As I noted in the previous post, my great great grandparents William Robb and Fanny Sarah Seager had five children, before Fanny’s death at the age of thirty-six in January 1851. Their first child, Fanny Margaret Monteith Robb, died at the age of two in 1840. The four children who survived were William Henry (1841), Elizabeth Margaret (1843), Matilda Fanny (1846) and my great grandfather Charles Edward (1851).
It’s not entirely clear what became of these siblings after the death of their mother. At the time of the 1851 census, two months after Fanny’s death, her daughters Elizabeth and (Matilda) Fanny, then aged eight and six respectively, were staying with their seventy-year-old maternal grandmother, Fanny Seager, her daughter Edith and sons Samuel, Henry and Edward (all of whom would soon emigrate to New Zealand) in Gerrard Street, Soho. Meanwhile, nine-year-old William Henry was with his father at 16 Queen Street, also in Soho. There is no sign of three-month-old Charles Edward: I assume he was with a wet nurse.
I’ll probably return to Elizabeth Margaret and Matilda Fanny in future posts, but here I want to try to piece together the mysterious life of their brother, my great great uncle, William Henry Robb. William had been born at 11 o’clock in the morning on 7th April 1841. However, although his birth certificate gives the address as 12 Compton Street, Soho, the 1851 census record claims that William Henry was born in Finsbury, which suggests that, like his two younger sisters, he actually came into the world at the City of London Lying-in Hospital.
William Henry Robb would have been almost nine years old when his mother Fanny died, and twelve when his father remarried, to Marianne Mansfield Palmer, in June 1854. However, William was certainly not with his father, stepmother, siblings and step-siblings at the time of the 1861 census, when they were living in St Ann’s Road, Mile End. In fact, to date I’ve been unable to find him in the census records for that year, when he would have been just twenty years old (the census was taken on his birthday, 7th April). The nearest match is nineteen-year-old William Stephen Robb, said to have been born in the City of London, who was working as a servant in the household of a pawnbroker in Kensington High Street.
Entry for William Henry Robb in the GWR Register (via ancestry.co.uk)
The next possible sighting of William in the records doesn’t occur until 1869, when we find the name of a William Henry Robb entered in the Register of Clerks in the Service of the Great Western Railway Company. He is said to be based at Paddington Station and to have started work in August of that year. How can we assess whether this is ‘our’ William Henry? One clue is the fact that William Henry Robb, railway clerk, shared the same birthday: 7th April. However, the GWR register claims that he was born in 1842, rather than 1841. This could be a clerical error, or an attempt by the employee to pass himself off as a year younger, for whatever reason. Add to that the fact that there were very few, if any, other William Robbs living in London at the time, let alone any with the middle name Henry, and there is a strong likelihood that this is William and Fanny Robb’s son.
It seems fairly certain that William Henry Robb, railway clerk, is the same William Henry Robb who married Phebea or Phoebe Humphreys on 5th October 1871, at the parish church of St Helier, Jersey, in the Channel Islands. Phoebe was only seventeen, though William was said to be twenty-seven, altered in the parish register from twenty-eight, when in fact he was either twenty-nine of thirty, which seems to suggest a habit of amending his age when it suited him.
Harbour at St Helier, Jersey: the earliest known photograph of the town (date unknown)
Phoebe Humphreys had been born in July 1855 at Grouville, Jersey, to John Humphreys, a retired Royal Navy seaman who was originally from Portsmouth, and his wife Jane Pitman, originally from Gloucester. In 1861, aged five, Phoebe had been living with her parents, three sisters and brother at 5 Union Place in Grouville. All of the Humphreys siblings were born in Jersey. By 1871, her father had died and Phoebe and her siblings were living with their widowed mother at the same address. Her mother was working as a laundress, her brother as a mechanic, one sister as an ironer, and Phoebe herself as a dressmaker.
A clue as to how William Henry Robb, a London railway clerk, might have met and married a young girl who had probably never left Jersey, is provided by the record of the 1881 census. This finds William H Robb, a thirty-seven-year-old railway clerk (he was actually thirty-nine or forty), living with his twenty-five-year-old Jersey-born wife Phoebe (she was actually twenty-six or twenty-seven) at 110 Kilburn Lane, Chelsea, with their eight-year-old daughter Beatrice P Robb, said to have been born in Ealing (we know from other sources that her full name was Beatrice Phoebe Humphreys Robb). Beatrice would be soon admitted to the Beethoven Street School, Queen’s Park, which opened in the same year.
The Robb family also had a boarder in 1881: thirty-two-year-old William Edward John Humphrey (in some other records Humphreys), also a railway clerk, and born in Paddington. The fact that he shared a surname with Phoebe makes me think that he was probably a relative on her father’s side of the family, though I’ve yet to establish the precise connection between them. Was he a colleague of William Robb’s on the Great Western Railway, who then introduced him to his young unmarried cousin from Jersey? His own railway record shows that he worked at Paddington, like his landlord. Alternatively, William Robb may have met Phoebe by some other means, and subsequently found work at his office for one of her relatives.
William Powell Frith, ‘The Railway Station’ (Paddington, London), 1862
We know from the electoral register that William Henry Robb was still living at 110 Kilburn Lane in 1883, but he’s more difficult to find in the census records for 1891. However, it seems likely that he is the supposedly forty-six-year-old clerk for the Great Western Railway at Paddington, to be found visiting widower Henry Day, a clerk in Her Majesty’s Office of Works, at his home in St Mary’s Terrace, Paddington. Alternatively, he may have been visiting one of the other people resident at the same address, either widowed housekeeper Letitia Hitchings, or the unmarried Alfred H Hitchings, an assistant stock keeper at Haymarket, who may have been her son. Some confusion is caused by the railway clerk’s name being written as ‘Wm H Stephen S M Robb’. The Stephen is reminiscent of the name we found in the 1861 census, and may have been either an additional middle name that was given at birth, or one that William adopted himself, for some reason. The reason for including the additional initials S.M. is unclear.
William Robb is described in this record as married, and one might assume that he was simply visiting a friend on the evening of the census, and that other records will show his wife Phoebe and daughter Beatrice by themselves at the family home in Kilburn Lane. However, if we search for Phoebe in the 1891 census records, we make an intriguing discovery. At 24 Rosaville Road in Fulham we find forty-year-old William Humphreys, a Fulham-born commercial clerk, living with Jersey-born Phoebe Humphreys, thirty-five. Both are said to be married and she is described as his wife. Not only that, but the couple have two children: seven-year-old Herbert and two-year-old Elizabeth, both of them born in Fulham. Despite the fact that William Humphreys’ age doesn’t quite match, this is almost certainly the Robbs’ former lodger, and William Robb’s former colleague, William Edward John Humphrey(s), who is now living with the former’s wife – as though they were husband and wife. The identity, or close similarity, of their surnames, must have made it easier to achieve the deception. Meanwhile, William and Phoebe Robb’s eighteen-year-old daughter Beatrice was with her maternal grandmother, Jane Humphreys, at Stone Cottage, Claremont Hill, St Helier Jersey, where she was following her mother’s earlier occupation as a dressmaker.
We have to conclude that, some time before 1883 (when their son Herbert was supposedly born), William Humphrey(s) and Phoebe Robb née Humphreys became a couple, and left William Robb and Kilburn Lane behind. Without further evidence, there is no way of knowing what precipitated this turn of events. Did William Humphreys and Phoebe Robb start an affair behind William Robb’s back, or was their departure together the result of the latter’s own behaviour?
Whatever the truth of the matter, we know that William Robb also found himself a new partner at about the same time. The 1901 census finds fifty-seven-year-old William Henry Robb, a London-born railway clerk, living at 43 Lockesley Road, Chiswick, with a forty-nine-year-old Hampshire-born woman whose name is given as Mary A. Robb. Like William and Phoebe Humphreys, they are said to be married, and Mary is described as William’s wife. Also living with William is his twenty-nine-year-old daughter Beatrice. She now bears the surname Pellennec, and is said to be a widow, with a five-month-old daughter Jeannie M. Pellennec, born in France and said to be a French subject.
Beatrice had married Jean Marie Pellennec somewhere in the Brentford Registration District in 1899, when she would have been about twenty-six years old. I imagine that they met during her stay in Jersey. They must have moved to France soon afterwards, where Jeanie was born, and where presumably Jean Marie died, leaving Beatrice a widowed mother when she was still in her twenties.
Victorian houses in Crondall Street, Moss Side, Manchester
By 1901, Beatrice’s mother Phoebe and her new supposed husband, William Humphreys, now aged forty-five and fifty-two respectively, had left London and moved north to Crondall Street in Moss Side, on the southern edge of Manchester. William was now working as an accountant’s clerk, as was their son Herbert, now sixteen. Their daughter Elizabeth was now eleven, and they also had a third child William, aged nine. The 1911 census finds them at Great Western Street, also in Moss Side, the record providing a little more information about the family. William John Edward Humphreys, sixty-two, said to have been born in Bayswater, London, is working as an accountant for a calico printer, while his twenty-year-old son, William Horace Humphreys, is an accountant’s clerk, also for a calico printer, presumably the same one. Phoebe, described as a housewife, is now fifty-six. The couple state that they have four children, all still alive: presumably this would have to include William and Phoebe Robb’s daughter Beatrice , as well as the three children that Phoebe had with William Humphreys.
Also with them in 1911 is ten-year-old Catherine Pellenec, described as a grandchild, born in Paris, and as a British subject by parentage. This must be Beatrice’s daughter, the Jeanie of the 1901 census: her full name seems to have been Jeanie (or perhaps Jeanne) Marie Catherine Pellennec. Beatrice appears to have followed her mother north to Manchester, since the 1911 census finds her, now aged thirty-eight, working as a domestic servant in nearby Alexandra Park. In fact, it’s possible that Beatrice actually lived with her mother, and that Phoebe was simply looking after young Catherine while she worked.
In the 1911 census record William and Phoebe Humphreys claim to have been married for thirty-nine years, which would date their marriage to 1871 or 1872, the year when Phoebe actually married William Robb. We know this to have been a lie, since it would not be until 1916 that William Humphreys and Phoebe Robb were finally married, in the Chorlton registration district.
Meanwhile, William Robb, now sixty-eight and retired from the railway, was living at 51 Church Street, Isleworth, with his supposed wife Mary Anne Robb, aged fifty-nine. They also had a visitor, twenty-year-old Wiltshire-born Theodora Katherine Witt, who may eventually provide us with some clue as to Mary Anne’s origins and identity. William and Mary Anne claimed to have been married for twenty years, and to have no children.
Phoebe Humphreys died in August 1928 and was buried in Manchester’s Southern Cemetery. William Edward John Humphreys died in the following January and was buried in the same place.
Old photograph of Church Street, Isleworth
William Henry Robb died on 8th July 1914 at his home in Church Street, Isleworth, leaving effects to the value of £139 19s 2d, with probate granted to John Virtue Aloysius Kelly a railway clerk and presumably a former colleague. William would have been about seventy-three years old when he died. Does the fact that Mary Anne is not named in the probate record suggest that she predeceased him, or simply that there was no legal basis for her to act on his behalf?
Beatrice Pellennec died in Manchester in 1955, at the age of eighty-three. Her daughter Jeanne Marie Catherine Pellennec died in the same city in 1968, at the age of sixty-seven. It seems she never married.
I can’t prove that the William Henry Robb who worked as a railway clerk, married Phoebe Humphreys, and then set up home with a woman named Mary Anne, was the son of my great great grandfather William Robb, and the brother of my great grandfather Charles Edward Robb, but I believe the evidence points in that direction. If so, then this is the second case of bigamy (or perhaps more accurately, in this case, pretended bigamy) that I’ve found among my Robb ancestors. I wrote about the other case, which involved William Henry Robb’s aunt Elizabeth Robb and her husband Joseph Boden, in my blog The Bonds of Betrayal.