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Robert was born in Sheffield and entered the metal smithing trade for which that city is famous. Since at least some of the men in his direct Hancock ancestral line were smiths, it is likely that his father was as well, and that Robert apprenticed with him. Records in Sheffield may reveal more. His obituary says he was "brought up to the cutlery trade," further pointing to this scenario.
Robert was living in Manchester by the time of his marriage to Ann in Manchester Cathedral in 1820. The 1840-1 Manchester city directory lists Robert as a cutler living at 42 Rusholme Rd. in Chorlton-upon-Medlock, a suburb of Manchester. The whereabouts of his much older brother John at this time is not known, but he likely had sailed to New York City, where he settled with his wife. They will be mentioned again later. Robert made this move as well, sailing on the ship "Italy" from Liverpool about 18 October 1841 and arriving in New York on 15 January 1842 (or the 14th - see NY Post notice).
The passenger list has Robert, Ann, Martha, Mary, Margaret, Ann and Samuel Hancock. Daughter Mana had apparently died, and letters indicate that children John and Sarah also came over. John can also be found in a baptism record in Manchester. It's possible that they came over at another time. This is the only reference yet found of a son Samuel, and it may be a clerical error. If not, he died before the 1850 US census was taken. Next to Robert on the list is "Wm. Hyde Ashton," future husband of Mary Hancock, who mentions in an 1842 letter to his sister in Manchester of his arrival in New York on 15 January. Ann Wilson, surely Robert's sister, was also next to the family on the ship list. Margaret (Dunnet) Sinclair told a story of trouble on the passage to New York involving a lack of food and Robert being called a "Jonah." His wife Ann is said to have scraped a hole in a cooking pot, presumably to get every last bit out of it. This story probably lost some accuracy (Laura (Vyse) Dunnet was probably the source of the various family stories that have been passed down, and it's apparent that she had a flair for the dramatic). That there were problems on the voyage is certain. A New York Evening Post notice says the trip took 88 days, which was unusually long, and that was because the ship "experienced severe westerly gales; lost foretopmast, main yard, sprung bowsprit, lost sails, &c." William Ashton's sister wrote to him (1844) and referring to one of his letters (written 3 days after his arrival in New York), commented on "what a very rough voyage you had and we was very sorry to hear of you being tossed about so much upon the sea..." William's brother wrote his response in July of 1842 and says that he was "sorry to hear that you had so long a voyage." In another letter that year, William intended to speak more of the trip and his efforts to find work - the latter was done but not the former, leaving us to wonder what might have happened when the food ran out.
Robert's obituary places their first residence in "the cottage on the cliff," on Grand St. between Wythe and Berry Sts. in Williamsburgh, which Robert rented. He is recorded as having applied for the right to purchase property as an alien resident on 30 June 1846,() but he is not listed in an index of naturalizations. The first Williamsburgh directory was published in 1847, and lists Robert at 294 South 4th St. with the occupation "cutlery." This building he purchased September of 1846.() He continues to appear there in later directories. Robert bought property in Canarsie and had a house built on it on 92nd St.() He is on a map of Canarsie showing buildings and owners, but the street plan was much more simple at the time and it isn't clear where the house was in modern street terms. It appears to have been near the Dunnet house. The family must have used this house for summers, given that the Hancocks continued to live on So. 4th St. It burned in the early 1900s when one of his grandsons left a chick incubator unattended.
A family story says that Robert was a wine and liquor merchant in England. When he "found religion," he destroyed his stock and took what the family had at their disposal and came to America. Robert surely was always a cutler and his obituary says he had been a Methodist since his youth. However, as with many of the family stories, it may be partly true given that he was involved in the temperance movement:
HANCOCK - At 9:30 P. M. Yesterday, at the house of his son in law, Mr. Edward G. Vyse, 50 Grand street, died after a protracted illness, Mr. Robert Hancock, one of our oldest and most respected citizens, at the advanced age of seventy six years. Mr. Hancock is best known here as one of the originators of the early temperance movements in Williamsburgh, and one of the founders of the first temperance society started here under the name of the Washingtonian. He was born in Lancashire, England, and brought up to the cutlery business. About the year 1842 he emigrated to the United States and settled in the old village of Williamsburgh, first renting the premises then well known as "the cottage on the cliff" on Grand street between Second and Third Streets. He followed his business at this and in other parts of the city, latterly on South Fourth street - till the death of his wife, which occurred about four years ago. Besides being a strong temperance advocate, he was an active member of the Methodist church from early youth and possessing much natural eloquence, was often called upon to discharge Ministerial duties in the absence of regular Ministers. Deceased leaves behind him three daughters married, all of whom occupy highly respectable positions in life. ()
The obituary and this death notice appear in the Brooklyn Daily Times:
Robert's death certificate says he was 76 years and 9 months old when he died at his daughter Margaret Vyse's house at 50 Grand St., Brooklyn. He is called a cutler, and died of scrofula (an affliction of lymph glands in the neck, perhaps tubercular, but perhaps cancer in modern terms) and ulcera scorbutia (scurvy), which he had for a "great number of years," with a secondary cause of 10 days of eurysipelas. He was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery on 1 June next to his wife Ann.
Robert's stone in Cypress Hills Cemetery after some excavation. His and Ann's stones are in the tradition of
Friends ("Quaker") mode of grave markers (round-topped with plain, capital lettering)
children of Robert and Ann (Pownal) Hancock: (full birth dates are from baptism records)
i. Martha, b. abt. 1821 (bap. 18 Nov 1821, Manchester Cathedral), m. Richard W. Clough
ii. Mary, b. 5 June 1823 (bap. 7 Sep 1823, Oldham St. Wesleyan Church, Chorlton upon Medlock), m. William Hyde Ashton
iii. Mana?, b. 9 January 1825 (bap. 17 Apr 1825, Grosvenor St. Chapel, Chorlton upon Medlock), d. by 1842 (the Hancock Bible appears to list her as Mana, but a baptism record in Manchester is transcribed as Maria)
v. John, b. 21 December 1828 (bap. 29 Mar 1829, Grosvenor St. Chapel), prob. d. bet. 1843 and 1850.
vi. Ann, b. abt 1831, d. after 1851 (in uncle John Hancock's will, may have married an Ashton)
vii. Sarah, b. abt 1833, m. Alfred Collins
viii. Samuel John, b. abt 1838, d. abt 1862, perhaps San Antonio, TX
Robert's birth hasn't been found in Sheffield records, but he is known to have been the son of Simon Hancock of Sheffield. Robert and other siblings are mentioned in the will of John Hancock, who is called a son of Simon and Ann in NYC Friends records. John's birth and other children of Simon born before and after Robert are found in the Sheffield records. His marriage is in the records of Manchester Cathedral and his death is recorded in a Brooklyn death certificate (1871, #4251) and reported in the Brooklyn Daily Times. His will, written on 9 July 1868 and probabted 28 June 1871, is in book 43, p. 145, with a final account (not yet seen) in book 56, p. 507 (12/21/1872). He specified that all his real and personal estate was to be sold or auctioned and distributed among his heirs. James B. Hay, ironfounder of Newark, NJ, was one of his executors. Did you provide Robert with the raw materials for his cutlery business?
New York Alien Residents
Brooklyn city directories
deeds (collection of D. Sinclair)
a notice of Robert's death and an obituary appear in the 1 June 1871 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Times.
letter from Catharine Ashton to William H. Ashton, 10 July 1842
New York ship passenger lists 1820-1846
New York Evening Post, 1/15/1842
all text and photographs © 1998-2005 by Doug Sinclair unless where otherwise noted