Christopher Robley

Christopher Robley, the fourth child of Joseph Robley and Agnes Pearson of Cumwhinton, was baptised at Wetheral, near Carlisle, on 27 February 1791. The year of his birth was probably 1787, judging from information he provided in a range of documents held in Australia (e.g. Musters of 1822 and 1825, the 1828 Census, his Conditional Pardon).

By about his 20th year, Christopher had fallen foul of the law: he was arrested and was charged at the Cumberland Assizes on 31 July 1807 with “feloniously stealing, taking and carrying away from the dwelling house of Andrew Dodgson, of Broughwaite, one promissory note, and divers other goods.” (The Cumberland Pacquet, 5 August, 1807) He was found guilty, and sentenced to death. Fortunately for the hundreds of Australians who are descended from him, “Robley was reprieved, before the Judge left the town.” (The Carlisle Journal, 8 August 1807) His sentence was commuted to transportation to New South Wales, for the term of his natural life.

After three years’ imprisonment (perhaps in Cumberland, or on one of the prison hulks on the Thames?), Christopher was one of 200 male convicts put aboard the “Indian”, a vessel of some 522 tons, which left England on 18 July 1810. On 16 December 1810, 151 days later, the ship (minus eight convicts who died en route) arrived in Sydney. The place was still fairly primitive, although the near starvation conditions of the settlement’s early years were well behind it. Christopher was a blacksmith by trade, so was immediately able to work on Government projects, including roads and buildings. Governor Macquarie was intent on creating a civilised community, with well designed and constructed amenities; convicts like Christopher, with useful skills, were relatively well looked after.

The daily food ration was 1½ pounds of flour and 1½ pounds of meat, plus vegetables. Though the convicts were engaged in government employment during the week, there was relative freedom on the weekend. They were able to work on their own account on Saturdays and after Church on Sunday mornings. Those who had already served four years without committing any offence were allowed to live outside the barracks, as were all married men of good character.

In 1815, while quarrying at South Head (at the opening to Sydney Harbour), Robley was severely injured. He had been working to prepare the site for the new Macquarie Lighthouse. As a result of his injuries, he petitioned the Governor for a Ticket of Leave, which was granted in June 1816. This virtually left him with the freedom to live as he pleased, within the immediate Sydney area.

On 22 April 1816, he married Mary Cummins, daughter of John and Mary Cummins, who had arrived in the colony with Governor Macquarie on 1 January 1810. John Cummins was a private in Macquarie’s 73rd Regiment.

Christopher further petitioned Governor Macquarie for a Conditional Pardon, which would give him his freedom (though he would never be able to return to England). His petition includes the following statement: “That Petitioner received from Your Excellency the Gracious Indulgence of a Ticket of Leave in June, 1816, on account of a severe hurt he received at South Head about the commencement of the building of Macquarie Tower, and having a wife and family dependant on him for support, and his conduct being, since his arrival in New South Wales, irreproachable.” The petition also includes the following supportive comment by Mr. Gibb, Acting Engineer of the colony: “The Petitioner is a son-in-law of Cummings [sic], and whilst in the employ of Government, conducted himself well.” Governor Macquarie granted the Pardon on 31 January 1818.

One of the benefits of having a convict ancestor, rather than a free arrival, is the comparative wealth of documentation available. Christopher’s Conditional Pardon reveals (among much else) that his year of birth was 1787, his height was 5’9½”, his complexion was ruddy, his hair brown and his eyes hazel in colour!

Christopher and Mary had the following children:

  1. Mary Ann (born 6 October 1816)
  2. John (born 27 July 1818)
  3. Agnes (born 25 September 1820)
  4. Joseph (born 6 May 1823)
  5. Ann (born 19 March 1825)

Christopher’s injury must have improved, as he continued working as a blacksmith throughout his life. However, he also worked as a Constable. Quite a turn-around for a former convict, but probably a fair reflection of the unusual nature of a growing colonial society. Macquarie’s 1820 Despatch notes salary payments to Christopher Robley, Constable. An entry in the Sydney Gazette, 3 June 1820 records his resignation as Constable; however, he seems to have continued in that work, as the Supplementary Sydney Gazette, 24 November 1821 records payment to him of £25 from the Colonial Police Fund for the period July-September 1821.

In the 1822 Muster Christopher’s occupation is given as “sawyer”; in the 1825 Muster, he is a Constable. In the Census of 1828 he is shown as a Sheriff’s Officer, living in Clarence Street (now a key street in Sydney’s CBD.)

Christopher began using the name “Christopher James Robley”. The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 May 1831, lists allotments of land in Clarence Street for John Cummins (who had by this time retired from the Army) and “Christopher James Robley”. Christopher used just “James Robley” on the Birth Certificates of several of his children. The NSW Colonial Secretary, in the 1830 Returns of the Colony, refers to “Mr J.C. Robley, Bailiff at Sydney, appointed 15th June 1822, by the Governor. Salary £100 per annum.” A Despatch of 1835 lists applications for Convict Assigned Servants: Mr J.C. Robley was a successful applicant. The NSW Calendar and Directory for 1834, 1835, 1836 and 1837 list “Robley, James. Blacksmith. Kent Street.”

Christopher died at Windmill Hill (a site now overlooking the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House), and was buried from the Parish of St Lawrence on 6 November 1838, aged about 51 years. His wife Mary died just five months later, on 10 April 1839. They were almost certainly both buried at the Devonshire Street Cemetery (the main cemetery for Sydney from 1820 to 1888). In 1907, the cemetery was resumed, to allow for the construction of Sydney’s Central Railway Station. Families of those buried had the option of exhumation and reburial at another cemetery of their choice. If no interested persons came forward (and this was the case with Christopher and Mary), remains were removed and reburied at Botany.

The Botany location is perhaps ironic. In the early days of transportation, convicts were regarded as being “bound for Botany Bay”. However, as soon as the First Fleet arrived at this spot, it was realized that the lack of water and poor soil quality meant an alternative location was imperative for the settlement’s survival. Exploration of nearby areas followed immediately. When one of the world’s finest harbours was found, just a short sail north of Botany Bay, this seemed a much more suitable site for a settlement, so Sydney was born. When Christopher was reburied in 1907 at Botany, he finally completed the long journey to Botany Bay.

Copyright John Ross 2001