Piecing together Robert and Mary’s Romance

Well folks, this is my last ever blog post as I leave Quarry Bank for pastures new, and I have decided to end my tenure as blog creator & editor by returning once more to one of my favourite stories from the archive; the romance of Robert Hyde Greg and Mary Phillips, and I warn you this is going to be a long post, so get yourselves comfy first!

Bit by bit, discovery by discovery the cataloguing project has pieced together their courtship. Before the cataloguing project began, in February 2013 I was rooting around the archive (with due care and attention of course) and came across a letter from Robert to Mary, seemingly expressing his relief and happiness that Mary had finally accepted his hand in marriage. At the time Ally (our Collections and Archives Officer) and I were pleasantly surprised, as what we knew of Robert was that he was a particularly grumpy old man.

Robert Hyde Greg
Robert Hyde Greg

As the cataloguing project progressed, more letters about their courtship in early 1824 emerged, from Robert to Mary, from the Greg family to Robert offering advice in one form or another, and recently we acquired an indefinite loan which contained Mary’s letters to Robert during that period, which I was poring over just before Christmas.

The Phillips and the Greg family had been friends for some years, but it was only in the winter of 1823/24 that Robert and Mary began to turn towards romance, and 1824 began with Robert persistently inviting Mary, and her sisters, to attend parties with him in Manchester. Their romantic relationship progressed quickly, and from what I can make out from their letters, they became engaged, or had at least discussed marriage, at the end of January/ beginning of February. From what I can tell, Robert had to propose to Mary, or bring up the question of becoming engaged at least four times, and Mary’s initial response was what fated them to be together:

“The first time, I doubt not you know well when it was, my hand was on the very point of returning to its owner. Had it done so it probably would never again have been extended towards you, but in the way of friendship and that of a colder kind than had before existed, at least on my side. The fate of both my dear Mary, strange to say, hung on half a second of time, and from that instant and I can say not till then I took my final resolution of acting.”

Mary Philips
Mary Philips

Their relationship was not a smooth one however, with Mary constantly concerned that she would not be a good enough wife for Robert, and as such she seemingly tried to distance herself from him lest she be later disappointed. At the beginning of February Robert had sent Mary a present which she almost immediately returned to him, whilst revealing a little of what had passed between them:

“Mark has [Mary’s brother], this evening brought me a note from you, accompanied by what you call a “memento” of yourself.

You say that “it comes from a friend, who would do much to serve me, and, yet, have to win my good opinion”.

To be candid, I may say that you, already, have my good opinion – if it were otherwise, how could I have allowed you to act, & how could I have acted myself as each has done within the last month?

…I return what you kindly intended as a memento. Real friends will be remembered in absence without “the aid of external objects””

Robert was offended by Mary’s gesture, and was quick to ensure that she did consider him as her “Real friend”:

“By returning my little present, you give the severest reproof possible to me for if you ought not to receive it much less ought I to have offered it…

Now if by “real friend” you mean one who is anxious to share every pleasure to soothe every distress, is able to sympathise in every feeling, and who would gladly risk life, reputation and fortune to protect and make happy, then I do not hesitate to say that such a friend I am ambitious to be, would have been, and will be, if you will receive me as such. I am willing to be such, through life, through evil report & through good report”

Mary had at this point travelled to London to stay with friends, something which had unsettled Robert, but Mary’s response soothed him greatly:

“The description you have given me of yourself as to me a “real friend”, has forcibly found a way to my heart, and awful as I feel the situation in which it places me, I nevertheless look upon it with a degree of interest, I may say pleasure, in which you alone can sympathise.

Yes, I receive you as my friend, and when I tell you so, I feel as if I were signing my destiny of this worlds pleasures and pains.”

Robert responded with one of his typically long letters:

“You are right my dear Mary, in saying that by your letter you have signed your fate… our fates are now completely united, as they ever will be and ever can be, it is that assurance which makes me now feel happy by anticipation, could I but for a moment imagine the contrary, I should feel the thought like the stab… “

Quarry Bank House where Robert lived with his parents and sisters, and where he first proposed to Mary
Quarry Bank House where Robert lived with his parents and sisters, and where he first proposed to Mary

He went on to try and alleviate her fears that she could never provide the same level of happiness that he had at home at Quarry Bank, where his mother, Hannah Greg, and his sisters catered for his every whim. Indeed, Mary’s competence at domestic life was called into question by her brother, and one of Robert’s closest friends, Mark when he wrote to congratulate Robert on his engagement:

“You will find her a good wife and I wish I could add a good housewife, but as I know that you & I think alike upon the latter point she will improve when she knows that you attach a value to good management in household affairs.”

As we found out a few weeks ago, Robert’s eldest brother Thomas Tylston Greg was also surprised at Robert’s choice of wife, believing that Robert would have picked Mary’s sister Esther, or one of his former love interests, whom Thomas esteemed highly. Thomas was also surprised that Robert was interested in romance and love at all, and believed his younger brother would only have married to further the Greg family’s business prospects.

Thomas' less than complimentary letter about Mary
Thomas’ less than complimentary letter about Mary

How wrong Thomas was, for Robert admitted to Mary in one of his earlier letters:

“Well, as you think you know me I am sure my dear Mary, you do not know, and no one knows, what affection I am capable of feeling, where I think it will meet with a kind return, and where I am sure that I am not sowing kindness to reap sorrow.

Mary, conquered her fears of being unable to make Robert happy thanks to his efforts to reassure her, and soon Robert was pressing her to fix a date for the wedding. Mary was feeling further conflicted about the wedding, as she felt great guilt at planning her future happiness when two of her sisters, Elizabeth and Jessy, were severely ill:

“My beloved friend, there are awful & imposing thoughts which so fill the mind, as that others appear in comparison trite & unsatisfactory. Oh, Robert, if you knew how awfully my mind hangs suspended between death & marriage, the unnatural struggling of my thoughts between these two greatest events of humanity, I am sure you would pity me, indeed, indeed, with all the composure I strive for, & with all the resignation I pray for, I cannot calm my troubled thoughts.”

This Mary wrote at the end of April, after Robert had seemingly managed to convince her that they must marry at the very latest in the middle of May. Robert had been imploring Mary throughout the end of February and most of March to cut her London visit short as, (from what I can make out from his letters – perhaps someone can enlighten me further?), the law stated that a bride had to reside at her parents house for one month before marrying. Furthermore, Robert had to be back at Quarry Bank at the end of July, and wanted at least a month and a half for their tour of Switzerland, leaving the middle of May as the last possible point at which they could marry.

In fact, Robert desired them to be married as soon as possible, and stated so in every following letter, whilst asserting that he was in no way trying to pressure Mary. Mary, who seems quite sensible to me, wanted Robert to meet her in London at her friend Mrs Richards’ house, in order that they might have some time together alone, something which had never before occurred, to ensure they really could enjoy one another’s company. There are no letters between the end of February and middle of March between the couple, during which time Robert had gone to visit Mary, and their spending time together was obviously successful, for it was from then onwards that Robert urged Mary to agree to fix a date.

“As to our future plans my dearest Mary I would not till hearing again from you have said another word but that I heard of dresses ordered and time fixed when in Nottingham and from the quarter it came from I am sure it originated at the Park [Mary’s home, and Robert probably means her sisters] and of course on good authority.

As to myself my dear Mary, I could say much had I time for it. Till I can call you my wife I shall not again be myself for now every thought past and present and every future prospect is so interwoven with your image that I am quite unfit for any serious occupation, and have no attention to bestow upon business however pressing.

Since passing so many days in your company, so many hours at your side, I feel I cannot live much longer without you and grow very insistent, more impatient to be united to you forever, yes Mary that is till death parts us to meet once more I trust really forever. I repeat to you now what I told you in London that I am sure I have a better chance of heaven with you for my companion than I had or should have with anyone but you, to deserve that, and your affection my dearest Mary will I sincerely hope ever be my strong desire.”

Talk about coming on strong, and it seems that Mary had simply vaguely mentioned her assumptions about the date of their marriage to her sisters, based on Robert’s need to return to business by the end of July.

“You, then, proceed to quote the words “time fixed” in reference to our mutual engagement. Now, this is not my fixing, as I have always intended this should be determined upon when I was surrounded by my own family as Counsellors and guides by your wish and approbation. I cannot, & will not deny, that, I may have confronted, & even, mentioned to particular friends, the probable time, in a month or two, when we shall be more to one another than we are now. And when you, in the most kind &, considerate way, told me one day as we were walking together in town, that, you must be returned to Manchester by the 1st August & of course, I could not help drawing the inference that the time when our fates would be one, could not be far distant… it seems as if May, or June, must terminate our single existence.”

If you think Mary sounds less than thrilled about her upcoming nuptials, I would tend to agree, but I think this owes more to her conflicting thoughts about being a good wife, that she hadn’t managed to completely shake, than a lack of love for Robert. She was often so self-deprecating in her letters that Robert was forced to reply to her worries as such:

“As to all the kind things my dearest Mary has said and written about allowing me to change my mind & break off any engagement & which being said sincerely as I am sure it was, I will now save you any further generous offers of a similar nature, by assuring you that I think more highly of you in every respect and love you far more dearly since my London visit, than I did before & therefore it is not possible that I should soon reject, what I now more than ever, passionately desire… So my dear love no more on that matter, or I shall think you do it for the sake of parade. Nothing can arise but from yourself to prevent your being my wife..”

Robert Hyde Greg
Robert Hyde Greg

To reassure you that she did in fact love Robert, here is a quote that Mary copied out in the same letter where she seemed so indifferent about the date of their wedding:

““Behold two friends, endeared, the one to the other, by the nobleness of their common pursuits; inseparable Companions, a life exquisitely sensible to all the Integrity and all the Delicacy of Friendship; it was their study not to flatter, but, to improve each other; &, as they passed this life, while their Cheerfulness beguiled the tediousness of the way, the Fidelity of their mutual counsel, rendered it secure from danger; &, thus, were they advancing, with a rapid & uninterrupted progress, to Perfection””

However, Mary was less than impressed when she learned that Robert had told his single sisters that two of them could join Robert and Mary’s tour of Switzerland:

“You mention what, sooner or later, must be, & then speak of what I have ever, from my earliest infancy, looked forward to with delight – a tour thro’ Switzerland, & now I know comes more & more of my selfishness, because, I can well fancy the pleasure this would afford your sisters, & yet, I am but sure that I should not like to encounter any further society in that occasion than your own. I feel perhaps, if I know how I feel, as if I required to be thrown entirely upon you as my friend & support.”

Yet Robert had clearly backed himself into a corner with his sisters, and replied:

“As to our companions I may perhaps think that it would be pleasanter to myself to devote myself to you entirely on the journey without any other being to divide my attention and had nothing been said previously to my Sisters it would have been easy to have complied with your wish and as to your feelings I comprehend and appreciate them. But the case is now different. They know it is my intention to take two of them with us, should I decline taking them now, they will perceive that they lose their journey because you wish to be without them. This Mary would be unpleasant to you, I am sure, you would be continually wishing for them whilst you were away, blaming yourself for being the cause of them not participating in the pleasure you were yourself enjoying and when you came home, you would never mention your tour in their presence without a painful feeling of regret. If therefore their company be an evil to you, still it is a less one than leaving them behind under present circumstances.”

The words “passive aggressive” spring to mind.

In April of 1824, Robert was able to send to Mary her resized engagement ring, and this was the letter I stumbled across nearly two years ago, in which Robert offered excessive expressions of his delight at their upcoming marriage:

“I return your ring, “the fatal ring” as you call it, and I will not object to the term. It has been fatal not to my hopes however, but to my fears, not to my peace of mind, but to my anxieties, not to my repose, but to the miserable agitation I was in when I first offered it to your acceptance. With what different feelings my dear Mary I now send it to you!”

Robert's letter to Mary concerning the "fatal ring"
Robert’s letter to Mary concerning the “fatal ring”

The letter in which Mary expressed her distress regarding her sisters’ health, is the last of Mary’s letters before their marriage that we hold, and demonstrates the closeness and love that the two held for each other:

“My confidingness in your friendship & affections is a comfortable & an increasing feeling within me. I am continually wanting you near me to speak to you even my nothings, I find the thought of not seeing you again until Wednesday very uncomfortable. In all ways, my feelings are so painfully on the sketch, that, not to be able to communicate them to my best & dearest friend, is in itself a great additional anxiety. I am almost frightened by the sympathy. I require, I fear, to frighten you by saying so, & yet I love you too well to keep from you any thing which I can tell you. Would, my dear forbearing friend, that you were now at my elbow & rather than 40 miles from me, then could I speak instead of write, & hear your kind allowance & have your soothing reply instead of the noiseless response of my paper.”

After the trials of their engagement; being separated, the illness of Mary’s sisters, the attempts to fix the date of their marriage, and Mary’s insecurities; the couple married at Prestwich on 14 June 1824 (a month after Robert desired). Initially they lived at King Street, Manchester, in a house given to them by Samuel Greg as a wedding present, along with their own carriage. They remained there for a few years, before moving into Norcliffe Hall, built by Robert for his growing family, which by 1835 would include six children: Robert Philips Greg (Robin), Edward Hyde Greg (Ted), Caroline Greg (Carry), Hannah Sophia Greg (Sophy), Henry Russell Greg, and Arthur Greg (Arty).

Mary Philips in later life
Mary Philips in later life

Robert and Mary were married for nearly 70 years, and throughout her life, Mary recorded annually on her birthday what had passed each year, and her husband was always a source of happiness:

“29th May 1848. Today I am 49. My dear husband, the husband of my youth and choice is still with me, and, this blessing alone speaks volumes.”

“14th June 1850 – Our Wedding Day-
We have been married 26 years more than half my life. What a long time to have my dear and busy husband. How inexorable is fate, how momentous, how unnerving, the events she brings in her train- marriages- births- grey hairs- wrinkles, old age- and how sadly would the scene close, were we not in hope of another life.”

Robert Hyde Greg in later life
Robert Hyde Greg in later life

It was wonderful to finally piece together their courtship through their letters, and goes to show what remarkable stories are currently tucked away safely in our archives ready to be discovered by our volunteers.

It has been a real pleasure sharing the stories of Quarry Bank with you all, and I hope you continue to follow all things Quarry Bank past, present, and future here on the blog.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Ian Jones says:

    Can you tell me where Mary Phillips family home was before she married?

    Sent from Windows Mail

    1. Hi Ian, sorry for the delay in getting back to you about this. Mary’s home was Philips Park which is in Greater Manchester, within the Bury area.

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