1839 whitehall from trafalgar square

This photograph of Whitehall from Trafalgar Square, taken by M. de St. Croix in 1839, is probably the earliest surviving photograph of London, and certainly one of the first photographs taken in England. As Gavin Stamp writes, in his marvelous book The Changing Metropolis: earliest photographs of London 1839-79, the image is ‘hauntingly and tantalizingly beautiful’. He adds:

The calm beauty of the street is clear, as are the details of the shops and houses. All is recorded with tantalizing precision. All is so real that, Alice-like, one is tempted to enter the picture.

Recently, the tantalizing quality of this image has intensified for me, as I’ve come to realise that the photograph may include the house where my great-great-great-grandparents lived. Not only that, but the photograph was taken when they were actually living there. Indeed, they may have been inside one of those buildings while the picture was being taken. They might even have been captured walking in the street, had not the long exposure meant that most moving objects were excluded from the final image.

My 3 x great grandparents, Charles Edward Stuart Robb and Margaret Ricketts Monteith, are to be found in the 1841 census living at Charing Cross, in the parish of St. Martin in the Fields. Charles, 60, was working as a clerk; Margaret was 55. Both were recorded as having been born in Scotland. Living with them were their sons George William and William (my great-great grandfather). Both were working as clerks and both were said to be 25 (though the ages given in the 1841 census were notoriously inaccurate: in fact, George was 30 and William 28).

However, the family probably moved to London from Malton, Yorkshire (where they had arrived via Glasgow, Aberdeen, Alloa, Kilmarnock, Whitby and Richmond) some time before 1841. William married Fanny Seager in London in 1836, so it’s likely that the Robbs were in London by the early 1830s at the latest. The last date we have for them in Malton is 1823, when Charles is listed in the local trade directory as an ‘accountant and engraver’.

Until recently, I’ve been unclear as to the exact location of my ancestors’ home in Charing Cross. A combination of factors hindered me, including the fact that the area has changed so much in the intervening two centuries, particularly following the construction of Trafalgar Square (completed in 1845), and the fact that ‘Charing Cross’ seems to have included a number of blocks of buildings ranged around the statue of Charles I that we see in the photo above. But the greatest frustration was the failure of the census clerk to include house numbers, making it difficult to relate addresses to buildings on contemporary maps.

Then I had a couple of breakthroughs. Researching the history of the area, and looking in particular at old maps and images, I realised that Charing Cross in the early 19th century included the northern end of what we now know as Whitehall. Then I discovered that some of the shops visible in early photographs of this part of Charing Cross were mentioned in the 1841 census. Most notably, Coles the truss maker stands out on the corner of the street, and William Coles, 58, is recorded as occupying the third address on the list of households in Charing Cross in the 1841 census. What’s more, by the time of the 1851 census, the clerk had remembered to add building numbers, so that we find Coles at No.3.

Here’s a map of the area in 1833:

Charing Cross c.1833

The block where the Robbs lived was at the south-eastern corner of the square, running down the right-hand side of the street as far as Whitehall Place. In other words, the group of buildings to the left of the photograph at the top of this post, behind the statue. In the 1851 census the numbers in this block ran north to south from 1 to 35. As the photo suggests, this block was a mixture of shops, inns and private dwellings. Indeed, the dwellings may have been above the shops: the census records are unclear on this point.

Next, I made two lists. The first was of all the households in this district in the 1841 census, the second a parallel list for the 1851 census, the difference being that the latter included house/shop numbers. I then looked to see if any of the same names recurred. Despite a high degree of mobility in the local population, there were also some continuities. I’ve already mentioned Coles the truss-maker. Other residents from 1841 who were still in the street ten years later included Charles Prater the army clothier at No. 2, William Jolley the glover at No.7, Richard Morse the watchmaker at No. 30, Johnston the confectioner at No. 10, and Stubbing the butcher at No. 17. Closer to the Robb household there was Walter Oram the baker at No.27. At No. 28 in 1841 was licensed victualler Emily Jarvis. From my historical reading I knew that this was the site of the King’s Arms, so I assume it was still an inn in 1851. In fact, we find another victualler, John Wiltshere, living next to Walter Oram at that date.  The Robbs’ next door neighbour, to the north, in 1841 was one Matthew Cholerton, 20, a tobacconist. Since No.31 would be occupied in 1851 by tobacconist James Langstein, I wonder if this is the same shop, which would mean that the Robbs lived at No. 32. In 1851, there are 4 households beyond the tobacconists (Nos. 32-35). In 1841 there were 6: to the south of the Robbs were a 15 year old servant, Ann Marks (was she their servant?), pensioner George Atkins, bookseller Francis Pinkney, Catherine Powell, a lady of independent means, tea dealer Fred Sparrow, and manservant Charles Pratt. All of these were gone from the street by 1851.

Horwood’s map from the 1790s includes building numbers. They aren’t easily readable in the reproduction below, but the numbers from 30 to 35 are the last segment before the entrance to Great Scotland Yard, ending almost opposite the Admiralty.

horwood charing cross

Studying the census records, in tandem with my exploration of the history of the area, I realised that my 3 x great grandparents had at least one famous neighbour. In 1841 No. 16 was occupied by Francis Place, the radical tailor of Charing Cross, who was active in the London Corresponding Society in the 1790s, and who opened his shop in the street in 1799. Next door to Place and his family in 1841, at No. 15, was the bookseller William Hamilton Reid, another well-known radical of the ’90s. If they had met, I’m not sure that Francis Place and my 3 x great grandfather would have got on. While the former was campaigning for radical social and political reform in the 1790s, Charles Robb’s elder brother, Rev. William Robb, was writing patriotic poems and publishing them in the Anti-Jacobin Review.

It’s likely, then, that the building where my ancestors lived is just visible in the photograph at the top of this post: perhaps it’s one of those distant buildings blurred by sunlight or by over-exposure of the daguerrotype. I like to imagine my great-great-great grandfather and his sons, walking past the statue of Charles I on their way to work, or crossing the road to catch one of the horse-drawn cabs visible in the picture.

I’m not sure when the Robbs moved from Charing Cross. My 3 x great grandmother died there in 1843. George William was living in nearby Villiers Street when he died in 1847, and William and his wife and family lived at various addresses in the Covent Garden area. By 1851, the widowed Charles Robb was living in Tenison Street, Lambeth, where he would died two years later.


Since writing this post yesterday, I’ve gone back and checked through the birth, marriage and death certificates for members of the Robb family at around this time. I don’t know how I missed it before, but the death certificate for my great-great-great grandmother, Margaret Ricketts Monteith, clearly states that she died at 29 Charing Cross on 1st December 1843. This means that the family almost certainly lived next door to the King’s Arms, which was at No. 28. I’m still unclear about their connection to Matthew Cholerton, tobacconist, and Ann Marks, servant, who are listed before and after the Robbs in the census. Were these separate households, or were some of them lodging with the  others?

As described in John Barrell’s very useful book, The spirit of despotism: invasions of privacy in the 1790s, the Kings’ Arms was the catalyst for a ‘crimp riot’ in July 1795, that spread to Whitehall and Downing Street. The pub was (probably mistakenly) suspected of being a ‘crimping house’, where men were got drunk and bamboozled into joining the military. According to Barrell’s labelling of the Horwood map, the King’s Arms at No. 28 Charing Cross stood immediately behind No. 29, connected by an alley leading through to Craig’s Court.

By the time of the 1851 census, No. 29 was occupied by George Huxtable, a tailor master; No. 30 by John William Parker, a publisher; and No. 31 by James Langstein, tobacconist.

Further updates

For further updates, and corrections to some of the above, see these three posts.