This article was written by Wendy Tibbitts for the Amersham Society/Amersham Museum newsletter and is reproduced here with permission.
Benjamin Robertshaw lies under the vestry floor in St Mary’s Church, Old Amersham. He was Rector from 1728 until his death in 1744. In 1732 he began building The Rectory, on Rectory Hill. It took nearly three years to build and even then, he says, “tho’ I did not remove from ye Town to live in it till Lady Day 1736.” He describes “the old house” as being “a large rambling building shamefully out of repair”. He goes on to say “The front of it stood where ye upper wall of ye Garden now stands, and ye Hall adjoined to those two Rooms which I have left standing; and repaired for an infirmary, or a garden house or for a poor man to live in.” In 1737 he rebuilt the Master’s house of the Grammar School out of his own pocket at a cost of above 220 pounds”.
Benjamin Robertshaw was born in 1679 in Pendle, Lancashire and received his BA from “Brazon-nose” (Brasenose) College, Oxford. Whilst in his last year at Oxford he heard there was a vacancy for a Master at the Free School in Amersham and on the recommendation of his Tutor he was appointed Master by the Rector of Amersham, Mr Humphrey Drake, who had been a Fellow at Brasenose. Robertshaw took up his position at the School in October 1702 but returned to Oxford to take his degree the following Easter. Whilst continuing as Master at Amersham he became a Deacon at St Mary’s and was ordained by the Bishop of Lincoln in 1704; he was also Curate at Chalfont St. Giles. In 1706 he took a year away from Amersham to obtain his MA at King’s College Cambridge before returning to resume his former roles. In July 1709 he married Mary, daughter of Mr. David Salter of Amersham.
Robertshaw was respected and learned. His legal advice was sought by several prominent families, and he was frequently named as executor in wills, and was a Trustee of local charities. He was good enough to leave behind a memoir of his life which gives us a flavour of his character and opinions. This memoir is kept in the archive of the Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society, but extracts have been published in the Records of Buckinghamshire.
From his memoirs it is obvious that Rev. Robertshaw was a high churchman who had no time for dissenters. He was also a champion of the Jacobite cause, and cultivated friendships with like-minded gentry. On 29th May 1714 he was present at a meeting at Shardeloes with nine noblemen. Although still the curate at Amersham he took the opportunity of speaking to these gentlemen about his ambition to succeed the Rector, Humphrey Drake, and they “offered to speak to Mr Drake about ye living”.
However these gentlemen were meeting about more important matters. They were all Jacobite sympathisers who wanted to return the Catholic Stuarts to the throne of England. After the death of Queen Anne in August that year, the Protestant George I came to the throne and the following year James Stuart, the Old Pretender, attempted to reclaim the throne with the help of the Scottish Clans. The Jacobite Uprising was defeated and two of the people present at the meeting at Shardeloes were sent to the Tower afterwards, although they were later released. A person of similar views appears to be Roger Penn, Lord of the Manor of Penn, who appointed Robertshaw Vicar of Penn in 1716. In his memoirs Robertshaw writes warmly of their friendship, and their shared views “on Whigs and Infidels”.
In spite of having high hopes of becoming Rector of St Mary’s when the incumbent Humphrey Drake died in 1721, the Hon. Henry Bridges, brother of the Duke of Chandos, was appointed Rector. However Robertshaw’s friendship with Montague Garrard Drake remained strong. In 1725 a kinsman, William Drake of Ash in Devonshire visited Shardeloes and during his visit asked Robertshaw if he would like the Living at Axminster “worth a good six score pounds per annum”. He mentioned this to Montague Garrard Drake, who advised against it and dropped the hint “I hope to do better for you myself one day.” Dr Bridges was taken ill in the Autumn of 1727. By the following February he was thought to be dying and Montague Garrard Drake told Robertshaw that he would be Bridges’ successor, but Drake died first and there was an attempt by the Duke of Chandos to install his own candidate as Rector. However Drake had already left instructions to offer the benefice to Benjamin Robertshaw, who resigned as Vicar of Penn and took up his role as Rector of Amersham in 1728.
One of Benjamin Robertshaw’s critics was Daniel Baker, High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire in 1721/22. The Protestant Baker family were wealthy linen merchants who lived in Penn. In a long letter written to the Bishop of Lincoln around 1721, Daniel Baker accuses Robertshaw, then the vicar of Penn, of 20 misdemeanours, including non-residence (he lived at the school in Amersham at which he taught); neglect of his parishioners; intolerance of dissenters; unreasonable conduct in refusing burials and baptisms; apparent disregard for the king; proneness to popish practices and Jacobite attitudes. To illustrate the last point he says, Benjamin Robertshaw, “a little before ye rebellion at Preston (Jacobite rebellion of 1715) he preached at Amersham before a great many persons of Quality by whom I hear he was well rewarded, and made a vile Harangue on 29th May”. This is the meeting at Shardeloes of known Jacobite supporters mentioned in Benjamin Robertshaw’s own memoirs, so it seems that Daniel Baker’s accusation was not without foundation. In his memoirs Benjamin Robertshaw recalls the reprimand he received from the Bishop of Lincoln, but ascribes the complaint as being about his refusal “to bury a Presbyterian’s child, sprinkled (christened) in their unauthorised way, in my Parish at Penn.” He says, “Mr Daniel Baker, a silly but zealous Justice of the Peace in my Parish (at Penn) officiously complained of me for this to ye Bishop, and ye Bishop, who was then eagerly pursuing Court favour, wrote me a very angry letter.” In Robertshaw’s reply to the Bishop he said “I thought my business was to find out and pursue truth and not to regard consequences. Upon this he was highly provoked and we plunged pretty far into ye controversy about Lay-baptism.” Robertshaw continues: “At length ye matter dropt, but not without his making me promise never again to refuse burying such a person, which I was obliged to comply with or quit my School and go and live at Penn. But I never did bury any such, ye matter being easie to get that done by some other Clergyman.”
Benjamin Robertshaw and his wife Mary died, childless, within a year of each other. Benjamin Robertshaw might not have left an heir, but the Rectory is a fitting reminder of his presence in the history of Amersham.