Mr Robinson – the Serjeant-at-Law and cousin to Lucy Atkinson

I am delighted to be able to publish below Marianne Simpson’s fascinating essay on Benjamin Coulson Robinson. Robinson was a distant cousin of Lucy Atkinson. In later life she lived in his house in Mecklenburg Square, close to King’s Cross in London. He was a prominent lawyer and had plenty to say about the antiquated divorce laws of Victorian Britain – a subject close to Lucy’s heart.

Marianne Simpson writes:

We know from the UK Census conducted every 10 years that in 1881 Lucy Atkinson was living in the home of Benjamin Coulson Robinson, located at 43 Mecklenburgh Square, London. Also resident at the same address were Maria Coulson, aged 80, an unmarried aunt of Benjamin Robinson, and two servants. The relationship between Benjamin and Lucy was described as that of cousins.

This essay discusses the family ties that bound Benjamin and Lucy and also gives some insights into Benjamin Coulson Robinson, the man.

Benjamin Coulson Robinson
A photo of Robinson from his book Bench and Bar

Through her mother, Lucy Atkinson was the granddaughter of William York and Elizabeth Sherrard who were married in St George’s Hanover Square in London in May 1792. While we cannot be absolutely certain who Elizabeth Sherrard’s parents were, there are strong clues in the records, which reveal that on 1 November 1773 in Rotherhithe, Southwark, one York Sherrard, Bachelor, married Elizabeth Robinson, Spinster.

To find the name “York” so interwoven with that of “Sherrard” both as a surname and as a Christian name and then to see the connection of these two names with Robinson – not to mention the recurrence of the name “Elizabeth” across two generations – strongly suggests that Elizabeth Robinson was Lucy’s great grandmother.

Putting that aside, if we look at Benjamin Coulson Robinson’s history, we find that he was the son of Martha Morgan Coulson and Thomas Robinson, Master Mariner[i], who were married at St George in the East on 20 April 1806. If Thomas Robinson were a descendant of, say, a sibling of Lucy’s Robinson great grandmother, that would mean Lucy and Benjamin both had the same great, great grandparents, making their relationship that of third cousins. It is not a close relationship, but it is clear that they had much in common.

Benjamin was born in Stepney on 21 March 1812 and was thus five years older than Lucy. As well as the above details of his parentage, we also know that he had a sister, Sarah Wilson Robinson (1811-1890)[ii] who, while in her 45th year, married Thomas Weatherall Sampson in 1856 in St Pancras Parish Church, the fathers of both bride and groom being described as ship brokers.

This was several years after Benjamin’s own marriage to Hannah A White (1816-1896)[iii], which took place on 19 July 1844 at St Dunstan’s in Stepney. Benjamin and Hannah can be found residing together, first, at Frederick Street, St Pancras (1851 census) and, then, at 43 Mecklenburgh Square (1861 and 1871 censuses).

However, Hannah is not living there at the time of the 1881 census but, rather at an address in Hackney,[iv] indicating that she and Benjamin had seemingly separated. There is no evidence of any children from the marriage.

Benjamin died on 4 January 1890 and a year later, in the 1891 census, Lucy is found living in the household of Benjamin’s brother-in-law Thomas Sampson[v]. In the mid-1880s friends of Lucy’s son Alatau in Hawaii visited Lucy at 43 Mecklenburgh Square which suggests that she lived there uninterruptedly for some years, certainly after 1881 (and possibly for a period even before then) and probably right up to the time of Benjamin’s death. It is therefore worth spending a little time considering the man who gave Lucy a home, where she apparently lived contentedly for so long.

So, to the man himself. In 1889 Benjamin published the book “Bench and Bar: Reminiscences of one of the last of an ancient race” which contains a wonderful photograph of the man (see above) and gives insights into his character. The phrase “one of the last of an ancient race” refers to Benjamin’s occupation as Serjeant-at-Law, to which position he was elevated from that of Barrister in 1865. Benjamin gives an explanation of the position as follows:

The position of Serjeant-at-law is undoubtedly the oldest, and was, until comparatively recent times, the very highest dignity a barrister could achieve below that of a judge. It dates from the middle of the thirteenth century. Until the year 1875, the judges were invariably selected from that rank, and so strictly was the rule adhered to that even a Queen’s Counsel, who had spent half his life under that title, was obliged, on his appointment as judge, to become a Serjeant perhaps the day before he was sworn in as a member of the Bench.”[vi]

We can see from this that Benjamin was a person of considerable standing in the legal profession. It is, however, not through his legal expertise, but through his writing that we gain knowledge of him. His book begins:

There seems to be a curious epidemic spreading through the literature of the present day, which though comparatively harmless, and productive perhaps of considerable interest to the pathologist, is at the same time startling and unprecedented. Its symptoms manifest themselves in a fervid desire on the part of the patient to make the world acquainted with his family history and his individual earthly career, as far as it has yet gone. He is afraid of waiting for it to go further, lest he fare worse; his memoirs might become posthumous, and society and his friends might for an indefinite time lose the benefit to be derived from the contemplation of his virtues, his errors, and his example generally.”

As you can see, a writer who can entertain, and entertain delightfully, without seeming effort. He continues:

Now it might be supposed that these revelations of purely personal and domestic history of individuals, guiltless of any exciting adventures by flood or field, might turn out to be rather monotonous…but they are published and sold, and, what is more, read with avidity…

I suppose it was by virtue of the atmosphere by which I have lately been surrounded, that I found myself gradually becoming inoculated with the same disease. But the diagnosis of my complaint must be taken with a considerable difference; for, while it occurred to me that I might create some little entertainment by detailing my reminiscences of the sayings and doings of others, I never thought for a moment of obtruding my own personality upon the public. In answer to any such suggestion on the part of myself or others, I should have said, with the needy knife-grinder, “Story! God bless you, I have none to tell, sir.” Society knows very little about me, and I cannot conceive any earthly reason why it should desire to know more. Whilst there is nothing about my history which I care to conceal, there is nothing relating to it which I think interesting enough to relate. My life has been a very uneventful one, and, in my seventy-eighth year, I may add, it has been more happy and prosperous than I had any right or reason to expect; this may have arisen from its very privacy, though more perhaps from its devotion to books.”

And this is most surely true. Do we not see the influence of a previous generation of essayists? Leading into the subject of the book, he continues:

But I have been for more than half a century intimately connected with what I hope I may call an interesting profession. In a very circumscribed space we see a great deal of the world; we have perforce to dive into the recesses of men’s minds and mark their workings in their varied and ever-varying forms…I was tolerably assiduous in my attendance at the courts, and on circuit. I possessed a fairly retentive memory, and what is more to my present purpose, I have, throughout my life, kept a journal – written mostly in shorthand – wherein I have noted down such incidents, whether of action or of speech, as I was interested in at the time. But this was never done with the slightest view to publication, nor would the idea probably ever have occurred to my mind except for an example that had recently been set before me…

He finishes his “introductory” with modesty and grace:

Now it is to the Bar and its associations that the following pages mainly relate, and if my own individuality should occasionally intrude itself upon the stage, it will be found that I am only playing the part of gentleman usher to those who are much more worthy of notice.”

For those of us who have come to know Lucy so well, do we not see in Benjamin many of the attributes that we admire in her? In both of them, we find people who, endowed with superior intellects, used their acute powers of observation and recall to both mark and reflect on life, as they experienced it, with appreciation, charity and enjoyment.

Their expectations were not so high as to engender dissatisfaction, with the result that they accepted life as they found it – and they found it good. I think we can see why, even though she was never to see Alatau again after he and his new wife and baby left for Hawaii in 1869, Lucy was nevertheless comfortable living under Benjamin’s roof.

Benjamin does provide a little more information about his career. He states that he entered the Middle Temple as a student in April 1833[vii]. Also, that in order to become a student at one of the Inns of Court, he had to furnish himself with a certificate of respectability signed by two barristers.

Fountain_Court_London
Fountain Court, at the heart of the Middle Temple (By David Jones, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50742286)

He then had to go through the “formality of what was technically called an examination, the crucial part of which occupied about a minute and a half. One or two questions in Latin or in general literature were put to him in the perfunctory style in which one asks a passing acquaintance after his health, being quite indifferent as to what answer he might give: “I believe the examination now is just a trifle nearer the real thing, but I never yet heard of any man being plucked in this preliminary “little go”. If I had, I would expect the next intelligence I got of him would date from an asylum for idiots”.[viii]

He was also required to pay £100 into the treasury of his selected Inn, thus entering into a stringent bond, with two sureties, in addition to which he was bound to obey the rules of the establishment, attend church every Sunday and pay up whatever dues were required.

All this indicates that the Robinson family was better placed financially than the Finley family. Benjamin was one of only three (known) children whereas Lucy was one of nine. We also know that Lucy’s father Matthew Finley, the schoolmaster, was at one time bankrupt whereas, progressing from master mariner to “ship broker”, Thomas Robinson would seem to have pursued a prosperous profession.

What do we know about Benjamin in his maturity? In 1856 he was honoured to be admitted to the Freedom of the City of London “without the intervention of a company”; in 1860 his status was changed and he was recorded as a Freeman in the Company of Saddlers.

We also know that he was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society[ix]. While it would be nice to imagine him and Lucy attending meetings of the Society together in the 1880s at the Society’s Savile Row address, this would not have occurred because women were barred from membership until 1913[x]. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that he would have had an interested and engaged listener when he returned home.

From 1846, he was a mason, being a member of the Lodge of Good Report, and, as such, subscribed to the three core principles of masonry: brotherhood, truth (i.e. high moral standards) and charity. Offering his home and protection at different times to three female relatives[xi] would appear to show that he took his pledge seriously.

While “Bench and Bar” contains some delightful anecdotes – for example the Common Serjeant who “could sentence a man to seven years’ transportation at the end of as many minutes from the commencement of the trial”[xii] – there is one passage worth quoting, and that concerns the matter of divorce.

Although Benjamin, true to his word, obtrudes scarcely at all into the account, it is nevertheless interesting to read, partly for the pithy undertone but also because Benjamin himself was separated from his wife and had moreover provided a home to someone who had suffered from being the innocent victim of a bigamous marriage. This is what he recounts:

One of Justice Maule’s most noted escapades is to be found in his address to a prisoner who had been convicted before him of bigamy. The speech – I can scarcely call it a judicial sentence – created a great sensation, for it was a clever and satirical attack upon the law of divorce as it then existed…

He said: ‘Prisoner at the bar, you have been convicted before me of what the law regards as a very grave and serious offence, that of going through the marriage ceremony a second time while your wife was still alive. You plead in mitigation of your conduct that she was given to dissipation and drunkenness, that she proved herself a curse to your household while she remained mistress of it, and that she had lately deserted you; but I am not permitted to recognise any such plea. You had entered into a solemn engagement to take her for better, or worse, and if you got infinitely more of the latter, as you appear to have done, it was your duty patiently to submit. You say you took another person to be your wife because you were left with several young children, who required the care and protection of someone who might act as a substitute for the parent who had deserted them; but the law makes no allowances for bigamists with large families. Had you taken the other female to live with you as your concubine, you would never have been interfered with by the law. But your crime consists in having – to use your own language – preferred to make an honest woman of her. Another of your irrational excuses is that your wife had committed adultery, and so you thought you were relieved from treating her with any further consideration; but you were mistaken. The law, in its wisdom, points out a means by which you might rid yourself from further association with a woman who had dishonoured you; but you did not think proper to adopt it. I will tell you what that process is. You ought first to have brought an action against your wife’s seducer, if you could discover him; that might have cost you money, and you say you are a poor working man, but that is not the fault of the law. You would then be obliged to prove by evidence your wife’s criminality in a court of justice, and thus obtain a verdict with damages against the defendant, who was not unlikely to turn out to be a pauper. But so jealous is the law (which you ought to be aware is the perfection of reason) of the sanctity of the marriage tie, that in accomplishing all this you would only have fulfilled the lighter portion of your duty. You must then have gone, with your verdict in your hand, and petitioned the House of Lords for a divorce. It would cost perhaps, five or six hundred pounds, and you do not seem to be worth as many pence. But it is the boast of the law that it is impartial, and makes no difference between the rich and the poor. The wealthiest man in the kingdom would have had to pay no less than that sum for the same luxury; so that you would have no reason to complain. You would, of course, have to prove your case over again, and at the end of a year, or possibly two, you might obtain a decree which would enable you legally to do what you have thought proper to do without it. You have thus wilfully rejected the boon the legislature offered you, and it is my duty to pass upon you such sentence as I think your offence deserves, and that sentence is, that you be imprisoned for one day; and, inasmuch as the present assize is three days old, the result is that you will be immediately discharged.’

Benjamin concludes,

It was generally believed that this forcible bit of satire was mainly instrumental in procuring a change in the law, and the establishment of the Divorce Court on its present basis.”[xiii] There can be little doubt where Benjamin’s sympathies lay.

On his death in January 1890 Benjamin left an estate of £3089.12s 3d. This is interesting because, with the exception of £200 bequeathed to another nephew in Australia, his aunt Maria Coulson, on her death nine years earlier, had left her estate of £3645.14s 3d to Benjamin. Benjamin could accordingly have been expected to have left a larger estate but, with his wife still alive, he may have been maintaining her at her separate residence. Benjamin lies buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery, not far from the grave of Lucy Atkinson.

Notes

[i] A possible further connection between Lucy’s immediate family and the Robinson family is that Lucy’s father, Matthew Finley, is believed, before his marriage to Mary Ann York in 1810, to have also been a mariner (or master mariner). So – and this must be conjecture but it is worth saying – Lucy’s parents may have met through the shared Robinson connection.

[ii] There was also another sister, Martha, born in 1816.

[iii] Hannah was the daughter of a surgeon at Mile End.

[iv] Address: 165 Amhurst Street, Hackney. Name Hannah Robinson, Head of Household, Married, 65 years of age, Annuitant. The only other residents at the address were two servants.

[v] Sarah Sampson had died the previous November and Thomas himself was to die in January 1893.

[vi] Bench and Bar (Third Edition) by Mr. Serjeant Robinson (Hurst and Blackett, 1891) pp248 and 249.

[vii] Ibid., p10

[viii] Ibid., p11

[ix] in his book, “Thomas, Lucy and Alatau” (2018), John Massey Stewart states that he was proposed as a member by Thomas Witlam Atkinson in 1860 (p271).

[x] wikipedia.com

[xi] The 1851 census shows that, as well as himself and his wife, an elderly aunt, Rebecca Haward, aged 73, was also living at the address.

[xii] Bench and Bar, op. cit., p43

[xiii] Ibid, pp116-119

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