The son of a tanner, Henry Crabb Robinson attended local schools until he began the study of law at the age of fifteen. His life changed when, at the age of twenty-three, he inherited enough money to allow him to leave the law office. In 1800 Robinson journeyed to the Continent and took up residence in Germany, where he began the serious study of German. When he had acquired competence in the language he traveled throughout Germany, much of the time on foot, meeting a number of outstanding men of the time, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. In 1802 he enrolled at the University of Jena, studying there until he returned to England in 1805.
Unsuccessful at finding employment in the British diplomatic service, Robinson became a journalist with the London Times, first as a correspondent on the Continent and later as the foreign editor. In 1808 he was a war correspondent in Spain for several months. In order to ensure his financial independence, he returned to the study of law in 1809 and was admitted to the bar in 1813. By 1828 he had accomplished his goal of becoming financially independent, whereupon he retired from legal practice, as he had promised himself he would.
Robinson’s significance to literature and history came about as a result of his friendships with many prominent persons, including such famous writers as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, and Robert Southey. He accompanied Wordsworth on tours in Scotland and Wales, as well as to Switzerland. He kept careful records of his friends and his journeys, conscientiously putting down information he hoped would someday be useful. He was also a champion for his friends and their literary work, especially Wordsworth, when those friends, as young writers, needed help. When he died in his ninety-second year, he left a diary in thirty-five closely written volumes, thirty volumes of correspondence, thirty volumes of journals from tours, plus five additional handwritten volumes of reminiscences and anecdotes. Portions of these volumes have been published over the years, with the first appearing in 1869, only two years after the writer’s death. In his own time Robinson was also significant as one of the founders of University College, London, and the Athaeneum Club.