Tracing the lineage of the Fisher Poet

The Ridley Arms at Stannington
The Ridley Arms at Stannington

Robert Roxby was an accountant in a bank, but better known as the Fisher Poet.

In The Coquet-Dale Fishing Songs, his friend Thomas Doubleday says that: ‘He was born, nurtured, and resided, until his twenty-fifth or twenty-sixth year, chiefly at Monkridge Hall, near Otterburn, in the vale of Reed’.

There is no better authority on Roxby than Thomas Doubleday. We need here, however, to read his words with care. I think he means that, wherever Roxby might have lived in his childhood and youth, it was always in Redesdale, and he twice refers to Redesdale as Roxby’s ‘native vale’.

The website Farne (Folk Archive Resource North East) says that he was born at Needless Hall, which the Wikipedia article on Roxby places in Hartburn parish, near the Dyke Neuk.

Neither gives any reference, but it must be from an obituary, a copy of which is in the Local Tracts at Newcastle City Library:

“The deceased was born at Needless Hall, Reedsdale, Northumberland, and, having lost his father at an early age, he was confided to the care of Mr Gabriel Goulburn, an extensive farmer in that neighbourhood.”

There is no Needless Hall in Redesdale now so either there used to be one that has since disappeared, or it’s a mistake. Either way, the obituary locates it firmly in Redesdale so it cannot be the Needless Hall near Hartburn. Robert Roxby was not born in Castle Morpeth.

I have searched the directories and transcripts of parish registers of Elsdon, Corsenside and Hartburn at Newcastle City Library, looking for people called Roxby, but with one exception, there aren’t any. It isn’t a name found in that quarter. I did find entries for Goulburn, or ‘Gouldburn’, in Elsdon. Robert’s guardian was probably the Gabriel Goulburn, born 1734, married 1762, churchwarden in 1774, and died at Elsdon in 1822.

He intended Robert to be a farmer and grazier like himself, but when he became insolvent c.1791-1795, Robert left to seek employment in Newcastle.

He went first to Whitley as clerk to a brewer. Doubleday says: ‘finding, when on the road to the place of his new employment, that he had a single halfpenny left in his pocket, he threw it into the sea, that he might say he literally began in the world again without one!’

He quickly got a better position in the bank of Sir William Loraine & Co., and later of Sir Matthew White Ridley & Co.

However, my researches at the City Library turned up a surprise. The Elsdon registers were published by the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries in 1903.

Under the year 1771, it says: ‘July 31st – Robert a Bastard Son of Robert Roxby and Elizth Rutherford 3 years old’. As for being three years old, this was not at all unusual, but we have no other information about his father and mother. Given the scarcity of the name, this can only be the baptism of the Fisher Poet. But, whether by accident or design, it is not included in the index.

Thomas Doubleday puts his friend’s date of birth at 1770. The memorial in Newcastle Cathedral, placed long after both men were dead, says 1767. It looks as if the memorial is more nearly correct.

Doubleday probably knew more than he chose to say, but his concern was not with his friend’s parentage, only with his life and character:

“Of Humorous eccentricity the late Mr. Roxby ... was full; and endless are the anecdotes to which his oddities gave rise. ... One in particular I shall never forget ... We had set off, in a gig, at Whitsuntide, or ‘Whussenday,’ as he called it, to have two days’ fishing in the Coquet; and when we arrived at the little village of Stannington, on our road to Weldon Bridge, we pulled up at a small way-side public-house, the master of which happened to be the overseer of the parish..

“We found it preoccupied by a rather numerous company, who had been assembled to attend some funeral, and who were ranged round the room, dressed in the livery of woe, and wearing those lugubrious faces which are deemed suitable to occasions of this sort. With this solemn assemblage we had little in harmony. There was, however, no alternative; and we accordingly sat down at a little table in a corner to partake of some bread and cheese, whilst our nag was munching his oats.

“(To) a female tale of distress the ear of my friend was always open. He had also another peculiarity, and that was a most irritable impatience of thanks or blessings in return for any donation in the shape of relief. He, in fact, could not bear to hear magnified into notice that which he deemed a mere every-day duty; and this ... was now fated to be rather sharply tried.

“Whilst sitting over our cheese and ale, we were suddenly roused by the voice of a woman, who was lamenting bitterly the absence of the overseer. She and her children, she said, were totally destitute, they were starving, and relief she must have. To her moan, however, a deaf ear was turned on all sides. In the overseer’s absence, no legal relief was forthcoming, and in vain she appealed to the compassion of the solemn company, who seemed quite inclined, one and all, to suffer her and her children to starve, if starve they must, rather than put their hands in their pockets.

“My impatient companion, who was sitting rather out of sight, listened in silence for a minute or two, at the end of which he lost all self-command. ‘Come back!’ he said, in a voice more rough than melodious, to the poor forlorn creature, who, evidently somewhat astonished by this mode of address, submissively complied.

“‘Did you say you and your bairns were starving?’ he asked, in his usual abrupt manner when excited. ‘They’re starving, sir,’ answered the forlorn creature: ‘as sure as God is in heaven, I haven’t a bite to put in their mouths!’ ‘I’ll never let a woman and her bairns starve!’ was the reply; and glancing, as he did it, a stern look of bitter indignation at the solemn assembly, he put half-a-crown into her hand. ‘There,’ he said, ‘take that hame; that will serve to keep the bairns from starving till the overseer comes back to-morrow.’

‘The Lord shower down blessings upon your head!’ ejaculated the poor creature; but this torrent of gratitude only augmented the irritation of the eccentric lover of angling. ‘Hout-tout, wife! hout-tout, wife!’ exclaimed he, motioning her to the door with no polite gesture, ‘what’s a’ this noise about? I daursay the Lord doesna care a —— outher for thou or me!’

“What effect this irreverent conclusion had upon the poor woman I cannot say; but among the close-fisted and solemn assembly it produced a sensation so decided that I was fain to get back to our gig, and leave behind the charitable remarks that I saw were in store for us.”