In the previous post I suggested that some background knowledge about my great grandfather’s life might throw light on the ways in which he ‘performs’ fathering in his wartime letters to his son. In this post, I want to share some of that knowledge, before moving on to considering its usefulness and appropriateness as additional data.
As I mentioned in the second post in this series, I never knew my great grandfather, and nor did my father. All the knowledge I have of him, apart from one or two family stories handed down through the generations, is derived from my research into my family’s history. What follows is a selection of the information I’ve been able to glean to date.
Charles Edward Robb was born in 1851 in Compton Street, Soho, the son of law stationer’s clerk William Robb and his wife Fanny Sarah Seager. William, who had been born in Richmond, Yorkshire in 1814, was the son of Aberdeenshire-born solicitor’s clerk Charles Edward Stuart Robb and his wife Margaret Ricketts Monteith, who moved to London, having spent some years in Yorkshire, in the 1820s or 1830s.
Fanny Seager was the daughter of porter Samuel Hurst Seager. Her brothers emigrated to New Zealand: one (another Samuel) became a famous architect, while Edward was a pioneer of mental health whose granddaughter was the crime novelist Ngaio Marsh.
Fanny died of pneumonia a few weeks after Charles was born, so he was brought up by his father and the latter’s second wife, Mary Anne Mansfield Palmer, in a large household in the expanding suburb of Mile End Old Town. Although the Robbs had been Episcopalian / Anglican, the Seagers and Palmers were Nonconformists, and Charles was christened in a Methodist chapel.
Charles Edward Robb in old age
Charles married Louisa Bowman in 1877, when he was 26, and they had ten children, of whom Arthur Ernest Robb, my grandfather, born in Whitechapel in 1897, was the youngest. The family lived variously in Canning Town, Whitechapel and finally East Ham. Charles had a number of different jobs, working at different times in his life as a labourer, tally clerk, messenger, and ‘housekeeper’ at the Wesleyan East End Mission in Whitechapel.
Besides the early death of his mother, Charles’ life was marked by a number of other tragic events. In 1904 his eldest son Charles William died while serving as a Royal Marine in Aden. In April of the following year his daughter Marion Fanny died at the age of 16 from heart failure, while in June his wife Louisa died of typhoid fever at the age of 48.
At the time of the 1991 census Charles, now 60, was living with his daughter Louisa, her husband Richard and their two small children, as well as his daughter Caroline (the ‘Carrie’ of the first letter) and son Arthur, 14. Charles was still working as a messenger in a shipping office. By this date, another son, Thomas, had emigrated to New Zealand. By the time Charles wrote the letters to his son Arthur, he was 65 and the latter was 19.
Of course, this information is inevitably selective, but I think it helps us to understand some of the emotional dynamics of my great grandfather’s wartime letters. I will suggest some possible connections in the next post.