Grandma’s friends were characters

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Robert Blakey’s father died in 1796 when he was 22, and Robert only nine months old.

A striking feature of Dr Blakey’s Memoirs is that he never mentions his mother. Her name was Elizabeth Laws, and she was about the same age as her husband. Robert must either have had a blank about her, or a deep hurt that he didn’t want to discuss.

There are two possible hints to what happened, but nothing conclusive.

First is a marriage at St Nicholas’s Church, Newcastle, in July 1799, between Richard Bolton, soldier, 4th Lancashire Militia (this being during the wars of the French Revolution), and Elizabeth Blakey, widow, aged 27. It might seem obvious that this must be Robert’s mother, but Elizabeth was a common name, and Blakey not unusual, so we can’t be sure.

Second is the tombstone of Robert’s grandfather, Nathaniel Laws, in St Mary’s churchyard. Mr Laws died in 1787 and it gradually became a family tombstone. Robert’s father appears on it as ‘son-in-law of Nathaniel Laws’, and at the bottom is ‘George Bolton….Nathaniel Laws’. The missing text could be ‘son-in-law of’, but the Christian name is wrong, being George, not Richard.

Robert’s own account is laconic, and he turns immediately to less painful topics: “When about six years of age, I was placed entirely under the care of my maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Laws, who lived alone in one of the oldest and most rickety houses in Morpeth.

“It had been built of pure clay or mortar, and was next door on the west side of the old Phoenix Inn, and in the midst of the sheep-market, in Bridge Street.

“She was very old, between 70 and 80, but of wonderfully active powers, both of body and mind. She was well-known to the whole town for her zeal and knowledge of theology — that is, Presbyterianism.

“The Westminster Confession of Faith was quite at her fingers’ end; and no doctrinal point contained in the treatise could be mentioned for which she could not readily quote the scripture proofs. Besides this well-known work, she had several other popular books, such as, Ambrose’s Looking unto Jesus; Boston’s Fourfold State;... and several others of an evangelical stamp. She was a perpetual reader, and would have sat for hours pondering over any dry, but to her, interesting subject of speculative religion.

“She was often visited by persons vastly above her own station in life, merely for the sake of curiosity, and for teasing her about her religious knowledge and faith. She was always ready to give battle, whoever came.

“Among the number of visitors I well remember was Mr William Burdon, the author of Materials for Thinking; Dr Gray, the father of the Rev. Henry Gray, of Edinburgh celebrity; Doctors Keith and Mitford, physicians; the Rev. Robert Trotter, and Dr Sanderson, the Master of Morpeth Grammar School. The two first-named gentlemen were free-thinkers; and my grandmother used often to pour out the vials of her wrath upon them, which they both took with much good humour.”

• William Burdon (1764-1818) was the son of a Yorkshire squire, but inherited estates in Northumberland and Durham, including Hartford colliery, from his mother. She was a Wharton, hence the Wharton Arms in Burdon Terrace in Bedlington.

He attended the RGS, then Emmanuel College, Cambridge, of which he was elected a fellow. He later resigned, being unwilling to take holy orders, and in 1798 married and moved to Morpeth.

For a man of wealth with retired and scholarly tastes, Morpeth was ideal. He lived modestly, attended to his family, and wrote. His Materials for Thinking and Life and Character of Buonaparte came out at this time, as well as pamphlets on current affairs.

His wife died in 1806. He married again, had more children, built Hartford Hall, and spent the winters at his London house.

He was an atheist, and made little secret of it. In Materials for Thinking, he says: “I have very small hopes of living to see morality get rid of religion….religion reconciles some men to the evils of this world by the hopes of a better, and thus becomes the foe of morality.”

No wonder Mrs Laws disagreed with him.

Clever as he was, however, Mr Burdon was also eccentric.

Robert says: “I had to take some medicine occasionally from Drs Sands and Howdon’s shop to Mr Burdon’s house, and upon every visit I saw him; and on my leaving he took out of his coat-pocket a wet sponge, and rubbed me all over, and likewise the chair on which I had sat for a few moments. This strange movement was kept up to drive away infection.

“Every one who brought anything into the house had to undergo the same process of supposed purification. Even casual visitors were treated in the same manner.

“What a strange notion for such an enlightened mind to entertain, so deeply imbued with absolute scepticism as to everything else that the world considered wise or useful.”

• Dr Gray, by contrast: “had nothing eccentric about his social habits, but was a man of serious and reflective thought.

“A month after his first and only child, a son, was born, Mrs Gray left her husband, carrying this infant child with her. She never saw her husband more. She carefully nursed and educated her tender charge, who became....one of the most popular and distinguished theologians of his day.

“The first time he ever saw his father was when between 40 and 50 years old. He was then Dr Henry Gray.

“He came to Morpeth to preach in the Presbyterian Chapel there, and also to pay a visit to his aged parent, who then lived in a very humble tenement up a common yard, near the lower part of the town. On the Saturday before his son was to preach the old man called upon my grandmother, and asked her if she was going to hear what his foolish son was going to say tomorrow?”

Edward Gray (1745-1822) appears as a surgeon in the Universal British Directory of Morpeth for 1793.

He belonged to a land-owning family, the Greys of Milfield, was uncle to John Grey of Dilston, and great-uncle to Josephine Butler. Dr Blakey's spelling ‘Gray’, may be a mistake; the son, Henry, spelt it ‘Grey’. He became a Doctor of Divinity, and hence was also Dr Grey.

Robert says: “I visited and breakfasted with Dr Henry Gray (sic) in Edinburgh more than once when in the midst of his controversy about the Letters of Anglicanus; and though I carefully avoided the slightest reference to his old father’s social history, yet my mind was full of strange thoughts on the ups and downs of life.”

Dr Grey was unusual amongst the Scots clergy, first for being English, and secondly because he delivered his sermons “with a refined and cultivated style not normally associated with evangelical clergymen.” (ODNB).

The controversy Robert mentions was about the inclusion of the Apocrypha in the bibles of the Bible Society.