Take away sin and you take away with it death's terrors; death becomes then as gentle as a sleep. — Robertson, Lecture IV, Genesis
It is not clear when Robertson started getting headaches, but they progressed in severity until they became unbearable. As early as his first parish assignment in Winchester in 1840, he suffered from fatigue and despondency as well. Mr. Nicholson, his superior then, had suggested that he take an extended leave from the ministry, which he did. He was forced to take another leave at the end of his Cheltenham ministry. Occasionally he had reprieves. Other times the pain was so excruciating that he could scarcely see. He even fainted in the street one day. On that occasion it had taken him an hour and a quarter to crawl by back streets from Kemp Town in Brighton to his house. He could not write three lines without having to rest. Brooke, his first biographer, actually saw Robertson's correspondence (some now lost) and recorded that the last dozen letters Robertson penned looked as if they were written by "one who had just been delivered from the rack" (462). In spite of the mental and physical torment, Robertson continued with his duties, mixing with people, and delivering his sermons.
At one point, a chemist in his congregation suggested that he try galvanism, a procedure invented by Galvani in the preceding century and improved upon by Volta in Robertson's time. Using an electrical charge from a battery, the chemist created a mild current, which he applied to the back of Robertson's head where he indicated he felt pain and numbness. "Instantly," he said, "a crashing pain shot through as if my skull was stove in, and a bolt of fire were burning through and through" (454). He said he would have fainted from the pain had not the chemist applied an aromatic.
To those who accused him of being a hypochondriac, Robertson responded: "But a man who knits his teeth together in solitude for hours without a groan, in torture, and is guilty of nothing effeminate except fainting, and upon whose life a sentence of death for to-morrow [sic] would scarcely bring any other words than Nunc dimittis, is hardly hypochondriacal" (454). What gave him the strength to go on were his unwavering sense of duty and his parishioners' expressions of concern and sympathy. The house, in fact, was filled with delicacies from them, and even though he said he knew he could not use them, he was grateful for the well-wishers' thoughtfulness.
In a letter penned sometime in 1851, he worried about the physicians' common prognosis that he would eventually lose his mind. In that same letter he compared his suffering to that of the mythic Prometheus who was fastened to the side of a cliff. Every day vultures came and ate out his liver, and every night the gods came and restored him, all as punishment for stealing fire from heaven. Instead of a vulture tearing out Robertson's liver with its bloody talons, he said it was eating out his cerebellum. "It is not," he wrote, "the overstrained intellect that is wearing life out, but the emotional part of nature which all life long has been breathing flames which kindled none and only burned itself" (310). The sense of failure never left him despite the crowds who continued to come to hear him.
Just months before his death, when he particularly felt the sting of public criticism, he confided in Lady Byron: "I am, I acknowledge, getting tired of abuse — for it is becoming really too savage & too gravely personal to be met with perpetual equanimity — Forest flies are small, & do not bite deep, but by numbers & incessancy they drive a horse frantic" (Lovelace Papers, 22 March, 1853, Deposit 378). A letter to a friend dated March 21, 1853 contains a similar expression of pain. "I hear nothing in reference to myself," he wrote, "but one confused buzz of all imaginable and unimaginable slanders." He could not imagine what there was in him to make the antipathy and opposition against him so virulent. "It sometimes puzzles me," he continued, "since I am not aware that in society I am given to take the lead in conversation, or to lay down the law, which might exasperate." His conclusion was that there must be something "personally very offensive" in himself or his manner that offended people because he could not believe that holding any views could evoke such abuse and even lies. He determined, however, never to defend himself in print again "unless some definite charge is made which can be denied in three lines, and which will not lead to controversy."6 Through it all, Lady Byron stood beside him, recognizing a greatness that the world would not come to see until after his death.
In June 1853 his congregation urged him to get an assistant cleric and promised to provide the funding for it. Robertson himself knew that it was imperative that he get rest. Consequently, he proposed a candidate to Henry M. Wagner, Robertson's superior as the Vicar of Brighton. Wagner rejected the nomination because of a personal vendetta against Ernest Tower, the man in question.
Evidence that Wagner was a vindictive person by nature is contained in a Times article that describes a meeting of the parish vestry in 1849. The meeting was convened to discuss the town's purchase of the Royal Pavilion from the Crown. The meeting was seven hours long and very boisterous. At one point it looked as if the deal to purchase the building for 53,000 pounds was going to be defeated by the motion of George Faithfull, a future Member of Parliament from Brighton. Because Wagner wanted the motion to pass, however, he managed to succeed in declaring Faithfull's motion illegal because Wagner's investigation into his past proved that Faithfull was in arrears in paying his poor rates. Consequently, Wagner's motion to purchase carried. The editor of the newspaper article commented that probably half the people in that room had not paid their poor rates.
Like Francis Close, Wagner had a great deal of influence in the town. His father, who preceded him as Vicar of Brighton, had been hatter to King George III. As such, he was like Bishop Sumner in that he received his appointment through his connection to the titled and powerful. Wagner Jr. was a prolific church builder. Either through subscriptions or using his own fortune, he built the following churches: St. Paul's on West Street, All Souls, All Saints, St. John's on Carlton Hill, St. Nicholas, and Christ Church, which was on Montpelier Road. Wagner's vicarage was located not far from Robertson's own home at 60 Montpelier Road. A man who worked for Wagner as secretary in one of the schools Wagner founded described him as a man with an angry manner and a rigid adherence to detail and method.
It was under Wagner's leadership as head of the parish vestry that the railroad came to Brighton on September 21, 1841. The vestry was an important decision-making body of the Church because, beginning in 1831, membership in it was determined by the vote of all ratepayers, women as well as men. Since one-third of the members were retired every year, the parish had to hold annual elections. At its head for many years, Wagner was also responsible for formulating an application to the Crown for a City Charter, which was granted in 1854. He was an Evangelical and therefore opposed to the Tractarian school of thought. When he died, the Brighton Gazette described him as "one of those strong energetic characters, in which faults and excellence alike present a prominence not observable in ordinary men" (Hales 2).
As Robertson was to learn, Ernest Tower had antagonized Wagner two years previously when he voted against Wagner on a financial matter. Wagner therefore asked Robertson to nominate someone else. As a point of honor, Robertson refused. "I owe this," he wrote to the parish committee, "both to my friend's character and to myself. There remains for me nothing but to go on with my work single-handed as long as I am able." He made it clear to them that he was piqued by Wagner's "discourteous and ungenerous exercise of legal power." On June 22, 1853, Robertson addressed a second letter to the vicar. In it he questioned Wagner regarding his decision to punish a subject based on a personal disagreement between them when Wagner himself had acknowledged that Tower was "an exemplary Christian minister" (Hales 3).
Then, in the same letter, Robertson turned to a personal matter between Wagner and himself, citing how Wagner had accosted him after his morning sermon on Trinity Sunday seeking an immediate interview. Robertson had asked if they could postpone the meeting until the following day because he said he needed to go home and prepare for the afternoon sermon. Although Robertson had made himself clear on the point, Wagner demanded a meeting on the spot. Subsequently, Robertson had been unable to deliver his intended afternoon sermon. Wagner had no trouble forgetting his own discourtesy, but he refused to forget one little offense committed against him two years before. When Wagner insisted on naming Robertson's assistant himself, Robertson wrote a letter to make it a matter of public record that he, Robertson, opposed any such nomination. The man who was entitled to get the job, he stated, was Tower and no one else. He reminded Wagner that even though he, Wagner, had the legal right to appoint a cleric, he had no moral right. Robertson argued the rule of law, stating that "no man can be irresponsible to public judgment in the exercise of a solemn public trust" (462).
Unfortunately for Robertson, Wagner exercised his legal right and refused to appoint Tower. Consequently, Robertson had to continue to carry the burden of running his parish alone. Many blamed Wagner later for hastening the death of their beloved minister. The blame was laid at Wagner's feet even while Robertson was still alive though he did his best to keep the controversy out of the papers and to forgive Wagner.
When Robertson finally left the pulpit for the last time in July of 1853, he was a very sick man. To his friend, Julian Young, a fellow clergyman and a man with whom Robertson liked to hike the downs around Brighton, Robertson wrote on July 8, 1853, to apologize for having missed a previous engagement. He explained that his attending physicians had forbade him to leave the house. He described his day, all of it a battle between himself whom he calls "F. W. R." and his enemy, "Faint." The day, he wrote, begins with hot milk to allay fainting followed by a siesta. Then he takes a cold bath to rob "Faint of his prey." Then he attempts to dry himself, "but back comes the white demon." He collapses in bed and sleeps for ten minutes or so. To get some strength he takes two spoonfuls of citrate of ammonia. In the middle of trying to shave Faint shouts, "He, he, he" in a provoking little squeak and down goes F. W. R. The day is a progression from bed to sofa and back again. He takes ice, claret, and soups "sent from all quarters," all luxuries he cannot enjoy and which remind him of Jesus, whose only comfort in his death agony was vinegar. He takes citrate of iron periodically throughout the day. At night they put blisters behind his ears to ease the pain in his head. They give him morphine to deaden the pain. He concluded this letter by sharing with Young the two lessons he says he has learned, "nothingness and dependence." And another thing he has learned with all his heart is gratitude "for countless attentions and tendernesses." He apologized for writing with a pencil but "with pen and ink," he wrote, "I do but splutter " (Blomfield 429).
To Lady Byron he also wrote about himself: "F.W. looking like a ghostly turnip, blisters behind the ears to alay suffering in the brain, morphia to give some chance of rest. I am tired. I can write no more." A month later, just days before he died, he wrote about her to a third person: "I have not been allowed to see anyone. Lady Byron left a sick-bed ten days ago to come to see me, and I have only once conversed with her for three minutes" (467).
On July 2, 1853, Robertson wrote a letter describing one of his recent bouts of illness. "Life has been for a month one long pain and languor; the lower extremities were partially paralysed, so that I dragged them after me. At night, sleepless pain; by day, change of powerlessness from two chairs to the sofa, and from the sofa to the ground" (465). Once he described himself as "weak as water," and said he could "scarcely move a few yards without sighing and sobbing like a baby" (467). In fact, the last two months of his life he was largely bedridden. Even though he consulted a number of doctors (named only by their surnames in Brooke as Taylor, Allen, Whitehouse, and Watson) no one could agree on the nature of his ailment.
His own assessment was that "whole tracts of his brain seem[ed] to be losing their faculty and becoming quite torpid and impotent — memory being the most observable and the most tormenting." An American physician who was visiting told him that he was heading toward "organic collapse of the brain." Another diagnosed abscess in the cerebellum. He was told that the "great ganglia or bunches of nerves which are at the roots of the brain" were affected (467). One physician predicted that it would end in idiocy. Cures tried were leeches, morphine, quinine, and even steel (probably worn as a band around his head to apply pressure); one even prescribed lettuce (448). How that was supposed to help is not mentioned. Robertson feared that his condition was even more serious than the physicians said. He could endure any pain, but was appalled by the notion that he would be completely helpless to ever do any kind of work, physical or mental, without intolerable exhaustion. No doubt he was thinking of his own condition and the suffering of his parents when he preached on December 28, 1851, on the subject of young men dying after an expensive education in school and a still more expensive education in experience. In some sense, he said, it seemed such a waste. Why nurse a sapling along if it is going to be cut down just when it begins to bear fruit? 19
What surprised him most about his pain was that it did not sour him at all; in fact, he said it humbled him and made him grateful that he could say, "His will be done" (467). He believed that suffering is necessary to capacitate us for sympathy. Referring to his own experience regarding suffering, he said that no one can know what suffering is until he has experienced both mental and physical torture, until he has counted the long hours of torture as the clock strikes the hours one by one, night after night. The greatest victories, he said, are won in passive endurance, a state in which we learn to be still and know that He is God.
It had been on the first day of mourning for the Queen Dowager, Adelaide, that he had preached, "God has created the nerves to agonize, and the heart to bleed, and before a man dies, almost every nerve has thrilled with pain, and every affection has been wounded." And the purpose of it all was to develop a man's soul.21
In another sermon he had talked about what he called the great law: "That there is no true blessedness without suffering, that every blessing we have comes through suffering," either ours or someone else's. He cited a mother's labor pains, the bread gained from the toil of laborers, the knowledge we possess having been wrung out of nature's secrets. The very peace of England, he said, had been purchased by the shedding of the blood of heroes "whose bodies were now mouldering in the trenches of a thousand battlefields."22
On April 6, 1851, Robertson had preached that when the time comes for a Christian to die, it is not his business to show other people how a Christian dies, "but to prepare himself to meet his God" (Genesis, Lecture 27, 172). At death "The eye cannot see God," he had preached in that same sermon, "therefore the eye fails." So, too, the ear cannot hear God and so it will be filled with dust. But "faith and love, the things that are to survive the grave, exist in their strength up to the grave" (Genesis, Lecture 27, 174). Robertson personally believed that although the physical body deteriorates after death, the spirit of the man does not. It remains for all eternity what it was at the time of death. It might develop, but it would never change (Genesis, Lecture 7, 44).
As late as two weeks before he died, Robertson thought he might still recover though he "could scarcely move a few yards without sighing and sobbing like a baby" (466-67). On May 16, 1852 he had already preached a whole sermon on the subject of the victory of death. In that sermon he said he thought it a mockery for a man to speak lightly of death because no one can know ahead of time how it will be. Everything that lives, he said, cleaves to its own existence. The idea of parting with that "unutterable thing which we call our being" is agony. Everything we long for "is wrapped up in being." It was no use, therefore, to pretend either bravado or wantonness about the subject. Faith may say one thing, but our sensations tell us another because all that we know is connected with shape, form, body. "The boldest heart may be excused a shudder when there is forced upon it the idea of ceasing forever."27
The pain was so intense one night that he said he would not endure the horrors of such a night again in exchange for half a lifetime (466). His attention span grew shorter and shorter and his memory failed at times as well. His last written words were penned on August 12, 1853. He wrote in part, "I have grown worse and worse every day for the last fortnight. From intensity of suffering in the brain, and utter powerlessness and prostration too dreadful to describe, and the acknowledged anxiety of the medical men, I think now that I shall not get over this. His will be done! I write in torture" (467). A night or two before he died, he said he had seen two of his deceased sisters. They had come to crown him (466). It was one of the consolations given by God, he thought, to help us make the transition from this life to the next. When our loved ones have already "crossed over the river," to use an expression of the American author and friend of Lady Byron, Harriet Beecher Stowe, it is easier for those left behind to follow.
A few minutes past midnight on August 15, 1853, Robertson lay dying in his home at 60 Montpellier Road, his mother, wife, and his churchwarden and close friend, Mr. Bowdidge, at his bedside. Robertson's final words were amazingly distilled and sweet. When a family physician tried to change his position to give him whatever degree of comfort he could, Robertson whispered, "Let me rest. I must die. Let God do His work" (468). And with these words Frederick W. Robertson died six years to the day after beginning his ministry in Brighton.
It was finished. The presiding physician pronounced the official cause of death as brain fever. His brain had, it was thought, physically burned up. Given today's advances in medical science, we can be certain Robertson's brain did not physically burn up. But what did happen? One contention is that he had a brain tumor; but patients with brain tumors do not usually survive with them more than a few years. Robertson suffered from severe headaches for at least a dozen years, making a brain tumor extremely unlikely. Spinal meningitis must be ruled out for the same reason. A condition that sounds plausible, however, is one that has only recently been identified as occipital nerve neuralgia. The symptoms match those Robertson suffered: excruciating headaches that can persist for as long as five days at a stretch, pain that originates at the back of the skull, and even semi-paralysis at times.
Death marked the end of a two-month battle against semi-paralysis in his lower extremities, excruciating headaches, dizziness, fever, and sleepless nights. Consequently, death came to him as the messenger of grace, "the very angel of God descending on the troubled waters and calling him to his Father's home."32 "Once we were not," he himself had said in a sermon delivered on October 10, 1850, and "soon we shall not be." He had often thought about the three stages that mark the lives of many Christians: "We stand by the font, are surprised when we find ourselves by the altar, astonished when we come to die."33 It had not been a depressing or hopeless inevitability when looked at from a distance; nor was it when the moment actually arrived.
Philosophically, he knew that we say farewell and see the end of things and people over and over during life. He recognized death as a part of life. Then, too, he was certain that he had finished the work that God had given him to do. It did not matter if his words forked lightning or not. He thought, in fact, that he had ended his life in the wilderness, "not having attained the promises, but only seeing them afar off."34 The world was to think otherwise. If he was listening from the spirit world, he must have been totally amazed by the praise heaped upon him now after his death when he had felt so keenly the opprobrium heaped on him during his life.
Soon after death, a sculptor, who had been commissioned for the purpose, came into the room and put a plaster mesh over his face to make a death mask. His hands were put into a mold to make a pair of hand casts. The work had to be done quickly before rigor mortis set in. Because it was customary at the time, a copper penny was then probably placed on each eye to hold it shut. The body was washed and dressed in a shroud that covered his hands and feet as well as his face. Since it was also customary at the time, it is likely that the family opened the windows and pulled the blinds down as a sign to the neighborhood that an occupant had died there.
According to Robertson's expressed wishes, the family announced that the funeral would be private. It was public pressure that overturned this decision. As it turned out, Robertson's funeral, held a week from the day on which he died, was one of the largest in Brighton's history. Only two in living memory had been larger and one of them was the railway disaster Robertson had witnessed five months before on March 18, 1853. It had been a larger funeral because the railway company required the attendance of a large number of railway representatives. Robertson's funeral attracted thousands simply because people loved him. As the Brighton Gazette expressed it, "the town wore an appearance of gloom such as we never observed on any similar occasion" (25 August 6E, 1853; all quotations from this newpaper come from the same page).
According to the Meteorological Archive, the day of the funeral, Monday, August 22, 1853, dawned with the promise of being a "fine and warm" day. Soon, however, it became "sultry and dark." By mid-day the air was still and the temperature climbed to an uncomfortable 76 degrees Fahrenheit. That night heavy rain with thunder and lightning visited the area.36
We know, therefore, that when the crowds gathered outside the Robertson home on Montpelier Road early in the morning for a procession that was scheduled to begin at 11 a.m., the day promised to be "fine and warm." The lead-lined, elm wood casket was carried out of the house, the corpse resting on a ruffled mattress and pillow. Mutes (paid mourners) led the procession as the sky gradually darkened. The Brighton Gazette, which declared Robertson's death "a public loss," does not specify the number, but traditionally there were two.
The members of the Mechanics' Institute (1,500 in number) dressed in black, wearing black gloves and black silk hats with black hatbands streaming in the breeze, marched directly behind the Mutes. Walking three abreast, they formed by themselves a train nearly half a mile in length. According to Henry Crabb Robinson, who was an official mourner, they "manifested signs of personal grief seldom witnessed in bodies so numerous." The Committee of the Athenaeum Club followed them, followed, in turn, by the Manchester Unity of Odd Fellows wearing black scarves. The Churchwardens followed them, wearing black scarves and carrying black wands. The congregation of Holy Trinity Chapel followed the wardens. Next came the hearse containing Robertson's body.
Although two coaches was the customary number for a gentleman's funeral, five mourning coaches followed the hearse. In the first carriage rode Robertson's ten-year-old son, Charles Boyd, his father Captain Frederick Robertson, his brother Struan E. Robertson, and Mr. Bowdidge. They were the chief mourners. The next carriage held Robertson's father-in-law, Sir George Denys, and Felix Eager, brother of Sir George. In the third carriage rode Laurence Peel, Esq. and J. S. M. Anderson, former owner of Holy Trinity Chapel and head of the board of trustees who initially begged Robertson to accept the ministry of Holy Trinity. The fourth carriage held ministers and Robertson's physicians. Among the clergy was Thomas Trocke, the pastor of the Chapel Royal who had baptized Robertson's daughter, Ida, two years before. Male friends, including Julian Young, occupied the final carriage. In addition to the five hired carriages, a number of private carriages followed.
Since it was not customary for female family members to attend the service in the cemetery, it is not surprising that neither Helen, Robertson's wife, nor his four-year-old daughter, Ida, was in the procession. Among the female mourners, however, was Lady Byron, who might have escaped notice except that she walked in the procession when one of her social station was expected to ride in a carriage. The Brighton Gazette in its coverage of the event took special notice of her and described her as "an ardent admirer of the great talent of the deceased, for whom, it is said, she entertained profound regard." When asked later why she had not ridden in her carriage, she said that she was not worthy to even walk behind the coffin of such a great man.
The procession, whose route was almost three miles in length, proceeded down Montpelier Road with its steep decline to Western Road, which runs parallel to the shoreline, into North Street, which becomes New Road as it turns north into Church Street, where the procession turned right for about a block before turning north again and up a steep incline onto Marlborough Place and Gloucester Place, where the procession crossed over to Richmond Place. The last mile followed along Lewes Road to the Extra Mural cemetery. According to the Brighton Gazette, which reported the funeral three days later, "every available spot in windows and balconies had its occupants, as the mournful cavalcade passed. Persons of every grade of religion and opinion followed the deceased to the grave." Men and women from every social class, "representing every shade of opinion in politics and religion eagerly bore a part" in the day's events.40 Everyone wore black. Most of the shops and businesses closed for the day. It is probable, since it was the custom, that the church bells in town tolled, reminding those who heard them, of Robertson's own words that every funeral bell was a reminder "that we are tenants at will and not by right — pensioners on the bounty of an hour."41
The cemetery was a private one occupying 28 acres. A castellated gate with a round tower marked its entrance. Two thousand mourners gathered around the designated plot of ground just inside this gate for the final burial. United around Robertson's tomb were Jews, Unitarians, Roman Catholics, Quakers, and Churchmen of High, Broad, and Low persuasion. The aristocrats of Brighton were there as well as the poor.
A select group entered the cemetery chapel for a brief prayer service over the body. By now the air was still, the temperature uncomfortably warm and sultry. It was 12:20, the procession having taken over an hour. Anderson, who was "overcharged with grief," led the final prayers over the body. While dust was cast upon the coffin, "Mr. Robertson's brother was so deeply affected that it was found necessary to give him support; and vast interest was shown for the fatherless boy." Although Captain Robertson was also deeply affected, he reportedly "bore his loss with great fortitude." Robertson had already imagined the scene:
When the coffin is lowered into the grave, and the dull, heavy sound of earth falling on it is heard, there are some to whom that sound seems but an echo of their worst anticipation; seems but to reverberate the idea of decay forever, in the words, 'Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.' There are others, to whom it sounds pregnant with the expectations of immortality, the sure and certain hope of a resurrection to eternal life. [Notes on Genesis, Lecture XXXI, 206]
He was among those who considered death "pregnant with the expectations of immortality." The eternal life had pulsed in his veins throughout his life, a life filled with faith and trust. Death merely marked the end of imperfection. The life of the spirit within had been his proof of a heaven to come. It was "the eagle eye of faith that had already penetrated the grave and seen far into the tranquil things of death" (207). And yet Robertson had had his moments of doubt. Speaking on the doubts of the Apostle Thomas, he had said there was enough riddle in the world to suggest that there may be a life to come, but nothing to make it certain. We are all like Thomas, Robertson told his audience, in that we crave a sign, but "the answer seems to fall back like ice upon our hearts. There shall be no sign given you." 45
The day would come, he had reminded them, when the coffin would turn back to the fibers of black mould, when the cemetery would be converted into something else, when the spades of another generation would expose our bones, the last relic of our existence on earth. Then there would be no more Thomas, or James, or Martha. On the other hand, he did believe that the "thrilling, loving, thinking something" that we call ourselves has in it "an indestructible existence which shall still be conscious when everything else shall have rushed into endless wreck" ("Doubt of Thomas," 305).
What Robertson had said of the Biblical Elijah might now be said of him: He "was in that quiet country where the voice of praise and the voice of blame are alike unheard." Like Elijah, Robertson himself had basically lived and died alone. In life the bitterness of that loneliness had found expression. And if there was posthumous justice, what would it matter to a heart that had already endured the pain?47 According to the Brighton Gazette, the interment lasted another hour after which "all was silent." It was 1:20 p.m.
Last modified 15 January 2008