Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Roberts, John (1623?-1684)

ROBERTS, JOHN (1623?–1684), quaker humourist, born at Siddington, near Cirencester, about 1623, was son of John Roberts alias Hayward, a well-to-do yeoman, who purchased a small estate at Siddington in 1618. His mother was Mary, sister of Andrew Solliss, a neighbouring magistrate. After being educated at his native place, he joined, soon after coming of age, the army of the parliament. Subsequently, when journeying to visit his family, he was waylaid and nearly killed by royalist soldiers, but he soon rejoined the parliamentary forces, and remained on active service till 1645. His father was then dead, and he inherited the family property at Siddington, where he settled and married.

Though of humorous disposition, Roberts was always devoutly inclined, and sympathised with the puritans. In 1655, some eight years after George Fox had established the Society of Friends, ‘it pleased the Lord to send two women Friends out of the north to Cirencester, who, inquiring after such as feared God, were directed’ to Roberts's house. They induced their host to visit the quaker Richard Farnworth [q. v.] in Banbury gaol, and Roberts was quickly led by Farnworth to embrace the quaker doctrines. He came to know George Fox, whose marriage at Bristol in 1669 to Margaret Fell he attended. Like others of the sect, he suffered much persecution. For defending before the magistrate some Friends who had stood with their hats on in Cirencester church he was imprisoned in Gloucester Castle in 1657, and released only through his uncle's interposition. Twice he was imprisoned for the nonpayment of tithes at the suit of George Bull [q. v.], rector of Siddington, afterwards bishop of St. Davids (see Besse, Sufferings of Friends, fol. edit. i. 221), and suffered much persecution otherwise. On the other hand, Bishop Nicholson of Gloucester befriended him. They amicably discussed together their theological differences, and on one occasion when the bishop, his chancellor, and twenty clergymen proceeded to Tetbury, in the neighbourhood of Siddington, for an episcopal visitation, the party called and drank ale at Roberts's house, George Bull, the rector, alone refusing, saying the ale was ‘full of hops and heresy.’ The bishop was also interested in Roberts's apparent telepathic power, in the way of tracking lost cattle and the like, which he ascribed chiefly to the exercise of common-sense. The bishop's opinion of him was that he was ‘a man of as good metal as any he ever met with, but quite out of tune.’ Roberts retorted that it was quite true, for he could not ‘tune after the bishop's pipe.’ Roberts died in February 1683–4, and was buried in a burying-ground he had given the quakers in his orchard.

Roberts married, in 1646, Lydia, the orphan daughter of Thomas Tyndale of Melksham Court, Stinchcombe, Gloucestershire. The lady's cousin, Matthew Hale [q. v.], afterwards lord chief justice, drew the marriage settlements. She died in 1698. By her Roberts had six children.

The youngest son, Daniel Roberts (1658–1727), who, with a brother, was in 1683 committed to Gloucester Castle for holding a conventicle, was allowed by the gaoler to visit his father during his last illness, and remained with him until his death. He was released after some months' further detention, Justice George himself discharging all the fees. Daniel settled at Chesham, Buckinghamshire, in 1685, and wrote in 1725 the ‘Memoir of the Life’ of his father. He died at Chesham on 16 Feb. 1727, having married twice, and leaving a son Axtel (d. 1759). His ‘Memoir of John Roberts’ was first published at Exeter, 1746, 8vo; second edition, Bristol, 1747, and reprinted over thirty times. An edition of 1834 was edited with a preface by William Howitt. It was republished under the title, ‘Some Account of Persecutions,’ &c., Philadelphia, 1840, and edited by T. Dursley as ‘The Bishop and the Quaker,’ London, 1855, 8vo. An edition issued in London in 1859, small 8vo, contains, with some notes and additions by Oade Roberts (d. 1821), great-great-great-grandson of the author, an engraving of Roberts's house at Siddington. The house still stands, but is falling into decay.

The chief interest attaching to Daniel Roberts's ‘Memoir’ of his father lies in the recitals of John Roberts's humorous conversations. He delighted in smart repartee and in pointed illustration. Of the literary value of the ‘Memoir,’ Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: ‘The story is so admirably told, too, dramatically, vividly; one lives the whole scene over, and knows the persons who appear in it as if they had been his townsmen. … It is as good as gold, nay, better than gold, every page of it;’ and Whittier observes: ‘Roberts was by no means a gloomy fanatic; he had a good deal of shrewdness and humour, loved a quiet joke, and every gambling priest and swearing magistrate stood in fear of his sharp wit.’

[Memoir by Daniel Roberts, ed. 1834, with preface by William Howitt; Whittier's Old Portraits and Modern Sketches in Collected Works (London, 1889); a humorous poem (‘The Library’) in Sketches of Scarborough, 1813, and illustrated by Rowlandson, which deals incidentally with Roberts's memoirs; Smith's Cat. of Friends' Books, ii. 496–8; Stratford's Good and Great Men of Gloucestershire; Rudder's Gloucestershire, p. 659; Fosbrooke's Gloucestershire, ii. 484.]

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