Ask any of the older folk in Rugby town and they’ll probably know the name Sam Robbins, or at least remember some of the shops and buildings in his (and his family’s) wide possession. But such a success story doesn’t come from nowhere, so let’s start at the beginning and look at the background that gave birth to Sam Robbins…
From farms to furniture
Samuel Bevan Robbins was born in Welton, Northamptonshire, in around 1867, to John and Emma Robbins. His mum came from St. Ishmael’s, right on the tip of Wales, and was a servant nurse. His dad was the illegitimate son of a farmer’s daughter, from a large household.
Sam’s dad was a joiner, which perhaps allowed Sam to begin building his knowledge of furniture which would serve him so well in the future. Sam himself was the youngest of five brothers, all of whom worked in rural positions (agricultural labourer, plough boy, miller). At least two of them seem to have died tragically young. He also had four younger sisters – they must have all been quite a handful for poor Emma!
An abusive relationship
Unfortunately, his parents’ relationship does not seem to have been a happy one. In the 1879 assizes, John Robbins was charged with assaulting his wife. She had not wanted to press charges, but a neighbour had found her nearly strangled and made sure he went to court. He was sentenced to three months hard labour. Again in the 1883 assizes, John was charged with threatening his wife. It’s awful to think what Emma endured and what Sam must have witnessed in his early teenage years.
It was Sam’s father that spurred the fateful move to Rugby, when he found work as a carpenter at Messrs. Linnel, a builder on Railway Terrace.1 This lead Sam into various jobs as an errand-boy, and then into a manual position at the London and North-Western Railway. In 1885 he moved to the railway offices in Mill Street and his business acumen began to come into it’s own.
Rugby didn’t know what hit it!
The story goes that Sam noticed a lot of his colleagues buying concessionary rail fares to travel to Birmingham or London in search of household furniture.2 He recognised the demand for a more local selection, and began selling watches, then clocks, then moved on to furniture.
The success just kept coming. Rugby town was soon filled with businesses owned and run by Sam Robbins and his heirs.
They were auctioneers based in Albert St, Rugby, house furnishers in Henry St and Cambridge St, cycle makers at 34/35 Bilton Road (later car dealers), cabinet makers in Hunter St and watch makers and jewellers at Regent St, Rugby.3
The family business eventually grew to include, at one time or another: an auction room on Clifton Road; a china shop in Sheep Street; an estate agency in Albert Street; a petrol station in Dunchurch; Motor and Cycle sales and repairs in Nuneaton; an Austin Motor Dealership and a Service Station in Coventry; a garage on Bilton Road; and a petrol station on Corporation Street.
In 1891, at the age of around 23, Sam Robbins had married Emma Jane Hunter, a local Rugbeian aged around 25. They went on to have two children. They seem to have done quite well for themselves and employed two domestic servants in the early decades. One hopes that his home life was happier than that of his parents. Indeed, his wife seems to have been a support for him and his work; in the 1911 census her occupation is listed as ‘assisting in furniture business’.
1 Barbara Witt, ‘Samuel Robbins, Esq.’, in Aspects of the Past 3 (Rugby Local History Research Group), 21.
2 Witt, ‘Samuel Robbins, Esq.’, 22.