“You have a very good raw material to work upon” – brotherly advice to Robert Hyde Greg

Last year I shared a letter with you from Robert Hyde Greg, expressing his joy to his new fiancée, Mary Philips, that she had accepted his offer of marriage. The archive volunteers later found a letter from his father Samuel Greg, describing his delight for his son, and advising the couple not to worry about what others thought of them, but to just be happy.

Robert Hyde Greg as a young man
Robert Hyde Greg as a young man

Now, the archive volunteers have found another letter pertaining to Robert’s engagement to Mary Philips, and it would seem that not everyone was as happy about it as Robert’s father. Robert’s older brother, Thomas Tylston Greg, wrote to Robert shortly after he announced his engagement, expressing his disappointment – perhaps this letter was the prompt for Samuel’s…

Born in 1793, Thomas was Samuel and Hannah’s eldest son, and Robert’s elder brother by two years. Whilst his father envisaged each of his sons running one of the five mills that he had founded, didn’t join the family business, and instead was sent to London where his uncle had an insurance-broking business. He was trained to become a partner, but he was more interested in literary pursuits, and so he didn’t do very well as a broker. It seems he was considered slightly ‘wild’ by his parents, because Hannah wrote to him giving him stern guidance. However, in 1814 he became a partner in Greg, Lindsay & Co, but retired from it in 1828 after Hannah died.  Thomas was influenced by his mother, Hannah, in his interest in literature and poetry, and would have preferred to be a poet or writer.

Despite the advice Thomas doles out in his letter to Robert about suitable fiancées, he himself never married.

In his letter to Robert, written in February 1824, Thomas gives Robert and Mary the largest number of backhanded compliments I think I’ve ever come across in a single letter or conversation!

Mary Philips
Mary Philips

He begins with his astonishment that Robert has become engaged to someone from the Philips family, whom Thomas imagined Robert was merely doing business with:

The intelligence contained in your letter which reached me this morning unquestionably surprised me, being fully persuaded by everything which I heard from yourself and others that your mind was intent only on the profits of business.”


Thomas then begins to lament that he only hopes that Mary can be as equally esteemed in his eyes as Robert’s three former loves (charming!):

With your three former loves I am well acquainted and have a strong regard for all – I had a note in my hand from one of them (Jane Hunter) when your letter was given to me. I do not know the lady, whom you have made your own, as well as either of those three, and should not wish more for her that she may prove their equal in worth and in my estimation and regard.”

It is then that Thomas rips into Robert’s soon to be in-laws:

I have so often talked to you of the family to whom you are about to ally yourself and not with that you must be perfectly well possessed of my sentiments regarding them all…That they have intelligent minds and affectionate hearts I have not the least doubt; but in manners and knowledge of the world they are yet children, or rather they have much to undo; for it seems to me they have too great a disregard of most things on which society lays great thought and justly so, and that on these subjects they have a confidence in their own notions and a contempt for those of others, unfavourable to their own improvement and to their influence and character in the society which they must be members…”

As if that wasn’t enough, Thomas expresses his surprise that if Robert has chosen to marry into the Philips family, that he has chosen Mary, and not Esther,Mary’s younger sister.


He ends the letter in a kinder tone (if you can call it that) and it seems there is redemption for Mary after all, if only in Robert’s hands:

That Mary will improve vastly under your management I have no doubt, with proper care on your part and separation from the same to which she has been accustomed…You have a very good raw material to work upon and I hope that will evince that you are a skilful artist by the manner in which you will fashion and adorn it.”

I wonder if at this point Robert was ready to tear up the letter, or perhaps being the younger brother, he lapped up the ‘advice’, but knowing what we do of Robert, I highly doubt it!

Despite Thomas’ gloomy opinions about the match, Robert and Mary went on to have a happy a marriage and had six children together. You can read more about their relationship and family life here: http://bit.ly/RHGandMP.


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