Robert Surman 1724 – 1754

Robert Surman 1724 – 1754

Robert Surman was registered as the owner of Valentines at the Manor Court on 16th April 1724, having recently suffered the disgrace of having all his property “sold by Auction to the best Bidder in the Hall of the South-Sea House”.

Robert Surman apprenticed to Stephen Ramm

Surman was born around 1693 and he was apprenticed to Stephen Ramm, Citizen and Goldsmith, on 20 January 1708. He completed his seven-year apprenticeship but he did not take up his freedom with the Goldsmiths’ Company until much later. In the eighteenth century the term ‘goldsmith’ was interchangeable with ‘banker’ and it was in the world of finance that he made a living.

Robert Surman’s signature on a document relating to the “South Sea Bubble”

In 1718 Surman was appointed assistant to the Chief Cashier of the South Sea Company, Robert Knight, his uncle, and played a central part in the scheme which led to the “South Sea Bubble”.

The sale of property owned by all the Directors and key officers was part of the attempt to recover some money to assist the vast numbers who had lost their fortune. Robert Surman pleaded his junior status and while forfeiting all his property, he was granted £5,000 which was approximately what he owned in 1718. Settling down at Valentines with his wife and two small daughters was the first stage in rebuilding his life.

Surman was a minor player in the South Sea Bubble team, but it was his knowledge of banking which had been an asset to the South Sea Company. Once the dust had settled on the “Bubble” it was Martin’s Bank which enabled him to pick up the pieces and get on with his life. By 1731 the partners in the bank were listed as James Martin, Robert Surman, James Leaver and Richard Stone and Surman continued as a partner for about twenty years.

The property called Valentines and purchased by Surman in 1724 comprised the house and eight acres of land. Pencilled dates on the wall of one of the first floor rooms show that he wasted no time in redecorating at least part of the house.

Main staircase and Palladian window

Surman’s improvements probably included the addition of a new main staircase with the Palladian window and he may have added the two bays to the front of the building. (The coloured glass was not inserted until the time of a subsequent owner, Charles Welstead.)

Soon after 1726 Surman bought the adjoining property of about 120 acres, also called Valentines but sometimes later referred to as Middlefield Farm, from John Lethieullier and his son, Smart Lethieullier. It seems Surman soon set about rebuilding the gardens as there is a record of workmen digging in a field behind Mr.Surman’s gardens at Valentines in October 1724. The formal gardens and the canal behind the house could well have been constructed at this time.

Robert Surman probably had a house in the City but it is likely that his wife and daughters spent most of their time at Valentines. We can imagine him enjoying the newly created garden walks, arm-in-arm with Thomasin, watching his daughters Thomasina (born in 1719) and Sarah (born in 1721) running across the grass and playing hide and seek among the shrubs. His disgrace must have become a thing of the past when in 1730 the Parish Vestry appointed Robert Surman Overseer of Great Ilford Ward.

Sadly, the happy family life at Valentines lasted just ten years. A stone on the floor of St. Margaret’s church at Barking (recorded in around 1908 but now hidden under the organ platform) says: Here lyeth interr’d the body of Thomasin Surman, late wife of Robert Surman of Valentine House in this parish, Gent., who departed this life the 26th day of November Anno Dom. 1734 aged 41 years. Robert and his two daughters, now in their early teens, must have had a sad journey back to Valentines after the funeral. It would be nice to think that Robert’s mother stayed to comfort them over the cold weeks of December and January. She had lost her husband in 1722 and from the wording used when she put her own affairs in order around 1736 it is clear that she regarded her son with great affection. She died in November 1744.

Robert was by now about fifty years of age and with considerable standing in the community. His mother had been a wealthy woman and about five years after her death Robert Surman decided to branch out and establish a bank of his own. It was known as Surman, Dinely and Cliffe, the partners being Thomas Dinely a colleague at Martin’s Bank, and Surman’s nephew, Robert Cliffe, co-executor of his mother’s will.

Just before this, in December 1748, Robert’s daughter, Thomasina, married Colonel John Boscawen, son of Hugh Boscawen, 1st Viscount Falmouth. Her husband later became Master of the Horse, and one of the Grooms of the Bedchamber to the Duke of Cumberland, and M.P. for Truro. Their son William was born 7 January 1750, but sadly Thomasina died about three weeks later, aged 30 years. She was buried with her mother at Barking.

By now Robert Surman and his daughter Sarah were accepted in the best circles. Some glimpses of their social life can be gleaned from letters which were exchanged between Earl Tylney of Wanstead and his brother-in-law, Sir Robert Long, and the Earl’s sisters Emma and Dorothy. For instance, they joined Earl Tylney and eleven other guests to a supper party at Bleak Hall. This included Lord Londonderry who was staying with Earl Tylney at that time. The letters refer to Miss Surman as Sally. She would have been twenty-nine at the time, three or four years younger than Dorothy Child.

In the 1750s Robert Surman was described as “of Lombard Street, London goldsmith” in property deals with Joseph Cruttenden of Gracechurch Street, London, gent. (his nephew), Robert Cliffe of Lombard Street, London banker (also his nephew) Thomas Dineley of Tower Hill, London esq. and others. We do not know why Robert Surman decided to sell Valentines but in October 1754 it was acquired by Charles Raymond. It seems likely the two men became acquainted through business with the East India Company.

The Gentleman’s Magazine reported the death of Robert Surman of Glocester Street, Esq on 14 June 1759.

© Georgina Green 2006

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