Rev William Robley: Curate of Cumwhitton

Behind every person there is a story. The difficulty with most of our early ancestors is that we cannot access that story. They remain only a name on a family tree. This article is about an obscure clergyman of the Church of England who we do know something about, because he came into contact, when he was young, with a highly gifted bishop.

William Robley was born at High Blackhall, Burnthwaite and christened on 5th September, 1686 at St. Cuthbert's Church, Carlisle. The son of John and Ann Robley, he was one of their six sons and four daughters. Coming from a farming background, there is no record of what led him to his life's work in the church. The year 1703, however, brought him to his first curacy at Cumwhitton shortly after William Nicolson took up his appointment as Bishop of Carlisle. If his age is calculated from his christening date, William Robley was about seventeen years old.

Cumwhitton Church around 1832, from the Ford Sketchbooks held at the Record Office, Carlisle

William Nicolson had been consecrated at Lambeth on June 14th, 1702 and his primary visitation of every church in the diocese began on May 7th, 1703. The new bishop not only visited, but left us the legacy of written accounts of his inspections in his "Miscellany Accounts of the Diocese of Carlile". On the 29th October, 1703 he arrived at Cumwhitton, just before William Robley came there in succession to William Sommers. "Mr Robley, their new Curate, is not yet resident amongst them; but will shortly come . . ." (p. 112-113)

Bishop Nicolson's report of William's expected arrival, in 1703, raises speculation about his status at that time. The Carlisle Bishop's Register states that he was ordained Deacon, by the Bishop of Carlisle, on May 19th, 1706. Further research showed that he came originally as an unordained curate (lay-reader), with special responsibilities for education. "William Robley appointed sm and reader at Cumwhitton 23-11-1703". (Dean & Chapter Order Book, Carlisle.)

Bishop Nicolson was keenly interested in education, and highly critical of the state of schooling at Cumwhitton. There had been a vacancy, for some time, after the departure of William's predecessor, and the schoolmaster, for the time being, was the parish-clerk, "a man of very modest Qualifications".

It was not unusual for the parish-clerk to act as school-master, in the absence of a curate, but in this case he seems to have been a particularly incompetent one and unfit for his position. Enthusiastic in his new role, and committed to reform, the Bishop looked forward to the coming of Robley, who would "take the office of teaching out of this illiterate man's hand".

There is no evidence that William had a degree, and indeed he was too young to have taken one. It is clear though that Bishop Nicolson had high expectations of him, and felt that he would make a difference to the life and educational standards of this rural parish. He must have worked under difficulties, for the conditions under which the children were taught were far from ideal. In the absence of a schoolroom classes were held within the church. As the South Window was unglazed, "it starves the whole Congregation as well as the poor Children".

There were many signs of neglect at St. Mary's, Cumwhitton at the beginning of William Robley's ministry, although the Bishop did have some good things to say about it: "the Altar-stead is well floor'd: But here are no Rails and hardly any Table." There were other defects besides the lack of communion rails. The walls were not whitewashed, and there was not a word of writing on them. The Queen's Arms had not been set up. There was a new font, and a good pulpit but the seats needed to be backed, and the parishioners needed to buy a Bible and a Book of Homilies.

Cumwhitton Parsonage 1832, from the Ford Sketchbooks

One great attraction at Cumwhitton was that a curate's house had recently been built for "the Accommodation of Mr Sommers ye late Curate here". William was a batchelor when he came to Cumwhitton, but the house must have been an essential when he married Margaret Nevinson at Wetheral on the 17th February 1708/09.

Nighingale's comments that William became related to Bishop Nicolson, through his marriage, has puzzled quite a few recent researchers. He suggests this twice in his book "The Ejected of 1662". In his chapter on Cumwhitton he speculates, "Probably this is William Robley who married Margaret Nevinson Feb. 17, 1708-9, and was therefore connected with Bishop Nicolson". (p.273)

He enlarges on this when writing about the Parish of Addingham. Thomas Nevinson, who was instituted to Addingham on October 18, 1697 had married Grace Nicolson, Bishop Nicolson's sister, in 1690. This calls forth another comment on the Robley/Nevinson marriage.

"In the Wetheral Registers we have the marriage entry, of possibly a daughter, or sister of Thomas Nevinson in the following terms:- 1708. Mr. William Robley & Margaret Nevinson. Mar. ffeb. ye 17."(p.356)

Who then was Margaret Nevinson? The most likely candidate seemed to be Margaret Nevinson of Penrith, the daughter of Edward Nevinson, a tanner, and Rachel Hewer.

Edward was the brother of the Thomas Nevinson who had married Grace, the sister of Bishop William Nicolson. Margaret was christened at St. Andrew's Church on 2nd October 1684, so she met the criterion as to age. While not "a daughter, or sister of Thomas Nevinson" she was his niece, and so closely related to him.

Against this was the place of the wedding: why Wetheral and not Penrith?

An appeal for information on the Cumberland Rootsweb Message-Board attracted the attention of the Nevinson researchers. They confirmed the view that Margaret could not be a daughter of Thomas and Grace Nevinson. Their daughters were, "Susannah, Mary, Elizabeth, Ann, Grace and Dorothy".

On the positive side, they had another suggestion which was that William married the daughter of Caleb Nevinson of Allenwood, Wetheral. Margaret although not on the IGI, is named in Caleb's will, and would have been of a suitable age, and from the right location, Wetheral. She did not fulfil the criterion as to close connection to Grace's husband Thomas, although they were remotely related. The two Margarets were about sixth cousins.

The Bishop was not slow to point out the failings of the Cumwhitton curates. In the case of William Sommers it was ambition: "he (modest and humble as long as onley Schoolmaster) quitted them soon after he had gotten Deacon's orders. Let not Robley do ye like"

William Robley stayed on for about 3 years after his ordination, and his move coincided with a change in his circumstances. Clerical incomes in the eighteenth century were very low. Bouch, in his "Prelates and People of the Lake Counties", gives the value of the living at Cumwhitton at ten pounds. It may have been augmented by teaching school, but even with a frugal life-style william cannot have earned enough to keep a life and start a family. In 1709 he left Cumwhitton.

We know it was 1709 because the Bishop kept a diary in which he recorded the minutia of his daily life. On June 15th 1709 he notes thata new clerk has been appointed to officiate during the vacancy: "Allow'd till ye D. and Ch. settles the Curacy". (T.C.W.A.A.C. New series. Vol.XXXV. p.100)

On December 22nd, of the same year, a seemingly unsatisfactory appointment had been made: "Mr. John Hodgson Clerk (not in Orders) nominated to ye Curacy of Cumwhitton; but cannot turn any one Article of his Creed into Latine".(p.116)

On some fronts though things were moving forward: Jan. 9th, 1710, "Parishioners of Cumwhitton, wth mean Thoughts (as I have) of their new Curate: For a School-House"(p.119). Meanwhile William had crossed the border into Northumberland, and out of the diocese.

Margaret and William's first baby was christened Nevison in 1710 at Holy Cross Church, Haltwhistle where William had settled into his second curacy. He was subsequently moved to Simonburn in 1715, was ordained priest at Durham in 1724 and spent his later years in Falstone, from 1736.

An interesting genealogical sideline is the use of Nevison, as a Christian name, by subsequent generations. If Nevison Robley appears often on your family tree, you are certainly descended from William, sometime curate of Cumwhitton.


Bouch, C.M.L. Prelates and people of the Lake Counties. (Kendal: T. Wilson, 1948).

McIntire, W.T.ed. Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society. Vol. XXXV.-New Series. (Kendal: Titus Wilson, 1935).

Nightingale, B. The ejected of 1662 in Cumberland & Westmorland. (Manchester University Press, 1911.)

Nicolson, William. Miscellany Accounts of the Diocese of Carlile. (London; Carlisle: George Bell; C. Thurnam, 1877).

Many thanks to the staff of Cumbria Record Office, The Castle, Carlisle for their help with this research.

Marian Robley Foster