William Isaac Robley.

A Memoir

William Isaac Robley was born on 25th August, 1892 in Cumwhitton village. His father was Joseph Robley, formerly of Scarrowmanwick, and his mother was Mary Ann Robley. Mary Ann's maiden name was Lowis, and her family came from Blunderfield (Kirkoswald Parish). William was the youngest of 7 children. His siblings were: John (b.19/09/1878), Jane Elizabeth (b. 02/061880), Maud Mary (b. 04/04/1882), Joseph (b. 12/03/1884), Thomas (b.26/09/1886) and Mabel Sarah (b. 28/03/1889).

All four boys became farmers when they grew up, in either Cumwhitton or neighbouring parishes. Of the three girls, Mabel married David Wilfrid Ferguson of Whitehead Hill and moved with David to a farm at Guston Dover (Frith Farm). Maud married Thomas William Dixon who was proprietor of the Red Lion, Cumwhitton (now the Pheasant). They retired later to Fern Bank. Jane died on the 5th December, 1916, at the age of 36, of diabetes. Memories of Janey made the family very sad and my mother cried whenever she was mentioned.

Joseph (right) and William at work in the fields. William does not look fully grown in this picture but older than 11. It must have been taken a few years after the death of their father, Joseph.

William's father, Joseph died suddenly at 47. William must have been about 11 at the time. His granddaughter, Edith believes that he died from "galloping" pneumonia: "he worked the whole day in the fields, came home, went to bed and by midnight he was dead". His death certificate, however, gives the cause of his death as "heart disease." An obituary notice pasted inside his Bible refers to his "quiet, unassuming and cheerful manner". This is not a description I would associate with my father, although it does fit perfectly the character of my brother, Walter. An odd quirk of the genes!

Mary Ann, a formidable person, carried on farming with the help of her sons. According to Edith she was "very plain spoken. Said exactly what she thought." There was no question that there could be two women in the house, so Joseph and William stayed at home to help on the farm. William was devoted to his mother, and when I was born, after her death, he wanted me to be named after her. My mother, though, thought it too old fashioned, and by mutual consent it was contracted to Marian.

The only known photograph of Mary-Ann (left), taken at Midtown with Maud, Jane and (?)William. Contributed by Joe Robley of Demesne, Cumwhitton

Mary Ann lived on for another 24 years and died on February 11th, 1928 with her two unmarried sons still living with her. John and Thomas had married long ago and acquired new farms and started their own families. Joseph had been courting for years, and on 5th February, 1830 he married Mary Oliver who was born in Newcastle in 1893.

William looked round for a wife. He had first met Hannah Graham when she lived at Brocklewath Farm. The loning leading up to this farm is very near Cumwhitton. It is the first turn to the left on the road to Great Corby. Hannah's father was Walter Graham and my brother is named after him. She said she often saw Willie on Sundays, at church, where he was in the congregation and she sang in the choir. She had no thought of marrying him, and when she was in her twenties her father bought a new farm at Plumpton, and she moved away from the district.

My father though seemed to be still thinking of her, and when Mary Ann died he decided to try his luck. I am told that he walked from Cumwhitton to Wall Farm, Plumpton when he was courting her. Edith said that the watched him through a window of their house as he passed through Armathwaite. They knew were he was going, and no doubt teased him a lot because Edith said, "He always had a very high colour when he passed our house !"

William married Hannah. The entry in the family bible reads:"At the Mansion House Registry Office Penrith on Tuesday 4th November 1930, William Isaac Robley of Cumwhitton to Hannah Graham of Plumpton Wall". Their first two children: Marian (b. 19/01/1932), and Walter Graham (b. 14/12/1933) were born quite close together.

William was 40 when I was born. I remember him as bald on top, with black hair round the sides and dark blue eyes. He was about 6 foot 2 inches tall, well built with a heavy square face. He spoke the local dialect, interspaced with plenty of swear words. My mother told the tale that when I was very little, and just beginning to talk, I suddenly stood up on the mat and poured out a string of my father's choice expressions. She said she gave me a good smacking.

When I was even younger than this, there was an old woman living with the family who used to look after me. I have no memory of her at all, but my mother told me she thought I was quite a handful and very spoilt. There was a shawl in the house which used to belong to Mary Ann, my grandmother, and my nurse liked to wear it, sitting in the rocking chair, to keep her shoulders warm. I regarded the shawl as mine.

I would set up an uproar shouting, "shawl, shawl, want me shawl."

When the din got too much for her, she would also start to shout, "Theere's thee shawl, thee an thee shawl." She left before my brother was born, declaring that she couldn't put up with another like me. I still have the shawl which was the cause of all this controversy.

I do have some slight memory of a washer women who came in once a week to do the laundry. I think her name was Nancy. This suggests that William did have some money at the beginning of his marriage, but in fact both women soon disappeared. He had no help at all on the farm. My mother said it was partly due to the depression, and partly to the need to pay Uncle Jobbie his part-share of the farm. Jobbie had moved to a rented farm at Castle Carrock called Shepherd's View.

When I was 5 I was sent to Cumwhitton village school, and I must have had some religious instruction there because one day I ran home, and announced proudly that I knew the Lord's Prayer. Rapidly and uncomprehendingly I ran through it until I came to "Thy will be done on earth. Passages in heaven." I was mortified when my parents laughed at me, and insisted with such conviction that I was right, that my mother wavered and suggested that there might be a new version of the Lord's Prayer. This caused my father even more amusement.

William Isaac Robley in his early twenties.

One day I was walking with my father in the croft behind Midtown. I had questions on my mind that had puzzled me rising from the lessons I had had at school. He seemed in a good mood so I waded right in.

"Where is God?"

"Nobody knows"

This answer was a tremendous shock to me, as I thought that somewhere in the world there were wise men who knew everything. I can still, in my mind's eye, see the exact spot where this conversation took place.

"Nobody?", I said.

Nobody. Some people think that there is no God."

Then as we walked on in silence for a while and I digested all this, he added, "And don't start believing everything you hear at school."

My father was very interested in my schooling, and used to question me closely about what I had learnt and whether I had got my sums right. I had a natural aptitude for arithmetic, which was lucky as he thought it was a useful subject and attached great importance to it. History was also worth studying, as it was good to know about the past and what one's ancestors had achieved. He was proud of the Robleys, and would like to have known more about them. He disapproved strongly of fiction and burnt the one book I had managed to acquire. It was called "Freda's Fortune" and was about a girl who went to live with the gypsies. Freda had brown eyes and I wanted brown eyes. They were a rarity in Cumwhitton. I had read it repeatedly but was still heart broken when it disappeared. Although my father made no secret of what had happened to it, I quite illogically kept on searching the house, because of my hope that it wasn't true.

My father then was a difficult man although he had many good qualities too. He had strict rules, such as, for instance, no talking at all at meals. If Walter and I disobeyed we got a hard slap. He liked to think. No doubt he had plenty to think about with the depression in farming. Moreover, tragedy had come to our family with the birth of my sister, Anne.

Anne was born on 3rd August 1937. She was premature, but her prematurity was not the real problem. Anne was profoundly retarded. She never sat up or talked. She was chronically ill with bronchitis, and had frequent epileptic fits. For nearly 3 years she was the centre of our lives, because she needed constant attention. My mother was devoted to her, and never recovered from her death. I do not know what William thought, but I think he worried about where he would find the money to have Anne looked after for the rest of her life, if she lived.

Anne died on 6th June 1940. She had been ill for a long time with a severe bout of bronchitis. Grandma Graham was staying with us to help with the nursing. One morning my mother came in and told us that she had died in the night.

"I want to see her", I said.

My mother said "no", but grandma said immediately, "Of course she can", and grandma had her way.

I looked carefully at Anne. I had never seen a dead person. It was then that I noticed, for the first time, that there was something wrong with Anne. I could tell by her face that she was not normal.

Later on in my teens I questioned my mother about what exactly was the root problem, what caused her to be the way she was, but she said she didn't know. Still curious, a few years ago I sent for her death certificate. It read, "i. Capillary Bronchitis ii. Cretinism & Hydrocephalus." This cleared up the mystery for me. It all made sense.

It was already war-time when Anne died. I remember she had her own green ration book which entitled her to a few extras like bananas. Big changes then had already happened or were on the way.

Children went to school with gas masks slung over their shoulders. I did not like mine at all and was convinced I would suffocate if I ever needed to use it. In fact the war completely passed us by, and it's only effects were indirect ones. Evacuees arrived from Newcastle, and prisoners-of-war came out from their camps to help on the farms.

A new slogan, "Dig for Victory" was posted everywhere. This referred generally to using allotments and gardens to plant vegetables, to make up for the shortage of food formerly imported from abroad. Farming also changed in line with current demand. At Midtown fields which were once pasture were ploughed up to plant potatoes. The Croft yielded an excellent crop of brussel sprouts.

My father had found outlet for his talents. He suddenly discovered he was a good business man. The more backward of the locals called him, "Brussel Sprout Willie" but he took it in good part because he said, he "would have the last laugh". My mother was absolutely behind him. She hated housework, and meals might or might not appear. She probably had the untidiest house in Cumwhitton, but she would have loved a business career.

William & Hannah walking on Midtown Farm.

She immediately suggested a stall in Carlisle market, where she could sell brussel sprouts. With food rationed she thought it would be highly profitable. So every Saturday we went into Carlisle to the covered market, and sold the sprouts and whatever else she had managed to gather together. I remember going down to Cumwhitton Beck to pick water-cress. We all piled onto the bus, and the sacks of brussel sprouts were loaded onto the back and my mother got in with her baskets. The local bus accepted anything in those days.

My mother had her stall, and my father set me up on some benches & tables at the bottom of the market. I used a quart measure, and sold the sprouts for 6d a quart. I knew how to add up and give change. Long queues formed and sometimes I made more then my mother. I still remember the intense cold in Carlisle market in winter time.

On the farm, William suddenly had lots of labour. Gangs of Italian prisoners arrived to help with the potato harvest. Walter and I worked alongside them picking potatoes. We were much quicker than they were, which caused a lot of merriment. I remember they began throwing their potatoes into our patch instead of into the containers, which annoyed me but made them laugh even more. Later the German prisoners came accompanied by armed guards.

Most of the money my father made went straight into his savings, and he was soon in position to buy a second farm. Townhead, when it came on the market, was absolutely ideal. Most of the land was adjacent to Midtown. It was easy to farm them together, and he did, as he had foreseen, have "the last laugh".

William bought Scarrowmanwick for quite a different reason. It was not easy to run it from Cumwhitton, nor was it a good farm. Of the 222 acres, about 140 were enclosed fell grazing land. But one of William's abiding interests was family history, and he wanted it because for centuries it had belonged to the Robleys. As I was also interested in the Robleys, he left Scarrowmanwick to me. In fact, I could never have lived there, unless of course I had married a farmer.

After the war life was far easier for William. He began to buy second hand books in line with his interests, for instance histories of Cumberland and a volume of Border Ballads. He loved to talk about the border raiders, and the heroic exploits of the Grahams and the Armstrongs in stealing each others sheep. He said I should be proud that my mother was a Graham. Another book, in which he was absorbed, was Frazer's Golden Bough. He tried to persuade me to read it, but I don't think I ever did. William became an agnostic in his later life. I think the church going of his youth was all at the insistence of his mother, Mary Ann. He felt that Frazer put Christianity in a proper perspective as one among a great number of religions. My mother became an agnostic too. William could be very persuasive.

In 1943 I started at Carlisle High School. It was the year before the Education Act, and it was still a private fee paying school. There were a few places though for scholarship girls, and I was awarded a scholarship. My father was very pleased about this and proud. I think, in different circumstances, higher education was what he would have wanted for himself.

It was sometime during my years at secondary school that my father began to complain of stomach pains, and the doctor diagnosed a gastric ulcer. He had various treatments, but it did not get better. I think I was at Unversity when we were eventually told it was cancer.

My father had the surgery he needed at Shotley Bridge. I am not sure why, but maybe there was a cancer centre there. Searching through some old letters, I found one my mother sent him when he was a patient there. It begins "Dear Daddy" and ends "Love from Mother". This is bound to cause confusion to future genealogists! In fact they never addressed one another by their Christian names. She called him Daddy, and he called her Mother.

William was a teetotaler. He said he had seen far to many families ruined by drink. He did not like cigarettes. Towards the end of his life though he tried cigars, and started taking snuff.

It was during his stay at Shotley Bridge that my father bought his fourth farm, Townfoot through an agent. He had to pay a lot for it by the standards of the day. A Scotsman from Annan wanted it, and kept bidding him up. It was, though, a good buy and perfect for running along with Midtown and Townhead.

My father died on 30th December, 1954. He was 62. His death certificate reads: "1a. Carcinoma of oesophagus. 11. Septic Bronchitis. Myocardial Degeneration." It seems that the cancer had spread.

He was buried in Cumwhitton churchyard, among many other Robleys, which is what he would have wanted. He did not support the church and quarrelled with almost every vicar we ever had. He was constantly shouting at them and writing complaints to their Bishop. He liked only one, because he was willing to come round and engage my father in intellectual arguments. My father looked forward to this, and was amazed to have, at last, found a vicar who talked a bit of sense. He had no grasp whatever of the spiritual side of religion, and would have been horrified by the number of clergymen we have now on the Robley family tree.

All this happened a long time ago. It was the first quarter of my life, but looking back, it seems almost like another world or an earlier incarnation. Hannah lived on for another 29 years and died on 5th January, 1983. They are buried together.

Marian Foster, July 2008.