Different Worlds: The Leslie Smith Family

Robert Leslie Smith (1813-1902) & Mary Sinclair (1818-1892)

Photograph of Robert Leslie Smith. Robert Leslie Smith, described in his father's will in 1862 as a merchant in Dunoon, lived in Edinburgh for some time as an apprentice tailor. A printed page of testimonials, dated 1846, and relating to his application to be appointed an "Inspector of the Poor", refers to him having previously been living at 21 George Street, Edinburgh.

Testimonials for Robert Leslie Smith, 1846

When he left Edinburgh, he apparently spent some time in London, learning more of the details of his chosen trade. He then moved to Dunoon, where he took up the position of manager in a drapery and tailoring business run by a Mr Keith. A few years later, around 1850-1855, Mr Keith emigrated to Australia, and Robert purchased the business. One of his sons later joined him in the business, as indicated in a description written around 1890.

A description of Robert Leslie Smith's business in Dunoon

Photograph of Mary Sinclair. In November 1853, Robert married Mary Sinclair, pictured on the right. Mary was christened on 1 November 1818 in Kirkwall & St Ola in the Orkneys, the seventh of nine children born to Walter Sinclair and Margaret Sutherland. We discovered (when we viewed an image of the record of her death) that Robert was her second husband. She was first married to William Thom, who lived in Greenock. They married in 1838 (the banns were called in Kirkwall and Greenock), and had four daughters, all born in Greenock:

William Thom died in September 1845, and two of the daughters, Margaret and Wilhelmina, died just months later in 1846. One after another, they were all buried in the same plot at Duncan Street Burial Grounds in Greenock. It must have been a harrowing experience for Mary, to lose her husband and two of her daughters in the space of just one year.

We know that other members of Robert Leslie Smith's family had moved to Greenock (e.g. his sister, Marion Smith, and her son John Ogilvie Anderson and his family), and it may be that it was through them that Robert met Mary. Interestingly, 6 years after Mary married Robert, one of Mary's sisters, Esther, married a Robert Mitchell, who may have been living in Dunoon at the time (in the 1881 census he is shown as living in Dunoon and by then was the Postmaster). Perhaps Esther met her husband as a result of visiting her sister in Dunoon?

When Robert married Mary in Glasgow in 1853, he not only took her as his wife, he clearly also took on responsibility for her two remaining children, Mary and Elizabeth, who were then 12 and 9 years old. Robert and Mary also subsequently took in and raised at least two of her nephews and neices when her widower brother, Sutherland Sinclair, died in Greenock in 1874.

Robert and Mary had three children of their own, all born in Dunoon & Kilmun:

Photograph of Robert Leslie Smith, 3rd Provost of Dunoon, in 1872. In addition to running a successful business, Robert was very active in local politics. He was the third Provost of Dunoon (a position similar to that of Mayor), and also served as a Magistrate and Justice of the Peace. The photograph on the right shows him in 1872. His political interests and activities were not confined to local issues, as illustrated by several letters - replies, from two members of parliament, to letters sent to them by Robert.

Transcripts of letters to Robert Leslie Smith, 1874 to 1880

The 1891 census shows Robert's household in Hafton Place (the location of the drapery business, on Argyll Street in Dunoon) as follows:

Name Age Marital Status Relationship Occupation Place of Birth
Jane R Alexander 21 Single Servant Domestic Servant New Monkland, Lanarkshire
Margaret Sinclair 22 Single Neice (none given) Greenock, Renfrewshire
Russel Sinclair 19 Single Nephew Draftsman Marine Engineering Greenock, Renfrewshire
Agnes Leslie Smith 24 Single Daughter (none given) Dunoon, Argyllshire
James Robert Leslie Smith 26 Single Son Draper Dunoon, Argyllshire
Mary Smith 62 Married Wife (none given) St Ola, Orkney
Peter McLean Smith 24 Single Nephew Warehouseman Glasgow, Lanarkshire
Robert Leslie Smith 67 Married Head of household Clothier and draper Cameron, Fife
Walter Sinclair Smith 22 Single Son Warehouseman Dunoon, Argyllshire

We now know that Margaret and Russell Sinclair, shown above, were two of the children of Sutherland Sinclair, one of Mary's brothers. Sutherland was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, and lived in Greenock. He died when his youngest children were still quite young, and it appears that Mary and her husband, Robert, took them in and raised them (Sutherland was a widower when he died).

Mary died at Petersburg (the name of their house) in Dunoon on the 19th of February, 1892.

Black bordered notepaper with a printed notification of Mary C Sinclair's death. The note shown on the right reads:


At Petersburg, Dunoon, on the 19th
Inst., Mary C. Sinclair, Wife of
Robert L. Smith, Merchant.

Dunoon, 20th February, 1892.

The reference to Mary "C" Sinclair is mildly puzzling, since it appears that Mary was actually born "Mary Bruce Sinclair". We haven't worked out yet where the "C" might have come from.

Robert died 10 years later in 1902, within days of his brother John Johnstone Smith, and of one of his sisters, Agnes Leslie Smith, as related in the following newspaper extract:

"A long lived family - Mr J J Smith, Sen, late boot and shoe maker, St Andrews, died on Wednesday morning, at the age of 84. He met with an accident about six weeks ago, while crossing his room, dislocating his leg. The deceased, who came of a long lived family, was a brother of the late ex-Provost R L Smith of Dunoon, who died last week in his 89th year, while a sister passed away at St Andrews on Sunday at the age of 96 - the combined ages of the three being 270."

Dunoon Herald & Cowal Advertiser, 25 April 1902

Pulpit reference for Robert Leslie Smith.

Obituary for Robert Leslie Smith, Dunoon Herald & Cowal Advertiser, 18 April 1902.

Next: James Robert Leslie Smith & Martha Hannah Potts


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