The making of town's first professor

Dr Robert Blakey was the first Morpethian to become a university professor. He had no recollection of learning to read, but thought that his uncle Mr John Robertson may have taught him.

Monday, 17th October 2016, 9:31 am
Updated Tuesday, 25th October 2016, 1:34 pm

Mr Robertson was the landlord of The Sun Inn, where he also had a market garden.

He was the close friend of Robert’s father, who died when Robert was very young, and their wives were sisters.

“My uncle made me a sort of companion, and instructed me in many things connected with general history and ecclesiastical affairs. He had an ardent and genuine taste for reading,” he said.

“He had been in early life a musician in the army, his father being bandmaster in a regiment under the Earl of Cornwallis, in America, where he and his father and mother were made prisoners of war, after the Earl’s surrender to Washington’s army.

“I used to listen to my uncle’s experiences and adventures with the greatest interest; and he (would occasionally talk to me) on matters of doctrinal divinity.

“From my eighth year I worked all the spring and summer months with my Uncle Robertson. I was set to weed, hoe, dig, plant, and gather potatoes, drive a horse and cart, and, in fact, to make myself useful in every sort of way.

“He always acted like a kind father to me; and though he was rigid in his exactions of labour, I grew strong and healthy under his discipline.

“My grandmother made a bargain with him that I should receive sixpence a day, and find my own victuals. My food was commonly a little butter and bread, sometimes cheese, and perhaps once a week a little fat mutton. In addition I had always a bottle of milk. I seldom got to work before seven or eight, but was often not home till nine at night.

“It was part of my grandmother’s agreement with my uncle that when he could do without my aid, I was to be put to school, (but) I never recollect of having been at any school for more than two or three months during a year; and with one or two exceptions, the teachers were of a very humble and unpretentious order.

“I paid at the rate of fourpence and fivepence a week. In winter I attended night schools; and this in some measure made up for omissions during daytime.

“I began now to buy penny ballads and histories, though my good old grandmother did not relish my reading of them, but often told me they were the works of the devil.

“A little before my tenth year, my Uncle Robertson got me engaged in a new system of labour. He had been for years employed at intervals, from the month of October to the middle of April, in cutting corve rods in the Earl of Carlisle’s woods around Morpeth. These rods were mostly hazel, and were used then, and even now (c.1850), I believe, in making baskets for bringing up the coals from the pits on the banks of the Tyne and Wear.

“The cutting of them and the taking off the branches was paid for at so much per bundle of 120 rods. After a few weeks’ practice I grew pretty expert at the snedding or cutting off the branches of the rods; my uncle having all the cutting of them as my strength was not equal to this part of the process.

“I made from one-and-sixpence to three shillings a day. This labour was full of interest to me in obtaining a little money for books, and paints and brushes; for I had taken a strong liking for drawing in the evenings.

“The chief drawback was the wet and cold to which I was exposed. There often I stood nearly up to my knees in snow, and under a keen frost wind, for many hours together; yet I never remember of having had any serious illness from this exposure.

“I was well clad: thick flannel jackets, strong shoes, and leather leggings. I suffered most from my hands, though protected by thick woollen mittens, in running the rods through my hands when wet or frozen.

“After the first season, my uncle used to cut as many rods as would serve me snedding for four or five. I then had to go to the woods alone, and remain the entire day.

“This often proved a very trying affair to me; and chiefly from this cause: my grandmother and Mrs Black used to have long confabulations in the evenings, which often ended in some very terrific history of ghosts, or persons who had sold themselves bodily to the devil.

“I listened with the most intense interest to these recitals, and I often became so frightened while in the woods by myself that I was terrified to look behind me, always considering my danger lay in this direction.

“The woods were commonly a long distance from my house; and I never remember seeing a single human being from the morning I came to the evening I left. My usual resource was singing and whistling to ‘keep my courage up’, and to chase away the evil influences which I fancied surrounded me on every side. A rush of wind, or a rustling among the bushes, made me start with fright.

“I well remember one morning I had got up a little earlier about Christmas time to meet my uncle on the way to our daily task at a wood a little north of Bedlington.

“I had had a regular dose of terrors the previous night from Mrs Black and my grandmother about a man who had sold himself to the devil. I had listened with intense excitement to the dialogue between the seller and the purchaser.

“As I was tramping along a field called the Chantry Close to meet my uncle at a blacksmith’s shop at Hepscott, musing on the more striking incidents of the story, an owl flew out of a tree with a loud screech, and down I dropped into a ditch as dead as a stone. How long I lay insensible I do not know; but on coming to my senses I made the best of my way to the blacksmith’s shop, where I found my uncle waiting for me. I told him my adventure, at which he had a hearty laugh, and it was many a long day ere I heard the last of his jokes on the subject.”

Note: For ease of reading I have silently edited some of these paragraphs from Dr Blakey's Memoirs.