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My Days and My Ways

An Autobiography

by Robert Roberts



CHAPTER ONE:  Birth and Boyhood


I have frequently been asked to write an account of my life.  I have never felt sufficiently interested to make the attempt.  My life has seemed so common as to be devoid of interest; and I have a feeling that all human life, as it now is, is so intrinsically weak and imperfect as to fail in affording the requisite enthusiasm for literary effort.  Men as they are, and not as they appear in the atmosphere of narrative, are best described in the sober and literal words of the scriptures which tell us that rich men are a lie, and poor men vanity, and all the glory of man as the flower of the field. While thy live they are full of shortcoming and trouble – a fragile organization of corruption in the best state, and in a generation, disappear one and all in native dust.  Strongly sharing this feeling, I have hitherto refrained from the least record of a biographical character.  If I make a beginning now, it is because I yield to the wishes of those I love, from whom I will pass away in due course of time.


I was born in the city of Aberdeen, in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on the 8th of April, 1839; so the evidence goes to prove.  I believe the house is still standing in Link Street where the (for me as yet) unhappy event occurred.  There is no affectation in my use of Jeremiah’s words: “Wherefore came I forth out of the womb to see labour and sorrow, that my days should be consumed with shame?” (20:18)  “Woe is me, my mother, that thou hast made me a man of strife and a man of contention to the whole earth” (15:10).  But there are many alleviations that make it easy for me to say, “The will of the Lord be done.”


My father was a seaman, and for some years later in life, captain of a small coasting vessel.  He was a quiet, kindly, truthful man, without much force of character.  He was much away from home, and we were all left much to the care of our mother, who made up for his defect of mental energy.  There were six boys of us and one girl, the eldest  -- all of who grew up to manhood and womanhood.  There had been four others who died in infancy.  Ebenezer, the youngest of the six referred to, died in early manhood.  William was drowned at sea.  John, the eldest, died at Ottawa, Canada, in middle life.  My other two brothers, Arthur and David, went to sea, and are at the present time (1890) captains, one of an emigrant vessel and the other of a trading steamer.


My mother was a superior woman of an energetic and strongly religious turn of mind.  There was a mystery about her antecedents.  We had no relations on her side of the house.  If we were told the truth, which there is no reason to doubt, we learnt the reason from an old nurse of the Duke of Gordon’s family, when I was 12 years of age, according to whom there was a bit of romance in the case, which led to my mother being sent to London under the charge of her father, a London merchant.  My mother was educated in London, where she remained till her father’s death, when she was sent back to her friends to Aberdeen, and there maintained herself as a school teacher till her marriage with my father.


My father’s circumstances were very lowly and my mother had many difficulties to cope with in the rearing of a large family.  She successfully surmounted them all in a measure.  She gave us all a moderate education, and brought us up in strict separation from loose and frivolous neighbours.  Home was, however, rather a place of wholesome discipline than of love’s comfort, though my mother was not wanting on that side when other things were right.  Looking back, I can now realise her difficulties and her worth as I could not at the time.  We all received a religious bias, which was of  value to us afterwards, though I had a rough time of it at the beginning in consequence of having soon to run counter to my mother’s views, which were orthodox, and which she herself finally gave up.


At ten years of age, I was taken by my mother along with my brothers to hear a Dr. Thomas in a chapel opposite the Baptist chapel in John Street, which my mother then attended.  The usual preacher in that place was a Mr. Hart, an eccentric sort of man who had once been a soldier, and who made a trade of “christenings” at 2x. 6d. a head – anybody welcome.  On this occasion, he did not appear in any way.  The pulpit was occupied by two men – one an Aberdeen  tradesman and the other the Dr. Thomas we had come to hear.  Dr. Thomas was a quiet, stern, firm, neatly-made


gentleman with jet black beard.  His companion in the pulpit gave out the hymns and offered the prayer.  Dr. Thomas delivered the address.  I discovered from the remarks afterwards made as the congregation were dispersing that the address was regarded as something extraordinary, and that it was on baptism.  The address had not struck me at all.  I was too young to receive any impression.  I had in fact wearied and slept under it, and was glad when it was over.  The one thing that interested me and my brothers was the speaker’s beard, which was a novelty in those days.  As we went home together arm in arm, we vowed we should never shave.  I had much occasion afterwards to know who this Dr. Thomas was.


About a year after this incident, I left school.  I was then eleven years of age.  My first experience in responsible life was in filling my brother Arthur’s place while he was either unwell or sent somewhere else by his employers.  He was a clerk or keeper of a “rope cellar” in connection  with a rope factory in the neighbourhood of the ship-building yards of the harbour (for Aberdeen is a seaport).  My business was to keep a record on a slate of every article supplied to callers.  It seemed very interesting work, as all work does to all boys, till they get enough of it and more, and get to know what life as it now is really means – (a struggle, a scramble, a merciless competition for mere liberty to exist: a state of thing due to the larger and earlier circumstance that God his His face from the human race for a season, because of sin, and left them to look after themselves – which they are not fit to do).  The work in the rope cellar did not last long, as my brother returned to his place:  I had a strong desire to become a “cabinet maker”, as joiners are called in Scotland.  I got my mother to go round the shops  with me, but they would have none of me: they thought I was not strong enough for such work.  In this they were mistaken; but it was as well.  Had they thought otherwise, it is certain my course of life would have been entirely different.   My mother then spoke to an uncle of mine, who got me into a small grocer’s shop.  I had not been long there when it became apparent that it was a drinking place as well as a grocer’s shop, and my mother would not let me stay a moment after this  discovery.  She then spoke to the leading printer of that town, who was a member of the Baptist congregation (John Street) to which she at that time belonged.  This gentleman was  lithographer as well as a letterpress printer, and he gave me a place in the lithographic department under his son, Ebenezer.  Here I had lessons in drawing and stone work, and was making satisfactory progress when, at the end of three months, my mother thought I was getting hurt in the chest through stooping over the stones, and she obtained my removal to the letter-press department, where for more than twelve months I was engaged both at the press and case.


About the same time, photography was coming into notice, and my master’s son Mr. Ebenezer Cornwall, took an amateur interest in it.  He obtained a camera, and used to visit Dr. Munroe’s hydropathic institution at Loch Head in the early mornings to take portraits of the patients.  On these expeditions, I used to accompany him as his “boy”, to fetch  and carry.  On one occasion, the group of sitters included my future wife, without any knowledge on my part or hers.  She had come from Edinburgh to visit her sister, who was an invalid in the institution, and noticed the photographer’s boy, with whom she was destined afterwards to have on the threshold of womanhood, and would have been disagreeably impressed had she been told that the mite of a boy in attendance upon the amateur photographer was her future husband.  But so it came to pass, to my great blessedness.


I cannot now remember the cause of my leaving Mr. Cornwall’s, but leave it I did when I was about 13, or over, and found myself among “the unemployed”.  About this time my brothers went to sea, and I felt a strong inclination to follow their example.  That I did not do so was due to a strong sense that came over me one day as I was walking among the ships in the harbour, that if I went to sea, I would be cut off from all opportunities of improvement, and would probably grow up a barbarian.  This feeling was due to the encouragement I received in superior directions from my sister, and to the interest I had begun to take in religion.  My interest in religion dated from the hearing of a certain sermon to which I was taken by my mother.  The preacher was a fervid minister from the Highlands, whose intense, stimulating oratory found a ready response in the state of mind to which I had been brought by recent misbehaviour.  This misbehaviour consisted in staying away from the night school which I attended after I had begun to go to work; and in spending the time of the streets with a companion, who regaled myself and my brother with all sorts of crazy delights from the shop windows, to the ruin of health.  This had gone on for some weeks, during which I was the unworthy recipient of my mother’s pity at my deranged physical state.  Being found out, we were summoned before the schoolmaster by the boy’s father, and subjected to an examination which made out teeth chatter with apprehension at the prospect opened out by their combined threats.  The result of the examination was that we were to be handed over to our parents for punishment.  Though this was not so bad as we had feared, previous experience made it sufficiently alarming; but the cloud blew over.  My mother gave me an awful lecture, the whole force of which was taken away by


the concluding declaration that she would not punish me herself, but leave me to the punishment of my own conscience- a punishment which at that time did not trouble me much.  With a feeling of entire relief, I proceeded to the next thing.



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