My discovery of a distant family connection to a minor Victorian novelist has re-awakened my interest in other published authors in my family tree. The most noteworthy is probably Rev. William Robb (1763 – 1830), who I believe was the brother of my 3rd great grandfather, Charles Edward Stuart Robb (1779 – 1853), and about whom I last wrote on this blog nearly nine years ago. William Robb was an Episcopalian clergyman in St Andrews, Fife, chaplain to Lord Elibank, and a poet. His poems were published in contemporary magazines, and in book form, in the closing years of the eighteenth century and the first two decades of the nineteenth.

Title page of Rev. William Robb’s long allegorical poem, ‘The Patriotic Wolves’

I’ve always had lingering doubts that Rev. William Robb was actually my 4th great uncle – until yesterday, when I made something of a breakthrough. My doubts arose partly from a discrepancy between what is known about William from official sources – and the way he is described in the memorandum left by his nephew, and namesake, my great great grandfather William Monteith Robb, in 1885. The latter writes:

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.

I’ve struggled to find any evidence that Rev. William Robb, poet and chaplain to the local gentry, taught at St Andrews College, the forerunner of the modern university, although we do know that he was the Episcopal minister in St Andrews from 1791 to 1818. Later in the memorandum, the younger William Robb writes:

The last 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, Prime of Scotland telling him of the death of my Uncle which happened about 1838.

Bishop David Low

I believe that ‘Law’ is a mistranscription of ‘Low’ and refers to Rev. David Low, who was indeed a bishop, though never actually ‘Primo’. ‘Prime’ is probably a mistranscription of ‘Primo’, and I believe that ‘1838’ may be a misreading of 1830, the actual date of Rev William Robb’s death. I only have a typed copy of the original handwritten memorandum, which has been lost, so it’s impossible to know how many errors may have been made in the transcription. However, what is certain is that only the Episcopal church in Scotland had bishops (hence their name), and that there was only one Episcopal clergyman with the name William Robb living at this time. So the evidence for my ancestor and the clergyman and poet of St Andrews being one and the same person is fairly strong.

However, the new and conclusive evidence that I’ve now found relates to the reference, in my great great grandfather’s memorandum, to his uncle’s visit to Malton. My 3rd great grandparents Charles and Margaret Robb moved from Scotland to Yorkshire some time between 1808 and 1810, living first in Whitby, then Richmond, before settling by 1816 in Malton, where they remained until at least the early 1820s. We know from a trade directory of 1823 that the Robbs lived in Newbiggin, the main road through the town, where Charles worked as an accountant and engraver.

Newbiggin, Malton, Yorkshire, in the later years of the 19th century (via maltonhistory.info)

Yesterday, while searching online for copies of Rev. William Robb’s poems, I managed to track down what may have been his last published work, A monody in the prospect of death, while labouring under a dangerous illness. This long poem, made up of a number of fragmentary sections and with extensive explanatory notes, was published in Edinburgh in 1822, by Macredie, Skelly and Company. The author writes at length in the notes about the nervous illness that he suffered, and its cause, and we know that this illness would cause William to retire from active ministry sometime between 1818 and 1820.

However, what really caught my eye about these poems was the place where they were written. Their author notes that two of the fragments were composed in Malton, one in May, 1819, the other in July of the same year, while a third was written in Scarborough in September of that year. This can hardly be a coincidence, and leads me to the conclusion that Rev. William Robb went to Malton, to stay with his brother Charles – my 3rd grandfather – in order to convalesce from his illness. His stay in Yorkshire must have included a visit to the nearby seaside resort of Scarborough (only twenty five miles away), presumably for the good of his health.

The dates don’t quite match his nephew’s memory in the memorandum: the younger William Robb would have been about eight years old in 1819, having been born in 1811. However, it’s possible either that my great great grandfather misremembered the date of the visit, or that his memory is of an earlier visit by his uncle, the later visit having been forgotten.

Marriage of George Robb and Penelope Thomson, Glasgow, 1805

As a result of this new evidence, I’m now convinced that Rev. William Robb, Episcopal clergyman and poet, was the brother of my 3rd great grandfather Charles Edward Stuart Robb. By extension, this new information also lends new certainty to other aspects of my family history about which I’ve entertained lingering doubts. For example, we know that in 1805 Rev. William Robb travelled from St Andrews to Glasgow to officiate at the wedding of George Robb and Penelope Thomson. Taken together with a reference in William Monteith Robb’s memorandum to his Uncle George and Aunt Penelope, this is fairly conclusive evidence that George Robb, a Glasgow merchant, was the brother of Rev. William Robb and of my 3rd great grandfather Charles Robb.

I’ll have more to say about the life and work of Rev. William Robb in future posts.

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