Christabel Elizabeth Robinson was born in Lower Riccarton, Christchurch, on 28 March 1898, the daughter of Dora Jane Henderson and her husband, William Robinson, a commercial traveller who sold clothing for J. Beath and Company. One of her mother's sisters was Elizabeth McCombs, the first woman member of Parliament in New Zealand. Christabel grew up in a Protestant Irish family where considerable emphasis was placed on education, literature and music.
She attended Fendalton and Wharenui schools, and after gaining a Senior National Scholarship in 1912 went to Christchurch Girls' High School, where she won a University National Scholarship in 1916. She enrolled at Canterbury College, graduating BA in 1919, and MA with honours in English and French in 1920, having gained a French prize and served as women's treasurer on the students' association.
After teaching English and French at Nelson College for Girls from 1920 to 1924, Robinson taught the same subjects at Christchurch Technical College for 19 years. Here she became a colleague of G. E. Maxwell Keys, whose early efforts at vocational guidance with the Christchurch YMCA led to a request for expansion of this service at a 1932 public meeting chaired by the mayor. During the depression, Christabel Robinson and the YWCA began assisting young unemployed women to find jobs. They also taught them subjects such as English, arithmetic and crafts on a part-time basis. In 1934 a girls' vocational guidance and employment committee, chaired by the mayor, obtained agreement to have Robinson released from some of her teaching duties to become its first officer.
In 1936 Keys and Robinson persuaded the minister of education, Peter Fraser, that vocational guidance should be continued and expanded, and that a national system should be controlled by the Department of Education and not the Department of Labour. In 1943 they became full-time Education Department officers responsible for overseeing the South Island vocational guidance centres and the training of school careers advisers. Robinson also concerned herself with the working conditions of young women, supporting, for example, the concept of equal pay for equal work when it was discussed in the 1950s. She retired in 1956 after working for 25 years to improve job prospects for young women and girls.
In 1976, however, at the age of 78, Robinson was involved in a campaign to stop the control of vocational guidance passing from the Education Department back to the Department of Labour. In an attempt to safeguard what she and Keys had achieved 40 years earlier, she plied the minister of education, members of Parliament, and the chairman of the State Services Commission with cogent if unsuccessful arguments opposing the Labour Department take-over.
Christabel Robinson was also instrumental in the establishment of the Canterbury Sheltered Workshop Association. As a foundation member and vice president of the Canterbury and West Coast branch of the New Zealand Crippled Children Society in 1935, she became convinced of the need to provide a sheltered environment where the mentally and physically disabled could undertake work that would give them the skills and confidence for life in the wider community. She persuaded the mayor to call a public meeting in 1958, and in April that year the first sheltered workshop opened in Christchurch. Robinson was the inaugural secretary and arranged the finance, staffing, premises and a programme of work. When the workshop was later transferred to purpose-built facilities on railway land at Riccarton, the renovated stationmaster's house was named in her honour. It was for her work with the sheltered workshop that she was made an MBE in 1964. She visited the workshop weekly to play the piano until well into her 80s.
Christabel Robinson's lifelong interests were music, French language and culture, and gardening. She played the violin and belonged to the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. She was the first secretary and later a vice president of the Cercle français in Christchurch, and was awarded Les palmes d'académie by the French government in 1952. She remained unmarried throughout her 90 years, and died in Christchurch on 3 June 1988.