Robert Ellis, the myth becomes a man (Ancestor # 3, 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks, 2015)

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We had a long standing brick wall, Robert Ellis, my 3rd great-grandfather. We knew lots about him after 1819, very little before. My mother actually wrote an article for the North Devon Heritage Journal in 1996 called “Robert Ellis, Man or Myth?”

Shortly before this, she had found a “genie buddy” online, through the early genealogy message boards. John lived in North Devon, he took a big interest in the mystery of Robert ELLIS and helped my mother with a fair bit of local research. Through their combined efforts my mother came up with a theory of who Robert ELLIS was. After she died in 1998 it was up to me to prove her theory.

 Robert Ellis

 Thought to be Robert Ellis, col. Dawn Ellis

From his tombstone, his birth year is estimated as 1797. Family tradition says that he was from Bideford, Devon, but his tombstone says he was “a native of London, England”. He was apparently the cousin of William ELLIS, shipbuilder who emigrated to Prince Edward Island around 1818. William was from Monkleigh, Devon, only a short distance from Bideford.

From his daybooks, that were discovered in my grandfather’s attic in the 1981, we learned that Robert emigrated to Prince Edward Island in 1819. Family tradition states that he was a young cabinet maker who just finished his apprenticeship and came to PEI to do the fine work in the ships built at Green’s Shore (now Summerside).

Robert married Hannah DARBY, daughter of Loyalist Benjamin DARBY (see Ancestor # 1) in 1823. A son, John, was born on 15 April 1824 and became a Master Mariner. A second son, Forbes Alexander was born 4 December 1826 at Miramichi, New Brunswick, where Hannah’s sister Deborah resided with her husband Alexander FORBES.

Some time between 12 February 1827 and 12 January 1830, the family removed to Bideford, Devon, England. George Alfred was born there 12 December 1830 and died 29 August 1833. Two more children came while the family lived in Bideford. Elizabeth Caroline, born 10 June 1832, and William Henry Rawle, born 3 July 1836. (who later emigrated to New Zealand). In William Henry’s baptism Robert is described as a “joiner”. Forbes Alexander died there on 8 May 1839.

The names of the last two children gave us some clues as to where to look for connections in Bideford. Mom found a woman named Margaret ELLIS who married a William RAWLE on 25 October 1799. William and Margaret had two daughters, Elizabeth Margaret, baptised in 1800, and Caroline, baptised in 1802, both in Bideford. We speculated that Margaret ELLIS might be an aunt or some other close relative of Robert’s.

Robert’s daybooks give the impression that he was operating an inn or a pub with multiple entries for beer and the settling of various people’s accounts. He appears to have been a treasurer of a “Club” with entries concerning a Club Dinner at the Bell Inn at Parkham, Christmas 1839. The daybooks also contain descriptions of work to be done on ships, including lengthy contracts and three pages headed “List of Goods for Exportation…” followed several pages later by the following:

Bideford April 1st. 2nd. &c 1840. MrChas. Andrew Caddy Dr. [debit] to Robt. Ellis – To Six Days packing, superintending and putting on board goods … To 32 Days on board the Minerva took care of goods. May 16th Charlottetown P.E. Island looking round for Store to Sell goods &c.S# 436, Doc # 281_00024 (2)

This entry gives a pretty good estimate at the date that Robert, Hannah and the three surviving children returned to Prince Edward Island and the Royal Gazette of Tuesday 19 May 1840 reports the entry of the Brig Minerva to the port of Charlottetown, with “Goods to Mr Ellis'” and lists the family as passengers.

Volume two of the daybook begins on 18 May 1840 and list lists accounts of a number of individuals and debts to C. A. Caddy for such things as duty, postage and printing and continues until 12 August 1840. On 17 August a new set of accounts begins in Murray Harbour and ends 4 May 1841. We speculate that Robert was in the employ of Charles Andrew Caddy up to this time. During this time Robert bought 90 acres of land on Lot 17 (Summerside), Prince County for the sum of £170 PEI currency. He and his family settled on this property in May 1841 and it became known as “Woodland”. In Roads to Summerside, p. 27 it is recorded that “Older citizens can still recall the moss-covered roofs and walls of their homestead, which stood in the midst of ancient willows, just east of Mr. Ronald Campbells.” His daybooks continue in Bedeque (Summerside) on 9 May 1841.

After settling once again near Hannah’s family, Robert secured the contract to finish the interior of St. John’s Anglican Church (pictures and story at the link). There are other various contracts, including individuals purchasing pews in the church. Robert seems to have continued acting as a merchant and, along with his farming endeavors, he was also a “Fence Viewer”, and owned a part interest in a ship called the “British Queen”. The books record the various comings and goings of the family including the arrival of son, John’s wife, Maggie from Scotland and Robert going to Charlottetown to have a cancerous growth removed from his cheek. One of the earlier but slightly curious entries notes that Caroline cut off Henry’s finger. On 28 August 1872 there is an entry, probably made by Hannah, that Robert had died of cancer.

After Robert’s death we have a letter Hannah received, dated 3 October 1876, from Edward Dingle with the rents on some houses in Bideford.

All this information and nothing  about his life before 1819! All we had to go on was speculations about the names of two children, some houses he owned in Bideford, and some deeds that a Robert Ellis with a son named John Ellis, who was born in 1824, signed along with a William Ellis back in Bideford. These were found by Mom’s buddy John and concerned an inn called The Peacock in Bideford. They dated 1819, 1828 and 1839. These documents helped form my mother’s theory. If I could prove it I would have his family back to Johan ELLIS born in 1549 in Northam, a town close to Bideford.

From the deeds:

“…and rented additional ground from the Bridge Trust (?), i.e., “Indenture between Samuel Rooker of Bideford Minister of the Gospel, Walter Bowen Postmaster, Richard Easby Rawle Lieutenant in HM Navy of the second part, Sarah King spinster of the third part, William Ellis the Younger and Robert Ellis both of Bideford, Joiners” of the fourth part, by indenture of lease bearing the date of 16th Dec 1774 made between William Houndle Mayor of Bideford and the seven other persons herein named of the first part and William Rawle, Maltster, …”

“… all that dwelling house 2 courtaliges & Premises with the Apportments [sic] thereunto belonging, situate lying & being on the North Side of the Markt [sic] Place in Bideford aforesaid containing from N to S 100 feet & from E to W 34 ft or thereabouts bounded with the lands of said feoffees lease to Wm. E. [Ellis] & R. E. [Robert Ellis] their executors administrators & assignees as tenant in common & not as joint tenants for & during the term of 99 years fully to be complete & ended if John Ellis aged 4 years or thereabouts son of the said Robert …”

“Mr. R. E. [Robert Ellis] to Mr. Wm. E. [William Ellis] assignment of amoiety of an inn called The Peacock in the Market Place for 3 several terms of 99 years etc …”

While mom was alive we had researched a little of all the ELLIS families in Bideford. I knew who was living there. I knew there was one other Robert (the son of William the shipbuilder, who was often mixed up with my Robert), and a William, born about 1787, son of William ELLIS, Sr. and Mary GALSWORTHY. Looking at the wills in this family it appeared that William and Mary also had a son named Robert. When William Sr. died, in June of 1841, he left some houses to his son Robert, to his widow, and the remainder of his property to his son William. These houses were identified by location and tenant. In 1843 a John ELLIS (thought to be the nephew of William Sr. and first cousin of Robert and William Jr.) died and left some houses to a Robert, “son of William Ellis the elder”. These houses were also identified. He also left property to Elizabeth Margaret Rawle, his niece, and so we were able to tie Margaret Ellis who married William RAWLE into the family in Bideford. From all this, and handwriting samples, mom speculated that my Robert ELLIS and William ELLIS Jr. were brothers.

The first thing I did was a y-dna test on my father and on a descendant of William ELLIS, the shipbuilder, who was supposed to be his cousin. I wasn’t about to spend heaps of money researching a bunch of houses, that I didn’t have addresses for, in Bideford, until I had proof that Bideford was likely where his family was from. Remember that tombstone that said he was a native of London? Turns out they match. Robert and William, the shipbuilder, do share a common ancestor!

Then as I was debating about how to go about researching the houses …do I hire someone or make a trip to England myself,  I was searching through the Family History Catalog when I came across some voter registrations that my mother had not looked at. I can’t imagine she missed anything, so I think they had not been filmed when she had been researching this family.

I collected all the Ellis entries in Bideford. I found my Robert and a William:

1836 – 1840

Robert – Market Place (the Peacock Inn was in Market Place)
William Jr. – Allhalland Street


Robert – Prince Edward Island and part lease hold of houses in Allhalland Street
William Jr. – Allhalland Street (but in the 1841 census he is listed in Market Place as an Inn Keeper)

Yes, It really said Robert was in Prince Edward Island. I let out a whoop just as my friend Ben came in. I couldn’t believe it. Finally after all these years, Robert is with his family AND I may have found his birth in London … but that’s a whole different story!




3 responses

  1. Hi, I am a decendent of William Ellis who moved to PEI. There are still a lot of Ellis’s there. My Grandfather moved to Ontario after WWII. I’m interested in the history of the Ellis’s in Devon County.



  2. Loretta Newman | Reply

    Dawn, I just came across your blog and found it interesting. My 7th great grandfather was William Ellis the shipbuilder, and I know one son Robert was left behind to run the family Inn. I find it a challenge when there are so many of the same names passed down. My brother is a Robert, my dad was a Robert, My great grandfather was a Robert and so on it goes. You have supplied me with some interesting info I didn’t know, so I thank you. Sincerely, Loretta

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Loretta,

      I am curious about what you say. As far as I know the Robert left behind in Bideford was a labourer. It was my ancestor Robert and his brother William, sons of William Ellis and Mary Galsworthy, who ran the Peacock Inn. I would be curious if your information came from Preston Ellis’s book? It is full of errors and confuses my Robert with the son of William the shipbuilder.

      Here is a link to your Robert’s wikitree profile:

      and a link to my Robert’s profile:

      I don’t suppose you could convince your father (I am assuming your maiden name was Ellis?) to do a y-dna test?


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