In Search of the Robinsons
The historic building Wantley on Princess Street and its proposed demolition has been the subject of much public debate over the past couple of months. At the start of my internship with the National Museum of Bermuda, NMB staff conducted a site visit to record the building and I was invited to join the recording team as the Curatorial intern.
It was my first project as an intern at the Museum and as we walked through the site, I found myself trying to understand the significance of the house. The signs of its original grandeur were still visible, albeit hidden under soot and decay from multiple fires, years of neglect and weather damage. It’s size, high ceilings, beautiful molding and etched glass suggested that whoever built it had obviously taken time, money and extreme care to create such a beautiful home. But who were they and why protest over the demolition of a derelict building, one that had been derelict for years?
Thanks to the wealth of information that came out in response to the public debate on the future of the site, my initial question, who built it, was quickly answered: Samuel David Robinson. But the answer to my initial question brought so many more. The first question, who built the house and my second question, who is Samuel David, led me down the proverbial rabbit hole. In my search for more information about Samuel David I uncovered the story of an entire family of educators, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs that took me all over the world.
BM Shorts: Wantley House by Bermemes
The more I learned about the Robinson family the more fascinated I became. But as I asked more questions and dug deeper, finding the answers I was looking for proved to be easier said than done. I had never done genealogy to this degree before. Thankfully, the National Museum of Bermuda’s Tracing Our Roots/Routes programme provides a great collection of resources, which supplied tips on how to start my research. As Part I of the Tracing Our Roots/Routes toolkit suggested, I started with what I did know, Samuel David Robinson and Wantley.
My research began with the Wantley entry in Bermuda National Trust’s Architectural Heritage Series Hamilton Town and City where it included a small family tree. It listed four children under David Robinson’s name, Samuel David Robinson, Joseph Henry ‘Henri’ Robinson and “2 others”. My own research confirmed that there were in fact 3 other siblings; William Thompson, Charlotte Elizabeth Tucker, and Eliza Wilson. The family tree also identified the names of some of Samuel David’s and Joseph Henry’s children though with some errors.
Scouring through 19th century church registers, wills, newspaper articles, and even Ellis Island passenger lists, the more I researched the more I started to feel like Alice chasing the proverbial rabbit down the rabbit hole. Each bread crumb led to another question and then another, most of which are still unanswered, but I’ll start with what I’ve been able to find so far.
Samuel David Robinson (1848–1920)
Samuel David Robinson proved to be easier to research thanks in part to his involvement in the founding of the Berkeley Institute and the role of his daughters in the social welfare initiatives like the Sunshine League. Born in 1848 Samuel David was most well known as one of the founders of The Berkeley Institute. He was married to Elmira Alicia Dowding Thomas on May 29th 1873 in Bermuda and they had 13 children with 10 living into adulthood; Alma Cressy (1874 – 1973), Eugene Clayton (1875 – 1958), David Stuart (1877 – 1958), Joseph H. Rubotham (1879 – 1956), Edwin William (1880 – 1953), Imogen Eliza (1882 – 1883), Emma Elise (1883 – 1977), Agnes May (1885 – 1954), Elmira( 1887 – 1887), Annie Pauline (1888 – 1956), Winona Grace (1890 – 1973), Adeline Howard (1892 – 1974), and Elmira Dowding (1893 – 1964).
The family personified the experience of the Black bourgeoisie in Bermuda at the end of the 19th century. Successful merchants and entrepreneurs, the Robinsons held education in the highest regard, travelled around the world and were dedicated to their community.
They often hosted cultural affairs, including musical evenings and play readings at Wantley and the meetings for the Berkeley Educational Society were held in the house also. Samuel David learned the profession of his father and was a master baker, having taken over the family’s bakery, Hamilton Bakery, after his father’s death in 1884. He, and his brother Joseph Henry, were also very successful merchants and owned multiple properties and businesses over the course of their lifetimes including a bakery, grocers and dry goods store.
The Robinson family were dedicated leaders in the community and committed to education and social welfare initiatives. Samuel David’s second eldest surviving daughter, Agnes May Robinson, was born on August 6th 1885 and was affectionately known as Miss May to the children she helped. She was said to have enjoyed concerts, plays, parties, boating and picnicking in her youth while also being very devoted to her faith and attending St. John’s Anglican Church in Pembroke every Sunday. She attended the Bermuda Collegiate Institute and was also one of the first students of the Berkeley Institute when it was established in 1897.
Agnes later attended Temple University in Philadelphia where she received a Diploma in Millinery. It was in Philadelphia that she found her calling when she saw nurseries and homes for children. This idea brought about the Sunshine League, Bermuda’s first welfare organisation, which Agnes founded with her sister Winona and their cousin Wilfrid Ryland. Winona was also involved in education as a speech teacher and in the community as a Girl Guides leader and as an active member of the Bermuda Welfare society. My research into Samuel David’s brother and Agnes’ uncle, Joseph Henry, provided perhaps the most surprising connections, that I never could have anticipated, taking me from the pink sands of Bermuda to the colder coast of German occupied Jersey in the Channel Islands.
Joseph Henry Robinson (1850–1916)
Joseph Henry was born in 1850 and was more of a wild card than his older brother, Samuel David; family history says he left home at the age of 12 to become a seaman, an occupation he held for a number of years. On his return to Bermuda at 19, Joseph went straight into business and opened a store in the Oleanders, a building given to him by his father. In 1880 Joseph built Finsbury next door to the Oleanders and lived there with his wife and children. Three years later, in 1883, Joseph purchased The Emporium where he established a department store.
Joseph made the majority of his wealth as a manufacturers’ agent commissioned by companies to sell their products in Bermuda. He married Mary Elizabeth Roberts on July 7th 1880 and had 7 children, David Thomas (1880/2 – 1931), Rosalie Eliza Colson (1883 – 1947), Florence Mary 1885 – 1961), Joseph Henry Jr. (1886 – 1961), Charles Sylvester (1890- 1944), Bertha Louise 1891 – 1907), and Wilfrid Ryland (1895 – 1979). Mary Elizabeth passed away unexpectedly of asphyxia, in 1904 in Hornsey, UK at the age of 43.
I was able to find birth records in Bermuda for the all but one of Joseph’s children; David Thomas. After finding David Thomas’ marriage registry in the 19th Century Church Registry of Bermuda, I wondered, maybe he wasn’t born in Bermuda. The family were well travelled and I had found Joseph Henry on multiple Ellis Island passenger lists travelling back and forth between Bermuda, New York and London.
I decided to put David Thomas’s name along with his parents and his birth year, given in the original family tree found in the National Trust’s Architectural Heritage Series, into ancestry.com and found a birth registry for David Thomas, in London.
Born in London between 1880 and 1882 David was schooled at the Harrow school for boys and lived in the UK for most of his childhood with his mother Mary Elizabeth and his siblings who were born in Bermuda – this suggests that Joseph and Mary Elizabeth travelled back to Bermuda after David Thomas’ birth for the birth of his younger siblings.
It’s unclear when David Thomas moved back to Bermuda as an adult but there is record of him opening a store on the corner of Parliament and Front Street in the 1910s.
A millionaire by the time he was 40, David eventually moved to Jersey in the Channel Islands where he lived with his wife, Ivy Russell Twaites Trott, until his death in 1931. He married Ivy Russell Twaites Trott, also from Bermuda, in 1913 in Bermuda.
After discovering that he moved to the Jersey Channel Islands I started looking for records for both him and Ivy in the Jersey Archives and found a death record for David Thomas and a registration card for Ivy.
The new records provided interesting but also conflicting information. The marriage record in Bermuda lists Ivy’s birth year as 1895 however her registration card in Jersey lists it five years later in 1900. These discrepancies along with misspelled names often were the cause of much frustration during my quest for information but new records also provided new information.
Ivy’s registration card in Jersey listed her residence as a mental hospital in Jersey, known at the time as Jersey Lunatic Asylum. Opened in 1868 the hospital went through a few name changes while Ivy was a patient; in 1952 it was renamed Jersey Mental Hospital and later in 1963 it became St Saviour’s Hospital.
After a bit more research I was able to find that Ivy was institutionalised for unknown reasons in 1941 and was a patient during the German Occupation of the Island during the Second World War and remained a patient until her death in 1974.
Ivy’s brother Harrold Trott and sister in law, Virginia Trott, also moved to Jersey, possibly to be with her. They, like Ivy, died and were buried in the Jersey, Channel Islands. Unlike Ivy who is buried in the parish cemetery of St. Lawrence in Jersey where they lived, her husband David’s body was taken to England after his death and buried in Marylebone Cemetery, Finchley.
Joseph Henry’s other sons, Joseph Henry Jr. (b. 1886 – d. 1961), Charles Sylvester (b. 1890 – d. 1944), and Wilfrid Ryland (b. 1895 – d. 1979) followed in their father’s footsteps and became merchants running their father’s business in his absence and continued to run successful businesses after his death in 1916. Upon his death Joseph Henry willed his sons £100 each and gave all of his remaining property to his son Wilfrid and daughters Eliza and Florence.
The process of researching the Robinsons has allowed me to see the ups and downs that come with genealogy projects, from the excitement of seeing a familiar name on an Ellis Island passenger list from 1912 to the disappointment of following a lead that ends up being incorrect. It also helped me to understand that some questions may not have an answer. The Robinsons moved and travelled frequently, which made it easy to see their comings and goings from Bermuda, but their experiences and activities once they made it to their destinations isn’t something I can confidently answer based on the archival records I’ve found.
Joseph Henry travelled extensively and travelled back and forth between the UK and New York sometimes upwards of 3 times a year. But other than his travels I know little to nothing about his life outside of his children. I’ve found this comes with the territory of genealogy research. You can only put together specific pieces of a puzzle to try and interpret the picture being displayed but you might not ever be able to see the full picture.
Some parts of this journey were easy to find while others saw me messaging great-great-grandkids with questions about marriage dates and where the family ended up. It was rewarding to find answers to some of the questions I had and the satisfaction of finally knowing kept pushing me to find out more and to delve deeper.
It wasn’t an easy project but it was thrilling because the family is so intertwined in not only Bermuda’s history but also the wider Atlantic World. Only fifty or so years after emancipation and the Robinsons had been able to acquire a significant amount of wealth that was able to sustain their children and their grandchildren.
They were widely travelled and their story encompassed several successful businesses in North Hamilton, the crowded immigration station in Ellis Island, life in 19th century London and life under German occupation in the Channel Islands during the Second World War.
The Robinsons are a symbol of perseverance in a time when it was difficult for any Bermudian to succeed let alone black Bermudians, and their story highlights the experiences of Bermudians not just in Bermuda but throughout the Atlantic World.
They uplifted not only their family but the community around them through social welfare, education and job opportunities. So much is still unknown and I still have so many questions that are unanswered but I am content knowing that the Robinsons will be a symbol of excellence for many generations to come.
The preservation of the historic sites connected to these stories is vital in ensuring that they remain connected to, seen and experience by the community they were so dedicated to. It’s a shame that Wantley may be lost due to neglect.
Though it is important that we learn about our struggles, and the fight our ancestors went through in order for us to have our freedoms it is equally important to learn about our triumphs and the Black entrepreneurs and community leaders that dedicated so much of their lives to the development of our community. The Robinsons are a symbol of those triumphs and it would be a shame to see the physical representation of their story lost.
Thank you to Edie Robinson and Natalie Boll for sharing their family photographs and information that they’ve diligently compiled over the past few years.
If you are interested in conducting your own genealogy research check out the Museum’s Tracing Our Roots/Routes programme of online presentations, workshops, resources: www.nmb.bm/tracing-our-roots
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