John Ross Robertson
CANADIAN PUBLISHER-PHILANTHROPIST OF COMPLEX AND CONTRADICTORY CHARACTER AND ODD HOBBIES
W. A. Craick
There could be no more interesting subject for a racy character sketch than John Ross Robertson, the newspaper publisher, the philanthropist and the hobbyist. In his career the eccentricities of genius are revealed at almost every stage. But while he may be the opposite of men, he is undoubtedly an outstanding figure in many ways, and the story which centres around his rise in business, his generous support of good causes, and his pursuit of odd hobbies is, indeed, unique. This sketch reveals some of the more dominant characteristics of a composite personality.
GREAT deeds are sometimes wrought by strange people, and a rough exterior often conceals a kindly heart. The world is full of contradictions. In a sense, John Ross Robertson, Toronto’s publisher-philanthropist is one of the most opposite of men. It would be natural to assume that the great-hearted patron of the Sick Children’s Hospital was a man of soft and winning personality, gentle and kindly in manner, smiling and friendly in appearance. But outwardly at any rate, the man belies the description. ,His aspect is that of the dour Scot, his manner is ofttimes gruff, his features set in a mould of unalterable sternness. One must needs break the outer shell, with all its peculiar characteristics, before onè arrives at the true inwardness of this composite personality.
Ross Robertson’s chief title to distinction rests in his ceaseless endeavors to alleviate the suffering of little children. Himself keenly sensitive to pain, his sympathies have gone out to all afflicted mankind, and his great philanthropies have been in the direction of
providing medical help and bodily comfort for diseased and injured children. The great monument of this work stands on College Street in Toronto, a lasting memorial to the man who reared it.
But there are three personalities in the Robertson make-up and, while the philanthropist is the most outstanding by reason of its wide appeal, the other two are none the less interesting. Indeed, in Robertson, the newspaper publisher, and in Robertson, the hobbyist, are to be found two decidedly unique studies of temperament. From the standpoint of the man of affairs, his career as a journalist is probably of superior importance; writing for the press, managing and publishing newspapers, has been his life-work, and because of this, these phases of his life are necessarily of greater interest. But none the less, his enthusiastic pursuit of certain odd hobbies, throws a side-light on his character that brings the man himself into sharper outline and relief.
That the boy is father of the man is well illustrated in his case. The son of
the late John Robertson, a wholesale dry goods merchant, he was born in Toronto, on December 28, 1841. Sent to Upper Canada College while yet a small boy, he early acquired a fondness for the printing art. The mind, which in maturity still takes a delight in watching a great metropolitan newspaper come piling out from a big cylinder press, was then fascinated by the miracle of type and platen. There was a glamour surrounding the dirtiest of printing offices that transformed its squalid confines into a place of vast attractiveness. Young Robertson was enthralled. Nothing would do but his father must purchase a small printing piant for him to play the man with, up in the attic of his home.
With boyish zeal he set to work to produce his first paper. He had no wild notions of publishing a periodical that would compete with and eclipse existing newspapers. In the circle of his schoolmates he saw a field of action that appeared to offer sufficient opportunity for enterprise. The first issue of the College Times appeared in 1857, and under that name and subsequently that of the Boys' Times, it was continued for three years. It is not known just how remunerative the undertaking was, but young Robertson was a stirring youth, and it is to be assumed he made both ends meet. Following his transference to the Model Grammar School in 1860, the young publisher launched another school paper, which he called Young Canada, and ran it for a year. In all this publishing activity, the boy performed every necessary function, writing the copy, securing the advertisements, setting up the type, printing the paper and selling it.
When he left school, Ross Robertson’s feet naturally gravitated towards a printing office, and for about a year his was a familiar face in the offices of the Christian Guardian, the Globe and the Leader, where he worked for a time at the case. But it did not suit the young man’s fancy simply to put another person’s ideas into type ; that was
being too much of an automaton. He longed to create and disseminate ideas himself, and the only way to do this was to set up once more as a publisher. To this end he equipped a small printing plant and essayed to produce a paper called Sporting Lije, the existence of which in those ante-baseball days was not a lengthy one. On the demise of Sporting Lije, the Grumbler was launched. This was a weekly paper of the satirical type, obviously modelled on the lines of certain English publications. It was an ambitious venture, calling for much originality and fearlessness, and for a time it seemed to prosper. Young Robertson acted as its manager, and Tom Moss (later Chief Justice Moss) was its editor.
When the Grumbler ceased publication in 1863, the Leader took him on its staff as reporter, and for two years he was associated with this old newspaper. Then he transfered his services to the Globe, acting for two years as its city editor. It is said of these days when he was actively associated with the news rooms of the Toronto press, that he introduced the modern idea of bringing in crisp little paragraphs about a multiplicity of happenings, rather than confining his efforts to a ponderous treatment of outstanding events. Be this as it may, he had the instinct, highly developed from experience, of knowing just about what the public wanted.
The year 1866 found him associated with some others as one of the founders of the ill-fated Daily Telegraph, a paper which enjoyed a brief career of five years and then snuffed out, when the John Sandfield Macdonald Government, which it supported, went out of power. Robertson, out of a berth, appealed once more to the Globe, and was sent by that paper as its first resident correspondent and business agent to London, England, where he remained for three years.
The turning in Mr. Robertson’s career as a newspaperman was now reached. This dates from the time he
first became associated with Professor Goldwin Smith. The sage of the Grange was at that time interested in the publication of a paper called the Nation—the organ of the Canada First
Party. Being in need of a manager, he sent for Robertson, and offered him the position. The offer was accepted, and for a year the business control of the Nation was in his hands. But he
had other ambitions, and fortunately, Professor Goldwin Smith approved of them. Whether John Ross Robertson foresaw the future or simply took a long chance is uncertain. At any rate,
he had a presentiment that an evening daily would fill a want and ultimately prove a success. So with the support of Goldwin Smith he established the Evening Telegram in 1876. During the
thirty-six years which have since elapsed the publication of this paper has been the sole concern of his business life.
From the publishing standpoint the notable achievement of Mr. Robertson's career as proprietor of the Telegram has been the building up by slow, but sure, stages of the immense condensed advertising patronage which that paper today enjoys. It must be apparent that under modern conditions at least one newspaper in every large city shall control the bulk of this kind of specialized publicity. That the Telegram has cornered it for Toronto is a sufficient tribute to the perspicacity of its guiding spirit.
At the same time, the news columns have not been sacrificed to make way for a greater array of “Houses for Sale" or “Domestics Wanted" advertising. It has been the pride of the owner of the Telegram to give the public the most complete news service that a rational expenditure of funds could buy. While lacking the sensational make-up of most modern dailies and concealing its good things behind a solid barricade of advertising pages, the Telegram gives excellent value for the money in the way of telegraphic despatches and local news. It might almost be said that a small-tooth-comb-policy has been adopted in ferreting out the news, for there is scarce a happening of the least importance which fails to receive attention.
A story still goes the rounds among newspapermen, which illustrates graphically Mr. Robertson's determination to have the Telegram an accurate mirror of the city's life. In his desire to let nothing escape, he has long been in the habit of watching the other evening papers closely. Whenever he discovers that they contain stories which do not appear in his own publication, there are ructions such as only a John Ross Robertson can raise. The afternoon papers are regularly placed on his desk as soon as they appear, and it does not take the veteran journalist long to skim
their pages and size up the situation.
One afternoon, so the story goes, Mr. Robertson entered his office and found the papers on his desk as usual. He picked up the first one, and observing a scare head referring to some exciting event in city life, he hurriedly seized the first edition of the Telegram to see how his own paper had handled it. He flung over page after page, growing more and more wrathy as his search disclosed no sign of a reference to the incident. Picking up the Telegram and the paper which had evidently scooped it, he stalked into the city editor's office and gave voice alike to his indignation and his opinion of the editor. For a few moments the air was blue, while the victim of the onslaught sat speechless beneath the attack.
When at length Mr. Robertson had cooled down, the editor took up the other afternoon paper and pointed out that the charges were entirely unwarranted, for the simple reason that the paper was over a month old. Evidently through some carelessness on the part of the porter, an antiquated copy had found its way to the proprietor's desk, and had been placed on top of the afternoon editions ; possibly it had slipped down behind some days before and had been only just recovered in one of the periodical house-cleanings. But, the editor's explanation did not have the supposed effect on the irate proprietor. There was no semblance of an apology.
“Humph," growled he, “That doesn't make any difference. Everything I've said goes."
When the agitation for an all-Canadian news service from England was at its height, it was John Ross Robertson who came forward and made the formation of the Canadian Associated Press a possibility. He has been its president since its establishment and has taken a keen interest in its work. Nor has he lacked enterprise in obtaining exclusive telegraphic service for his own paper. When the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council issued its famous judg-
ment in the Level Crossing Case, in which the City of Toronto was vitally interested, he did not hesitate to expend $2,600 for a verbatim report by cable on the day it was handed down.
An erratic and impulsive individual he may be, but in the treatment of his employees he has shown himself generous to a fault. The Telegram building is a palatial workshop ; its equipment of the best. The men and women, old and young, who work for him there either with brain or hand, are well cared for. While he demands zealous service and can be at times exceedingly arbitrary, yet once a man shows that he is to be trusted, he can find no kinder or more considerate patron.
There was once a proofreader in his employ, who had an unfortunate fondness for strong drink, which frequently incapacitated him. Mr. Robertson put up with him for a long time but finally decided to dispense with his services. He scribbled out an advertisement asking for applicants for the position, meanwhile retaining the services of the old reader until he could get a new one. Strange to say there were no applicants. He sent up a second advertisement. Still no response. This went on for several days and not a sign of a proofreader appeared on the scene. It finally transpired that the man who was to be fired, scenting a rat, had taken it upon himself to cut out the advertisements as they passed his desk. An ordinary man would have been exceedingly wrathy at this procedure, but not so, John Ross Robertson. There was something intensely human about it which touched his heart. He sent for the proof reader, gave him a good lecture and retained him on the staff, during good conduct.
The strange contradictoriness of the man admits of frequent illustration. Perhaps he may be walking along the street when a newsboy accosts him with his, “Paper, sir?" The very suggestion seems to irritate him and he growls out, “No," with a ferocity that frightens the poor boy. But the chances are that he
will not have gone twenty paces, before he turns and calling, “Here boy," presses a quarter into the hand of the astonished youth. A creature of impulse, his first instinct is to resent vigorously any interruption to his plans or purpose; then, realizing in an instant the pain he may have caused, his whole being responds to a countercurrent of feeling and he swings to an extreme of generosity and kindliness.
Many stories are told of the almost quixotic exhibitions of his greatheartedness. On one occasion as he was leaving the Sick Children's Hospital with Mrs. Robertson he noticed a shabbylooking, bedraggled old woman, sittingon the step at the entrance. Invariably curious about everything and every person who crosses his path, he paused to ask in his gruff way, what she was doing there. Learning a rather pitiful story about her weariness and the long distance that lay between her and her poor home, the children's benefactor insisted on her getting into his carriage just as if she had been some fine lady and driving her home. It was not a case of handing out a street car ticket, as most people might have done, but of treating the woman as an equal.
He is the kind of man who will unostentatiously perform many kind deeds. One of his workmen may be sick ; the Robertson carriage will be sent down regularly, with coachman and all, to take the invalid out for an airing. He may encounter a peddler or a washerwoman in difficulties and though it may be in a public place he has been known to lend a helping hand to get them out of their difficulties. There are not a few poor people in Toronto, who call his name blessed, for once he becomes interested in a person, his solicitude on his behalf is sure to be lasting. The quantity of coal which he gives each winter to needy people is known only to himself, but that it amounts to hundreds of tons is evident.
The outstanding example of the man's philanthropy, however, is the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
He became associated with it, when it was only a small and struggling institution. He took hold of it with a tireless enthusiasm, based on a sincere and fervent desire to alleviate suffering. During his association with it, he has probably spent a quarter of a million dollars in its interests, bearing on his own shoulders a heavy portion of its maintenance charges. The splendid building which it now occupies, the no less excellent Nurses’ Home near by and the summer hospital on Toronto Island are all the fruit of his endeavors. A work such as this puts into the shade all a man’s imperfections, be they what they may, and he stands forth before God and man as an earnest worker towards a high and holy ideal.
The third personality in the Robertson make-up, and by no means the least interesting of the three as being perhaps the most human, is the hobbyist.
Excluding such commonplace pursuits as motoring and golf, the number of Canadians who may be classed as hobbyists of one sort or another is lamentably small. Of the few notable people who do indulge propensities of this kind, John Ross Robertson is one of the foremost, if indeed he be not the chief. His main obsession is for historical pictures relating to Toronto and Canada. With him the collection of antiquated prints and paintings, both of persons and of places, has been a perfect mania. He has spent time and money in their acquisition and has put as much energy and enthusiasm into their pursuit as most men would put into their own commercial undertakings.
In addition to pictures, he has also made a hobby of gathering together historical material—books and manuscripts, letters and diaries. He has followed these to earth with the relentless zeal of the fox-hunter. At times, practising guile, at other times expending considerable sums of money, he has rarely failed in the chase. London, Paris, New York and San Francisco have seen him hunting around among
their second-hand districts ferreting out odds and ends, while at home he is a well-known patron of many dealers in antiques and curios.
To illustrate the enthusiastic determination of the man, one needs but refer to a story which he tells himself about his search for a portrait of the first grand master of the Grand Lodge of Masons in Canada. He had certain evidence that this portrait once hung in a hall at Niagara. He visited old residents of the place, and sought to learn from them what had become of it. Finally he obtained information that it had been taken to England. On his next visit to the Old Country he at once resumed the search. He had few clues to go by but such as he had he followed up carefully. At length he ascertained that a descendant of the grand master, who had been in the Navy, was residing somewhere in the country, but where to find him was the problem. He went to a certain government office and explained his errand. With an exasperating display of red tape, the officials refused to disclose the address of the retired officer, but promised they would write to him at once and secure his permission to give out the information. This was not at all satisfactory to the eager searcher and he determined by the exercise of a little guile to find out for himself. A little questioning of one of the messengers, aided by a piece of silver, served to inform him that the mail would be taken out at a certain hour by a certain messenger. It was then an easy matter to arrange with the latter to show him the letter with the desired address. No sooner had he secured the address, than he took the next train for the place and thus brought his search to a successful conclusion.
Mr. Robertson has not made his hobby a selfish one. While he has undoubtedly taken a keen pleasure in gathering together his collection of pictures, he has been public-spirited enough to recognize that they had a national value. As the culmination
therefore, of his endeavors, he recently presented to the City of Toronto, twenty thousand rare and valuable prints roughly valued at twenty-five thousand dollars. This unique collection, bearing his name, now finds a suitable home in the fine new Reference Library building in that city, providing for future generations a rich treasure of historical material.
But picture-gathering has been only one phase of Mr. Robertson’s work as a hobbyist. He has gone further and has derived much satisfaction from collecting material dealing with the history of Toronto. He has published this from time to time in the columns of the Telegram and then re-published it in book form as it accumulated. Five bulky volumes of “Landmarks of Toronto” have now made their appearance, filled with a wealth of valuable information about the city. But with a strange perversity, the compiler has housed his treasure in unworthy quarters. The books themselves are cheaply made and will not stand the ravages of time. Here again one encounters another of the inexplicable features of a complicated character—the willingness to spend thousands in acquiring rare material, the unwillingness to go to a corresponding expense in publishing it. For, after all, this gathering of landmarks is really a hobby and not a money-making enterprise, or there would be some reason in cheap production.
Bibles have been another of the collector’s objectives. He has acquired a comprehensive collection of all sorts and conditions and probably has one of the best assortments in the world. Among his treasures is to be found a copy of the famous britches bible. Then again, he has made a hobby of books concerning the masonic order. Indeed, he has been the historian of masonry so far as Canada is concerned, having written four books on the subject and being engaged in the preparation of a fifth. The attention he pays to his own family records may be reckoned as a species of hobby, for he makes it a point
to preserve all manner of documents, letters, telegrams and newspaper references, bearing on his own life, all being carefully filed away.
So far as his interest in history is concerned, apart from the collection of pictures, this may be exemplified in the recent publication of “The Diary of Mrs. John Graves Simcoe,” which he edited and annotated. In fact, there is no man living in Canada to-day, more versatile in his pursuits, more systematic and perservering in his enterprises, and more completely the master of what he has learned than John Ross Robertson. Only a man of great energy and activity, strength of mind and uniformity of purpose, could achieve what he has achieved.
Mr. Robertson sat for Parliament once. In the election of 1896, he contested East Toronto as an Independent Conservative and went in by a huge majority. It was no special love for the distinction, that influenced him to enter public life. The root of the matter was probably the settlement of the Manitoba School Question, which exercised his mind considerably at the time. He only remained in the Llouse for the one term, resigning before the election of 1900.
In the Masonic Order he has held high rank. In 1890 he was Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Canada and was subsequently chosen Grand First Principal of the Grand Royal Arch Chapter of Canada. In 1891 he succeeded Sir John A. Macdonald a* Grand Representative of the Grand Lodge of England in Canada. Again, at the coronation of King Edward in 1902 he was accorded the honorary rank of Past Grand Warden of England.
If landmarks have placed him among the historians and if his Masonic affiliations have allied him with many great and powerful names, his interest in hockey has endeared him to thousands of young athletes throughout Ontario. He is in a sense the father of hockey in the province, the man who
has done most to keep the game on a high level and to maintain its popularity. This he has done through the Ontario Hockey Association, better known as the O.H.A., of which he was president for many years, and to which he gave constant support, often sacrificing much of his time to it3 interests.
A many sided character and interested in a vast number of subjects it is by no means surprising that John Ross Robertson should be a sermon-taster. The Scotch in his make-up discloses itself conspicuously in a fondness for hearing preachers wag their tongues in pulpits. He is constantly on the watch for the visits of celebrated divines and has probably heard more noted clergymen deliver sermons than most men of his age. Seated in that characteristic attitude of his, with head thrust forward and those stern features bent fixedly on the speaker, one could readily imagine him to be one of those old covenating Scotchmen of the seventeenth century, to whom long-winded discourses were the very breath of life.
Yet with all that stolid seriousness of mind and deportment, John Ross Robertson is by no means bereft of a sense of humor. Beneath the outer layer of stern solemnity, there lies hidden a bubbling well of good-fellowship that occasionally breaks through the mask. Quick to observe the humorous side of things and fond of a good joke, his stories are rendered all the more piquant by reason of the very contrast between the gravity of the man and the ridiculousness of the incidents. His predilection is for the darky type of anecdote, of which he has good store,
for he has travelled and sojourned a great deal in the southern states and has picked up a lot of stories from personal experience.
The amazing use which the colored folk make, of long words invariably amuses him. He often tells of an occasion when he was staying in a southern hotel, and, wanting to take a bath, he sent for one of the maids to prepare one of the bathrooms for his use. Presently the dusky damsel returned, and with profuse apologies informed him that he would have to take his bath on the floor below, because she could not “manipulate” the water up to the flat on which his room was located.
Mr. Robertson has travelled a great deal and with that restless energy of his, he sees everything that can be seen. It is a great pleasure to him to pick up all sorts of odds and ends, particularly articles of historical interest; to mingle with odd characters and to observe manners and customs. His mm3 is wellstored with observations on a great variety of subjects, derived from many years of globe-trotting.
The many-sidedness of his personality renders it almost impossible within the limits of a magazine article to do adequate justice to all his activities. A man who has lived so intensely for seventy years has naturally crowded into his span of life a tremendous amount of action. If some slight idea of his character has been afforded by the foregoing description—a character, complex and contradictory in many respects—the purpose of the writer will have been accomplished.