My great-great-aunt Elizabeth Robb was born on 21st June 1820 at Malton in Yorkshire and christened two weeks later at the parish church of St Michael, New Malton. In the year of her birth the former Prince Regent came to the throne as George IV and attempted to divorce Queen Caroline, the Cato Street Conspiracy to murder the British Cabinet was foiled, and William Cobbett began to publish his Rural Rides.

Jacobites and anti-Jacobins: the Robb family’s Scottish roots

Elizabeth was the eighth and youngest child of my great-great-great-grandparents, Charles and Margaret Robb. Charles Edward Stuart Robb had been born in 1779 in the parish of Auchterless, Aberdeenshire, the son of George Robb, a farmer who, according to family legend, was involved in the Jacobite rising of 1745: hence his son’s distinctive Christian names. Charles was the youngest of at least nine children. His eldest brother William was an Episcopalian clergyman in St. Andrew’s, chaplain to Lord Elibank and a poet whose work appeared in The Anti-Jacobin Review. Rev. William Robb’s most notable work, first published in 1792, was a long poem entitled ‘The Patriotic Wolves: a fable’, a denunciation of the French Revolution and of radical agitators closer to home. Another brother, George, was a prosperous merchant in Glasgow.

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Glasgow in the early years of the 19th century

It may have been this Glasgow connection that brought Charles Robb to the city. Given what we know about his later employment, it’s possible that Charles went there to take up an apprenticeship as some kind of clerk. Charles was married at St Mungo’s church in Glasgow in 1802. His bride was Margaret Ricketts Monteith, the daughter of John Monteith and his wife Matilda, who, according to family tradition, was the daughter of Viscount Stormont, another veteran of the ’45. If true, this would make Elizabeth Robb the great-granddaughter of a peer, though I’ve been unable to discover any independent confirmation of this aristocratic connection.

Charles and Margaret spent the first few years of their marriage moving from town to town around Scotland. We can trace their movements in the places where their children were born, and in some cases died. Their eldest daughter Matilda was born in Aberdeen in 1805; a son named George William was born in Alloa in 1806 and died there in 1807; and a daughter named Isabella was born and died in Kilmarnock in 1808. Then, some time between 1808 and 1810, the Robbs crossed the border and moved south into England, where their itinerant lifestyle continued.

Early years in Yorkshire

In 1810 Charles and Margaret Robb were in Whitby for the birth of their son Charles Edward; in 1811 in Richmond for the birth of another son named George William, and for the birth of my great-great-grandfather William in 1814. However, by the time their youngest son, John, was born in 1816, the family was in Malton, which is where Elizabeth would be born four years later.

We can’t know for sure, but it seems likely that the reason for these frequent moves was that the Robbs were short of money, and Charles was perpetually in search of gainful employment. Or perhaps they were fleeing creditors? Certainly, Charles’ known occupations were much humbler than the professions of his older brothers, and somewhat out of keeping with his wife Margaret’s supposedly aristocratic connections, though he would often style himself as a ‘gentleman’ in official records. The Malton trade directory of 1823 described Charles Robb as an accountant and engraver (the latter being the profession of his contemporary, the poet William Blake) in Newbiggin, one of the main thoroughfares in the town.

Engraving-1794 Malton

Malton, Yorkshire, at the end of the eighteenth century

Some time between 1823 and the early 1830s, the Robbs made another, final move southwards: to London. Elizabeth was probably still a young girl when the family arrived in the capital, so she may have had only dim memories of her early years in Yorkshire. From now on, and until her death, London would be her home.

Riots and radicals: the Robb family at Charing Cross

When the first full census of Great Britain was taken in 1841, the Robb family were living at 29 Charing Cross, at the top end of what we now know as Whitehall, on the left-hand side facing towards the Palace of Westminster, about halfway between Northumberland House and Great Scotland Yard. Although we can’t be sure that this was their address in London from the outset, it is at least possible that, as newly-arrived migrants from the North, they alighted from their coach at the Golden Cross Inn at Charing Cross (made famous by Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, which was published around the time of their arrival in London) and sought accommodation nearby.

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Charing Cross and Whitehall in Richard Horwood’s Plan of London, 1792

This blog’s header image, a photograph taken by M. de la Croix in 1839, provides us with a fascinating glimpse of Charing Cross at this period. As Gavin Stamp writes, in  The Changing Metropolis: earliest photographs of London 1839-79, the image is ‘hauntingly and tantalisingly beautiful’. He adds: 

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

For me, the tantalising quality is intensified by knowing that my ancestors were living in one of the buildings shown in the photograph at exactly this time. Indeed, they may have been there at the very moment when the picture was taken. As the photograph makes clear, most of the buildings in this section of the road housed shops on their ground floor, with apartments above, and No. 29 was no exception. In 1841 it was home to a tobacconist’s shop run by 20-year-old Matthew Cholerton. Besides the Robbs, there was one other family living in the house: George Atkins, a 40-year-old pensioner, and two of his relatives. Ann Martin, a 15-year-old family servant was also present, though it’s unclear which family she was serving.

Immediately behind No. 29, in Craigs Court, was the King’s Arms, a public house that had been the scene of a violent episode a few decades before the Robbs arrived. In July 1794, suspicions that the inn was being used as a ‘crimping house’, where men were plied with drink and bamboozled into joining the army, sparked a riot which spread to Whitehall and Downing Street.

Five years later, No. 29 itself earned a place in the political history of London when it became home to the radical tailor Francis Place, who set up shop there with his partner Richard Wild. As Place writes in his Autobiography: 

Having thus satisfied ourselves that we could raise forty pounds, we went in search of a house towards the west, and having seen several we at length found one, No. 29 Charing Cross which just the thing for us, if we could obtain possession of it. The rent was only fifty pounds a year, but for the lease, fixtures, and conveyance of the Lease eighty four pounds were demanded, the house had a good front and needed only outside painting. The rent was very low the house was small, it was rated low in the Parish Books, but how to raise the Eighty four pounds was a question not easily solved. Borrowing was the only chance we had, so we set to work at it, Wild amongst his  acquaintances I amongst mine.

[…]

My furniture consisted of very few articles, and excepting two or three pieces were of a very mean description. As we were going into a respectable neighbourhood, as the Shop had been nicely painted, and our names put along the front in large gilt letters, so as to have the appearance of means to do business in good stile; as the goods we had purchased would enable us to make a handsome display in the windows we were desirous to conceal the proofs of our poverty which the furniture would have given if exposed by day light, A small cart was therefore hired, the goods were packed in convenient pieces and at dusk were put into the cart. My Brother, Wilds Brother Richard Hayward, myself and Wild were all there and in a few minutes the goods were carried into the shop and we were in actual possession of a house and a shewey shop almost to our own surprise, in which I anticipated great success my wife great fears for the result.

Francis Place was a key figure in the reformist London Corresponding Society during the troubled decade of the 1790s, when radical agitation in the wake of the French Revolution was matched by repressive measures on the part of Pitt’s administration. It’s ironic that Charles Robb lived in a house that had once hosted the meetings of an organisation excoriated by his brother William in his anti-revolutionary poetry.

NPG 1959; Francis Place by Samuel Drummond

Francis Place by Samuel Drummond

In 1801 the partnership between Place and Wild ended acrimoniously and the radical tailor moved out, taking up residence further along the street at No. 16 Charing Cross. He retired in 1817 and his son, also named Francis, took over the family business. Francis Place the younger was still living there, just a short distance from the Robb family, at the time of the 1841 census, when his next-door neighbour at No. 15 was the bookseller William Hamilton Reid, another well-known radical of the 1790s.

Maids, mariners and law clerks: the siblings of Elizabeth Robb

Not all of Elizabeth Robb’s older siblings followed the family to London. Her sister Matilda was employed as a lady’s maid by Lady Frances Bassett, a baroness and heir to the Bassett tin mining fortune, who lived at Tehidy Park in Illogan, near Redruth in Cornwall. It’s unclear when Matilda took up this post, but at the time of the 1841 census she would be staying with Lady Bassett at an inn in Devizes, Wiltshire. Elizabeth’s brother John, seems to have gone to sea – his marriage certificate describes him as a mariner – and later worked as a parliamentary clerk; he certainly wasn’t living with his parents in 1841. Another of Elizabeth’s brothers, Charles Edward, died in September 1836, after the family’s arrival in London, and was buried at St Martin-in-the-Fields.

As for my great-great-grandfather William Robb, he worked as a law stationer’s clerk and in May 1836 married Fanny Sarah Seager at the church of St George-the-Martyr in Queen Square, Bloomsbury. Fanny was the daughter of Samuel Hurst Seager, a porter at the Inns of Court. Fanny’s brothers Samuel junior, Henry and Edward would all emigrate to New Zealand: Samuel’s son would become one of the country’s leading architects, while Edward was a pioneer of mental health provision and the grandfather of the crime novelist Ngaio Marsh. The Seagers were Nonconformists, and despite the Robb family’s Episcopalian origins, William appears to have switched denominations on marrying Fanny. Their son Charles Edward (my great grandfather), who was born in 1851, would be christened at the Wesleyan chapel in Great Queen Street, not far from where he was born in Old Compton Street. Sadly, Fanny would die shortly after giving birth to Charles and was buried at Whitfield’s Chapel in Tottenham Court Road. In time William would remarry, his second wife being Marianne Mansfield Palmer, a member of a devoutly Methodist family originally from Stoke-on-Trent.

William must have been visiting his parents in Charing Cross on the night of the 1841 census, as his name features in the list of residents at No. 29. Also present, besides my great-great-great-grandparents Charles and Margaret, was another of Elizabeth’s brothers, George William, who is described, like his father and brother, simply as a ‘clerk’.

Marriage at St. Martin’s

It seems likely, then, that Elizabeth Robb lived with her parents and brothers at 29 Charing Cross until the time of her marriage in 1841. Nothing is known of her early life or education, and the certificate of Elizabeth’s marriage to Joseph Boden is the first official record we have for her since her christening twenty years earlier. The wedding took place at St Martin-in-the-Fields, the Robb family’s parish church and just a short walk from their home in Charing Cross. As they made their way to the church, the family would have passed by the building works for the new Trafalgar Square, which had begun in 1829 and wouldn’t be completed until 1844.

trafalgar square 1843

               Nelson’s Column under construction, with St Martin-in-the-Fields in the background, 1843

It’s not known how Elizabeth met  Joseph Boden, the man she married on 22nd February 1841, four months before her twenty-first birthday. One possibility is that he was a friend or relative of the Robb family’s young landlord, Matthew Cholerton, who seems to have been born, like Joseph, in Derbyshire. The marriage certificate describes Joseph Boden as a dentist, living in Great Castle Street, to the north of Oxford Street.

In the next post, I’ll share what I’ve been able to discover about the man Elizabeth married on that fateful February day in the third year of Queen Victoria’s reign.

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