Robert Andrew Allison (1838-1926)

Robert Andrew Allison

Written by Kevin Grice

Occupation: Politician
Location: Carlisle

Early Life and Family

Robert Andrew Allison was born on 3rd March 1838 at 1-2, Devonshire Terrace in the Stanwix Bank area of Carlisle and where he was baptised on 11th May of that year. Some records suggest that he was born either in English Street in the city centre or at a house in Stanwix called Eden Mount but both of these are incorrect. English Street was the family business address (see below) and Eden Mount was a terrace not built until the early 1840’s and which does not therefore appear on the 1841 Census at all. It was however the house into which the Allison family moved in about 1842, probably as its first occupants, and where they lived for many years, so most of the early events in Robert’s life occurred there. Nos. 1 and 2 Devonshire Terrace were initially built as one dwelling (as shown on an 1839 Tithe Map) but about that date were split and it was in No. 2 Devonshire Terrace that Robert’s parents Joseph and Jane Allison were living at the time of the 1841 Census, with another family at No. 1.

The Allison family were wholesale and retail grocers, tobacco and snuff manufacturers and tea dealers, trading in English Street in the city centre. The business was started by his grandfather Robert Allison senior (1772-1843) together with his wife Jane Martindale (1776-1864) who had married in 1807 and it was principally they who later resided at Eden Mount. In 1816 Robert Allison senior (then described as a grocer) took a lease on the corn mill at Castle Mill in Carlisle, so he seems to have been expanding the range of property in which the family had a business interest. Further land in Carlisle, amounting to just in excess of 20 acres, was purchased in 1834. The grocery business was then in time run jointly by Robert Allison senior and his son Joseph Allison (1808-1842), Robert Andrew’s father, who was also recorded as a grocer in directories of 1828 - 1829 as well as on the 1841 Census. Joseph became a Freemason in the Lodge of Harmony in Carlisle in 1835. By 1841 father and son were running the business together with the help of several apprentices but both were to die shortly thereafter and the business was taken over. The shop itself can be identified in that 1841 Census as the relevant section for English Street in Carlisle states that it is concerned with: “All that part of the township of English Street commencing at Rob’t Allison the Grocers Shop on the corner of Old Grapes Lane”, the eponymous public house then stood next door.

Robert’s mother was Jane Andrew (1808-1890) who had married his father on 11th May 1836 at St Mary’s Church in Carlisle. They had three children, Robert Andrew, John (1839-1843) and Anne Barbara (1841-1844), both siblings also being born at Devonshire Terrace according to local newspaper announcements although only Robert survived childhood. Jane (by now a wealthy widow following the successive deaths of her husband in 1842 and father-in-law in 1843) still lived at Eden Mount in 1851 with her sister Barbara, her son and three servants. They were at 88, Marine Drive in Brighton in 1861 (perhaps on holiday) before returning to Eden Mount in 1861 and they still lived there in 1868. 

Education and early business career

Robert Allison was educated initially at Carlisle Grammar School. In 1924 he presented the prizes at his old school’s Speech Day and he recalled that in his time, there were about 100 boys all in one small room, no playground or games and no music. He himself however excelled at the classics and he later endowed the school with a classical scholarship. He then went to Rugby School (1851-1857) and to Trinity College Cambridge which he entered in 1857, gaining a BA in Classics in 1860. He returned to Carlisle and records suggest that he set about acquiring an extensive portfolio of properties in and around the city, including shops and warehouses. Interestingly these included both tobacco and sugar warehouses (1865) so he may have been continuing the family interest in those areas of commerce even though the grocery business was long gone. Robert Allison was a dedicated temperance reformer and advocate, once described as ‘…a decided Liberal with a penchant for temperance…’. It is thus unsurprising that in 1873 he subscribed to shares in The Manchester Temperance Hotels Company Limited. A fellow investor however was James Carr, the biscuit manufacturer, so again Robert’s eye seems to have been on profitable commercial deals alongside similar-minded businessmen of the city. He was also for many years a Director of the Carlisle and Cumberland Banking Company Limited, becoming its Chairman in 1911, and a Director of the Midland Railway after its arrival in Carlisle in 1875. He was a Freeman of the City of Carlisle, qualifying through the Butchers’ Guild in 1862.

Own family and home

As Robert’s career progressed and following his marriage in 1867, the family (including his mother) all moved to Scaleby Hall in Carlisle in about 1870, with three or four servants as his new family required, including a governess and two nurses in 1881. The Hall is situated just east of Scaleby Castle and had been built in 1834 for Henry Farrer. He was a banker by profession but a member of the well-known family of tea and coffee merchants and it may be that this was the connection which brought the property to the attention of the Allisons. The estate was quite substantial since the 1871 Census records that Robert Allison was a landowner and farmer of 90 acres employing three men, in addition to his household. The house is listed Grade II and the listing entry suggests that the alterations to the house were made in the late 19th century by or for Robert Allison.

Robert Andrew Allison married twice. On 1st June 1867, at All Saints Church, Scaleby he married Laura Alicia Atkinson (1843-1892), the youngest daughter of John Milner Atkinson (1800-1855) and his wife Mary of Thorp Arch in Yorkshire. They had four children, all born at the family home. Their two sons were Wilfred Henry Andrew (1874-1921) and Herbert (1875-1934). Wilfred continued to live at Scaleby Hall, describing himself as ‘Gentleman’, until his marriage in 1896, after which he divided his time between Cumberland and Argentina. There is a record of him returning from Buenos Aires to Liverpool in 1919 and on his daughter Dorothy’s marriage certificate from 1933 his profession is simply stated as ‘Ranches in South America’, although he was by then deceased. He had returned to Scaleby Hall and died there on 10th May 1921, aged only 46. Herbert also attended Rugby School and Trinity College Cambridge (BA 1898) then Sarum College (1899) before becoming a clergyman. He was Curate of St Peter’s, Marlborough (1899-1901) then Whittingham (1901-1905). Latterly he was a licensed preacher at Caldbeck (1924-1928) and then at Crosthwaite near Keswick (1928-1934). In time he himself lived at Scaleby Hall which he had inherited upon the death of his father in 1926 but he died at Rosehaugh in Keswick on 10th February 1934, aged 58.

Robert and Laura’s two daughters were Ethel Mary Jane (born 1870) and Laura (1878-1949) and both gained connections to Canada. Ethel lived with her parents until she emigrated in 1909, sailing aboard the ‘RMS Lusitania’ from Liverpool to New York. She went to live in British Columbia and in 1923 married Frank Hulbert, a British Columbian farmer. Their marriage however took place just over the national boundary in Washington State USA and Ethel was still living there in 1939. Laura married Henry Godfrey Slater of the Royal Engineers in 1908 but he was killed in action in Picardy on 10th August 1918 fighting alongside a Canadian Regiment and is buried at Bouchoir New British Cemetery. There are records of Laura between 1919-1922 also living in British Columbia and further visiting there in June-August 1939, during which stay she also crossed into the USA to visit her sister. This may initially however all have been to track down or visit her late husband’s comrades-in-arms or their families. Laura then returned initially to St Albans in Hertfordshire to stay with her son Christopher but came back to Cumberland in due course and died back at Scaleby Hall in 1949, the last of the Allison family to do so.

On 1st June 1897 at All Saints Church, Parkstone in Dorset, Robert Allison married for the second time. His new wife was Sara Eudora Slater (1864-1935), born in Stanhope in County Durham, the daughter of Reverend Canon Henry Slater then of Branksome Park near Bournemouth. They had no children.

Political Career

Robert Allison was a life-long member of the Liberal Party, in time becoming one of its Radical or Gladstonian stalwarts, a firm believer in Gladstone’s doctrines and methods and in particular free trade. He is one of the correspondents in political papers about the 1880 General Election in East Cumberland although he was not at that time a potential parliamentary candidate. He did however in the early 1880’s then put himself forward for election as his standing in the party increased. The Historic England listing entry for Scaleby Hall suggests that Robert Allison at least once entertained William Gladstone there, which perhaps shows the extent of his ambitions. In the General Election on 24th November 1885 Robert Allison was thus elected as the Liberal Member of Parliament for the Eskdale Division of North Cumberland with a majority of 1,586. It was at the time a new seat after the re-organisation of the Cumberland constituencies and he was to retain it in 1886 (when he stood as a Gladstonian), 1892 and 1895 with majorities of 886, 813 and 147 respectively out of 7,000 – 8,000 votes cast. In 1886 he defeated no less a personage than the Right Honourable James Lowther, formerly Chief Secretary for Ireland, for the Conservatives and in 1892 and 1895 he defeated Henry Howard for the Liberal Unionists. However in the General Election on 1st October 1900 he was defeated by Claude Lowther for the Conservatives with a majority of 703 and he left the House of Commons.

Robert Allison was a very nervous speaker as a young man but became an accomplished parliamentarian. During his 15 years as an MP, he spoke on 37 occasions on subjects as diverse as the Irish land question (1887), County Councils and the power to maintain roads (1888), fisheries in the Solway Firth and discontent with the Tweed Fisheries Acts (1895) and accommodation issues in Brook Street and Hurst Street Local Board Schools in Carlisle (1899). His parliamentary career was summarised as follows:

He can speak sensibly, but he recognises the right of other members to talk as well as himself, and never needlessly obtrudes himself on the House, either with perverse questions or unnecessary remarks. Mr Allison, in short, is a pronounced, but not an atrabilious party man.

Subsequent Life and Writings

After leaving Parliament, Robert Allison remained a Director of the Midland Railway until 1914, became Chairman of North Cumberland Liberal Association and was a major shareholder in Carlisle Liberal Club Limited, in which he increased his holding in 1896. He was High Sheriff of Cumberland in 1908 and for many years a Deputy Lieutenant of the county. He was a Justice of the Peace from 1870 -1915, serving on both the Carlisle and Longtown Benches and becoming Chairman of the latter and in 1877 he was made a Visitor to houses for lunatics in the Carlisle area. He was knighted in the Birthday Honours List of June 1910 for services to politics and his city. In 1915 he was presented with a portrait of himself by Percy Bigland (1856-1926), a well-known portrait artist who had painted Gladstone in 1890, together with an album with the names of over 1,200 subscribers. His temperance beliefs continued for the rest of his life, so from its inception Robert Allison was a county member on the State Management Committee or ‘Carlisle Experiment’, becoming its first Vice-Chairman. This was a teetotal scheme established in 1916 as a result of which 53 out of the 118 public houses in the city were closed; it was also designed to keep the lid on the behaviour of the munitions workers from Gretna during the Great War. As a loyal churchman he also held many important positions on diocesan committees.

He had been a member of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society from 1874 so was at his death one of its oldest members after 52 years. He never contributed to its Transactions but was a subscriber to Test Karl (CWAAS, 1893). Further when the opportunity arose, he attended the summer gatherings and when the Society went to Scaleby in September 1907 he entertained the members to tea on the lawn at Scaleby Hall. In his later years he wrote numerous books including Belgium in History (1914), Plautus: Five of his Plays (1914) and Cicero in Old Age (1916) as well as translating classical texts including Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) translated from the Latin into English verse (1919 with revisions and corrections in 1925) and Translations into English Verse: a Greek Anthology (1922). His most unusual book was however published in 1913 and was entitled Lectures and Addresses. It is an entertaining volume which discusses such diverse topics as the House of Commons and its Speakers, Ballads of the Border, Hymns and their Writers, the Journals of Sir David Fleming, Quotations, Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Carlyle, John Milton, Edmund Burke and the Constitution of the United States.

Robert Allison lived throughout his later life at Scaleby Hall where he died late on Friday 15th January 1926, aged 87. At the request of his widow Sara, his remains were removed to Carlisle early on the following Monday and were thence conveyed by train to Darlington for cremation. The ashes were brought back to Carlisle that same evening and were placed in Scaleby Church overnight. The funeral was then held there on the Tuesday. His Probate was granted out of the Carlisle Registry on 29th March 1926 to his widow, son Herbert and daughter Laura. He left a net estate of £70,470. Amongst many personal bequests, he left £100 for the repair and maintenance of Scaleby Parish Hall.


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