Robert Thomlinson was baptized on 10th August 1668 at Wigton, Cumberland, the youngest of 10 children of Richard Thomlinson of Akehead, near Wigton.
He was educated at Queen’s College, Oxford, gaining both his Batchelor and Master of Arts from this university, and in 1719 he graduated with a Doctorate in Divinity from King’s College, Cambridge. In 1692 he held, for a time, the post of vice-principal of St Edmund Hall, Oxford and in 1695 he was appointed afternoon lecturer of St Nicholas’ Church, (now Cathedral) Newcastle upon Tyne at a salary of £120 a year – a generous allowance for a young man whose only duty consisted of a weekly sermon.
On 8th April 1702 he married Martha Ray at East Ardsley near Leeds, Yorkshire; they do not appear to have had any children.
In 1712 he became rector of Whickham on the recommendation of Lord Crewe, Bishop of Durham, a position he held until his death in 1748 and it was during those years that he collected the many books which he later left to the people of Newcastle. It was the practice of collectors at that time to mark the prices paid for the copy on the book itself and there are many examples of this practice in the collection.
Together with Dr Nathaniel Ellison, vicar of St Nicholas’, he was an active member of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, amongst whose aims were the foundation of charity schools; these were shortly established in each of the four Newcastle parishes. His philanthropy was rewarded by two appointments in the gift of the Corporation, as master of the hospitals of St Mary the Virgin in 1715 and shortly after St Mary Magdalene; he resigned the former appointment in 1738 but retained the latter until within a few months of his death.
In 1719 he became Prebend at St Paul’s Cathedral, London; he was thus receiving an income from at least four different sources and was therefore very able to afford to pursue his book collecting.
Between 1720 and 1725, as executor for his brother John, rector of Rothbury, Northumberland, Thomlinson erected a hospital at Wigton (the College of Matrons) for the widows of poor clergymen, contributing part of the expense and providing a schoolmaster’s house for the parish.
In 1738 he sent out a collection of books to form a church library in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
In 1734 he gave liberally to the rebuilding of St Edmund Hall, Oxford, under Thomas Shaw, and shortly afterwards, in 1736, he outlined plans to leave his library to the people of Newcastle. This was to form the basis of Newcastle’s first “public library”.
William Shand described him as “a clergyman of the old fashioned orthodox type (who) steadily adhered to the doctrines and discipline of the Church of England” 1883. His references to the visits of John and Charles Wesley to Newcastle and the neighbourhood show that he did not regard them with any favour.
In the latter part of his life his sight began to fail and despite undergoing the operation of couching he became entirely blind in 1736. From this time he had to rely on someone to read to him, to write for him and to deal with his correspondence, but it did not deter him from preaching and attending church meetings.
Dr Thomlinson died on 24th March 1748 aged 79 years and was buried in the north aisle of Whickham Church. He was survived by his wife who succeeded him by many years and died on 16th December 1769 in the 102nd year of her life.