The Reverend Fredrick William Robertson (1816 – 1853) was Perpetual Incumbent of Holy Trinity Chapel, Brighton 1847-1853. “Robertson of Brighton” is well known as a Victorian preacher and his life has already been documented, sometimes controversially, but he is a huge part of the Holy Trinity’s history. Memorials to the preacher are found within the make up of the building, such as our beautiful stained glass windows. In 1902 on the anniversary of Robertson’s death the parish purchased a plaque for the external facade which records Robertson’s 6 year preaching career in the Church. Robertson Hall, the adjoining building on 35 Ship Street, used for Holy Trinity Church purposes, is named after and dedicated to the preacher and his notable career.
Researcher Carole has explored Robertson’s history and his relevance to Holy Trinity and to Brighton. We are not lacking in stories and opinions about Robertson and Carole’s research has delved into his early life, religious ideas, his family life, his “affair” and his end. This is a insight into her work:
I began this research by visiting Robertson’s grave in the Extramural Cemetery in Brighton on a damp, misty day: the perfect weather for an excursion into a Victorian melodrama. I approached the cemetery by climbing a narrow flight of steps partially hidden by foliage and covered in moss, emerging on a brow looking down over the sloping curves of the landscape. Ancient gnarled trees and overgrown graves sent a shiver through my body and stirred within me an unexpected feeling of sadness. I made my way down towards where I imagined Robertson’s tomb might be, close to the chapel. The graveyard is in sad disrepair, figures of angels with missing limbs like the Venus de Milo, stone tablets fallen at crooked angles, headless cherubs, crosses caught in the act of collapse, obelisks about to tumble, tombstones reclaimed by creeping ivy, like undiscovered Maya temples. I looked around and realised I was the only visitor on this dank sombre day. I continued down the winding path avoiding puddles and mud. I came upon the tomb and I swear at that moment of discovery, a shaft of sunlight broke through the cover of cloud.
The bas relief carving on the west side of his tomb, now bathed in heavenly light, depicts Robertson surrounded by working men from the Mechanics Institute, each bearing the tools of their trade: a sledgehammer, an anvil, a plane . . .
I left the cemetery by a more conventional route, passing the coroner’s shiny black saloon parked alongside the low, squat brick building of the cemetery office, returning to the present through the iron gates of the Extramural Cemetery and into the confusion and noise of Lewes Road.
I may not strew with earth-born flowers the turf where thou art laid
But flowers there are which Love may rear, and such as cannot fade….
If parted clouds a moment showed the blue depths of thy soul,
’Twas but to prove them far beyond the skies where thunders roll.
Lady Byron, on hearing flowers falling on the coffin of her dearly beloved, departed Fred Robertson, from afar.
Beardsley calls Robertson the ‘Prince of Preachers’. Robertson’s fame in his own time and for years after his death, rests largely on the reputation of his
outstanding sermons which were printed posthumously. They were published and widely read not only in Britain but in North America and other English speaking countries, and in translation as far away as China.
Even at the time, fellow clerics, politicians and artists travelled from far and wide to hear him. A pamphlet written by George Allen in the 19th century (FW Robertson of Brighton, at The Keep), tells how Dean Stanley of Westminster, travelling on a train in France, encountered a ‘rather
unkempt’ individual who it transpired was an American soldier, an army surgeon who had been serving in Algeria and was now on his way to serve in Mexico. To Stanley’s surprise the stranger asked him if he had heard of the sermons of Robertson.
In Brighton at the Holy Trinity Chapel where he preached from 1847 until his death in 1853, Robertson’s charisma and oratory skills were legendary. According to Stopford Brooke, Robertson’s contemporary and biographer, his sermons ‘had all the variety of a great stream, quick, rushing and passionate when his wrath was awakened by evil’
Robertson must have struck an imposing, dramatic figure, ‘walking to church and visiting the sick wearing always a military cape’, and standing at the vase-shaped pulpit, preaching in a black Geneva gown. No ‘flamboyant gestures or mannerisms’; he was renowned rather for the eloquence of his speeches and his almost mesmerising presence. Charles Dickens said to Robertson’s son Charles that ‘he was one of the greatest masters of elocution I ever knew. To hear him read the church service was in itself a liberal education’. The church was always crowded when he preached. (Campbell) ‘His hearers sat spell-bound . . . (in) rapt attention’.
Almost half a century after his death, in an article in the Daily
News printed in 1926, a woman who had heard Robertson’s early sermons said that ‘she could vividly recall his beautifully clear voice, dark-blue eyes, rich brown curly hair, clean-shaven mouth and chin – and (sad anti-climax) mutton-chop whiskers. He had a remarkable way of looking straight at you’. (One wonders if she actually listened to the sermon!)
Others too outside of his congregation were affected by his presence. He once attended a lecture by an ‘Electro-Biologist’ (spiritualist). The lecturer soon exclaimed, ‘I cannot do anything while that gentleman is here!’ Brooke describes Robertson’s appearance and presence effusively: ‘features which were remarkable for their changing play of expression . . . The high and intellectual brow, strongly marked, suggested a thoughtful and an artistic nature; and the blue, deep-set eyes, full of a beautiful pure light, flashing often with a bright and eager lightning of excitement or enquiry, told of the strangely-mingled qualities which lay within – Will, Tenderness, and Courage. The instinctive cheerfulness and sensitiveness of his temperament appeared in a mouth the smile of which was as radiant as its mobile obedience to every change of emotion was wonderful.’
Robertson was a complex person. Brooke notes that ‘even those who believed they knew him well, knew little of the workings of his mind’. And even ‘those who understood him best only understood him by half’. Many inner conflicts troubled him. ‘His outward composure belied some of the inner torment and what he saw as the weakness of his passions.’ He was melancholic, plagued by bouts of depression and agonising headaches, which ran like a dark thread through his life and which signalled his early death.