John Robley (1792-1875)

John Robley as a young man

John Robley was born at Bankend Farm, Lamplugh Cumberland, on the 18th March 1792, the 8th child of William Robley and Sarah Kirkbride. John was destined for a career in commerce, rather than continuing in the family business of farming. While he was still a child, the family moved from Bankend to Marlborough Hall Farm, near St Bees on the West Cumberland coast.

John left home on the 9th June 1805, at the age of 17 years, to work under some form of 'agreement' with a Mr. Irwin in Manchester, probably with a view to entering the then booming 'Cotton Trade'. His mentor in Manchester was John Robley, his father William's nephew and the son of William's brother Joseph of 'Scales', Skelton. John and his wife were partners with Thomas Sterndale of Pool Hall, Hartington in a Tea and Grocery business, trading under the name of Sterndale and Robley.

The next we hear of William's son John is some four years later in 1813, when his agreement with Mr. Irwin appears due to expire and John has requested a loan of 400 pounds from his father to enter a partnership.

While the nature of the partnership is not known, the text of a letter and the probing questions to John, the grocer, demonstrated William's reluctance to part with a large sum of money without very well defined safeguards. The full text of the letter is included here as it demonstrates William's concern about his son, John.

William died at the age of 93 years.

Dear Nephew

I have long neglected writing to you for which I hope you excuse me I own I have a right to respect you and Mrs. Robley as particular friends on account of my son John who you have shown so much respect to. I had a letter from him last week wherein he writes that you and Mrs. Robley have been like a father and a mother to him I hope he will always continue grateful to his benefactors he also mentions that he has a great inclination of beginning business for himself and wishes me to advance him 400 pounds. I always intended to make him a present of 200 pounds when his agreement with Mr.Irwin expired he also makes mention of taking a partner but he has no money to begin with. I am surprised that a man that has been 16 years with Mr Irwin should neither have money nor friends to help him forward if I should advance four hundred pounds to my son and his partner became equal shares it will be like making his partner a compliment of two hundred pounds if he could meet with a partner about his own age who is steady and understands the business well and could raise 200 pounds in my opinion it would be much better than taking one into partnership who is double his age he will be for having all his own way which my son would not altogether like.

I have now given you and my son my opinion concerning going into partnership with a man that has no money to begin with he has to gain but nothing to lose.

I have a favour to beg of you that is that you would write to me in a fortnight or three weeks time and let me know how my son behaves himself and if he be fit to set up in business or not. I hope Mrs. Robley and you will not disemble but let me have such a reaction as you think he deserves.

I expect to see him sometime in April or the beginning of May if he can get leave of Mr. Irwin at which time I will give him two hundred pounds if he can put it in a place of security till he wants it . I do not in the least doubt but you and Mrs.Robley will advise him for the best. Please give my kind respects to Mr. and Mrs. Sterndale and family from your ever obliged uncle.

William Robley.

Excuse lest I have missed several little words I write with a candle. I would like very much to see my son set forward in business if I thought he was steady and capable of carrying it on for I am grown an old man. I am near to 65 years and I find myself going down the hill very fast tho I enjoy a good state of health.

Elizabeth Sterndale

However dubious William may have been about his son's ability, John quickly demonstrated that he had as good a head on his shoulders as his father, and he was situated in the right place at the right time. John was 21 years old, and when he asked for the money probably felt that he was quite capable of running his own affairs.

In 1816 Thomas Sterndale died. John, would have known Thomas Sterndale's daughter, Elizabeth, since his move to Manchester and they married the following year on the 30th of December 1817 in the Cathedral, Manchester. The Sterndales were an old family and had lived at Hartington since the 1600s. Elizabeth's Aunt was Hannah Robley probably the wife of John Robley the grocer.

The next we know of John is in 1819, when his partnership with a Peter Glover was officially dissolved. This may have been the partnership about which his father expressed his reservations. At that time, John and Elizabeth were living in Manchester in Upper Brook Street and well on the way to amassing his considerable fortune. They later moved to Cheltenham.

In 1826 Elizabeth wrote a letter to her Aunt Hannah in Brook Street, Chorlton Brow, Manchester sending her condolences on the death of Martha (Sevill) whom she describes as ' an amiable, affectionate creature'. She wonders how Mr. Robley (John the Grocer) will take it and her Aunt Sevill also. She enquires also about her sister's toothache, and refers to a Mr. Landman who may have been her brother in law.

This is a rather strange letter in that it follows on her condolences, and well wishes, with a comprehensive list of clothing that she wishes to be sent to her.

And now my dear Aunt I am going again to trouble you, but it will do whenever you have time, it is to be so good to send my muff and tipet, and the turkey down tipet that was my Mothers, which I think is in my pillow case, in the sheet chest, as well as a piece of flannel, which I think is in the chest too. You must be so good as to buy a light thin deal box, which you could perhaps get at some of the Drapers shops, such a one of course, as will hold these things, and send it by the Coach, directed to us. No. 149. High Street, Cheltenham, the box and other expenses incurred for us, please to keep an account of. You perhaps might as well send my amber coloured silk shawl, not that I have the slightest intention of wearing it, but John says it might as well come".

Clearly she does not like Cheltenham which she describes as, "this foolish place, where all is indeed vanity and vexation of spirit".

It is likely that John and Elizabeth spent some years in Cheltenham, although his very considerable fortune was made in Manchester in the cotton trade, and probably later though investments on the Stock Market, where he was considered an expert on the subject of railway shares.

Two letters from that period remain, the first from Henry Robley of Clifton in Bristol (the uncle of Horatio Gordon Robley) alerting John to a search for an heir to the estate of Henry Robson Robley, who had died intestate in London, and also seeking advice on the subject of Railway Shares.

A second letter was written in 1844 to his Cheltenham address by Augusta Robley from the Island of Madeira (the mother of Horatio Gordon Robley) asking for John's interest in a book of flower paintings that she hoped to publish. He did in fact buy a copy of this beautifully illustrated book. Augusta was a Penfold of Madeira and was married to Henry Robley's brother, Captain John Horatio Robley.

There is no indication as to when John and Elizabeth returned to Manchester, but I suspect that it came non too soon for Elizabeth! Elizabeth died on the 17th. July 1865 and is buried at 'All Saints'(St. Saviours) Church at Chorlton-upon-Medlock with her Aunt Hannah (1766-1857). Her passing is recorded on a gravestone in the Egremont Cemetery.

John Robley as an old man

In his later years John was a noted philanthropist.A newspaper cutting, circa 1872, tells of a meeting in the Cathedral Schools, Manchester where 400 blind people from the Manchester and Salford areas were entertained to tea. During the tea, it was announced that John Robley of Upper Brook Street had donated 500 pounds to the foundation of an Institute for the Blind. The Bishop said that he had accompanied Dr. Crompton to Mr. Robley's hoping to exert some influence, however, he found that he was not needed.

John Robley said," if you wish to proceed with the work Dr. Crompton you can count on me for 500 pounds, but you must not come again!" (laughter).

,P>In fact, following this very generous gift, Dr. Crompton was guilty of a delay in putting the plan into effect and a series of letters passed between them with Dr. Crompton offering reasons for the delay, pleading that he was frequently sick and unable to attend to it.

John died on the 17th. April 1875, and is buried in the family vault in the Egremont Cemetery.

John's very considerable fortune was divided between his nephews and nieces, the families of his brothers Thomas and Joseph, i.e among the Robleys and the Steeles. This fortune included the distribution of about 36,000 pounds of Railway Stocks and Shares.

The main beneficiaries were his nephews John and Thomas Robley, the sons of his brother, Thomas, who shared at least 20,000 pounds between them.

His nephew, William,( the wrestler who spent much of his life in Australia and Canada), the eldest son of his brother Thomas, received an annuity of 50 pounds for life on the understanding that he did not encumber it in any way nor anticipate the payment of the annuity. This was a relatively small amount of money and the terms imposed, demonstrated the family belief that William was somewhat wild and unreliable, and should not be not be trusted with a significant lump sum of money.

In the dining room at 'Ingleberg', the house built by Thomas with his inheritance, hung two, larger than life, portraits of John and Elizabeth in massive gold frames. Thomas left these portraits to his son, John, as the very first item in his will, a clear indication of the importance and regard that he held for his benefactor.

John Robley. Lesmurdie, Western Australia. Oct. 2001.