The Robbs in the East End

I’ve written extensively recently about the lives of one side of my mother’s family – the Roes, and their Holdsworth and Blanch relatives – in the ‘old’ East End in the early 19th century. But I’m fascinated by the fact that my father’s ancestors were also living in the same area, walking the same streets, in the same period – even though the two families would not be connected by marriage until the 1950s, and then some miles away, in the newer suburb of East Ham.

My father’s parents were Arthur Ernest Robb (1897 – 1979) and Mary Emily Elizabeth (‘Polly’) Webb (1898 – 1965). Polly was the daughter of George Webb and Mary French (both born in 1874), and I’ve written elsewhere about the Webbs of Wapping and the French family of Limehouse. But the Robbs, too, settled in the ‘old’ East End, where they moved from the West End of London in the 1850s.

In March 1851, at the time of that year’s census, my great great grandfather, William Robb, age 37, a law stationer’s clerk, had been a widower for a month. His wife, Fanny Sarah Seager, had died in February shortly after giving birth to my great grandfather, Charles Edward Robb. Now William was living at 16 Queen Street, in the parish of St Anne, Soho, with his 9 year old son, William, while his two daughters, Elizabeth Margaret, 8, and Matilda Fanny, 5, were staying in nearby Gerrard Street with their Seager relatives. I haven’t been able to discover where William’s newborn son Charles was at this date, but presumably he was with a wet nurse, who might have been another relative.

Three years later William, now 40, married for a second time, to Marianne Mansfield Palmer, 23, at the church of St. Clement Danes in the Strand. William’s address is given simply as the parish of St. George the Martyr, Bloomsbury, while Marianne was living in Houghton Street, not far from St. Clement Danes itself. At the time of the 1851 census, Marianne had been living with her widowed father Enoch, a bookbinder, and her older sister, Martha, in nearby Duke Street; the two young women were working, presumably for their father, as book folders. Enoch and Martha were the two witnesses at Marianne’s wedding.

The Palmers had lived in this part of London since they moved down from the Midlands some time in the 1830s: Marianne was christened in Longton, Staffordshire in 1831 but by 1841 the family was living in Little Wild Street, St. Giles. William Robb had spent all of his adult life in the Charing Cross / Covent Garden / Soho area, since moving to London from Yorkshire with his Scottish parents some time in the 1820s or early 1830s. Now, William and Marianne would leave the West End behind for good and put down roots in East London, where their descendants would still be living 150 years later.

Burdett Road, Mile End, in the 19th century

William’s and Marianne’s first child, Lydia Palmer Robb, was born in Mile End Old Town in July 1855, suggesting that the couple moved to this fast-growing eastern suburb shortly after their marriage. Three more daughters – Alice Martha Stormont Robb (1857), Marianne Mansfeld Robb (1858) and Rose Emma Tunstall Robb (1860) – were born in the next five years, all in Mile End Old Town.

None of these children’s baptismal records appear to be available online, and I’ve yet to acquire copies of their birth certificates, so we can’t be absolutely sure of the Robb family’s address during these years. However, it’s more than likely that they were living in the house that they would occupy at the time of the 1861 census. This was at 15 St. Ann’s Road, which was situated south of Mile End Road between Burdett Road and Rhodeswell Road. On Greenwood’s 1827 map, the open fields of Bow Common still cover this area, while even on Cross’ 1851 map only a few houses fringe the common; so we can assume that the Robbs moved into a new house in a recent suburban development.  St. Ann’s Road no longer exists: together with the neighbouring streets, it was cleared to form the southern end of Mile End Park.

These two maps – from 1827 and 1868 – show how the area changed dramatically over time (the top of St. Ann’s Road is just visible at the bottom of Edward Weller’s 1868 map, running south from Burdett Road, parallel to Regents Road and crossing Park Road):

(Click on the individual maps to open in a new window, then click again to zoom in.)

The household at this stage included not only William’s and Marianne’s four children from this marriage, but also two of William’s children from his first marriage: Matilda Fanny, 14, and Charles Edward, 10, as well as lodger, Edward Palmer, a widower of 27, who worked as a dock messenger, and presumably was a relative of Marianne’s. I still don’t know what became of William’s other daughter from his first marriage, Elizabeth Margaret, but I’ve written elsewhere about what may have happened to his eldest son William.

I’m intrigued by the realisation that, at this very time, another of my great great grandfathers was living just a couple of streets away. Frederick French 14, was already working in his father’s shoemaker’s workshop by this date, and in 1867 he would marry and move to nearby Canal Road. Did middle-aged clerk William and young shoemaker Frederick ever brush past each other in the street – perhaps one bought shoes from the other – never dreaming that their grandchildren would one day marry? As for my mother’s family: I’ve noted elsewhere that her Roe and Blanch ancestors had moved in the opposite direction by this time, forsaking Stepney for Soho, though many of my Holdsworth forebears were still living in the Mile End area.

Why did the Robbs move from Westminster to Mile End? Almost certainly it was an economic decision: perhaps rents in the West End increased and the new housing in the East End became a more affordable option, especially as the expansion of the railways made it possible to commute from the outer suburbs to the City, where presumably William was still working. Housing in St. Ann’s Road must have been fairly cheap, as their neighbours included dock labourers, paper hangers and sailmakers, as well as the odd lawyer.

Four more children were born to William and Marianne in the next ten years: David Enoch (1863), Eliza Annie (1865), Gertrude Constance (1867) and Alexander George (1870), all in Mile End Old Town. By the time of the 1871 census, William, 57, Marianne, 40, and their eight children, had moved to 31 Turners Road. This road ran from south-west to north-east from Rhodeswell Road across Burdett Road to Bow Common, parallel to the railway line. The north eastern section of the road still exists. Although most of the buildings in the street are now modern terraces, a block of Victorian houses remains. Did the Robbs’ house look something like this (courtesy of Google street view)?

The Robbs were certainly in Turners Road a year before the census. In August 1870 William’s older sister Matilda, 65, widow of silk dyer Frederick King, died at that address. Her death was registered by Marianne, who was present at the death.

In moving house, William and Marianne appear to have relocated to a slightly superior neighbourhood, even if geographically it wasn’t far from their old address. Their neighbours still included manual labourers and tradesmen, but there was also a smattering of clerks, a lithographic artist, and a customs officer. All of the children born to Marianne were still at home in 1871, but Matilda Fanny was no longer there and I’ve been unable to find any further trace of her. Nor am I sure where Charles Edward, now age 20, was living. Perhaps he was already at Buxton Terrace in West Ham, the address he would give at the time of his marriage to Louisa Bowman six years later. But that begs the question of how he might have met Louisa, whose family lived in Pell Street, in St. George’s in the East.

William and Marianne had two more children: Grace Amy in 1872 and Arthur Ernest in 1875. By the time of the next census in 1881, when William was 67 and Marianne 50, they would have moved to another house in Turners Road – No.70. This is where Marianne would died two years later, from phthisis – or tuberculosis. William Robb died in 1888, at the age of 74, from senile decay and exhaustion. The place of death is given as 25 Oxford Street, Whitechapel: I wonder if this was actually in the London Hospital? The informant was his son, Charles Edward, who at the time was living in Betts Street, St. George’s in the East.

At the time of the 1881 census Lydia Palmer Robb was living with her husband Charles Walkley, a wool warehouseman, at Mentmore Terrace in Hackney (though confusingly, the online record puts the date of her marriage six years later, in 1887). Alice Martha Stormont Robb had married commercial agent Alfred Timpson at the Wycliffe Chapel in Mile End in 1874, and by 1881 they were living with their young family in Wolverhampton (though once again, the census record is confusing, reporting that two of their children were born before 1874).

Marianne Mansfield Robb was still at home in 1881, but by 1891 she would be working as a nurse in a private house in St. Leonard’s, Sussex. Rose Emma Tunstall Robb also left home some time after 1881, and as I noted elsewhere, may be the person living in Belgravia in 1891 and managing a servants’ agency. David Enoch Robb was working as a post office employee and still living with his parents in 1881, but ten years later he was working as a stockbroker’s clerk and lodging in East Ham; he would marry Emma Sophia Judd in 1892 and they would live at 13 Whitman Road, just north of Mile End Road. In 1891, Eliza Annie Robb was working as a nurse and domestic servant in a private house in Lewisham.

Gertrude Constance married William Mackenzie in 1881, and in 1891 they were living in Grosvenor Street, Mile End. In 1891 Alexander George Robb was living in Southwark and working as a stationer’s packer; he would marry Jane Elizabeth Sherwood in East Ham in 1901.

When William Robb died, his youngest daughter Grace Amy was only 16. Three years later, she was living at St. George’s Residence for Girls in Whitechapel and working as a portmanteau liner. By 1901 she would be working as a domestic servant for a solicitor in Croydon, where she would marry George Moss, with whom she emigrated to Ontario, Canada in the following year. Arthur Ernest was only 13 when William died (and 8 when his mother passed away). I’m not sure what happened to him after their deaths: there are a number of possible records, but none of them provide conclusive evidence as to what became of him.

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