Robert Wilson Armstrong 1857-1910 Part 2

When I left my great, great grandfather last time he’d just been chucked out West Riding Police Force for being a two timing rat. We’ll that’s not the official reason obviously but that was what happened. He abandoned my great, great grandmother, Grace Halliday Rae while she was pregnant with his son. That was in 1881. Click here for Part 1. From Yorkshire he headed back to Scotland but not to rural Dumfriesshire where he grew up. Robert, his wife Jane and their son Robert headed to the big city and it was in Mathieson Street, Glasgow where their second son (his third) was born.

Living in the notorious Gorbals must surely have been a culture shock to a family used to fresh air and rolling fields. Industrial cities were known for overcrowding and poor living standards and Glasgow had some of the worst conditions in the country with the Gorbals being one of the worst areas in the city. In the 1830s the average life expectancy for a man living in Glasgow was just 42. In the 1880s conditions had improved when diseases such as typhus were brought under control but still babies were dying at a rate of 1 in 7. Shocking statistics so what prompted Robert to settle in such a place?

Well, quite simply I suppose, he was looking for better opportunities and I would imagine, stay far from Grace and the payments he was supposed to make towards the care of his illegitimate son. Glasgow was developing as a major centre for the blending of Scotch whiskies by the 1880s with malt whiskies coming in to the city by land and sea. Robert found work as a store man in a bonded warehouse as recorded on the birth record of son Andrew in 1882. He continued in this line of work and in the same house until at least 1886 when his daughter Isabella was born. Between Andrew and Isabella there was another son, another Robert in fact. (Did he feel guilty at all about that? Did Jane who must’ve known about his first son?)

The family address on the 1891 census is 23 Smith Terrace. For 5 years up to 2019 I worked within a mile of that house and one day I was sitting at traffic lights at the crossroads in Rutherglen as I did pretty much every day when I realised that the houses at the side of the road were Smith Terrace. Of course I had to find time to go back and check it out properly. And here it is. It’s the one with the white door. The picture is taken slightly to the side to avoid getting the wheelie bin in view.

Smith Terrace and the adjacent Millar Terrace were built between 1875 and 1877 and were originally intended for local coal and steelworkers. At the time I visited Smith Terrace I didn’t realise the Armstrong family had also lived in a house in Millar Terrace or I’d have photographed that too.

Living with Robert in the house were his wife and their 5 children. Jane was born in 1889. Robert had been promoted to excise warehouse manager. He was doing pretty well it seems. In 1893 daughter, Agnes was born in Smith Terrace. It was in the house in Millar Terrace that Andrew died in 1898 at just 12 years old. A real tragedy for the family. I could see from his death record that he had been ill for 4 months but the cause of death is indecipherable.

Working with whisky for many years might have given Robert a taste for it and, as a manager, he must have made some contacts in the licensing trade. He decided to step out from the warehouse and work for himself as a pub landlord. That same charm and gift of the gab that captured the hearts of Grace and Jane would surely have been an asset.

In 1897 Robert took on the licence for The Gushet Bar in Cowcaddens, Glasgow. Sadly the pub is no longer there as I would have loved to have paid a visit. This picture was taken shortly before it was demolished in the mid 1970s.

Click here for the Old Glasgow Pubs site and some info on the Gushet Pub.

As well as The Gushet, Robert was also the licensee of a pub in Greenock situated at 1 Argyle Street. There is still a pub there today called “The Hole In The Wa’”. Do you think my family connection would get me a free drink?

Robert clearly made a success of his businesses as by 1901 he’s moved to a big house that has a name and not a number – Fairport, Buchanan Drive, Cambuslang. It’s just a couple of miles from Smith Terrace but he had definitely moved up in the world. The house is still there and I saw an estate agent listing for it. It’s a lovely house. I haven’t been passed that way in a while but I must go and take a look.

Robert Wilson Armstrong died on 15 February 1910. His place of death puzzled me at first. Blythswood Square in Glasgow was the red light area of the city centre. To be honest I wouldn’t have been to shocked to discover that’s why he was there but it turns out it was a private clinic. Too Sick to remain at home he was taken care of in as comfortable surroundings as possible. Red light area it may have been but by day it’s a pretty square.

My family history is pretty much filled with stories of poverty and hardship. My great great grandfather did pretty well for himself and is the only ancestor (so far) for whom I have found a will. I suppose I have to admire him for making a success of his life. I would love to say that he made some provision for his first son but everything was left to his wife, Jane and her children. It’s quite sad.

It’s taken a lot of work to identify the man who chose to distance himself from and deny my branch of the family. Robert denied paternity in court and humiliated and hurt Grace. You can’t deny it anymore Robert; DNA doesn’t lie!

5 thoughts on “Robert Wilson Armstrong 1857-1910 Part 2

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