Robert Firmin 1822-1846

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June 24, 2013 by auntkatefirmin

King Henry Yard i 1792

King Henry Yard in 1792
from Horwood’s map at

I will skip over John & Sarah Firmin’s second child, my direct ancestor George born in 1820, in order to write about him in more depth later. George and the next child, Robert, were both born when the family was living in King Henry Yard.  Given that I know next to nothing about Robert, this post gives some background about the area where the Firmins were living for a few years before being forced to relocate by local developments.  (There was a reason I couldn’t find the parish of “St Catherine” where George Firmin said he was born – I’ll get to it in the next post).

King Henry Yard was located in the Liberty of East Smithfield, which largely overlaps the southern portion of the parish of St. Botolph, Aldgate.  Both baptisms were recorded in Aldgate parish.  Because as genealogists we tend to focus on the parish boundaries we often forget that our ancestors lived in overlapping secular (manors, wards or precincts) and church (parish, diocese) jurisdictions. As late as 1831 East Smithfield had its own separate courts for various (small value) offenses.

Going back for a minute to the 16th century, the dissolution of the monasteries shaped the real estate holdings and boundaries of England by distributing church properties to secular owners on a massive scale.  Right next to the Firmin family was a little medieval hold-over, the Royal Peculiar of the Hospital of St. Katherine by the Tower.  For many reasons, but in part because of its royal status having been founded by a Queen Matilda in 1147, the property did not fall into secular hands and continued in its special legal status under its own rule.  By the time Robert was born, St. Katherine’s was a relict of narrow lanes, crowded with foreign craftsmen, and various low-income populations generally considered undesirable. Its bad reputation goes as far back as 1601.  While not idyllic, it was probably no worse than some City neighborhoods and may have received more than its fair share of criticism in Robert’s day based on the desire to condemn the area in order to free it up for other developments. The hospital formed an important part of the local economy and its eventual loss to the Tower Hamlets community was both moral and fiscal.

Robert’s family’s neighborhood was also very old. The parish of St Botolph’s forms a north-south strip to the east of London’s wall. Historically, this strip was the location for businesses that were noisy, smelly or took more space than was available in the more expensive locations inside the walls. For example, coopers and brewers were found in East Smithfield in higher concentrations than other neighborhoods.

Not a district for the high-society set, still the area included the well-to-do alongside the rest.  If it was more working-class, that was not a draw-back for a carman’s business. Surely between the coopers, the breweries and the local wharfs there was plenty of merchandise and raw materials that required moving!

While John continued to work as a carman, Robert’s employment is unknown.  His life is only documented at three times:  birth, his brother’s marriage and death. He does not appear in the 1841 census when he would have been about 19 and supporting himself. I believe he was alive in 1841, based on a signature from 1844 when Robert was a witness at the marriage of his older brother George Firmin to Emily Hall at St. Pancras New Church.

Signature of Robert Firmin, 1844.

Signature of Robert Firmin, 1844.

From his signature I assume that Robert received some education, for his writing is clear and confident. While there are other Robert Firmins in London, they are less likely to have witnessed George’s wedding.

It seems logical to conclude that this Robert is the man who died in the last quarter of 1846 in the parish of St George in the East.  He would have been only 24. Life expectancy in London at the time was 37.  Crowded districts like East London and some laboring occupations had higher death rates, and there were many deaths from tuberculosis. The death certificate (which I have not ordered) would list both the cause of death and the man’s age which would allow us to confirm that this is the correct Robert.

His nephew, George’s son John Robert (my ancestor) was born in Swindon in 1845 but baptised a few months later in London.  I’d like to think that Robert met John Robert Firmin.

For further reading:

Sir Walter Besant‘s novel St. Katherine’s by the Tower

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