole some thirty years later in Portsmouth.
In early 1857 Sarah went to London, primarily for treatment for a spinal disorder, but there she became involved with the Presbytarian movement. She taught at Sunday School for a while but was not satisfied with her work, instead she took up a form of pastoral work, organising 'cottage meetings' and venturing out after dark to engage the poor people she met in conversation. For this she was chastised by the church leaders, but it did not prevent her extending her interests in the spiritual needs of her fellow citizens.
Sarah's spinal problems continued to restrict her movement and she returned to the family home in Guildford, but she took with her a growing perception that a significant factor in the woes of the poor was their dependence on alcohol. In Guildford Sarah came across teetotallers for the first time but was not impressed as they had not so much rejected alcohol as never embraced it in the first place. As she was partial to a glass of wine at supper time she was not naturally drawn towards abstention but prolonged exposure to the teetotallers convinced her that it was the way forward. A few miles from Guildford lay the town of Aldershot and it's barracks and it was there that Sarah first ventured into army temperance reform. She "recognized that intemperance was particularly rife among the lower ranks where recruitment, billetings, and entertainment of volunteers centred exclusively round the public house. Accordingly in 1863 she helped an officer's widow, Louisa Daniell, launch the Aldershot Mission Institute, providing servicemen with an alcohol-free centre for relaxation and education." [Sue Morgan]
Sensing a "mission" crystalising around her, Sarah began travelling the length of England visiting barracks and centres of army life where she would engage the men in conversation and invite them to meetings, though in the early days she was careful not to emphasise the teetotal side of her ministration. In general the men accepted her but the officer class treated her completely differently, often attempting to have her meetings banned. It was a problem that was to surface again and again.
To illustrate Sarah's approach to her mission, there's follows an account, in her own words:
Arriving at about two o'clock, I find fifteen or twenty men in the barrack square at kit drill for punishment ; the sergeant in command, an acquaintance of mine, salutes and smiles as I pass. Going up the first staircase, I reach a corridor running the whole length of the building, the troop rooms on either side, several cots in each room. I knock pretty loudly at one door, but there is too much noise inside for any one to hear disputing, singing, joking, clatter of arms. I open the door and call out, 'May I come in?' 'Oh yes, miss,' and the noise ceases. 'I've brought you some papers today.' First man, burnishing his sword, does not look up nor reply as I lay down a paper by him and say, ' I hope you will come to the lecture this evening.' Second man, rolled up in a blanket, pretending to be asleep. I put a tract on his pillow. Next, two men sitting tailor fashion on the floor playing draughts and smoking, a kitten asleep between them. They thank me; one says he attended my last lecture, and means to come again. Three men next to them at the table pipe-claying their tunics. I put some papers between them: one says no one else ever comes near them; that if a man wants to keep straight in the army, he meets with no encouragement. Most are listening as I say a little about the way to keep straight, and what God looks for in a soldier, and what His power can do. A man on the corner cot says he does not care about my papers. I may leave him one if I like. I say I would rather leave him something he does care about ; and on finding that he writes home sometimes, I give him an illuminated text card to enclose, which pleases him very much.
A man on the next cot says this reminds him of his Sunday school. I sit down by him while he tells his tale : mother dead, other friends lost through his own bad conduct very unhappy deserves it all no use trying to be different soldiers can't be religious, and so on. I have some earnest talk with him, and shake hands before passing on. The next man, preparing in haste for kit drill, calls out to me to put a tract there, and he will read it when he comes in; the bugle sounds, and he hurries out. Going into the next room, I encounter four men running out dressed for kit drill, so I leave tracts on their cots, and offer one to a man smoking in the corner; he nods rather contemptuously, but does not speak. Another tells me he has only seven months more to serve, and intends to think more about such things then. I speak faithfully to him, and he takes it well. Two others asleep; another pipe- claying. I offer him a small ' Pilgrim's Progress ; ' he shouts out, ' Why, if this isn't the book which my mother used to read to me ! ' and in answer to my questions he tells his story. The tears are in his eyes ; he sits down at the table and covers his face. I sit by him for a long talk ; poor fellow ! he seems a ' Pliable.' At last he begs for a Bible with his name in it and mine, promising to read it and seek his mother's God. Next to the recreation- room, where men are playing games, reading the papers, and writing. I give them an invitation to the lecture, and illuminated cards to enclose in their letters. Up to the attics, long rooms opening into each other, where it seems the recruits and the roughest men are quartered. Not much civility here : card-playing, cooking, romping going on, men lying on the floor, running about barefoot, on one occasion throwing naked swords about, singing, joking, swearing. I am glad when the attics are done, and I can descend to more civilized regions.
Other rooms visited, and the infant school, with sweets for the children, then to the hospital sergeant- major's. After tea there, I go to give my lecture ; about sixty soldiers attend, and we spend a pleasant evening. Another day would be devoted to the married quarters and hospital, flowers carried to the sick, etc. My two months' work among these soldiers was concluded by a tea meeting in a field. They paid sixpence each, and the commanding officer excused all wishing to attend from afternoon duty.
In October 1864 Sarah was invited to visit Portsmouth for the first time and once there travelled to Gosport for a temperance meeting at the New Barracks with the 69th Regiment. Her reputation began to gather but further meetings with the regiment were banned and when they were moved to Aldershot she visited them there. Portsmouth, though, gradually became the base from which she worked whilst still travelling to other towns where soldiers were gathered. In 1866 Sarah began to formulate the ideas which would eventually lead to the opening of the Soldier's and Sailor's Institute in High Street, Portsmouth, but before that could happen she had to raise the necessary funds as well as overcome the vociferous objection to her work from the Senior Chaplain to the Army, Archdeacon Henry Press Wright who was at that time chaplain at the Garrison Chapel.
Sarah began by writing to many of the army officers in Portsmouth stressing the need to address the destitution so often faced not just by the soldiers but often their wives and children too. She drew a complete blank; not a single officer was prepared to support her cause but all was not lost as she had already formed a friendship with Major-General Eardley-Wilmott who cajoled a group of influential senior officers into forming a Provisional Committee. Things were looking positive when Archdeacon Wright entered the story. He was initially very supportive of the notion of a Soldiers Institute and even gave ground on the matter of teetotalism, but was resolutely opposed to the introduction of any religious element into the project, saying that if Miss Robinson wanted to hold Bible Classes she should do it elsewhere. He concluded a meeting with her saying that "...if I don't annihilate it, I am not sitting here"
Undeterred Sarah pressed on and selected the former Fountain Hotel in High Street as the ideal location for her institute. By the middle of 1873 funds were beginning to accumulate, the project even managing to attract an official government grant. At this point though, Wright's influence amongst the army hierarchy began to take effect and Genereal Eardley-Wilmot was summoned to Horse Guards and told that unless Miss Robinson undertook to forgo any religious instruction at the institute then the Government grant would be withdrawn. Typically, Sarah was delighted as this meant she could press ahead without the risk of further official intervention and against the advice of many close to her she put a deposit on the Fountain Hotel in late 1873.
The process by which the Hotel was turned into the Institute involved a great deal of renovation, much of which Sarah paid for herself, but as the work progressed it attracted more and more funding. Archdeacon Wright was still not prepared to admit defeat and took up the cause of the Roman Catholics who he declared would not be eligible to enter the Institute despite Sarah's declaration that all soldiers were welcome. Wright induced the Roman Catholic Chaplain in Portsmouth to join him but this did not last long before the Chaplain publicly withdrew his opposition.
The Institute was formally opened on 10th September 1874, with General Sir Hope Grant performing the ceremony. Miss Robinson noted in her autobiography "Yarns" that "With a few exceptions the staff and officers of the Garrison were conspicuous by their absence owing to the Chaplains efforts". The non-commissioned soldiers however were present in great numbers and offered Miss Robinson their heartiest congratulations. A couple of days later Archdeacon Wright presented himself at the Institute to once again confront her with the issue of religious instruction, threatening to ban soldiers from using the facility, a matter he took up with General Sir Charles Hastings Doyle who convened a meeting of senior officers to hear Wright's views. In the event no further action was taken but in the meantime Wright, who had expected to take over the vacant position as Chaplain General, was passed over in favour of a civilian, Bishop Claughton. It seems entirely likely that his unrelenting opposition to Miss Robinson had been his undoing and he left Portsmouth for a post in Canada the following year.
The Institute received an endorsement from Bishop Claughton who later said that at the Institute "there was no attempt to proselytise the men" and the final accolade came from the H.R.H. the Duke of Cambridge who in September 1876 wrote in the Visitor's Book that he was "much gratified by all I have seen.."
Still in poor health Sarah Robinson toured England and Scotland in the summers of 1889 and 1891 raising money to offset against the institute's accumulating debts. She delivered 165 addresses over two years and finally retired from public life to Burley in the New Forest, where she shared a house with Miss Alice Walker who acted as superintendent of the Soldiers' Institute for thirteen years. Sarah died at her home in Burley, on 26 November 1921, and was cremated at Woking. "Her success was due not only to her loyalty to and concern for the reputation of the British army as a creditable institution, but to her ability to handle the subject of temperance with discretion and sensitivity. Through the influence of the philanthropic endeavours of temperance workers such as Sarah Robinson, army authorities began to assume a greater level of responsibility for the moral welfare of their troops and to undertake the general reform of the recreational habits of servicemen." [DNB]
Sue Morgan - Dictionary of National Biography
"Yarns" by Sarah Robinson
"Black and white : mission stories" by AE Forde
Archdeacon Henry Press Wright
The Fountain Hotel (Part of the 1860 Project)