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Robert Mather Watson (1801-1872) and Frances Pratt (1811-1894)


Woolwich in 1800


On the 5th August 1834 The Times carried the following announcement of a marriage:

‘On the 31st ult, at Christchurch Newgate-street, by the Rev William Goode, MA, Robert Mather Watson, Esq, surgeon, of Devonport, to Frances, only daughter of Robert Pratt, Esq, of Greenwich’. It was a long way for the Watson family to travel for a wedding, but the wedding would be a family reunion because Robert and Frances were first cousins.


Robert’s father, also Robert Mather Watson, and Frances’ mother, Rebecca Mather Watson (Note 1), were from a Devon family, many of whom worked in, or for, the Royal Navy. They were born in Stoke Damerel, but moved to Woolwich when still young, probably because their father started to work at the dockyard there. When he was twelve years old Robert (sen) became an apprentice shipwright and first appears in naval records in 1782 when, aged fourteen, he changed masters to James Jago, a quarterman shipwright (and soon to be a foreman), also recently moved from Plymouth.

Shipwrights were well respected and well paid, with, if you were working in a naval dockyard, a guaranteed pension. It was said that young shipwrights preferred to work in private boatyards, as the system and working hours were more flexible, but the work practices of the Royal Dockyards certainly ensured good quality ships. Salaried quartermen each managed their own gang and were concerned to maintain the quality of what was done, not just the quantity. The quartermen were responsible to the foremen who, in turn, were under the master shipwrights, with all the work subject to teams of inspectors. As an apprentice Robert earned 1/6d a day, but he finished his apprenticeship in 1787 and two years later married Ann Smith in London. The Napoleonic War would soon start and shipwrights were to play a crucial role over the next fifteen years as the demand for warships grew. This was also the time when Robert and Ann were bringing up a family, never an easy time, but their life must have been made harder, not only by the war preparations but also because, between 1796 and 1800, Robert was twice loaned to the Portsmouth Dockyard. This may have been because he was good at his job because, by the time Robert Mather (jun) was born in 1801, Robert (sen) had become a quarterman in the Woolwich Dockyard, and was earning 2/6d a day, 5d more than he had earned as a normal shipwright. With Robert’s birth, their family was complete and a stable career beckoned.

Two views of 18th century Greenwich


Rebecca Watson had married Robert Pratt in 1791 shortly after her brother had married Ann, and was destined to spend the rest of her life in Greenwich and Woolwich. They married by licence and lived for a year in Limehouse with Robert being described as a 'clerk to Mr Hare' when their first son, Robert George, was born. 'Mr Hare' may have been Richard Hare, as he was a successful brewer (as Robert later became) in Limehouse, who sold his business in 1792 to Taylor & Walker, which still exists. All their other children were born in Greenwich, with Robert styled as simply 'clerk', although two died very young and each was described as the child 'of a gentleman' in their burial entry. It is difficult to know what Robert actually did, but he clearly made some money as in later years he was a fairly wealthy landowner, and the local rates books bear testimony to the houses and pubs that he owned in the area. His money may have come partly through Rebecca - her father, though not particularly wealthy, had made her the beneficiary of a third of his estate – but there was also a tradition that the Pratts were connected to the Earls of Camden, so he may have inherited money as well. After his death, one of his children put 'brewer' as his profession on a marriage certificate; and he certainly owned several inns with his son, Samuel, going on to be a brewer himself. Oddly, when Rebecca's father died in 1809, her stepmother asked the navy for an increased pension as she wasn't coping very well, which seemed a strange situation given her daughter's comparative wealth.


Rebecca Mather Pratt (nee Watson) c1836

The two cousins were now living close to each other with Robert in Woolwich and Frances a few miles along the river towards London in Greenwich. Robert was ten years older, so they had little in common except their grandparents, but soon they were to be separated by distance as well as age, as Robert’s father returned to Plymouth to be a foreman at the Plymouth Dockyard. His first wife, Ann, had died, but Robert married Elizabeth, an older woman from Stoke Damerel, so it was she who brought Robert (jun) up from the age of twelve, rather than his mother. The end of the Napoleonic War had been something of a disaster for Plymouth, because there was much less work for the dockyards and large numbers of workers were made redundant, but Robert was one of the luckier ones, and continued as a foreman.


There were two sons in the Watson family and Christopher, the elder one, continued the family’s links with the navy by becoming a naval officer; but Robert was destined for a very different career and became an apprentice to Thomas Barnes, a local apothecary in Stoke Damerel. Over the next five years Robert took courses in anatomy, physiology, chemistry and the theory of practice of medicine. He spent nine months working in the Devonport Dispensary and then in 1827, after Thomas Barnes had given him a testimonial as to his moral character, Robert became qualified to practise. Medicine in the early part of the 19th century could be a barbaric profession, and practices such a blood-letting were common. Equally the quality of training was very varied, with some apothecary apprentices doing little more than rolling pills. Training could be very expensive, so most apprentices were the sons of fairly wealthy men, often apothecaries or doctors themselves; there were probably few sons of foremen. It is impossible to tell how good Thomas Barnes was as a teacher, but the courses Robert took suggests that he was competent at least. When Thomas Barnes' wife had a child in 1831 he was described as a surgeon, RN; and Robert himself went on to do the same, as a number of apothecaries did.


Napoleon arriving in Plymouth in 1815

Emma Gifford.gif

Emma Gifford, Thomas Hardy's first wife and Robert Mather Watson's niece by marriage

Robert may have known some of the surgeons involved in a scandal that surfaced soon after his training ended. The church at Stoke Damerel was still in an isolated position in spite of the growing population, and was surrounded by a high wall. This made it ideal for body snatchers who disinterred corpses form the graveyard and sold them for medical research. In 1830 a gang which had worked there for some time was caught by the parish constable. Two complete bodies, many teeth and a quantity of grave clothes were recovered, and the grave robbers were transported to Botany Bay. A directory from the same year shows Robert as a surgeon, living at 18 St Aubyn Street, with his father, still a foreman at the dockyard, nearby, but there is no suggestion that he was involved! 


Soon afterwards Robert married a local girl, Helena Gifford, and they had a son, another Robert; but fifteen days after he was born, Helena died. She had written a will (in which she left Robert quite a considerable amount of money) shortly after marrying, so it seems that she was known to be frail. Plymouth had been hit by a cholera epidemic in 1832, which may have led to extra work for Robert, but it wasn’t what killed his wife.


Despite her short life Helena achieved some sort of notoriety because, through her, both she and Robert appeared in the notebooks of Thomas Hardy, the novelist, and his first wife, Emma. Helena was Emma’s aunt (her brother was Emma’s father), and, in her book ‘Some Recollections’ Emma writes that ‘My relatives were either clergymen, doctors or in the Army and Navy – two doctors on my father’s side Dr Charles Gifford of Edinburgh and Mr Watson of Devonport’. Since Helena had died eight years before Emma was born, her claim seems a little tenuous. She also boasted that her cousin Robert, Helena’s only child, was a barrister. From the same book she said ‘I had a cousin bred to the law, a barrister who went to Lagos as Governor – the first one (Note 2) – and died there of the climate and drink’. Next to this, Thomas Hardy wrote Robert Watson’s name, together with ‘depression’; his profession clearly meant more to her than his mental state. Decades later, Thomas Hardy visited Helena’s grave in Plymouth and transcribed the inscription on the gravestone into his notebook.

Robert was now a widower with a young son. An ambitious man, he needed to marry again, and his thoughts turned to his cousin in Greenwich. Why he had not married her the first time, and why he now turned to her, will never be known, but in 1834 they married and Frances moved to Plymouth to be a doctor’s wife, look after her stepson, and bring up her own family. Within a year Frances, their first daughter was born, but then both Frances’ parents died within months of each other in 1836.


Robert Pratt died a wealthy man, but left no official will. The day he died, an unsigned and unwitnessed will was found in a chest in his house, and then became the basis for a court case between Frances Watson and her three brothers. Their father had left nearly £25,000 (about £2 million in today’s prices) and, as the law stood, Frances stood to inherit it all. The notes on the court case suggest that Frances was happy to divide her inheritance and that the case was a necessary legal proceeding, but whatever the outcome, her wealth would have added to that which Robert Watson already had.


Robert continued to live in St Aubyn Street with his young family for several years, as it was large enough to house them all –a son from his first marriage and three daughters from his second – as well as two servants. The conditions in Plymouth did not make it easy to be a surgeon: a second cholera epidemic killed nearly 2000 people in 1849, and overcrowding was nearly twice as bad in Plymouth as the national average with ten people the average number living in each house. On a personal level these were difficult times as well. His father died in 1846 and, the following year, his brother Christopher, a lieutenant in the navy, also died, leaving a widow and young family. By 1851 however, Robert’s own family had moved to a larger house, he was a pillar of the community, a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons, as well as a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries, and no doubt well respected; but he was still ambitious.


Frances Watson (nee Pratt) c1836

It is not clear when he became involved in local politics. By 1850 he had yet to become an alderman or councillor and yet by 1856 he was mayor of Devonport and served in that position for two years. A few weeks after finishing as mayor his eldest child, Robert, married, but neither Frances nor Robert appear to have attended the wedding as they disapproved of his choice. The bride was the daughter of a butler, hardly the right choice – in their eyes – for a barrister and the son of the outgoing mayor. Perhaps it was their disapproval that caused the couple to move out to Nigeria.


Meanwhile Robert (sen) continued with his civic duties, becoming a magistrate and serving on numerous committees. This included his role as ‘treasurer and corresponding secretary of the Royal Naval and Military Schools’ so he, too, had some connection with the navy. As alderman and mayor, he must have played a small part in Plymouth’s gradual improvements over the second half of the 19th century, as slowly, houses, hospitals and sewers were built. 


Robert’s sister, Ann, had long since lived nearby in Plymouth, but now she moved to live with his family. Of their three daughters, one married a wealthy landowner and went to live in Cornwall; one married a doctor; and the youngest stayed at home to look after her parents before moving to join her sister in Cornwall when they died.

In Robert’s case that was in 1872, too late to help with the smallpox epidemic that arrived in Plymouth later that year. He was still describing himself as a ‘magistrate, alderman and surgeon’ so was still working; and Frances survived him by over twenty years.


At this distance we can’t tell if they died happy. That they were wealthy and successful is clear, but Robert had experienced the early deaths of his mother, first wife, and brother; and his only son died an alcoholic on a different continent.


1.  Robert and Rebecca's middle name comes from their mother who was born a Mather. It is an interesting family and more can be found out about it here

2. Robert William Gifford Watson was, in fact, and was a solicitor, appointed in 1862 to be the Chief Magistrate of Lagos, not the Governor. His successor was appointed only a year later, so he didn't last long

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