In his memorandum of 20th June 1880, my great-great-grandfather William Robb, who was by then nearly 67 years old, wrote the following:
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 thing 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, Primo of Scotland telling him of the death of my Uncle which happened about 1838.
So far I’ve been unable to verify Rev. William Robb’s connection to St. Andrew’s College (now the University), but we know that he was the Episcopal minister in the town from 1789 to 1818. If Rev. William’s visit to Malton occurred when his nephew William was three or four years old, this would have been in 1817-1818 (the latter was born in Richmond, Yorkshire, in October 1813).
In 1822 Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine announced the publication of the 3rd edition of ‘A Monody in the Prospect of Death, while labouring under a dangerous Illness’, by the Rev. William Robb, ‘Author of Poems illustrative of the Genius and Influence of Christianity.’ Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to track down a copy of this poem. According to David Bertie’s book on the Scottish Episcopal Clergy, William resigned his post in 1818, due to ill-health, though he continued to draw a stipend until 1822.
This raises the possibility that Rev. William travelled south to Malton to convalesce with his brother’s family: his nephew’s phrase ‘stopped some time’ suggests a visit of some weeks or months. As to the nature of his illness, the announcement of his death in Aberdeen in February 1830, gives the cause as ‘paralysis and mental disease’. We have no records of Rev. William’s life, presumably in Aberdeen, between his retirement in 1822 and his death eight years later. (I’ve noted before the discrepancy between the dates in the memorandum and the official records, as well as the mistaken description of ‘Bishop Law’, probably Bishop Low of Ross, Rev. William Robb’s successor as incumbent at Pittenweem: perhaps the result of faulty memory and/or transcription errors.)
I find my great-great-grandfather’s recollection of his uncle, taking him on his knee and telling him he would make a gentleman of him, quite poignant. Although by this time in failing health, Rev. William had been chaplain to a member of the aristocracy (Lord Elibank) and was a published poet. His younger brother, Charles (my great-great-great grandfather), by contrast, had moved his young family from town to town in Scotland and Yorkshire (presumably in search of work), and in a few years would move them again to modest accommodation in Charing Cross, London. In Malton he worked as an ‘engraver’ and in London as a solicitor’s clerk, and when he died in 1853 was apparently living in straitened circumstances in lodgings in Lambeth. At the time of writing this memorandum in 1880, his son William was himself living in Mile End, in the East End of London, a retired law stationer.
This brief but vivid memory seems to encapsulate the Robb family’s various journeys across the class divide, and the precariousness of life for those who lived by their own labours two centuries ago.