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Wenona Grace Robinson

April 30, 1890 - June 8, 1973
Elocutionist, speech teacher, founding member of Sunshine League

Born into a prominent family, Wenona Robinson was an elocutionist who took her training in public speaking on stage and into the classroom.

She was also a Girl Guide leader and a founding member and long-time treasurer of the Sunshine League, the children’s home started by her sister Agnes May Robinson in 1919. 

Robinson was the eleventh of 13 children born to Samuel David Robinson and his wife Elmira Elitia Dowding  (born Thomas) Robinson, and one of 10 who survived to adulthood.

Samuel David Robinson was a self-made businessman and landowner whose properties lined Princess Street, Hamilton. He was also a founder of the Berkeley Institute, which opened on September 6,1897 and was the pre-eminent high school for black Bermudians for nearly a century.

Robinson lived all her life at Wantley, an elegant family residence that her father built on Princess Street, and where the plan to establish Berkeley was conceived.

Robinson, her sister Agnes, who was nearly five years older, and several other siblings, were among the first group of students—35 in all—to attend Berkeley Institute, although she was only seven.

She completed her high school education at Albert College in Belleville, Ontario–Canada’s oldest boarding school. Robinson was at Albert between 1906 and 1908, and graduated with a diploma in speech.

Robinson returned to Bermuda, and to a life of community service, but she never put her speech training aside. As early as 1911, she was giving readings at musical and other cultural events staged at the Colonial Opera House in Hamilton, the major performing arts centre of its day. She was a regular on cultural programmes held at Opera House and other public stages, until the 1950s.

She also taught speech at Mrs. Millicent Neverson’s Excelsior Secondary School, offering her services shortly after the school was formed in 1926, because it “worried her,” Neverson later wrote, “to hear wrong pronunciation.”

Neverson, who established First Excelsior, Bermuda’s first black Girl Guide Company in 1931, introduced her to Guiding.

Robinson became a Guider in 1934, the same year that Neverson formed the Second Excelsior Girl Guide Company, in response to growing demand.

Robinson started out as a leader at First Excelsior, under Neverson as captain, and Edith Crawford as lieutenant. Around 1935, Crawford, assisted by Robinson, assumed full responsibility for the company when Neverson left Bermuda for several years.

In January 1939, Robinson took over as Second Excelsior’s captain, replacing Flora Musson, who moved overseas.

As a result of her association with Neverson, she became a Girl Guide leader. Neverson had established First Excelsior, Bermuda’s first black Girl Guide Company, in 1931.

Guiding got her to the gates of Buckingham Palace. In April 1937, she sailed to England to attend the coronation of King George VI as chaperone for First Excelsior Girl Guide Rangers Doris  (Heyliger) Corbin and Gaynell (Paynter) Robinson. The trio was a member of a larger delegation from Bermuda.

It was a memorable trip that gave all three a front-row seat to the coronation on May 12. In an account she later wrote of the trip, Robinson recalled having a “splendid view of the Coronation procession.” She was presented to royalty and movers and shakers in Guiding and government at Lambeth Palace, the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other grand settings. 

Robinson and her Rangers took part in camping trips organised by British Girl Guides. They also used the opportunity of being on that side of the Atlantic to cross the English Channel and tour France and Switzerland. All told, they were abroad for nearly five months.

By then, her life was very much taken up with the Sunshine League. Serving under Agnes May as president, she was a member of the League’s first committee of management and was its treasurer for 28 years, from July 1921 to January 1950.

She gave readings at League fundraisers and was also the League’s fifth president. Her contribution to the League’s development became even more crucial after Agnes May (1885-1954) gradually withdrew from society and became a recluse.

Robinson had a flirtation with political activism as a member of the Bermuda Civic and Political Association, which was formed to help get women elected to Parliament after they won the right to vote in 1944. The Association had an interracial membership, which was a rarity for the period.

Robinson also ran for a time the School of Expression, a speech school, in the Arcade Building on Burnaby Street, Hamilton, which was owned by her father. She gave “courses of study” to children and adults in vocal expression, physical expression and mental expression.

A brochure of the School of Expression stated the benefits of speech training: ‘A well-trained voice and an impressive expression gives influence and success’.  The brochure also said terms were reasonable.

In 1945, she became the first speech teacher at Central School (now Victor Scott), remaining on staff until her retirement in 1955. She continued her work with the Girl Guide movement—serving also on the executive of Bermuda Girl Guide Association—until the early 60s.

She was an elegant, dignified, “very pleasant, soft-spoken lady’, who was more approachable than her contemporaries Edith Crawford and Neverson, who were very stern, according to Enith King.  The three women worked closely together. Both Neverson and Crawford were early members of the Sunshine League.

There was also a playful side to her personality, which may have been related to her penchant for performance. King, a former First Excelsior Girl Guide who succeeded Robinson as captain of Second Excelsior Girl Guides, first met Robinson at a Guiding camp at Fort Victoria, St. George’s. She remembers Robinson appearing in the Guides’ barracks before the Lights Out call, lying down, and then somersaulting across the room, before bidding good night to the startled girls.

Robinson, who never married, died at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital on June 8, 1973 at age 83 after a long illness and is buried at St. John’s Anglican Church in Pembroke, where her family had worshipped for many years.

As a member of Bermuda’s small and close-knit black upper class, Robinson was raised in a rarified world.  Her niece Carol Hill wrote they were expected to be “perfect ladies” and take up cultural and spiritual pursuits. 

As girls, their home was the scene of evening musical gatherings. As young adults, they attended concerts, plays and  parties and went on boating excursions and picnics. But they were also expected to give back to the community.

In that regard, Robinson and her sister followed the example of their father and their maternal grandfather, Joseph Henry Thomas, a schoolmaster and lodge man who was also a founding father of Berkeley.

The Sunshine League, which evolved from a Sunday Bible class and to which Robinson devoted much of her life, is Bermuda’s oldest charity.


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April 30, 1890—Born at Wantley, the eleventh child of Samuel David and Elmira Robinson

September 6, 1897—At age seven, with several other siblings, is among the first group of students entering the Berkeley Institute.

1906-1908—Is a student at Albert College in Belleville, Ontario.

1911—Gives a reading at a musical programme at the Colonial Opera House

1919—Is a member of the first board of management of the Sunshine League

1921—Becomes the League’s second treasurer—a post she holds for 28 years

1926—Begins helping out as a speech teacher at Millicent Neverson’s Excelsior  Secondary School

1934—Becomes a Guider, and assists Millicent Neverson and Edith Crawford at First Excelsior

Around 1935—Becomes lieutenant at First Excelsior, after Edith Crawford takes over as captain

April 1937—Accompanies Guide Rangers Doris (Heyliger) Corbin and Gaynell (Paynter) Robinson to England to attend coronation of King George VI.

January 1939—Replaces Flora Musson as captain of Second Excelsior

1945— Joins the staff of Central School as a speech teacher

1955—Retires after nearly 10 years at Central

Early 1960s—Retires from Girl Guiding

June 8, 1973—Dies at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital at age 83 after a lengthy illness


“12 May Coronation. We were given lunch and 6 a.m.we were off to see the Coronation procession—had a splendid view right opposite Buckingham Palace and Queen Victoria’s Memorial. Saw the whole procession as it moved slowly but majestically down the Mall from B. Palace. What pageantry!” Excerpt from an undated written account of her trip to England, France and Switzerland

“In 1937 (1st and 2nd Ex Co’s) received —as did other Guide Co’s of the Commonwealth—an invitation to attend Coronation Camp in England. We accepted and two Rangers DH & GP (Doris Heyliger and Gaynell Paynter)  & I left for England, our first visit and what a memorable one it was. “

“Oh, the magnificence and pageantry of the Coronation procession. The camps, the friendly atmosphere and the fellowship with Guides of many nations. This is an incredible memory. On our return home we toured the island giving travel talks and thus sharing our experiences and raising funds for our companies.”

— Excerpts from notes for a speech given in 1959 on the 25th anniversary of Second Excelsior Girl Guide Company at Trinity Hall, Cedar Avenue

“Women today are taking an active part in community life. God made women to be a helpmate to man.  She cannot sit at home and leave what is to be done in the big world to the men. She has forced men to realise that her place is outside of the home as well as in it; she serves in practically all phases of community life….” Excerpt from undated speech entitled ‘Women in the Community.’

“This is a plea for good clear speaking—oh we do murder the English language, which is one of the most beautiful, most musical languages in the world when well spoken. Yes, pronunciation, lessons in clear reading and good speaking should be taught in every school.” — Excerpt from undated letter/speech

Top: Members of the First Excelsior Girl Guide Company gathered for a group shot at Victoria Park, Hamilton.  Edith Crawford, captain of First Excelsior, is on the far left, and Wenona Robinson, lieutenant, is on the far right. The daughters of labour leader Dr. E. F. Gordon and his wife Clara Christian are among the group, including Joyce, who is in the first row, second from right.  This photo is believed to have been taken sometime after 1935, when Millicent Neverson left Bermuda for several years.

Above: Doris (Heyliger) Corbin, Gaynell (Paynter) Robinson and Wenona Robinson in London in 1937.

Above, left: Wenona Robinson as a young woman

Left: Wenona Robinson used this brochure to advertise her School of Expression

Photos: Courtesy of Carol D. Hill

 

 


Further reading

Wenona Robinson obits and tribute: The Royal Gazette, June 11 and 12,1973; the Bermuda Recorder, June 16, 1973

“Meet a Remarkable Teacher”, The Royal Gazette, February 18, 1999

Rays of Hope—The Story of Agnes May Robinson and the Sunshine League by Carol D. Hill.  The Writers’ Machine, Bermuda, 2000

The Berkeley Educational Society's Origins and Early History byDr. Kenneth E. Robinson. The Berkeley Educational Society, Pembroke, Bermuda, 1962

 

Additional sources

Wenona Robinson’s personal papers: Courtesy of Carol D. Hill

Written Recollections of Enith King, April 4, 2008

Telephone Interview with Doris Corbin, April 11. 2008

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