On September 29, 1650 Henry
Robinson, a noted religious
dissenter, philosopher, writer, merchant, and sometimes government official, opened the Office of Addresses and Encounters, a
brand new and unusual business on Threadneedle Street in London.
At the office, for a modest
fee of sixpence individuals and businesses could record their addresses, what services
they could offer, and list what needs
they might have. The poor could use the service without charge. Employers
could offer jobs, and seekers find them. Real
estate including country houses
was offered but lodgers could also
find accommodations. Hard to find merchandise was matched with buyers. It is said that occasionally the lovelorn sought companionship or prostitutes
discretely offered their comfort, leading some later historians to conclude that it was some
sort of dating service.
Leave it to humans
to make every sort of information
exchange about sex.
Most commonly it functioned as what the Brits call a labour exchange
or on this side of the puddle
call an employment service—the first
In Paris Théophraste Renaudot, a physician, philanthropist, and journalist
had operated the bureau d’adresse et de rencontre
Robinson got the idea from his good friend German born Samuel Hartlib, another one of those geniuses-at-large. Today we
might call both men public intellectuals. Hartlib had a grander vision for adapting
Renaudot’s idea to England. He wanted a
much larger undertaking sponsored by
the government as a central repository for all useful information. In addition to
the exchange, he wanted a staff of
the leading experts on every topic to be available to answer any question a member of the
public might have—a kind of living encyclopedia or Google.
Not surprisingly no
one at any level of government was interested in such a grand and expensive project. After the
idea had been kicking around for a few years, Robinson decided to go ahead with
the more modest core of the idea as
a private enterprise. The project did not last long during the turbulent
years of the Commonwealth which directed energies elsewhere. But it was long remembered and has been cited
as the inspiration for various public information projects on both
sides of the Atlantic.
Robinson as a bright
young man was educated at St. John’s
College, Oxford and was admitted to
membership in the Worshipful Company
of Mercers, the premier Livery
Company of the City of London, a
kind of privileged trade association of
general merchants especially exporters
of wool and importers of velvet, silk and other luxurious fabrics. That made him a wealthy man.
Wide travel, especially to Holland
which nurtured religious dissent,
a spirit of tolerance, and unencumbered
commercial business, made him a vocal
advocate for all sorts of change
in England. He began to write widely on economic matters—trade
policy, interest rates, naturalization of foreigners, redistribution
of trades from London center, and inland
navigation. When Parliament and Cromwell came to power ideas that he advanced in his pamphlets influenced policy.
Robinson was appointed to administrative
positions, dealing with accounts
and sale of former Crown lands, with farm rents, and acting as secretary
to the excise commissioners.
But Robinson is best
remembered as a strong advocate of religious toleration. He believed that “no man can have a natural
monopoly of truth.” Of course, he meant
toleration within a range of Protestant beliefs—Catholics and Jews need not
apply. He later fell out of favor with the Puritans
for opposing the establishment of
a new National Church based on Presbyterianism for fear that it would lead
to religious persecution of dissenters.
Robinson was also a pioneer
writer against censorship anticipating
and informing the views of John Milton.
Robinson died at the age of 64 in 1664 after the Restoration had destroyed his public influence and put his personal safety at risk.