‘I had also an Uncle George who died many years ago leaving children but I don’t know how many. I had also an Aunt called Penelope…’
So wrote my great-great-grandfather William Robb in a memorandum of 1885, a few years before his death in Stepney, in the East End of London. William was the son of my 3rd great grandparents Charles Edward Stuart Robb and his wife Margaret Ricketts Monteith, both of whom were originally from Scotland. Charles was born in Aberdeenshire, but he and Margaret were married in Glasgow.
View of Glasgow in 1828, via glasgowhistory.com
My research into my family’s history has led me to the belief that William’s ‘Uncle George’ was Glasgow merchant George Robb, and that his Aunt Penelope was George’s wife, Penelope Robb née Thomson. On 15th January 1805, George Robb, described in the records as a ‘merchant in Glasgow’ married Penelope Thomson, daughter of ‘John Thomson of Hillhead, Parish of Eastwood’. A newspaper announcement confirms that the ceremony took place in Hillhead.
As well as the fact that the couple’s names match those in my great-great-grandfather’s memorandum, an additional piece of evidence pointing to them being his uncle and aunt is the name of the officiating clergyman: ‘Mr William Robb, Episcopal Minister in St Andrews’. I’ve established beyond reasonable doubt that Rev. William Robb of St Andrews, who was a published poet as well as a minister of religion, was the brother of my 3rd great grandfather Charles Robb – and therefore also the brother of George Robb, which provides a plausible reason for William officiating at a wedding some seventy miles from his home parish.
An additional clue is provided by George Robb’s connections, and those of the family into which he married, with the lucrative trade with the colonies of the Caribbean, and particularly Jamaica, which means that they were implicated, whether directly or indirectly, in the ownership of slaves. While my 3rd great grandmother Margaret Ricketts Monteith’s origins remain shrouded in mystery, it seems likely that her middle name points to a connection with the famous (or notorious) Ricketts family who were among the leading plantation owners in colonial Jamaica.
Slaves working on a plantation in Jamaica (via januka.co.uk)
Although my search for information about George Robb began as an attempt to establish his connection with my own family, I soon became intrigued by his story, and that of his extended family, for its own sake. I discovered that he and his wife and children were part of a nexus of families linked by marriage that included merchants, manufacturers, plantation owners, lawyers, artists and administrators – many of them implicated in the infamous ‘triangular trade’ that connected Glasgow with Africa and the New World.
It is the story of that extended family – of interest in its own right, but also providing a fascinating insight into life in Glasgow, and the city’s links with the New World, in the nineteenth century – that I want to tell in this blog.