John Perry Robinson was born probably in Surrey, England, in 1810 or 1811. He became a wood and ivory turner, and took an active interest in politics. He moved to Birmingham and during the 1830s became closely associated with the Birmingham Mechanics' Institute. He was a supporter of the Liberal propagandist John Bright, and was involved in the agitation which preceded the parliamentary reform of 1832.
Disillusioned with the state of English politics, in November 1842 John Robinson, his wife, Mary Gaskell (whom he had married at Derby on 22 October 1836), and their two young children, Samuel and Eliza, left England on the Phoebe, bound for the New Zealand settlement of Nelson.
The Robinsons arrived in Nelson on 29 March 1843. The settlement was suffering from economic difficulties caused by the absence of resident landowners and others with enough capital to employ labour. The majority of working people were concentrated in the town and employed by the New Zealand Company. Disaffection had reached a peak in January 1843, when the workers unsuccessfully petitioned the chief company agent in Nelson, Arthur Wakefield, for an increase in pay. Little is known of Robinson's activities in Nelson until April 1844 when he was appointed headmaster of a new school in Bridge Street, which was opened under the auspices of the Nelson School Society.
In 1845 Robinson moved to the Bay of Islands, where he managed an agency of the Nelson brewing firm Hooper and Company. When that business failed he moved the stock to Auckland before his return to Nelson in 1848. He worked as a storekeeper until 1852 or 1853, when he took up his old trade of woodturning.
On 13 April 1850 Robinson chaired a meeting of Nelson mechanics and labourers, which resolved to petition the New Zealand Company for breach of contract. Compensation was sought for lack of employment and the difficult conditions that had been suffered by the working class population of the settlement. Robinson pursued the claim with a letter to the governor in 1852 and a further petition to the New Zealand government in 1854.
In 1855 Robinson went to Motupipi, in Massacre Bay (Golden Bay), where he and three partners erected the first sawmill in the district. Later that year he was elected to represent Massacre Bay in the Nelson Provincial Council, where he 'distinguished himself by his clear debating power, his imperturbable temper and his political sagacity and experience'.
When Edward Stafford resigned as superintendent of Nelson in late 1856, on attaining the premiership of the colony, Robinson was persuaded to put himself forward as a candidate for the vacancy. His opponents were David Monro, and W. T. L. Travers, a local lawyer of some renown. Monro, 'the embodiment of gentility', was the representative of an association of Nelson's wealthier residents, popularly known as the 'Supper Party'. Formed about 1847 as the Nelson Original Land Purchasers' Association, to protect the interests of landowners in their dealings with the New Zealand Company, this group had for many years controlled local politics in Nelson.
After the early withdrawal of Travers the election became a keenly fought contest between Robinson and Monro, based on clear-cut class issues. Robinson's campaign emphasised the interests of 'the man of small means'. He advocated low land prices, was opposed to plural voting, and supported a property tax. He stood on his record as a supporter of Nelson's Education Act 1856, which established education for all, and was opposed to immigration schemes which threatened to lower wages by bringing in surplus labour. Monro, disingenuously, deprecated the introduction of class or party rhetoric to the campaign. Robinson had, he said, 'as much right to call me a Tory and an oligarch as I have to call him a bloody-minded Red Republican'.
Despite the support of the only local newspaper, the Nelson Examiner, Monro was defeated by a narrow margin of 16 votes. The result was totally unexpected. There had been a low turnout of Monro's supporters, who had never imagined that Robinson could win. Alfred Saunders, one of Robinson's closest supporters, reported that 'the runholders and land speculators of Nelson, the J.P.s and special jurymen never quite forgave him for his interference with their monopoly of power and privilege'.
Robinson was greatly hindered in his new office by the sustained opposition of the provincial council, which remained under the control of the 'Supper Party'. Owing to their multiplicity of landholdings, many of Nelson's wealthier voters had been able to cast plural votes for councillors. This plurality did not apply to the election of the superintendent. Robinson and his executive officers administered the affairs of the province as best they could, despite the hostility of the council, and the disapprobation of almost every person of wealth and influence in the province. This determined opposition neutralised much of Robinson's attempted reform. His endeavour to overhaul the administration of the province's land and to allow sale on deferred payment to small farmers was thwarted.
At the next provincial elections, in October 1857, Robinson was assisted by the appearance of a new newspaper, the Colonist, which unashamedly supported him. When the votes were counted Robinson was declared the winner over his 'Supper Party' opponent, J. W. Saxton, by a majority of 230, the largest yet seen in any contest for the Nelson superintendency. Unfortunately the bickering and party spirit which had hindered Robinson's previous administration were once again evident. The establishment of Marlborough as a separate province in 1857 placed the large runs of the Wairau outside Robinson's jurisdiction. The landowners who had supported the separation nevertheless criticised Robinson for the loss of Nelson's prestige. Robinson continued to make efforts to compensate New Zealand Company labourers, but in 1859 a bill to award them land grants was disallowed by the general government.
In 1861 Robinson was again comfortably re-elected. In 1860 he had attempted to enter national politics as a representative for Nelson, but was defeated by the sitting members, Alfred Domett and Edward Stafford. Stafford's majority, however, was only 36 votes.
In January 1865 Robinson visited the West Coast to examine the coalmining potential of the region. The steamer Wallaby, on which he was travelling, arrived off the bar of the Buller River on 28 January. A lifeboat was lowered to carry a party ashore, including Robinson and his son, Edward. Crossing the bar in a sudden swell, the boat was swamped and capsized. By the time a second boat reached it, Robinson and three others were missing. His body was never recovered.
Nelson was devastated by the news. Political hatchets were buried as the province paid its respects. The newspaper of Robinson's opponents, the Examiner, conceded his 'honest and upright intentions, and a sincere desire to benefit the province.' Robinson was survived by his wife and 10 children.