The sad story of Annie Robertson

Annie Robertson (1855 – 1889) was the second daughter of railway engineer Henry Robertson.  Her elder sister Elizabeth was four year older, then came Henrietta in 1858 and finally brother and heir Henry Beyer in 1862.

Annie was born in Shrewsbury, and in the 1861 census, when Annie was 6, the family were already living in some elegance. The household then consisted of the parents and three daughters, Mrs. Robertson’s mother, Ann  Dean and Mrs Robertson’s brothers Charles, also a civil engineer and Joshua, Secretary of a railway company, also 17 year old nephew John. They were supported by a Governess, Coachman, Cook, Nursery Maid and three housemaids.  Clearly a family on the up.

A Georgian house in St Mary’s Court, Shrewsbury, possibly the Robertsons’ home?

During the census of 1871 the Robertson family, parents and children were living at 13 Lancaster Gate, London, a home which they retained during the rest of Henry Robertson’s lifetime.  Henry, aged 55,  is by now described as Magistrate and Deputy Lieutenant – presumably of Merionethshire, not London.  The Dean family no longer lived with them.  As well as Governess, Housekeeper, Cook and three Housemaids there were a Ladiesmaid, Butler and Under Butler.

Some time before this, Henry Robertson had acquired the Welsh estate of Crogen, and then bought the Palé estate and had Palé Hall built.  The family moved in on September 18th 1871, the carriage in which they arrived being pulled up from the Lodge to the Hall by the estate workmen. The 16 year old Annie must have been delighted by the splendid and luxurious house and its beautiful grounds.  The family maintained the ownership of Crogen, renting it out.  The Robertson family continue to live at Crogen.

Queen Victoria’s wedding dress from 1840. Victoria set the fashion for white wedding dresses

Only just over a year later, in December 1872, Annie Robertson married Alexander Sherriff. This was somewhat surprising, since her elder sister had not yet married, and there would have been an expectation that the eldest married first. Since Annie was only 18, it is likely that this was a love match. Alexander was 8 years older than Annie. He had been born in Leeds, but in 1871 had been living with his extended family at Prospect House, Sunbury. His father was M.P. for Leicester, other relatives were members of the Stock exchange, so it is likely that Annie met her future husband through her father’s network of city and political friends.

In May 1878 Annie, Mrs. Sherriff, was visiting Palé Hall with her sisters in law. A visit to see Thomas’ fossil collection led to several days’ expedition with Thomas, and including Henry Beyer Robertson when some enthusiastic fossil hunting took place and Mrs. Sherriff also did some water colour painting. This shows the degree of trust and respect existing between the Robertson family and their Head Gardener.

May 3rd Miss Robertson brought Miss Sherriff, and Miss Alice Sherriff to see my fossils and general collection; they were very much pleased. After seeing them we went together in the wagonette to Garnedd [SH896355]to see the Bala beds and to collect fossils. Mr. H.B. Robertson went with us. We got several nice fossils and walked back together.

May 18th I went with the Misses Sherriff & Mrs. Sherriff [nee Robertson]to Gelli Grin, to geologise. The first two worked uncommonly hard at stone-breaking. –I never saw more enthusiastic ladies fossil hunting. Mrs Sherrif was painting a sketch. They all enjoyed themselves very much and were very courteous.

May 21st. The above party went went with me to Cynwyd, where I first showed them Cynwyd falls. I next led them up to the fossil ground, but it was raining, so that it was not very encouraging, but the ladies were cheerful and willing to proceed. When we got up two miles, the rain suddenly ceased, and it turned quite a fine day. On looking back we could see the Arenig white with fresh-fallen snow. We got several interesting fossils at the first ground. After luncheon we went to work at the upper beds at Bwlch-y-Gaseg, where we were unusually successful. Miss Sherriff was continually calling out that she was getting fat ones–that is large shells. We got Trilobites, shells and corals. Mrs. Sherriff sat sketching the distant view. They were very free, courteous and kind, and we got home well pleased with our trip, although it was a hard day’s work.

Just over eight years after their marriage, which was childless, Alexander died on the 8th February 1880 at the Robertson London family home in Lancaster Gate, leaving Annie a widow at 26. It is difficult to know how Annie spent the few remaining years of her widowhood. From Thomas’ journal of 1887 we can see that she spent some time on the Continent at Nice, and that her regard for Thomas and memory of his collections remained in her mind:

Tuesday the 29th [March 1887] Mrs. Sheriff, who has been staying at Nice for a time, very kindly brought me a Roman tear bottle; it is a small glass vessel bulb shaped, with a longish neck. Mrs Sheriff saw it dug up in a Roman cemetery at the town of Ventimiglia, in the north of Italy, and in the ancient province of Liguria. Many other curious articles were found in the same place.

The next mention of Annie is in March 1889 when she falls ill:

March Monday 4thMrs Sherriff ill, was at church yesterday, and in the garden with me on Saturday, but seems to have caught a chill. 

Mrs. Sherriff very ill during the night, her old malady erysipelas has again got hold of her.

Sunday 10thMrs. Sherriff so very ill that I had to stop the turret clock. Everything done inside and outside the Hall to keep down noises. 

Wednesday 13 Mrs Sherriff has been very ill day and night, Dr Waters of Chester and Mr Williams of Bala with her all night.  Everybody about it very anxious about her, and great sympathy felt with Mr Robertson and all of them.

Wednesday, April 3  Mrs. Robertson told me that Mrs Sherriff was taken into Mr Robertson’s room, which is over entrance hall; she is now watched night and day by three nurses, who take it in turns. I am sorry to say that her mind seems to be unhinged.

Saturday the 20thMrs Sherriff taken to Eryl Aran near Bala I am sorry to say that she is no better; bodily she is, but mentally she is not. I put on the turret clock again after Mrs S. left here.

Sadly, in July Annie died at the private nursing home in Bala where she had been since her illness affected her mind:

Wednesday the 24th July Mrs Sherriff who has been unwell since her severe illness in March), died at Eryl Aran this morning at 3:30 o’clock.  Mrs Sherriff has been of late much better, but was taken very ill two days ago, and suffered severely yesterday and during the night from suffocation with sore throat. We all deeply sympathise with Mr Robertson and his sisters, for they have had a large share of trouble since Mr Robertson died. Mrs Sherriff has been very confidential with me about their troubles, and ready to assist me in any way possible since I had to reduce the men. Mrs Sherriff also was ever ready to lend me books, and it was very pleased with my success in Natural History, and was at all times interested in any additions to my collection. Very few ladies were so talented as Mrs Sherriff herself, she had splendid abilities, and worked hard; painting being her special study, and at this she was very successful. I fear that she overworked her brain, and thought herself to an untimely end.

Mourning angel, Cookham churchyard, Berkshire

So Annie was buried at Llandderfel, a few months after her 34th birthday, and only just over a year after the death of her father. Thus it was with these two family deaths still fresh, that the young Henry Beyer Robertson had to plan and take responsibility for entertaining the Queen and her extensive household just five weeks later.

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1889 A Welsh rural portrait


A page from Thomas Ruddy’s Commonplace book  – from the handwriting written after his retirement

One of the reasons I have been able to continue transcribing and editing Thomas Ruddy’s journals for over 12 years, is the quality of his extended writing, as well as the liveliness of his intellect and curiosity.  As well as the attention to the natural world around him, and to family events and the life of the family and visitors at Palé Hall, he shows a keen interest in the people living around him, sometimes painting vivid pen portraits of his neighbours.  This often occurs when they die.  A particularly noteworthy example is his portrait of the tombstone engraver Robert Edwards known as ‘The Derfel’ – a significant nickname as the village name, Llandderfel springs from its patron saint, St. Derfel (see here)

‘The Derfel’ was one of three elderly men to die:

Friday the 18th.                           three of our oldest inhabitants have died within the last fortnight, namely Thomas Hughes of Pantyffynon, aged 74, John Williams the oldest tailor in the village aged 74 and Robert Edwards (The Derfel) a tombstone engraver of the village, aged 76.  The Derfel has been quite an eccentric character; he passed off as a poet, painter, political writer and an engraver, the engraving was his strength, for he could claim that little merit in the other three.  As a tombstone engraver, he is well known all over Merioneth, Denbigh, and Carnarvonshire, for like old mortality he seldom stayed long anywhere, he was ever on the move, and when at work his usual haunts were among the dead. He was very irregular in his working habits, for he would idle sometimes for days, or spend his time writing letters to the newspapers published in Welsh, and at other times he would work from daylight too dark at the tombstones. People had great difficulty to get him to engrave for them, for he was of a very independent mind; a relative or peers told me he would rather half starve than ask people for his money; he would, when straightened for food, go to some of the neighbouring farmers for a meal, Brynmelyn being always a house of refuge.

The Derfel married when about 30 years of age, his wife did not live long, and he had no children, so he has lived a widower ever since, and seldom had a woman to do for him; when at home he did all for himself, and in a very eccentric fashion; if he put the kettle on to boil, he could not stay in the house until it boiled, that would walk to the river bridge and back, a distance of half a mile each way. He has kept the file of the Banner Welsh newspaper for over 40 years, but his household goods would be the better of a good dusting. As he was seldom at home, his house was mostly locked up with newspaper in the window as blind. He had a considerable share of self esteem, so that his neighbours seldom got on well with him, he thought all should acknowledge his superior judgement.

In religion, he belonged to the Independent, or Congregational body but owing to something [72] which displeased him at the Village Chapel, he very rarely went to it, he would rather go to distant chapels on the Sunday. The Derfel has one brother living in the village, and who has been the Parish Clerk for some years, and is by trade shoemaker; his name is David Edwards. The wife of David is living, and he has two sons grown-

The page from Thomas’ Commonplace Book, shown above, indicates his wide-ranging literary knowledge and tastes.  The fact that some quotations are given page numbers suggests that Thomas himself owned the books from which the quotations are taken.  Thomas seems to enjoy the work of Coleridge and Southey from among the Romantic poets.  In browsing the Commonplace book I have come across little Wordsworth, but his witty, insightful and sympathetic portrait of The Derfel has something in common with Wordsworth’s Old Cumberland Beggar:

.......
Many, I believe, there are
Who live a life of virtuous decency,
Men who can hear the Decalogue and feel
No self-reproach; who of the moral law
Established in the land where they abide
Are strict observers; and not negligent
In acts of love to those with whom they dwell,
Their kindred, and the children of their blood. Praise be to such, and to their slumbers peace!
--But of the poor man ask, the abject poor;
Go, and demand of him, if there be here
In this cold abstinence from evil deeds,
And these inevitable charities,
Wherewith to satisfy the human soul?
No--man is dear to man; the poorest poor
Long for some moments in a weary life
When they can know and feel that they have been,
Themselves, the fathers and the dealers-out
Of some small blessings; have been kind to such
As needed kindness, for this single cause,
That we have all of us one human heart.
...................

Part of Llandderfel village photographed by John Thomas

A

International Contacts 1888

The fourth International Geological Congress was held in London in September 1888

Despite living in a relatively remote area, Thomas was able to share his geological expertise with a range of people not only from Britain, but from across much of the northern hemisphere, thanks to the Chester Society for Natural Science, and its President Professor Thomas McKenny Hughes of Cambridge.  The growth and efficiency of the railways expedited this intellectual exchange.  Thomas also had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time.

After the close of the fourth International Geological Congress, held in London, delegates visited a number of areas of particular interest to geologists of the time, including North Wales.  This led to a fortuitous opportunity for Thomas:

Saturday the 22nd[September 1888] I have been asked by the committee of the Chichester Society of Natural Science to meet the members of the International Geological Congress at the Conversazione in the Town Hall, Chester, on the 24thinst. The International Congress met in London this year and as the members were to make an excursion into North Wales, passing through Chester en route.  The Chester Society’s Conversazione was fixed so as to suit the visit of the foreigners.  As I was asked to take as many specimens of my Bala fossils as possible, I have been busy all week in arranging a selection from my collection.

Thomas travelled to Chester with his wife Frances, taking the opportunity of meeting his elder son Thomas ‘Tommy’ en route at Wrexham station. They were to stay at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Shrubsole, Mr. Shrubsole being an official of the Chester Society.

During the afternoon Mr Shrubsole went to the Town Hall with Frances and myself, and after a look over the room, I began to unpack. Francis helped me and I met my old friend Mr Williams of Blaenau Ffestiniog in the hall and he kindly assisted me.  I found my specimens in fine order, just as I packed them. This space allotted to me was close to the seats set apart for the foreigners in the Assembly Room.  After arranging my collection, I went to see the collection of Llandeilo fossils which Mr Williams brought; it was upstairs in the Ante Room. I met in with several of my old friends in the room set apart for the microscopes such as Mr. Siddall, Mr Shepheard, Mister G R Griffith and others all of whom I introduced to Frances.

We had tea at Mr Shrubsole’s, and then got ready for the Conversazione. We found the room very full of people, ladies and gentlemen. We went to look at the microscopic objects, many of their most beautiful and curious.  There were rock sections, diatoms, fresh water Polyzoa, the Cristatella and Plumatella being especially beautiful. We saw a beautiful rotifer too, and cilia vibrating round the mouth, gave the object the appearance of having wheels rotating round the mouth.  

Thomas and Frances looked closely various exhibits of insects, stuffed birds, etc. and Thomas introduced his wife to a number of his friends and acquaintances from the Society.  Soon the main events of the evening commenced.

We next went to the Assembly Room, and got near my fossils during the speeches by the Chairman Mr Walker and others. The mayor in his robes was on the platform, accompanied by some of the foreigners the Countess Grosvenor and her husband, Mr Wyndham, Secretary to Mr Balfour, the chief secretary of Ireland.  Some of the foreigners spoke a little in English. Prof Capellini, rector of Bologna University was the first, and was followed by Dr Hicks, then Prof  Szabo, Buda Pesth (sic) spoke, and prof Lapparent of Paris gave an address in French.  Mr C. D. Walcott F.G.S. from Washington gave a short address, and then prof D.K.  Von Zittel of Munich gave us a short address in which he praised English hospitality.  The Bishop, Dr Stubbs, gave a short but amusing address, in which he said he was an old fossil, he hoped the impression he would leave on the coal measures would be a pleasant one.

Among the international geologists whom Thomas met that night, undoubtably the most interesting and significant was Charles Doolittle Walcott (1850 – 1927)   Walcott was in 1888 a member of the US Geological Survey.  He was to become its director in 1894, President of the Geological Society of America in 1901 and Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1910.  Walcott’s primary interest was in the fossils of the Cambrian era (immediately underlying the eras of Ruddy’s main interest).

After the speeches, Mr Griffiths bought Mr Walcott and introduced him to me, and several of the foreigners were examining my fossils.  Dr. Frech of Halle University was highly interested and told me my collection was beautiful and interesting. Mr Walcott and he said they never saw such a series of the Orthisena. In the midst of our examination the lights were turned down for a magic lantern exhibit of photographic scenes.  This is stopped further examination. Dr F and Mr W wished they could  come here and go over my collection quietly, for it was so crowded in the room that it was impossible to do much. Mr Walcott knew my American friend Prof. Brownell of Syracuse, New York State.

Walcott’s most significant discovery came in 1909 -1910 when he discovered the fossils of the Burgess Shale in British Columbia, Canada. He continued examining this area until his death in 1927.   The fossils preserved here are some of the oldest examples of the the preservation of soft parts of organisms, whose full significance was only realised long after Walcott’s death.