I’m in the habit of reading a Dickens novel in the weeks leading up to Christmas. This year it’s Nicholas Nickleby, last year it was Bleak House, and the year before that Our Mutual Friend. My preference is for the books set wholly or partly in London: there’s something about this time of year that makes me want to imaginatively inhabit the city of my birth in those first few decades of the nineteenth century. My brother Michael, whose mini-biography of Dickens will be published next year, has a different tradition: every December he and his family re-read A Christmas Carol, which has the dual advantage of a London setting and a seasonal message.
I can’t read Dickens, or imagine Dickens’ London, without thinking of my Robb ancestors, who were living there at the very time that he was writing. And conversely, when I’m researching the lives of those ancestors, Dickens frequently comes to mind. Not only did my forbears reside in the parts of London that he writes about, but their lives had many similarities with his own. What’s more, their stories often strike me as positively Dickensian, as if life were imitating, or anticipating, art.
In this pre-Christmas post, I want to offer a glimpse of my ancestors’ lives in Dickens’ London. What were my great-great and great-great-great grandparents doing – where were they living and working, what was happening in their lives – when Charles Dickens was writing, just a few streets away? To focus our attention, I’ll attempt to re-construct my Robb forbears’ lives on a specific date: the day that A Christmas Carol was published, Tuesday 19th December 1843, exactly 175 years ago today.
Title page of the first edition of ‘A Christmas Carol.’
Let’s imagine that we could travel back in time to that day – a mild day for December, by all accounts – and find ourselves, for argument’s sake, outside the offices of Dickens’ publisher, Chapman and Hall, at No. 186, The Strand. Then let’s imagine that we are walking along that broad, busy street, bustling with carts and carriages, in the direction of Trafalgar Square. On arrival, we’ll discover that the square itself is still under construction – it would only be completed in 1845 – and that the famous statue of Nelson had only been placed on top of its column in the previous month.
Trafalgar Square under construction, with St Martin-in-the-Fields in the background, circa 1843
If we then look to the left towards Westminster, past the famous statue of King Charles I, we’ll see more building work in progress in the distance. The medieval Palace of Westminster had been destroyed by fire in 1834, and Charles Barry’s grand Gothic replacement wouldn’t be finished for another ten years.
Immediately in front of us, between Trafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament, we can see the street we know today as Whitehall, though in the 1840s the official address of its upper end was Charing Cross. Here, on the left hand side as you look towards Parliament, is a jumble of shops and inns, most of them with two or three floors of residential accommodation above – as is clearly visible in this image from 1839, thought to be the earliest photograph of London. One of those buildings on the left hand side of the street, in the middle distance in the photograph (just before the image becomes blurred), was home to my great-great-great-grandparents.
Photograph of Whitehall from Charing Cross, by M. de St. Croix, 1839
As the late Gavin Stamp wrote in The Changing Metropolis: earliest photographs of London 1839-79, this particular image is ‘hauntingly and tantalisingly beautiful’. He adds: ‘The calm beauty of the street is clear, as are the details of the shops and houses. All is recorded with tantalising precision. All is so real that, Alice-like, one is tempted to enter the picture’. So let’s do that.
Starting on the corner of the street, outside the shop of William Coles, trussmaker, we find ourselves passing the premises of Charles Prater, an army clothier, followed by William Jolley the glover, Richard Morse the watchmaker, Johnston the confectioner, Stubbing the butcher, and Walter Oram the baker (I gleaned all of this information from contemporary census records), before we come to the King’s Arms, which had been the scene of violent anti-pressgang riots half a century earlier. Once past the inn we arrive at our destination. Sandwiched between the King’s Arms and a bookshop belonging to a certain Francis Pinkney is No. 29 Charing Cross, its ground floor occupied by a tobacconist’s shop, owned in the 1840s by a young man by the name of Matthew Cholerton.
I’ve discovered that this very building had briefly been home to the radical tailor and political agitator Francis Place. He lived there for two years, between 1799 and 1801, before moving up the road to No. 16. Looking back on those years from the vantage point of the 1820s, Place recalled the gin shops and brothels that once dominated the neighbourhood: ‘It seems almost incredible that such a street could be in the condition described, but so it was – people were not then as now offended with grossness – dirtiness – vulgarity – obscenity – and atrocious language…I need hardly notice how highly respectable the street is now.’
Map showing Charing Cross and Whitehall in the 1830s.
If we were to enter the tobacconist’s shop and walk through to the stairs at the back, leading to the residential apartments above, we would find that, in addition to the shop’s proprietor, there are two other families living in this building, probably occupying rooms on separate floors.
One of these apartments is occupied by a middle-aged man named Geoffrey Atkins, his young wife and their five-year-old son. If we were to knock on the door of the other apartment, depending on the time of day, it might be opened by a man in his early sixties, perhaps dressed in the wide-collared tailcoat that he wears for his job as a legal clerk (an occupation that Dickens himself had followed as a young man). I imagine him leaving the house to spend each day sitting at a tall desk, rather like Bob Cratchit (and wondering, like Cratchit, whether he’ll be allowed the day off work next Monday to celebrate Christmas), possibly at the Inns of Court at the far end of the Strand. When he speaks, you can still catch the hint of a Scottish accent, though he left the land of his birth some thirty years ago.
This man is my great-great-great-grandfather Charles Edward Stuart Robb. He recently celebrated his sixty-fourth birthday, though I doubt it was a particularly happy occasion. Just a few weeks earlier, he had buried his wife, my great-great-great- grandmother Margaret Robb, at the nearby church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. She had died on 1st December 1843, at the age of sixty-one, from ‘bilious obstruction’.
Charles and Margaret Robb had moved to London, with two of their three sons and one of their two daughters, some time in the late 1820s or early 1830s. According to family records, Charles had been born in 1779 in rural Aberdeenshire, the son of a farmer who fought for the Bonnie Prince in the ’45: hence his Christian names. Charles married Margaret Ricketts Monteith in Glasgow in 1802. Another family tradition claims that she was the granddaughter on her mother’s side of the Jacobite Viscount Stormont, though I’ve yet to find any independent evidence of this. Recently I speculated that Margaret’s middle name suggested a link to the Ricketts family who were merchants and landowners in Jamaica. If so, this may have been how she and Charles met, since his brother George Robb was a Glasgow merchant, also with Caribbean connections. Another brother, Rev. William Robb, was an Episcopal clergyman in St Andrews, chaplain to Lord Elibank, and a published poet. Both brothers were long dead by 1843.
Newman Noggs comforts Kate Nickleby: illustration from the 1875 edition of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’
I’ve always imagined Charles as the black sheep of the family, failing to emulate either the wealth or eminence of his brothers. Although he described himself in official documents as a ‘gentleman’, Charles worked mostly as a humble clerk and, certainly after the move to London, lived in extremely modest circumstances. Perhaps he was like Newman Noggs in Nicholas Nickleby: a gentleman who had fallen on hard times?
Certainly the locations of his children’s christenings suggest someone constantly on the move, in search of work and struggling to keep his head above financial waters. He and Margaret moved first to Aberdeen, then to Alloa, then Kilmarnock, before crossing the border and arriving in Yorkshire. For a time they lived in Whitby, then Richmond (where their son William, my great-great-grandfather was born in 1813) and then Malton, where Charles advertised himself as an accountant and engraver. And so finally to London, where I imagine them arriving by coach at Charing Cross – at about the time that the fictional Pickwick Club was meeting at the nearby Golden Cross Hotel – and settling on the nearest available accommodation.
Not all of their children accompanied Charles and Margaret Robb to London. Their eldest daughter, Matilda, aged thirty-eight and still unmarried in 1843, was at this time working as a lady’s maid for Lady Frances Bassett, heiress to a tin mining fortune, at Tehidy Park, her stately home near Redruth in Cornwall. Charles and Margaret’s youngest son John, who was twenty-seven in 1843, is described in records from this period as a mariner, though he would later follow in his father’s footsteps and work as a legal clerk, for a parliamentary agent. His whereabouts in December 1843 are unknown, but it’s likely he was already wooing Mary Ann Downes, the Lambeth shoemaker’s daughter whom he would marry in the following spring.
Charles and Margaret’s youngest child Elizabeth, who was now twenty-three, had come with them to London, but by 1843 she was married and living elsewhere in the city. Two years earlier she had married Derbyshire-born dentist Joseph Boden. I’ve written a whole blog about my suspicion that Joseph and Elizabeth were both bigamists, Joseph with Georgiana Westbrook – who sounds like a character from Thackeray – and Elizabeth with ‘professor of pianoforte’ Edmund Vineer – his surname reminiscent of the nouveau riche Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend. In fact, the whole story of Elizabeth and Joseph’s married life, with its sad ending in separation and suggestions of domestic violence, has a decidedly Dickensian flavour.
Charles and Margaret’s eldest son, named Charles Edward after his father, had accompanied them to London but died of a fever in 1836 at the age of 26. Two other sons had been at home with Charles and Margaret at the time of the 1841 census. George William, who would have been thirty-two years old in 1843, seems to have remained single. He also worked as a legal clerk and may already have moved out to nearby Villiers Street, off the Strand (close to Hungerford Stairs, where twelve-year-old Charles Dickens had been put to work in Warren’s Blacking Factory).
Victorian law clerks at work
The other son, my great-great-grandfather William Robb, who was thirty years old in 1843, must have been paying his parents a visit on the night the census was taken, since he had been a married man since 1836.
In May of that year William had married Fanny Sarah Seager at the church of St George the Martyr, Queen Square, Holborn, just a few streets from where Charles Dickens was living at the time, in Doughty Street. Fanny was the daughter of Samuel Hurst Seager, a porter at the Inns of Court. William Robb would spend the whole of his working life as a law stationer’s clerk, and I’ve often wondered if he met Fanny through working for one of her relatives. A law stationer by the name of William Seager lived in Little James Street, not far from St George’s church, and even closer to Dickens’ home. (I wonder if he was he anything like Mr Snagsby, the law stationer in Bleak House?) Was this William Robb’s employer, and did he introduce him to Fanny?
Although I haven’t been able to prove that William Seager was related to Fanny, a curious – and oddly Dickensian – story hints at a connection between their families. In 1839, William Seager’s father Thomas, an ironmonger, had died as a result of an accident on what was then the New Road, now Euston Road. The cause of death was recorded as ‘mortal injury to the head by an accidental fall from a chaise cart’. This is reminiscent of a story told in her memoirs by the New Zealand detective novelist Ngaio Marsh, who was the granddaughter of Fanny Seager’s brother Edward, and thus the great-granddaughter of Fanny’s father Samuel Hurst Seager. Marsh writes:
Among the Seagers […] there appears briefly an affluent and unencumbered uncle to whom my great-grandfather [i.e. Samuel Hurst Seager] was heir. The story was that this uncle took his now impoverished nephew to Scotland to see the estates he would inherit and on the return journey died intestate in the family chaise. His fortune was thrown into Chancery and my great-grandfather upon the world.
Marsh notes that her relatives were initially sceptical of the tale, adding that ‘stories of “riches held in Chancery” have a suspect glint over them, as if the narrator had looked once too often into “Bleak House”‘. But apparently evidence confirming the story was found among the papers of Marsh’s grandfather, Edward William Seager, after his death.
My great-great-grandmother Fanny Seager certainly grew up in less than luxurious surroundings. The Seagers lived in Crown Court, a narrow alley leading directly off the north side of the Strand, to the east of St Clement Danes church and forming part of a dense network of streets between the Strand and Lincoln’s Inn Fields. These streets would be demolished in 1870, to make way for the Royal Courts of Justice. The Middle Temple, where Fanny’s father Samuel was employed, was on the south side of the Strand, immediately opposite the entrance to Crown Court. Samuel Hurst Seager died in 1837, the year after Fanny’s marriage to William Robb.
A narrow courtyard off the Strand, similar to Crown Court where the Seagers lived
The Seagers were Nonconformists, whereas the Robbs had been Episcopalian in Scotland and thus Anglicans when they moved to England. At some stage, my great-great-grandfather William Robb embraced Methodism. Perhaps his conversion predates Fanny, and explains how he met her, but more likely it was a result of her influence. (Dickens, of course, had something of an antipathy to Nonconformists: see the unflattering portrayals of Mr Chadband in Bleak House, and Mrs Clennam in Little Dorrit, among others.) Whatever the truth of the matter, William initiated a family association with Methodism that would be passed down through the Robb family, from father to son: my own father only recently retired as a Methodist lay preacher.
William and Fanny’s first child, Fanny Margaret Monteith Robb, had been born in 1838 at 6 Tavistock Street, Covent Garden, but had died of croup two years later. By the time their son William Henry was born in 1841 the couple had moved to 12 Compton Street in Soho. (Karl Marx and his family were living just around the corner in Dean Street at about this time.) A move along the road to 33 Compton Street followed soon afterwards. It was here that their daughter Elizabeth Margaret was born on 1st December – the very day that her grandmother Margaret died, hence the child’s middle name. So it was in Compton Street, about a fifteen minute walk from William’s father Charles at Charing Cross, that William and Fanny Robb would have been living on the day that A Christmas Carol was published.
The years following the publication of Dickens’ bestseller saw many changes in the lives of the Robb and Seager families. In 1844, John Robb married Mary Ann Downes in Lambeth and two years later they would have a son, who was christened Charles Edward Stuart Robb after his grandfather, but who died before his first birthday. At some stage Charles himself would himself move from Charing Cross to lodgings at 40 Tenison Street, off York Road in Lambeth, perhaps to be near his son. If anything, this accommodation was even more modest than Charles’ previous home at Charing Cross. The building was shared by four families, including those of a coppersmith and a portable water closet maker. I’ve often wondered why none of Charles’s children was able to accommodate him in his old age, particularly as his death certificate notes that he been suffering from ‘paralysis’ for six years – unless their circumstances were even more straitened than his own.
In 1847 Charles’ son George William Robb, who by this time was living in Villiers Street, would die from influenza and bronchitis at the age of thirty-six. He was buried, like his mother, at St Martin-in-the-Fields.
Methodist chapel, Great Queen Street
As for William and Fanny Robb, they would have two more children. In 1846, their daughter Matilda Fanny was born, while January 1851 saw the birth of my great grandfather Charles Edward Robb. Sadly, Fanny died four days after giving birth to him and was buried at Whitefield’s Tabernacle in Tottenham Court Road; she was thirty-six years old. William had his infant son christened at the Methodist chapel in Great Queen Street, off Drury Lane, and by the time of the census in March of that year he and his older son William Henry had moved to Queen Street, Soho, while his two surviving daughters were staying with their Seager relations in nearby Gerrard Street.
Over the next few years, three of Fanny Seager’s brothers would emigrate to New Zealand. Edward, the grandfather of the aforementioned Ngaio Marsh, became a pioneer of mental health provision in his adopted country; Samuel junior was a carpenter and builder: his son and namesake would become a notable New Zealand architect and town planner; while Henry Fowle Seager worked as a printer and compositor.
Edward William Seager, born 1828 in St Clement Danes, London, died 1922 in Christchurch, New Zealand
My great-great-great-grandfather Charles Edward Stuart Robb died in June 1853 at the age of 73. A year later, my great-great-grandfather William Robb married for a second time, to Marianne Mansfield Palmer, the daughter of a Methodist bookbinder from the Staffordshire Potteries. It seems likely that the couple met through attending the chapel in Great Queen Street. By 1855 they had moved out to Stepney, though to a rather more respectable district than the ‘squalid maze of streets, courts, and alleys of miserable houses let out in single rooms’ that Dickens found when he visited the area at around this time (see The Uncommercial Traveller). Here William and his new wife would produce an astonishing ten children in the space of twenty years. In time, William’s son Charles, my great-grandfather, would find employment as a caretaker at the Wesleyan Methodist Mission in Whitechapel, where my grandfather was born. The family later moved further eastwards, to East Ham, where my father was born – as was I.
Thus the Robb family ceased to be dwellers in Dickens’ London, and became East Enders.
My great grandfather Charles Edward Robb, born 1851 in Compton Street, Soho, died 1934 in Leytonstone.