How did the Robb family transform themselves from Episcopalians and Anglicans into staunch Methodists in the course of a generation? My 3 x great grandfather, Charles Edward Stuart Robb, baptised his children in Episcopal and Anglican churches, his older brother was an Episcopal clergyman, and both Charles and his wife Margaret were buried at Anglican churches in London. Within a few decades, however, Charles’ grandson – another Charles, my great grandfather – would be working for the Wesleyan East End Mission. What happened in between?
The first sign of Nonconformism in the family occurs in 1840, when Fanny Margaret Monteith Robb, daughter of my great great grandparents, William Robb and Fanny Sarah Seager, dies at the age of two from croup and is buried at Spa Fields in Clerkenwell. This was the site of one of the most prominent Dissenting chapels in the country, founded by the zealous Countess of Huntingdon, and a well-known Nonconformist burial ground.
Eleven years later, in 1851, my great great grandmother Fanny was buried at the Tabernacle, Tottenham Court Road. This was almost certainly Whitefield’s Chapel, built in 1756 for the Methodist preacher George Whitefield, who had links with both John Wesley and the Countess of Huntingdon.
We know that the Seager family were Nonconformists, though none of the family records that I’ve seen so far are specific about the denomination to which they belonged. So it looks very much as though Nonconformism first entered the Robb family through the connection with the Seagers. (I wonder if the absence of early Seager records indicates that some members of the family were christened in Nonconformist chapels?)
We can be more specific about the religious affiliations of William’s second wife, Marianne Mansfield Palmer, whom he married in 1854. Indeed, the strong Nonconformist allegiance of the Palmers suggests that William might have known the family as the result of a chapel connection. The fact that bookbinder Enoch Palmer was able to entrust his 23 year old daughter to the 40 year old widower William might also undermine some of those rumours (mentioned in my last post) about the latter’s supposed waywardness.
Thanks to a fellow family historian in Australia, I’ve been able to confirm that Marianne Mansfield Palmer, like her siblings, was baptised in a Methodist chapel. Born in Shelton, Staffordshire, on 4th December 1830, Marianne was christened on 6th March 1831, in the Methodist New Connexion, Longton Circuit, Staffordshire. Her older brother, named Enoch like his father, had been baptised in 1823 at the Bethesda Chapel of the Methodist New Connexion in Albion Street, Shelton.
The Methodist New Connexion was a breakaway group, formed in 1797 by secession from the Wesleyan Methodists, after a dispute regarding the position and rights of the laity. Methodism appears to have been very strong in the Potteries, and it seems that the New Connexion had particular success in the Hanley and Shelton areas. This photograph of the Bethesda New Connexion Methodist Chapel in Hanley probably shows the church where Marianne’s brother Enoch was baptised:
If Marianne was as devout a Methodist as her parents, then this might explain how her stepson Charles, my great grandfather, who was brought up by her from the age of 3, developed his strong Methodist faith. The only (minor) missing link is Charles’ move from the New Connexion to mainstream Wesleyan Methodism.