Robert Sewell – a curious will

Robert Sewell was the man who told world-renowned astronomer William Herschel that he was wrong.

Robert Sewell was right, but while history records that Herschel got it wrong when it came to lunar volcanoes, our Cumbrian Character was (locally) famous only during his own lifetime.

That life came to an end in 1807. And Robert Sewell’s will makes interesting reading. With a real kicker in the codicil!

Kind to his servant

The preamble confirms that Robert Sewell lived at Bridge House, Castle Sowerby.

The first IMPRESSION is that he had no immediate family, for when it comes to naming people, he starts with ‘my nephew Wilson Sewell’.

Before saying he leaves £16 a year to ‘my servant Elizabeth Robson.’

All very nice. The reader today imagines a kindly man, wishing to ensure his faithful housekeeper isn’t left destitute when her employer dies and she loses her job.

But there is more to it than that.

Half a house is better than none

Elizabeth Robson is to live in and occupy (hard to read) what looks like ‘the kitchen, milkhouse, cellar and room above the kitchen’ at Bridge House, now in Robert Sewell’s own possession.

She is also to have use of the garden to the south-west of Bridge House.

Makes you wonder about the rest of the house: is that to be mothballed? Is that to be rented out to someone who doesn’t mind sharing?! Is Wilson Sewell supposed to live there?

The will continues that Wilson Sewell will get Bridge House if Elizabeth Robson decides to leave – but he has to pay her 40 shillings (£2) a year if she does.

Robert Sewell, a man of property

Robert Sewell’s nephew does inherit other property. There’s something about Millhouse, Castle Sowerby, and land, occupied by a Lancelot Whitlocks and a Samuel Whitlocks. And there’s a freehold messuage and tenement at Hutton Roof, and property or land elsewhere in Castle Sowerby, Greystoke, and Skelton.

Our amateur naturalist and astronomer was a man of means.

Given that he claimed to have invented the ‘cato dioptric telescope’, I was hoping that would feature in the will.

Sadly, the only personal item identified is his mahogany writing desk.

Elizabeth Robson inherits all his household goods, apart from the writing desk. Which goes to Wilson Sewell – kind of.

Because the writing desk has to stay in Bridge House, as Elizabeth Robson ‘is to have the use of it’.

A twist in the tale

So we have a picture of sorts in our mind: without knowing what the relationship was truly between Robert Sewell and ‘my servant Elizabeth Robson’.

But then there is the twist of the codicil.

Most of it is just ‘extras’. Wilson Sewell is to get a messuage and tenement at How Bound called Levy Holm.

Elizabeth Robson is to be allowed to occupy ALL of Bridge House. Rather than having to tiptoe round (but no doubt dust!) half or more of it.

Elizabeth Robson is also to give 40 shillings a year to the poor of How Bound, ‘to such persons as she thinks most needful’.

And then…

‘My daughter Nancy Stephenson’ is to receive £14 a year, and a messuage and tenement at Church ?Style, Hutton Roof.


So, after a lengthy will benefiting his nephew and his servant, Robert Sewell finally remembers he has a daughter – in the codicil. An afterthought.

‘Thanks, Dad’

If nephew Wilson Sewell dies without issue, then Nancy Stephenson inherits his share of Robert’s estate… equally with Elizabeth Robson.

If Wilson, Nancy and Elizabeth die, the lot goes to Robert Sewell’s friend Richard Lowthian, attorney at law in Carlisle.

Who were they?

I think Robert Sewell was born 1733, baptised Caldbeck to a Jacob Sewell and his wife Margaret.

Robert married Dorothy Harrison in 1755. Robert was then of Bridge House, Dorothy of Castlehow.

It wasn’t a very productive marriage. Their first child was born two years later, to Robert and ‘Dot’ of Bridge House. They called her Nancy – but she died in 1758.

Another daughter was baptised in 1759 – to Robert and Dorothy ‘of Millhouse’. And they re-used the name Nancy.

I couldn’t see any other children of the marriage.

Dorothy died in 1777, the register saying she was 47.

Nancy married 1783 John Stephenson.

The only Wilson Sewell I could see was born 1771, to Henry Sewell and Mary (Wilson).

There is no way to tell how old ‘my servant’ Elizabeth Robson was.

And as the first ’proper’ census wasn’t till 1841 (when a farmer called Thomas Scott and his family were living in Bridge House), there is no way to tell what happened to her after.


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