I often think about what it would be like to go back in time and find out my ancestors’ stories direct from them. There would be so many questions. And how good would it be to observe their daily lives? Robert Wilson Armstrong was my great great grandfather but I reckon if I could go back he wouldn’t want to speak to me. He didn’t want anything to do with his son so it’s highly unlikely he’d be interested in talking to me. The man has been dead over a century but I’m a bit bitter about it. The thing is, he had one of the most interesting lives of all of my predecessors.
Robert was born in Rigg, Dumfriesshire on 23 November 1857, the 9th child of Andrew Armstrong, a cotton weaver, and Isabella Wilson. Tragically in the year before Robert was born 3 of his siblings had died; Thomas age 8, Janet age 3 and Mary who was just two weeks old. Three more children came along between 1860 and 1866 and on 1858 the eldest child, Elizabeth died at 18 years of age. A tough start in life I must admit with his parents dealing with such great loss.
The family home was in a rural area and by 1871 Robert was working as a farm servant at Hills Farm in Gretna. This is the information recorded in the census. I can’t be sure if he lived at Hill Farm permanently or if he was there on the night of the census. He was just 13 so quite young to have left home. Different times, of course, when staying in school was not for the poor.
He continued to work in the area as a farm hand or labourer. At 5’9″ Robert was quite tall for the time and with his blue eyes and fair hair he must have caught the eye of young farm servant, Grace Halliday Rae. Whether they were ever in a serious relationship or whether it was something more casual I do not know, but Grace discovered she was pregnant with a baby due in late 1879. Robert was not there do hold Grace’s hand and welcome baby Robert in to the world on Boxing Day. He had lost interest in young Grace and had met another girl, Jane Alexander. While Grace gave birth to Robert’s first child, Jane was 5 months pregnant with his second. Less than a month before Matthew Alexander Armstrong was born Robert married Jane.
Robert made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with Grace and baby Robert who was named after him. He is recorded as Robert Armstrong Rae. His birth record showing that he was illegitimate. Grace however was determined that Robert take responsibility for his son. It is likely that she went direct to Robert seeking financial assistance at least as it must have been obvious that while he was playing happy families elsewhere he would not be providing any practical or emotional support. (I think it will be quite obvious at this point that Grace and Robert are my ancestors and I am very much on their side!)
Robert was not prepared to do the right thing and in order to avoid Grace and her demands he decided to leave Scotland altogether. This is not such a big trip as his home in Gretna is right at the border with England. It would seem that he went on his own initially as he is recorded as a lodger in the 1881 census. Jane and Matthew are not with him.
His next move surprised me a lot. On the 1st of April 1881 Robert Wilson Armstrong became constable with Riding Constabulary in Yorkshire with warrant number 4200. The census shows him in police lodgings. He is recorded as a married man with one child.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, Grace was not prepared to let him off so easily. He could deny paternity but she took the matter to court and the court found in her favour. Sadly the records from the case no longer exist but there was clearly enough evidence to prove that Robert was indeed the father of Grace’s baby.
West Riding Constabulary did not take too kindly to Robert lying on his application and on 1 July Robert resigned form the force “compulsorily in consequence of his being found unsuitable for the force“.
In 1883 Grace married and she and her new husband and their children left Scotland travelling to the other side of the world for a new life in Australia. The 1881 census shows Grace back working as a farm servant while her son remained in the care of her parents. Robert was raised as their son although he was aware of the name at least of his biological father even though I have no idea whether or not he ever met the man.
There is much more to the story of Robert Wilson Armstrong and how I managed to track him down. Being kicked out of the police didn’t hold him back for long. Despite his lack of education he clearly had some confidence and a desire to get on in life. I’ll continue in another post.