Mary Johnson alias Bodington: the mystery deepens

I wrote recently about my quest to discover the identity, and fate, of Mary Johnson, the heiress and apparent goddaughter of Ratcliffe apothecary John Bodington, who died in 1728. Bodington was a friend, associate and possible relative, of my 7thgreat grandfather, Ratcliffe-born London goldsmith Joseph Greene.

In that post, I reported my discovery of a lawsuit from 1734, involving a network of families in London and Stepney, in which a certain ‘Mary Johnson alias Bodington’ was one of the defendants. I’ve now taken delivery of the relevant documents from the National Archives and have spent a good deal of time over the past couple of weeks attempting to decipher them, and to understand the reason for Mary’s involvement in the case.

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Judith Boyce’s legal ‘complaint’ from 1734

The suit was originally brought by Judith Boyce, and after her death taken over by her son John, a surgeon in Wapping. Judith was the sister and heiress of James Bundock, a London wine cooper who appears to have owned a number of properties in south Essex. The names of these places – Fobbing, Downham, Wickford, Horndon and Prittlewell – are familiar to me from my childhood years in nearby Chelmsford.

At some point in the 1680s Bundock had come to an arrangement concerning some of these properties with Richard Goodlad, and it was this arrangement, the details of which I’ve struggled to understand, which was at the root of the dispute between the Boyce family and the defendants. It seems that Goodlad treated the properties in Essex as his own, rather than as some kind of loan or temporary arrangement from Bundock, and passed them on to various members of his family, who in turn left them in their wills to other relatives or sold them on elsewhere. Judith Boyce, and later her son John, claimed that the properties, and the rents and proceeds from them, rightly belonged to them, as the heirs of James Bundock.

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Ordnance Survey map of 1805, showing Mucking and other places in the south of Essex mentioned in Judith Boyce’s complaint (via visionofbritain.org.uk)

Mary Johnson alias Bodington was listed among the defendants because, according to Judith Boyce’s original complaint, John Goodlad, one of Richard Goodlad’s descendants, sold some of the properties to a certain Josiah Kingsman, and further stated:

that John Bodington deceased late father of the said Mary Bodington afterwards purchased the same premises or some part of them from the said Josiah Kingsman and by his last will and testament devised or otherwise gave the same to the said Mary Bodington which said premises are now held by John Cole as tenant to the said Mary Bodington at the yearly rent of fifty pounds or at some such rent and the said Mary Bodington claims them as her inheritance and insists that they are not liable to redemption by your oratrix and refuse to discover at what rate or price the said Josiah Kingsman purchased them and for what sum he sold them to the said John Bodington.

When I first read this, I thought I’d been wasting my time on this lawsuit, since ‘my’ John Bodington describes Mary as his god daughter, not his daughter. Perhaps there was another John Bodington alive at this time with an actual daughter named Mary? But then I noticed that the properties in question were in Mucking, and I remembered that this village featured in the will of ‘my’ John Bodington, which refers to ‘all that my freehold messuage tenement or farme with the Outhousing buildings lands ground and hereditaments thereunto belonging with their and every of their appurtenances now in my owne possession situate lying and being at Mucking in the County of Essex’ and also to ‘all my Customary Copyhold lands tenements and hereditaments with their and every of their appurtenances now alsoe in my owne possession lying at Mucking aforesaid and held of the said Manor of Mucking by Copy of Court Roll’. These are among the properties whose ‘rents, issues and profits’ Bodington’s executors (who included my ancestor Joseph Greene) are to ‘pay and apply…for and towards the maintaining Educating and providing in a Gentile and handsome manner as I have hitherto done for my God daughter Miss Mary Johnson a young Gentlewoman.’

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Disclaimer signed by Mary Johnson

Then there is the fact that, in a separate document (see above), in which she disclaims all rights to the properties mentioned in the Boyces’ lawsuit, Mary describes herself as ‘Mary Johnson in the complainants’ original bill called Mary Bodington…otherwise Johnson’ and clearly signs herself Mary Johnson, the name used by John Bodington in his will. So there is no doubt in my mind that this is the same person.

How are we to understand what is going on here? Was Mary Johnson the daughter, or goddaughter, of John Bodington? Why is she referred to one way in the latter’s will, and the other in the lawsuit? It seems odd that the complainants would confidently describe Mary as John Bodington’s daughter in a legal document if that were not the case, and one would imagine Mary herself correcting this description, if false, in her own disclaimer. But if Mary was actually Bodington’s daughter, why would he describe her differently in his own will which, after all, was also a legal document?

One possible explanation is that Mary was John Bodington’s natural daughter, but that for some reason he wanted to disguise this fact during his lifetime, by adopting her as his goddaughter. If she really were John’s daughter it would go some way towards explaining why he made her virtually his sole heir, and made extensive and careful provision both in his lifetime, and then in his will, for her welfare. Her surname – Johnson – may have been the name of her mother, possibly since deceased, or it may have been a random name chosen simply to disguise Mary’s parentage.

It’s frustrating that John Bodington’s will is so lacking in information about his family, save for a brief reference to his ‘cousin’ Mrs Bayley. I’ve found no evidence that Bodington was ever married, and his will certainly makes no reference to a wife or any children or descendants. Nor does he provide any information about Mary Johnson’s origins, except to state very clearly that she was born on ‘the twenty third day of October 1713’, though I’ve yet to find a christening record that aligns with this date.

I think my next step might be to see whether anyone of about Mary’s age, and bearing the surname Johnson or possibly Bodington, was married in the 1730s. At the time of the law suit of 1734, she was still a ‘spinster’ of twenty, and presumably still in the care of her guardians, the executors of her father’s – or godfather’s – will.

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Were my ancestors Huguenots?

I’ve been reading Dan Cruikshank’s history of Spitalfields and have been fascinated by the stories of the different groups of people who sought refuge there, on the eastern edge of London: Catholics during the repression under Elizabeth I, the Irish in the eighteenth century, and of course the Huguenots. I was intrigued by the way that French Huguenot names recurred throughout the history of the area, and in the East End more generally. It stirred a faint memory in me, of a family history connection with Spitalfields. Wasn’t there something about one of my Londors ancestors possibly being married in Spitalfields? And what about that unusual surname: I’ve always imagined it was of German or Dutch origin – but what if it was French?

First, a quick recap on my connection to the Londors family. My mother was born Joyce Alma Londors in East Ham in 1933. Her father was George John Londors (1896 – 1961), a gardener at the City of London cemetery and the son of another George Londors (1863 – 1934), a gravedigger. He in turn was the son of John Schofield Londors (1827 – 1915), an agricultural labourer in Barkingside, and the eldest son of another farm worker, John Londors (1785 – 1876), by his second wife Mary Ann Schofield (1802 – 1887).

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Christening record for John-Felix Landors or Londors, Woodford, Essex, 1785

According to census records, my 3rdgreat grandfather John Londors was born in Woodford, and I believe he is the John-Felix Landors, son of yet another John Landors or Londors and his wife Hannah, who was baptised there on 7thAugust 1785. There are good reasons for believing that his parents were the John Londors and Hannah Ackerly who were married at the church of Christ Church, Spitalfields, on 7thDecember 1782, despite the fact that in the parish register the spelling of John’s surname has been altered from Londors or Landors to Lundors, which is also how he signed his name, though it was spelt Londors in the record of the banns. It’s also my belief that this is the same John Londors who, nearly ten years later and by now a widower, married Sarah Reeves at the same church 8thApril 1792.

The fact that there are so few people with the surname Londors in the records gives credence to my theory that John Londors of Spitalfields and John Londors of Woodford were one and the same person. According to one online source, there are only 39 people in the world with the surname Londors, all but one of them in England. I’m fairly confident that they can all trace their descent from my 4thgreat grandfather, John Londors of Woodford.

Christ Church, Spitalfields

As for the Huguenot/French connection: is it significant that one of the witnesses at the first wedding was a certain John Rondeau? He is probably the man of that name who made his will in 1789, appointing his wife Margaret as executor. Was he a friend of John Londors, or perhaps his employer or landlord? Then there is the fact that, according to the Woodford parish register, John and Hannah Londors or Landors gave their son the name John-Felix: both the name Felix, and the hyphenation of the two Christian names, suggesting a possible French connection.

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Marriage of John Lundors or Londors in the parish register of Christ Church, Spitalfields, 1792

I’ve yet to find any trace of John Londors in Spitalfields before his first marriage, nor are there records of anyone else with the same exact surname. However, there are a number of individuals with similar surnames, such as Landors or Landers. For example, the land tax records for Spitalfields refer to a Dennis Landers in 1756 and a Henry Landers in 1759. A child named Elizabeth Landers, the daughter of George and Elizabeth, was baptised at Christ Church, Spitalfields, on 21stDecember 1766.

As for my ancestor John Londors, if he married for the first time in 1782, then perhaps he was born in about 1760. I haven’t found anyone with a similar name baptised in Spitalfields at that time, but there was a John Landers, son of David and Mary Landers, christened at All Hallows, Barking by the Tower, on 2ndMarch 1759/60, having been born on 21stFebruary in that year.

Who was Mary Johnson?

I’ve spent a good deal of time over the last week or so exploring the connections between a group of families living in early eighteenth-century London and Stepney. As far as I’m aware, none of the people I’ve been researching are related to me, so why have I devoted so much time and effort to them?

This latest piece of research began when I took another look at the will of John Bodington, an apothecary who lived in Ratcliff, Stepney, and who died in 1728. My interest in Bodington had originally been sparked by a reference to him in Walter Renshaw’s history of the Byne family, stating that his will included a claim to freehold lands in Badsey, Worcestershire, owned by Alice Byne. Alice was my 8thgreat grandmother, the husband of John Byne, a stationer at Tower Hill. London. She was born Alice Forrest, the daughter of Tower Hill haberdasher Thomas Forrest, who I believe was originally from Worcestershire. It was his brother William Forrest who left the property in Badsey to Alice Byne.

The hamlet of Ratcliff in 1720

According to Renshaw, John Bodington’s will also made reference to Joseph and Mary Greene. Mary was the daughter of John and Alice Byne, and her husband Joseph was a London goldsmith; they were my 7thgreat grandparents. Joseph, the son of Captain William Greene of Ratcliff, had also been born in the riverside hamlet in 1677. Analysing Bodington’s will at length, and researching the history of his family, I concluded that he was the son of another apothecary named John Bodington, and the grandson of yet another John Bodington, a barber surgeon, both of them from Ratcliff. Moreover, I discovered that the first John Bodington had married Margaret Greene, the daughter of his apprentice master, Stepney chirurgeon William Greene. The coincidence of dates and locations led me to speculate that this William Greene may have been the father of Captain William Greene, and thus the grandfather of my ancestor Joseph Greene. If so, then John Bodington and Joseph Greene were related, and Bodington was in fact a distant ancestor of mine.

However, the possibility that he might have a place in my family tree was not the only thing that intrigued me about John Bodington’s will. For one thing, the will was unusually long and detailed. Secondly, I was struck by the detailed instructions for the testator’s burial in Stepney churchyard, and his insistence that none of his relatives should have any claim to sharing his elaborate tomb. Thirdly, contrasting with this rather peremptory tone was the care and attention paid by Bodington to the needs of ‘my God daughter Miss Mary Johnson a young Gentlewoman upwards of fourteen yeares of age’. I was intrigued by the picture painted in the will of young Mary’s life, as she moved from one London dame school to another, and by the mystery her origins. Why did Bodington, who as far as we know was unmarried and childless, invest so much of his will to providing for this young woman’s future? Was she simply a goddaughter, or was she also a relative – and if so, how was she connected to him?
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An eighteenth-century apothecary in his shop

Despite the fact that Bodington supplies the precise date of Mary’s birth – 23rdOctober 1713 – there is no reference in the will to her parents, nor have I been able to find a record of her birth. There are a few young women named Mary Johnson who were married in London in the decade after John Bodington’s death, but as yet I haven’t been able to confirm that any of these were the Mary mentioned his will.

Then, just recently, I came across a reference to the following document in the catalogue of the National Archives (my emphasis):

Boyse v Johnson. 

Document type: Two bills and answer. 

Plaintiffs: John Boyse, surgeon of St John Wapping, Kent (son and heir, devisee and executor of Judith Boyse, widow late of Deptford, Kent, late a complainant, who was only surviving sister and heir and administratrix of James Bundock, wine cooper deceased, late of Precinct of St Katherines near Tower of London; and your orator is also administrator of said James Bundock, of unadministered by said Judith Boyse). 

Defendants: Mary Johnson alias Mary Bodington, Richard Goodlad, senior and Richard Goodlad, junior, Thomas Dugdale, Bennet Goodlad, Rice Lloyd and Jane Lloyd his wife and Thomas Feast. 

Date of bill (or first document): 1734

Could ‘Mary Johnson alias Mary Bodington’ be the goddaughter mentioned in John Bodington’s will? If so, she would perhaps have been twenty-one years old by the time of this legal dispute. And what does that ‘alias’ mean? Does it suggest that she was actually related to John Bodington, and that her surname had changed, perhaps because of a parent’s remarriage or something similar?

I also came across an earlier legal case from two years earlier, concerning the same issue, though Mary Johnson was not mentioned in this one, possibly because she was not yet of age.

Short title: Boyce v Kingsman. 

Document type: Bill and four answers. 

Plaintiffs: Judith Boyce, widow of Deptford, Kent, (sister, heir at law and administratrix of James Bundock, wine cooper deceased of Precinct of St Catherine near Tower of London). 

Defendants: Rice Lloyd, gent and Jane Lloyd his wife, Thomas Feast, Thomas Dugdale and Bennett Goodlad, widow (acting executors of John Goodlad, deceased) and Josiah Kinsman alias Josiah Kingsman and James Foxon. 

Date of bill (or first document): 1732. 

I’ve ordered a copy of the 1734 document, and in the meantime I’ve been trying to discover as much as I can about the other individuals named in it, in the hope that their connection to Mary might become apparent.

I struggled to discover much about Judith Boyce and her husband John. We learn from the two legal documents that Judith was the sister of James Bundock, the London wine cooper whose will seems to be at the heart of this dispute. However, I haven’t yet found a birth or baptism record for either James or Judith Bundock, or indeed much about James Bundock at all. However, we know that Judith Bundock married John Boyce on 26thFebruary 1690/1 at St James, Dukes Place, in London. They had a son named Bundock Boyce baptised at  St John Wapping on 20thFebruary 1699/9, though he was buried at the same church on 27thJune 1707. At some point the Bundocks also had a son named John, who is described as a surgeon in the 1734 legal document, but as yet I’ve found no other records for John Boyce junior.

St John’s church, Wapping (demolished in 1790)

When Judith Boyce made her will in 1731, she was living in Deptford and by then was a widow, though I’ve yet to find a record of her husband’s death. Her will was proven in 1733, confirming that she died between the publication of first and second of these legal documents, leaving her son John to take over her side of the case.

Indeed, John Boyce junior was the only plaintiff, as his mother had been before him, ranged against eight defendants. The Bennet Goodlad mentioned in both documents, and said to be the widow and one of the executors of John Goodlad, seems to have been born Bennett Gage, or possibly Sarah Bennett Gage, though her mother’s surname at the time of Bennett’s first marriage was Elizabeth Collins. On 17thMarch 1690/1, Tutchen Martin, a gentleman of Stepney married Bennett Gage, of the same district, with the consent of her mother Mrs Elizabeth Collins alias Gage, at St James, Dukes Place, in London.

Parish church of St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney, in 1755

Tutchen Abram Martin, whose unusual first name was actually his mother’s maiden name, was the son of Roger Martin (1634 – 1687) and Margaret Tutchen (b. 1640); he had been baptised at St Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 7thSeptember 1669. His father Roger was the son of another Roger Martin (b. 1597), a mariner from Limehouse, and his mother Margaret was the daughter of Anthony Tutchen (1609 – 1667) and his wife Elizabeth Willett (1606 – 1643).

Tutchen Martin was paying land tax on a property in the Tower district of London in 1703. Tutchen and Bennett Martin had a number of children before the former’s death in 1705 at the age of thirty-six. These included four sons who survived their father: Tutchen Martin (1698 – 1721); Roger Martin (1700 – 1780); Bennett Martin (1700 – 1741); and William Martin (1701 – 1756). Tutchen Martin junior was amariner who made his will on a voyage to Calcutta in 1720, from which he seems not have returned. Bennett Martin junior (who shared her mother’s first name, despite being male) was a physician who married Elizabeth Ryan, a widow, in Stepney in 1720. His brother William, another mariner, may have been the Captain William Martin mentioned here, though if so there seems to have been some confusion about his parentage.

Tutchen Martin’s widow Bennett married John Goodlad, a merchant tailor, on 4thFebruary 1718/9, at the church of St Anne and St Agnes in the City of London, despite the fact that both bride and groom were said to be from Stepney. John’s first wife Sarah had died in the previous year, and he had five children surviving from this marriage: Sarah (b.1700); Elizabeth (b. 1702); Richard (1703 – 1759); John; and Mary (b. 1700).

Elizabeth Goodlad, daughter of John Goodlad by his first marriage, married John Coker, and they had two children, Richard and Anthony, both baptised at Stepney in 1740. In 1738 John Goodlad’s son Richard married Elizabeth Martin, presumably a relative of his stepmother, at the church of St Anne and St Agnes. Their children included John Goodlad; Elizabeth Goodlad; William Martin Goodland (b. 1746); Anthony Bennett Goodlad (b. 1749); and Richard Goodlad (b. 1752).

I haven’t been able to confirm that Richard Goodlad, son of John, is either of the men of that name referred to in the legal document of 1734. Certainly his son Richard can’t be the Richard Goodlad junior mentioned, since he was not yet born.

As for the other plaintiffs in this case, Thomas Dugdale is mentioned in the will of Bennett Goodlad and was perhaps a relative. I’ve yet to identify Rice and Jane Lloyd, or to find out much more about Thomas Feast, Josiah Kingsman or James Foxon.

Wedding witness is source of new information about the Bowman family

I’ve often found that following up the names of witnesses at weddings can be a useful strategy in family history research. You have to be careful – sometimes the witnesses are churchwardens or other parish personnel, or people who were there for other weddings. And sometimes it’s impossible to find out any more about the witnesses, beyond their names. But just occasionally, this line of enquiry can reveal useful new information.

The marriage of Robert Bowman and Caroline Reed in the parish register of St Mary’s, Whitechapel

The other day I was looking again at the marriage record for my 3rdgreat grandparents Robert Bowman and Caroline Reed, who were married at St Mary’s, Whitechapel on 20thJanuary 1828. Robert (1801 – 1842) and Caroline (1798 – 1875) were the parents of John Bowman (1828 – 1906), an umbrella frame maker who married Elizabeth Larke (1831 – 1910). Their daughter Louisa Bowman (1856 – 1905) married Charles Edward Robb (1851 – 1934 ), and they were my great grandparents.

There were two witnesses to the wedding of Robert and Caroline Bowman: John Doughty and Charlotte Wylle, the latter marking her presence with an ‘x’.  If we search for Charlotte Wylle in the online records, we find her in both the 1841 and 1851 census accounts. In 1841, she was described as a 40-year-old laundress, living at No 4 Somerset Court in the parish of St Botolph, Aldgate, with 50-year-old Robert Wyle (sic), a j[ourney] m[an] butcher. Living with them is 8-year-old Jane Wood. In 1851, the couple were at the same address, and doing the same jobs, but now we learn that Robert was born in Ipswich, Suffolk, and Charlotte in Edmonton, Middlesex. The ages don’t quite match the 1841 equivalents: here, Robert is said to be 59 and Charlotte 42. There are land tax records for Robert Wyle at the same address, dating from 1823.

Next door to the Wyles in 1851, at No 3 Somerset Court, was none other than my 3rd great grandmother Caroline Bowman, Robert Bowman’s widow, working as a charwoman, together with her four children: John, 22, an umbrella frame maker; Robert, 18, a light porter; Joseph, 15, an errand boy; and Charlotte, 13, a ‘scholar’. The Bowman’s had been living in nearby Harrow Alley before John’s death in 1842.

The parish church of All Saints, Edmonton

The connection between the Wyles and the Bowmans is explained by the marriage, on 2ndJanuary 1820, at All Saints church, Edmonton, of Robert Wyle and Charlotte Bowman. I already knew that Robert Bowman had a sister named Charlotte. On 17thNovember 1793, Joseph and Sarah Bowman had their daughter Charlotte christened at All Saints, Edmonton. If the 1851 census is correct, then Charlotte Wyle née Bowman was born in 1809; if the 1841 census is correct, then she was born in 1801. Neither quite matches the baptism record, but it’s possible that the 1793 Charlotte died in infancy and the Bowmans subsequently had another daughter of the same name.

What could be more natural than that, after her husband’s death, Caroline Bowman should move to be near her sister-in-law Charlotte Wyle, especially as she was left with four children, and the Wyles appear to have had no children of their own? As for young Jane Wood, who was living with the Wyles in 1841, she turns out to have been the daughter of another Bowman sibling, Jane, who had married Edward Wood in Lambeth in July 1823: Charlotte Wyle, her sister, had been a witness at that wedding too.

I’ve found no further records for either Robert or Charlotte Wyle after 1851, and the dates of their deaths and details of their burials remain, for now, something of a mystery.

The life of Rev William Robb, clergyman and poet (1763 – 1830)

I recently came across conclusive evidence that Rev. William Robb, a Scottish Episcopal clergyman and published poet, was my 4th great uncle, the elder brother of my 3rd great grandfather, Charles Edward Stuart Robb (1779 – 1853).

The original source for Rev. William Robb’s connection to my Robb ancestors is the memorandum written in 1885 by his nephew, also named William. This William Robb (1813 – 1888), a law stationer’s clerk in London, was my great great grandfather, the son of Rev. William Robb’s brother Charles. His son Charles Edward Robb (1851 – 1934) was my great grandfather, the father of my grandfather Arthur Ernest Robb (1897 – 1979).

In his memorandum, the younger William Robb writes as follows:

I don’t know much about my own Uncles and Aunts but I know my Father’s eldest brother Revd. William Robb was for some time Professor of Greek in the College of St. Andrews, Fifeshire. He never was married [….] The last I remember of my Uncle William is when I was 3 or 4 years of age seeing him on a visit to my Father’s at Malton in Yorkshire, when he stopped some time and used to take me on his knee and tell me to be a good boy and he would make a Gentleman of me. Since that time when he left Malton to return home I never heard anything of him till on my Father’s death in 1853 I found among his papers a letter from Bishop Low, Primo of Scotland telling him of the death of my Uncle which happened about 1830.

Taking this memorandum as my starting-point, I’ve pursued Rev. William Robb through online sources, published books, and information sent to me by fellow researchers, and have slowly pieced together the chronology of his life, career and publications.  As far as I’m aware, no biography of William Robb exists, so I thought it would be useful to gather together what I’ve found out about his life and work, and summarise it here.

Birth and early life

The record of his death in 1830 states that William Robb was 67 years old when he died, so he must have been born in 1763 or thereabouts. David Bertie’s book on the Scottish Episcopal Clergy states that William was ‘of family of Buthlaw, Aberdeenshire’. Mains of Buthlaw farm is close to the northeastern coast of Aberdeenshire, about five miles inland from Peterhead. However, I’ve always associated my Robb ancestors with the parish of Auchterless, about 25 miles further inland, since his nephew’s memorandum mentions a property in Fisherford, in that parish, that ‘on my Uncle William’s death’ was taken over by another uncle, James. Perhaps the Robb family were originally from Buthlaw, but moved to Auchterless before William’s birth?

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Record of William Robb’s christening in the Auchterless parish register

The date of William Robb’s birth matches that of the firstborn son of George Robb and Jean Syme, who were married in Auchterless in 1762. According to his nephew’s memorandum, George was involved ‘in the affair of Prince Charles’ attempt to gain the crown [in] 1745/6’, but as yet I’ve found no evidence to confirm this. George and Jean Robb’s son William was born at Logie Newton, two miles north of Fisherford, and baptised at Auchterless on 23rd August 1763. He was the eldest of at least nine children who would be born to his parents over the next sixteen years, including John (1765); Alexander (1767); George (1769); James (1772); Jean (1774); Mary and Isobel (1776); and Charles (1779). All of these were born at Logie Newton, except for Charles (my 3rd great grandfather), who was born at Fisherford. According to later records, the latter’s full name was Charles Edward Stuart Robb, providing some confirmation of his father’s support for the Jacobite cause, even if his actual involvement in the 1745 uprising remains difficult to prove.

Ladybog farm

Farmland in the parish of Auchterless, Aberdeenshire

We know very little about the Robb family of Auchterless. Contemporary records suggest that they were small farmers, though the death certificate of William’s younger brother James in 1857 describes his late father George as a ‘flesher’ or butcher. However, George Robb must have been sufficiently wealthy to provide at least some of his children with a decent education. His son George would become a merchant of some means in Glasgow, while Charles would be employed, among other things, as an accountant, engraver, and legal clerk. There is also the family tradition, to be found in the memorandum already mentioned, that Charles married into a family with ties to the aristocracy: his wife (my 3rd great grandmother) Margaret Ricketts Monteith was said to be the granddaughter of Viscount Stormont, though once again I’ve yet to find any firm evidence of this.

Schoolmaster in Culsalmond

As for William, the eldest son, he was sufficiently well-educated to find employment initially as schoolmaster in Culsalmond, two miles to the south of Fisherford. This would have been in the early 1780s, when William was in his early twenties. A degree of confusion surrounds the religious history of the Robb family. On the one hand, we know that support for the Jacobite cause was almost exclusively confined to Catholics and Episcopalians, and we also know that other members of the Robb family were loyal to the Episcopal church. (The Scottish bishops had refused to swear allegiance to William of Orange after the military coup of 1689 – the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ – which ousted King James VII of Scotland and II of England. As a result, the Presbyterians were established as the official Church of Scotland and the Episcopalians, who were loyal to the Stuarts, became an oppressed minority.) For example, William’s brother James brought his children up as Episcopalians, and his brother Charles, my ancestor, had at least one of his children baptised in an Episcopalian chapel. On the other hand, William and his siblings were all christened in the Presbyterian parish church in Auchterless. And then we have the following entry, dated 26th March 1784, in the diary of the priest at St. George’s Episcopal chapel in Meiklefolla, just a few miles from Fisherford:

Mr. William Robb, Schoolmaster at Culsalmond is desirous of further instruction in the principles of our Church. He has attended worship in Bishop Skinner’s chapel throughout the winter. As he is dependent on the emoluments of his school prudence requires that he should conceal his views for a while especially from his parish Minister until he is fully resolved as to the part he is to act.

So was William a convert to the Episcopal faith? Or had his originally Episcopalian family conformed to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland after the suppression of the 1745 rebellion, when Penal Laws were introduced against the Episcopal church, and William was simply returning to the faith of his ancestors?

Abderdeen c 1800

Aberdeen, c. 1800 (painting by Alexander Nasmyth, via scran.ac.uk)

The Bishop John Skinner mentioned here was the priest at Ellon before moving to Aberdeen, where he became assistant bishop (1782 -6) and then bishop (1786 – 1816). Apparently, the Episcopalians of Aberdeen had a meeting-house in Guest Row that was burned down in 1746, in the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion, but was later rebuilt. In 1776 the upper floor of John Skinner’s house in Longacre was fitted up as a meeting-house. It seems likely, then, that during the winter of 1783-4, William Robb was making the journey from Culsalmond, or wherever in that vicinity he was living, to Aberdeen, to attend services in Skinner’s makeshift chapel.

Pittenweem

William would have been about twenty-one years old when he sought instruction ‘in the principles of our Church’. If, as the diary entry suggests, William was a convert (or revert) from Presbyterianism to Episcopalianism, then his progress in his new faith was certainly rapid: by the age of twenty-four, just three years later, he would be serving as an Episcopal clergyman. In 1787, William was appointed as minister at Pittenweem, a fishing village on the southeastern coast of Fife, where he would remain for two years.

Pittenweem

Via electricscotland.com

It was during William’s time at Pittenweem that Prince Charles Edward Stuart – ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ – died in Rome, leaving no viable Stuart heir to the throne, and making it possible for the Scottish Episcopal Church to recognise George III as king. Episcopal clergymen debated whether it was now legitimate to offer prayers to King George, and I understand that Rev William Robb was one of those who were initially reluctant, perhaps reflecting his family’s attachment to the Jacobite cause. However, in a letter to Bishop Skinner dated 17th May 1788, his fellow minister Rev Strachan notes that ‘Mr Robb too had his scruples but they are now removed – he is to read the intimation tomorrow at St Andrews’. According to John Thompson’s history of the Episcopal congregation in St Andrews:

The bishops of the church met that same year in Aberdeen and almost unanimously agreed to petition parliament ‘to repeal the Penal Laws and to urge the clergy to pray for King George’. The petition, which was supported by most of the clergy, was successful and the disabilities imposed on the church were gradually removed: for example, Episcopal congregations could now ‘assemble legally in any number’ and ‘hold property as a corporate body’.

William left Pittenweem in 1789, to take up an appointment as curate at St Andrews, ten miles or so to the north. He was succeeded at Pittenweem by David Low, the future bishop. Like William Robb, Low was in his early twenties and unmarried when he arrived there. The following description, in William Blatch’s memoir of Low, describes the latter’s relationship with the local gentry, and gives us some idea of what William’s life may have been like at this time:

He became at once a welcome visitor, and at length a cherished friend, at almost every county mansion for miles around […] Mr. Low being unmarried became more than a frequent casual visitor at the houses of the gentry: he was received there as a member of their families, residing the whole week at one mansion, and the next week at another, and thus traversing the range from Cambo in the east to Largo in the west, and finding himself everywhere a welcome guest.

St. Andrews

On arriving in St. Andrews, William Robb served as curate to Rev. David Lindsay until the latter’s death in 1791, when William was promoted to parish priest. He would remain at St. Andrews for the rest of his career.

St_Andrews_from_Regulus_tower_-_geograph.org.uk_-_254003 copy

St. Andrews from Regulus Tower (via geograph.org.uk)

John Thompson’s book includes a number of anecdotes that throw light on William’s character, making him spring to life from the otherwise dry pages of the official records. For example, the author describes the ways in which the stipends of the clergy were supplemented by payments from the better-off members of the congregation:

Even with this supplement to whatever small stipend the incumbent received he was not rich. Dr. Hay Fleming tells a story he had from an old man in the town about Mr. Robb who was incumbent at the end of the 18th century. He was asked by one of the parish ministers how he managed to make ends meet with his small stipend when the questioner had enough to do with his large one. Mr. Robb replied that it was just with them as with the Israelites in the wilderness. He who gathered much manna had nothing over, and he who gathered little had no lack. 

Thompson also reproduces a story from Oliphant’s earlier history of St Andrews  to illustrate how, even after the abolition of the Penal Laws, Episcopal congregations were forced to meet in private homes and public halls:

Oliphant learned, at second hand admittedly, that the Episcopalians met in ‘Tam Couper’s big room’ in a house on the site of the present Town Hall. He tells, too of a later meeting place, ‘St. Leonard’s Hall – the large upper room still to be seen in the old part of St. Leonards School.’ In a service there, his informant told him, something occurred which illustrates plainly how in the troubled time seemliness of service had been lost. ‘The sermon was long, and may have been dry; the minister certainly was, as he suddenly startled the congregation by calling to his servant to bring him a bottle of ale; “and mind, Betty” he added, “that it’s well corked”. The ale having been produced and consumed, Mr. Robb – it was he who was then the minister – continued his discourse’.

A note written around this time describes William as a fine-looking, portly man, with kind manners. Thompson also informs us that ‘during Mr. Robb’s ministry the congregation met in several different houses’ in St Andrews and that ‘in 1804 Mr. Robb bought Queen Mary’s house, erecting an outside stair to give access to a chapel on the first floor.’

The memorandum written by William’s nephew claims that he was ‘for some time Professor of Greek in the College of St. Andrews, Fifeshire’, the forerunner of the modern university. However, I’ve failed to find any evidence of this, though it does suggest that William was proficient in Greek, and almost certainly received a classical education.

Alexander Murray, 7th Lord Elibank

It must have been soon after his arrival in St Andrews that William became chaplain to Lord Elibank, since this title was included in an announcement for the first of his poems to be published, in 1793. It’s likely that this was Alexander Murray, the 7th lord, who was born in 1747 and served as an army officer and M.P. for Peebles, before succeeding to the title, on the death of his uncle in 1785. He was lord-lieutenant of the county and colonel of the local militia. I’m not sure whether there was any connection between the Murrays of Elibank, and the Murrays of Stormont, with whom William’s brother Charles would supposedly be connected by marriage.

Rev. William Robb, poet

Two books of poetry by Rev. William Robb were published in 1793, when their author would have been twenty-six years old, one primarily religious in orientation, the other political. The first was Two didactic essays on human happiness and the government of the passions, published by Vernor. I’ve yet to see a copy of this, though The Monthly Review might be said to have damned it with faint praise:

We find in these small pieces many just and important moral reflections, but we cannot perceive that they derive much advantage from the kind of poetical dress in which they appear. They have indeed so little of poetry in them, that, had not the writer given himself the trouble of arranging his words in lines of ten syllables each, and in one of the pieces in stringing them into rhyming couplets, we could easily have fancied ourselves perusing two very good prose essays.

The poetic qualities of William’s next verse publication, which appeared in the same year, were perhaps more obvious. The patriotic wolves: a fable, originally attributed simply to ‘a Scotch Episcopal clergyman’, was published by Cheyne and Guthrie in Edinburgh, and Vernor and Hood, and Burn, in London. It’s a long, allegorical poem, with an overtly polemical purpose. John Thompson describes it as ‘an elegant little fable designed to warn its readers against attempts to subvert the constitution’. According to its author’s advertisement or preface:

This poem was written in the beginning of December 1792, when the agents of France, and those seditious societies, falsely styling themselves ‘The Friends of the People’, threatened the subversion of our happy constitution; and had so far proceeded in the dissemination of their pernicious principles, that it was found necessary to summon the Parliament, in order to provide for the safety of the country.

The historical background to the poem is the aftermath of the French Revolution and anxieties about the threat of Jacobinism closer to home. 1792 saw the formation of the radical London Corresponding Society and the publication of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, a response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, with which the central message of William Robb’s poem has much in common. In William’s fable the sheep, representing the general population, are tricked by a band of wolves, representing radical agitators, pretending to be their friends, but in reality plotting death and destruction. The poem demonstrates its author’s loyalty to the ‘fair Land of Liberty and peace’ that is Britain, and (despite his youthful Jacobite sympathies) to its king:

Long may thy monarch wear the crown!

His foes be to destruction hurl’d!

Anti Jacobin review cover

Cover of The Anti-Jacobin Review, 1807

It would be another fourteen years before William published another poem. In September 1807 his Elegiac verses on the ruins of St Andrews were published in The Anti-Jacobin Review, described by the scholar Emily Lorraine de Montluzin as ‘a vehicle for religious and political propaganda’ which ‘evolved into an increasingly strident mouthpiece for anti-Catholic rhetoric and worked to inflame resistance to Catholic emancipation among the diehard Protestant readers to whom it catered.’ According to Wikipedia, the journal was ultra-Tory, often scurrilous, and ‘a vocal element of the British Anti-Jacobin backlash against the ideals of the French Revolution.’ Extending to four pages of the journal, and with copious footnotes, William’s poem is a paeon to the saints who first brought the Gospel to the pagan shores of Scotland, a lament for the lost glories of medieval Christendom, and an excoriation of the ‘fanatic phrenzy’ of those who allowed the cathedral at St. Andrews to fall into ruin at the Reformation. From this, one might assume that William would have been out of sympathy with the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the journal in which his poem was published, even if he found himself in agreement with its conservative political stance.

William Robb’s other publication of that year, in the same journal, was Verses on education, written by desire of the Right Honourable the Countess of Kelly. Anne, Countess of Kelly, was married to Thomas, the 9th Earl of Kelly, and they lived at Cambo House, near St. Andrews. The Kellys were generous supporters of the local Episcopal church, contributing for example to the building of the chapel at Pittenweem. The letter from Rev. Strachan to Bishop Skinner cited earlier notes that, in his time at Pittenweem, William Robb was keen to encourage Lords Kelly and Balcarres to attend his church (The Earl of Balcarres was an army officer, from an old Jacobite family).

The poem that William addressed to Lady Kelly, which appears to reflect a conversation between them about education, is much shorter, and to my mind shows more evidence of poetic invention and discipline than many of his other published works, so I’m reproducing it below as an example of his poetry.

In the following year, 1808, William Robb published two more poems in The Anti-Jacobin Review. The first, Jeu d’esprit: on the meeting of the imperial plunderers at Erfurth, was another short piece, consisting of only two stanzas, in which the author returns to the use of animal metaphors, mocking the alliance between Napoleonic France and Tsarist Russia sealed at the Congress of Erfurt – ‘The monkey and the bear / Have met at Erfurth fair’ – and ending with a warning to ‘Let them our British bull-dogs fear / And mastiffs bold.’

William’s second poem of 1808 was God save the King, with additions and alterations suited to the times, another patriotic rallying cry, complete with references to ‘murd’rous Huns’ and the tyrant ‘Buony’. Each stanza ends with a variation on the line ‘Since George is King’, once again reflecting William’s full-throated support for the British monarchy.

This was obviously a productive period for William Robb, since the following year saw the appearance of his collection Poems illustrative of the genius and influence of Christianity: to which are subjoined some fugitive pieces, advertised as being ‘by William Robb, Episcopal Clergyman in St. Andrew’s, and Chaplain to the Right Honourable Lord Elibank’, printed in St Andrew’s, Edinburgh and London.

Following this, however, there would be a significant gap before William’s name appeared in print again, and I’ll take up that story below.

Family connections

We know very little about William Robb’s personal life, except for the fact that he never married. However, we have three glimpses of his interactions with other members of the Robb family. The first, as already mentioned, is the suggestion in his nephew’s memorandum that, as the eldest son, William inherited ownership of the family property in Fisherford, on his father’s death, though there is no evidence that he was ever actively involved in its management. The second is the record of the wedding of his brother George to Penelope Thomson, which took place in 1805 in Glasgow, at which William officiated. We can imagine William making a journey from St Andrews, seventy or so miles away, for this special occasion, which was probably also attended by his other brother, Charles, my ancestor, who had been married in the same city three years earlier: though since no record of that event can be found, it’s not known whether William was also the officiant then.

Glasgow, early 19th century

William’s brother George died at a relatively young age in about 1811, leaving his widow Penelope with four young children: she soon remarried, to John Young, another Glasgow merchant and former Receiver General of Jamaica. Henceforth, William Robb’s closest family tie seems to have been with his youngest sibling, Charles, my 3rd great grandfather. We have the description by Charles’ son William, in his memorandum of 1885, of a visit that his uncle made to Malton, Yorkshire, where the family was then living, ‘when I was 3 or 4 years of age’, which would have been in about 1816 or 1817, ‘when he stopped some time and used to take me on his knee and tell me to be a good boy and he would make a Gentleman of me.’

It’s possible that the younger William Robb was here confusing this with a later visit, since we know that Rev. William Robb was in Malton in 1819, when he was suffering from a serious illness. The evidence for this visit can be found in William’s last poem, A monody in the prospect of death, while labouring under a dangerous illness, which was published in 1822, by Macredie, Skelly and Company of Edinburgh. Two of the pieces that make up this collection are described as having been written in Malton in 1819, one in May and the other in July, while a third was composed in nearby Scarborough in September. In the very extensive notes to this poem, William Robb explains that the ‘nervous fever’ from which he was suffering, with its physical side effects including giddiness, stupor and the threat of blindness, was caused by mercury poisoning, resulting from the use of a lotion to cure a skin complaint. Before the onset of his illness, William claims that ‘I was hale, stout and active, of a full habit, and equal to my duties…but the fever left me a complete wreck – a walking skeleton’.  As for the poem itself, the editor of The Edinburgh Review, quoted in the same notes, thought that it ‘indicates both genius and feeling’, praise which William says was ‘like cordial to a fainting heart’.

Wm Robb Monody cover

Death

William’s nervous complaint meant that he had to give up his duties at St. Andrews in 1818, though he remained the incumbent and continued to draw his salary until 1820. He would live for another ten years, but we have no record of his life during this final period. The notes to the Monody suggest that he may have spent at least two years living with his brother Charles in Malton, and that he may even have accompanied Charles and his family when they moved to London. The notes refer to a lost poem ‘the composition of which had employed my solitary hours for nearly two years when at Malton’, and William adds: ‘I unfortunately left it, and several other manuscripts, with my books in London’.

What we do know is that William moved to Aberdeen at some point before his death. The archives of St Nicholas Episcopal Chapel in that city note that William Robb, ‘late Episcopal Clergyman, in St. Andrews’, died at Chapel Street, Aberdeen on 19th February, 1830, age 67 years. The cause of death is given as ‘paralysis and mental disease’.

New information about Rev. William Robb, clergyman and poet

My discovery of a distant family connection to a minor Victorian novelist has re-awakened my interest in other published authors in my family tree. The most noteworthy is probably Rev. William Robb (1763 – 1830), who I believe was the brother of my 3rd great grandfather, Charles Edward Stuart Robb (1779 – 1853), and about whom I last wrote on this blog nearly nine years ago. William Robb was an Episcopalian clergyman in St Andrews, Fife, chaplain to Lord Elibank, and a poet. His poems were published in contemporary magazines, and in book form, in the closing years of the eighteenth century and the first two decades of the nineteenth.

Title page of Rev. William Robb’s long allegorical poem, ‘The Patriotic Wolves’

I’ve always had lingering doubts that Rev. William Robb was actually my 4th great uncle – until yesterday, when I made something of a breakthrough. My doubts arose partly from a discrepancy between what is known about William from official sources – and the way he is described in the memorandum left by his nephew, and namesake, my great great grandfather William Monteith Robb, in 1885. The latter writes:

I don’t know much about my own Uncles and Aunts but I know my Father’s eldest brother Revd. William Robb was for some time Professor of Greek in the College of St. Andrews, Fifeshire. He never was married.

I’ve struggled to find any evidence that Rev. William Robb, poet and chaplain to the local gentry, taught at St Andrews College, the forerunner of the modern university, although we do know that he was the Episcopal minister in St Andrews from 1791 to 1818. Later in the memorandum, the younger William Robb writes:

The last I remember of my Uncle William is when I was 3 or 4 years of age seeing him on a visit to my Father’s at Malton in Yorkshire, when he stopped some time and used to take me on his knee and tell me to be a good boy and he would make a Gentleman of me. Since that time when he left Malton to return home I never heard anything of him till on my Father’s death in 1853 I found among his papers a letter from Bishop Law, Prime of Scotland telling him of the death of my Uncle which happened about 1838.

Bishop David Low

I believe that ‘Law’ is a mistranscription of ‘Low’ and refers to Rev. David Low, who was indeed a bishop, though never actually ‘Primo’. ‘Prime’ is probably a mistranscription of ‘Primo’, and I believe that ‘1838’ may be a misreading of 1830, the actual date of Rev William Robb’s death. I only have a typed copy of the original handwritten memorandum, which has been lost, so it’s impossible to know how many errors may have been made in the transcription. However, what is certain is that only the Episcopal church in Scotland had bishops (hence their name), and that there was only one Episcopal clergyman with the name William Robb living at this time. So the evidence for my ancestor and the clergyman and poet of St Andrews being one and the same person is fairly strong.

However, the new and conclusive evidence that I’ve now found relates to the reference, in my great great grandfather’s memorandum, to his uncle’s visit to Malton. My 3rd great grandparents Charles and Margaret Robb moved from Scotland to Yorkshire some time between 1808 and 1810, living first in Whitby, then Richmond, before settling by 1816 in Malton, where they remained until at least the early 1820s. We know from a trade directory of 1823 that the Robbs lived in Newbiggin, the main road through the town, where Charles worked as an accountant and engraver.

Newbiggin, Malton, Yorkshire, in the later years of the 19th century (via maltonhistory.info)

Yesterday, while searching online for copies of Rev. William Robb’s poems, I managed to track down what may have been his last published work, A monody in the prospect of death, while labouring under a dangerous illness. This long poem, made up of a number of fragmentary sections and with extensive explanatory notes, was published in Edinburgh in 1822, by Macredie, Skelly and Company. The author writes at length in the notes about the nervous illness that he suffered, and its cause, and we know that this illness would cause William to retire from active ministry sometime between 1818 and 1820.

However, what really caught my eye about these poems was the place where they were written. Their author notes that two of the fragments were composed in Malton, one in May, 1819, the other in July of the same year, while a third was written in Scarborough in September of that year. This can hardly be a coincidence, and leads me to the conclusion that Rev. William Robb went to Malton, to stay with his brother Charles – my 3rd grandfather – in order to convalesce from his illness. His stay in Yorkshire must have included a visit to the nearby seaside resort of Scarborough (only twenty five miles away), presumably for the good of his health.

The dates don’t quite match his nephew’s memory in the memorandum: the younger William Robb would have been about eight years old in 1819, having been born in 1811. However, it’s possible either that my great great grandfather misremembered the date of the visit, or that his memory is of an earlier visit by his uncle, the later visit having been forgotten.

Marriage of George Robb and Penelope Thomson, Glasgow, 1805

As a result of this new evidence, I’m now convinced that Rev. William Robb, Episcopal clergyman and poet, was the brother of my 3rd great grandfather Charles Edward Stuart Robb. By extension, this new information also lends new certainty to other aspects of my family history about which I’ve entertained lingering doubts. For example, we know that in 1805 Rev. William Robb travelled from St Andrews to Glasgow to officiate at the wedding of George Robb and Penelope Thomson. Taken together with a reference in William Monteith Robb’s memorandum to his Uncle George and Aunt Penelope, this is fairly conclusive evidence that George Robb, a Glasgow merchant, was the brother of Rev. William Robb and of my 3rd great grandfather Charles Robb.

I’ll have more to say about the life and work of Rev. William Robb in future posts.

My distant relative, the minor Victorian novelist

It’s always gratifying when my amateur, part-time family history research is found useful by professional researchers. For example, I was pleased to find this blog linked to by the excellent Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, run by a research team at University College London, and by a site about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. It was also nice when a ‘proper’ historian tweeted a link to something I’d written about my ancestors, citing it as a good example of ‘microhistory’. And I like it when I’m approached by postgraduate researchers seeking help with tracing the subjects of their study. Some time ago, I was contacted by a PhD student exploring the work of a minor sixteenth-century poet with links to one of the Sussex families I’d been researching. Then, a few weeks ago, I had an email from Katherine Mansfield, a postgraduate student (with a wonderfully appropriate name) investigating the life of a little-known Victorian novelist, whose mother’s name featured in my family tree at Ancestry.

The name of the writer was Florence Wilford (1836 – 1897), and her mother was Jane Drew (1802 -1836). Jane was the daughter of John Drew, a wealthy lighterman and factory owner, and his wife Mary Cole Akid. Among their other children was Admiral Andrew Drew (1792 – 1879) who in 1837 (as I wrote in an earlier post) commanded the party that seized the US vessel Caroline and cast her adrift over the Niagara Falls.

William George Bonner (photograph courtesy of Jill Crawford, via Elizabeth Cherry)

The link to my family comes through another of the Drew children, Caroline, who in 1816 married William George Bonner (1795 – 1863). William, a ship broker, was the son of Michael Bonner junior (1768 -1811), a mariner like his father and namesake, Captain Michael Bonner (1733 – 1802), who was married to Frances Gibson (1735 – 1802). Frances was the sister of my 5th great grandmother Elizabeth Gibson (1733 – 1809).

Florence Wilford was born on 29th February 1836 at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, where her Dublin-born father, Edmund Neal Wilford (1800 -1881), was a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. Florence’s mother Jane Wilford née Drew died shortly after giving birth to her and was buried on 21st March 1836 at East Wickham. She was just 33 years old. Florence was actually christened on the day after her mother’s burial.

At the time of the 1841 census five-year-old Florence was living in Woolwich with her father, her three older siblings, Adelaide, Emma and Ernest, and a number of other relatives, including her maternal grandmother, Mary Drew. Later the same year, her father Edmund would marry again, to Ann Swan, and they would have two more children, Edmund junior and Percival. The 1851 census finds 15-year-old Florence visiting a house in Bromley with her grandmother. I haven’t managed to find her in the 1861 census, but in 1871, aged 35 and unmarried, Florence was a visitor in another house, this time in Marylebone. By 1881, Florence’s father had retired from the army and was living in Hastings, where Florence and her sister Emma, both unmarried and now in their forties, were living with him. At the time of the next census, in 1891, the two sisters were visitors at a house in Bournemouth. Florence Wilford died in 1897, aged 61, in Brislington, Somerset, leaving effects valued at more than £4000 to her sister Emma.

Victorian cartoon, borrowed from Katharine Mansfield’s blog post about her PhD research

Florence Wilford’s probate record describes her simply as a ‘spinster’ (it seems that only men were described by their occupation), but by the time of her death she had written and published more than a dozen novels. These include Nigel Bartram’s Ideal  which Katherine recommends for readers new to Wilford, describing it as ‘a little-known sensational Künstlerroman that explores a woman’s struggle to align her literary ambitions with social expectations of femininity’ and as demonstrating ‘the importance of writing in allowing women to shape their own identity’. I’ve already added it to my Amazon basket.

It’s good to discover another published author in my family tree, even if she was only (according to Ancestry) the niece of the wife of my second cousin five times removed!

DNA match confirms information about the Webb family of Stepney

Some time ago I took an Ancestry DNA test, but I have to confess that, so far, it hasn’t resulted in any startling revelations or discovery of new relatives. According to my DNA report, the breakdown of my ethnicity is 82% Great Britain, 5% Western Europe, and the remainder ‘other’. More useful has been making contact with other researchers with whom I have a DNA ‘match’. For the most part, these contacts have confirmed what I already knew about my ancestors, but just occasionally a message from a DNA match can do more than that – and provide firm evidence to support something that hitherto was just a hunch or speculation.

Recently I heard from John Webb, who Ancestry predicted -with ‘extremely high’ confidence -was a third or fourth cousin of mine. It turns out that John’s father was George Alfred Webb (1912 – 1967) and his grandfather was Alfred Webb (1884 – 1943). As I’ve noted before, I’ve had great trouble tracing my Webb ancestors, and have had little confidence in my findings about them, but John’s message has helped to confirm that my most recent speculations were along the right lines.

My grandmother Mary Emily Elizabeth Robb née Webb (centre), with her daughters Grace and Kit, and other family members, some time in the 1920s

To recap: my father, Peter Ernest Robb, who was born in East Ham, London in 1933, is the son of Arthur Ernest Robb (1897 – 1979) and Mary Emily Elizabeth Webb (1898 – 1965), both of whom were born in Stepney. My grandmother Mary Webb was the daughter of Mary French (b.1873), and her husband George Webb (b. 1874). My great grandfather George Webb was born in Shadwell, the son of another George Webb, a house decorator and sometime bricklayer, who was born in 1846. Thanks to information from other researchers, I discovered that George Webb senior – my great great grandfather – was married to Elizabeth Ann Knight.

My great grandmother Mary Webb née French in old age

John Webb’s recent message, and our DNA match, provides confirmation that the above information is correct, since his grandfather Alfred Webb was the younger brother of my grandfather George Webb junior. This means that John is actually my second cousin, once removed. Alfred was christened at the church of St George in the East, Stepney, on 13th April 1884, the parish register confirming that he was the son of George and Elizabeth Ann Webb of 83 Cornwall Street. According to John, Alfred met his wife Ellen Hinson when they were both working at St George’s in the East Infirmary, where she was a ward sister. He later joined the Metropolitan Police Force. They were married at Holy Trinity church, Mile End Old Town, in April 1909. In an earlier post, I stated that Alfred and Ellen had only one son – Frank Harold, born in 1914 – but at that stage I didn’t know about John’s father George Alfred, who had been born two years earlier in 1914. This George Webb married Florence Booth in Hampstead in 1936.

The marriage of my great grandparents, George Webb senior and Elizabeth Ann Knight, in 1865

Receiving new information about the Webb family has prompted me to return to this branch of my family tree. When I last wrote about my great grandfather’s family, I had managed – again, with the help of other researchers working in the same field – to push the Webb family tree back another generation. George Webb and Elizabeth Ann Knight – my great great grandparents – were married on 2nd October 1865 at St Thomas’ church in Stepney. According to the entry in the parish register, George Webb was the son of John Webb, a cooper, and at the time George was following his father’s profession.

My great great grandmother Elizabeth Ann Webb née Knight was born in Stepney in February 1848, the daughter of William Aaron Knight, a lighterman, and his wife Susan Knight née Taylor, who had married two years earlier. Elizabeth seems to have been the eldest of their five children. Some confirmation that this is the ‘right’ Elizabeth is provided by the names of her siblings. Not only did she have a brother named Alfred, but also a sister with the unusual name of Virtue – a name that Elizabeth and her husband George Webb would give to three of their children, as either a first or middle name.

Virtue Buckner, formerly Matthews, née Knight – the sister of my great grandmother Elizabeth Ann Webb, née Knight – with her daughter Virtue Maria, son-in-law Alfred and granddaughter, probably in the 1920s (via Bedlow/Jones family tree at Ancestry)

When Elizabeth’s brother John Henry Knight married Hannah Cropp in 1869, someone with the surname Webb – probably Elizabeth’s husband George, though the first name is scarcely legible – was one of the witnesses. Interestingly, John Henry was said to be a house decorator, like George Webb: did the two brothers-in-law work together?  And when Elizabeth’s sister Virtue Knight married her first husband Alfred Matthews in 1872, Elizabeth and George were both witnesses. Alfred Matthews would die in 1880, and a year later Virtue married her second husband, Alfred Buckner.

To sum up: I’m now fairly confident that George Webb and Elizabeth Ann Knight were my great great grandparents, and the parents of my great grandfather George Webb junior. However, an air of uncertainty hangs over the earlier Webb generations, and I plan to revisit what we know about them in a future post.

My family and other slave owners

I’ve just come across this video about the compensation records uncovered by the excellent Legacies of British Slave Ownership research project at University College, London. The film focuses on slave owners in London, but what was true of Bryanston Square also applied to Blythwood Square, and other similar locations, in Glasgow’s ‘merchant city’. As I’ve written before, it was a shock to discover that my ancestors’ names were among those appearing in these records. The four children of Glasgow merchant George Robb – the brother of my 3rd great grandfather Charles Edward Stuart Robb – all received compensation following the abolition of slavery in the early nineteenth century. Moreover, the Thomsons – the Glasgow family into which George Robb married – were deeply involved in trade with the West Indies, and a number of them owned both land and slaves there. Finally, as noted in the last post, it seems likely that my 3rd great grandmother Margaret Ricketts Monteith owed her middle name to a connection with the Ricketts family, who were prominent plantation owners in Jamaica.

A brief visit to the city of my ancestors

I was in Glasgow last week, for a work-related conference. I was only there for one night, which didn’t allow time for any family history research. However, as I walked from Glasgow Central Station to my hotel in George Square, and then to the conference venue in nearby Ingham Street, I was aware that I was in the heart of the eighteenth-century Merchant City that would have been very familiar to my Robb ancestors.
Exchange Place, Glasgow: entrance to the Merchant City

Although my father’s family were originally from Aberdeenshire – they owned a property in Fisherford, in the parish of Auchterless – they also had a close connection with Glasgow. According to the memorandum written in 1885 by my great great grandfather, William Robb, his parents – Charles Edward Stuart Robb and Margaret Ricketts Monteith – were married in the city. William claims that the wedding took place on 15th October 1802 at St. Mungo’s church (now Glasgow Cathedral), though I’ve yet to find a record of the event.

How Charles Robb came to be in Glasgow, and how he met his wife Margaret, remains a mystery, as do Margaret’s origins. I certainly haven’t been able to confirm or deny the family tradition, recorded in William Robb’s memorandum, that she was the only daughter of John Monteith and his wife Matilda, and that  the latter was the daughter of Viscount Stormont who was, in William’s words, ‘engaged as well as my Father’s father in the affair of Prince Charles attempt to gain the crown 1745/6.’

George Square, Glasgow, at twilight

One clue may lie in what I’ve managed to discover about Charles’ older brother George, who (I believe) worked as a merchant in Glasgow, marrying saddler’s daughter Penelope Thomson there on 15th January 1805, the ceremony being conducted by another Robb brother, William, who was an Episcopalian minister (and poet) in St Andrews. I wonder if Charles followed his brother George to Glasgow, and whether he originally came to the city to study the law? We know that later in life Charles would work as a solicitor’s clerk, as would at least two of his sons, and that another son – my great great grandfather William – would find work as a law stationer’s clerk. The law seems to have been in the Robb blood: George’s son, George Robb junior, worked initially as a law writer – or solicitor – before switching careers and becoming a veterinary surgeon, and there are numerous other associations between the Glasgow Robb and Thomson families and the legal profession.

George Square, Glasgow: early morning

Charles and Margaret Robb must have left Glasgow soon after they were married. By 1805 they were in Aberdeen for the birth of their daughter Matilda; in 1806 and 1807 they were in Alloa, for the birth and death in infancy of their son George William; and in 1808 they were in Kilmarnock for the birth and death after just a few weeks of their daughter Isabella Maria. By 1810, when their son Charles Edward was born, they had left Scotland, and were in Whitby, in Yorkshire; by 1811 they would be in Richmond for the birth of another George William; my great great grandfather William was also born there, in 1813; his younger brother John was born in Malton in 1816, as was the Robbs’ youngest child, Elizabeth, in 1820. By the mid-1830s at the latest, the family was in London, which would become their permanent home.

As I’ve noted in recent posts, I’m still trying to find independent confirmation of the relationship between my great great great grandfather Charles Edward Stuart Robb, and George Robb, Glasgow merchant, as well as attempting to throw some light on the mysterious origins of my great great great grandmother Margaret Ricketts Monteith. I suspect there is a link of some kind to trade with the West Indies – the Ricketts family were plantation owners in Jamaica, and I’ve found records of George Robb’s children, and his Thomson relatives, seeking compensation following the abolition of the slave trade. After George died in about 1812, his widow Penelope married John Young, a West Indies merchant who had been the Receiver-General of Jamaica.

Perhaps next time I visit Glasgow, I’ll have more time to explore the places where my ancestors lived and worked, and to make progress in solving in some of these family history mysteries.