Robert Nelson, HEICS Judge

Robert Nelson was born 5 Sep 1798, one of the sons of Richard Alexander Nelson and Elizabeth Mary Hector of the Parish of St. Mary le Strand. He was baptised on 11 Oct 1798.

His career was with the East India Company’s Civil Service. He was nominated by Joseph Cotton, a director of the East India Company on 12 Jan 1814, on the recommendation of Charles Hampden Turner of Limehouse, London. Robert Nelson’s petition to the Honorable Court of Directors of the United East India Company just preceded this (a copy of his birth certificate was made on 26 Dec 1818 and a note accompanied the petition that he was 15 years of age on 5 Sep 1813). Joseph Cotton inquired into the character, connections and qualifications of Robert and recommended that his petition be accepted. The petition stated that he had received the rudiments of a commercial and classical education and petitioned to be placed in the East India College ‘in order that if his behaviour and attainments there should prove satisfactory to the Honorable Court, he may be appointed a writer to the Madras Establishment.’ The application form is a ‘Form of Interrogation in Open Committee of College of Candidates for the Nomination of Student’.

Joseph Cotton affirmed that no money or other valuable considerations were given by the father, stated to be secretary to the Honorable Navy Board and residing in Somerset Place (i.e. in January 1814).

Robert spent two years of two terms each at the East India College and arrived as a Covenanted Servant on 17 Jul 1816. He is recorded as a writer on 30 Jun 1816. During his career he held several positions until resigning on the issue of Idolatry in 1838.

Second Assistant to the Collector and Magistrate of Salem. Head Assistant to the Collector and Magistrate of Salem. Head Assistant to the Collector and Magistrate of Madura. Sub-Collector and Joint Magistrate of Tanjore. Acting Collector and Magistrate at Trichinopoly. Acting Collector and Magistrate at Masulipatam. Acting Zillah Judge of Salem. Acting Third Judge of the Provincial Court, Centre Division. Judge and Criminal Judge of Malabar. Acting Third Judge of the Provincial Court, Southern Division.

While on leave in 1824, Robert Nelson married Margaret Harrison by licence on 1 Mar 1824 in the parish of St. Giles in the Field, Middlesex in the presence of J. Harrison, William Harrison, G. Nelson, John Nelson, John J. Harrison and Sophia Harrison. They returned to India, where Robert was in the Civil Service of the Honourable East India Company and where other children were born, Richard Page in 1827, Henry in 1828, Arthur in 1830, Mary Park in 1833, and another daughter in 1836.

Robert returned to England in 1837, resigned from the East India Company in 1838 and his youngest daughter Lucy Elwin was born in1839 in Ilfracombe, Devon.

Lucy Elwin was on holiday with her mother at the Bridge of Allan on 19 May 1849 and wrote a letter to her father at Cromer, Norfolk. This was redirected to 5 West Conduit Street, Westbourne Terrace, Hyde Park, London. An inscription on the envelope states that Lucy was about 10 years old at this time.

In the 1851 census Robert was recorded as a visitor at Great Malvern (Occupation – Fundholder). At the same time Margaret (Occupation – Fundholder), Henry, Mary Park and Lucy Elwin were at 22 Richmond Terrace, Clifton, Bristol.

Lucy later lived with her father until he died. She is registered in the 1881 and 1891 census in Great Malvern with him but had moved to Collingwood Hotel, Ilfracombe by the 1901 census where she was a Boarder, single and living on her own means.

Robert Nelson died in 30 Oct 1895 aged 97 (registered in the Dec Q Upton on Severn so probably died in Great Malvern), daughter Lucy was living with him at Waveridge Lawn, Church Street, Great Malvern in the 1891 census. Margaret’s death had been recorded in the registers in June 1871 aged 74.

Their son Henry Nelson born at Negapatam on 16 Feb 1828, baptized on 12 Sep 1828 is recorded in the 1851 census as M.D. Edinburgh, not practising (aged 22). On 1 Oct 1858 Henry Nelson, M.D., M.R.C.S. was admitted as partner in the practice of medicine and surgery of Robert Williams M.R.C.S., L.A.C. Henry then emigrated to New Zealand where he died at his father-in-law John Jones’s house (Manor Place, Dunedin on 18 May 1867) after a long and protracted illness.

A daughter, Margaret Lucy, was born 5 Jul 1863 and was recorded as dying as an infant at Willowbank on 7 Jul 1863. He had a son at Willow Bank on 16 Oct 1864 and a daughter on 14 Apr 1866 at Meadowbank, Palmerston. In the North Otago Times 24 May 1867 his death is recorded with the note that he was a Colonist well known in the Province and had retired from practice two or three years ago and had been residing near Palmerston.

He is known for these publications:

Geological discoveries in New Zealand. Otago Witness 19 Jun 1858 page 5 (Issue 342).  

The reproduction of Ascaris mystax. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 1852.

As reported in Parbury's Oriental Herald and Colonial Intelligencer, Home Intelligence p. 590, Robert Nelson resigned a very lucrative position in the East India Company over an issue of religious principle.

IDOLATRY IN INDIA – MR. ROBERT NELSON’S MAGNANIMITY. – Mr. Poynder has communicated to the Times, of May the 7th, the fact of Mr. Robert Nelson, Madras civil service, having had the moral courage to resist, although to his serious personal injury, the exacting so unrighteously required of its servants, by the Court of Directors, of doing homage to idolatrous rites in India. “Rather than bow down to them that are no gods, this gentleman has resolved to throw up a civil appointment of considerable value, choosing rather to serve God than apostatize from his religious profession, by rendering homage to base and senseless idols.” By the correspondence which Mr. Poynder has published in the Times, as having passed between Mr. Nelson and the Secretary of the India House, it appears, that the former in February last, requested that the Secretary would inform him whether, “the covenant he had entered into with the East India Company rendered it imperative on him to accept and undertake any office the Madras Government (under which he served) might think fit to appoint him to, according to the usages of the service; and Mr. Nelson, in his letter says “In soliciting this information I refer principally to certain offices connected with the idolatry of the country, which I could not feel at liberty to hold.” The secretary replied as follows: “I am commanded to inform you that the Court has seen with surprise that an officer of your standing can entertain any doubt of its being imperative on you to accept and undertake any office which the Government may think fit to appoint you to, without any exception or reservation whatever.” Whereupon, Mr. Nelson, with a zeal which few men, however righteous, would think of imitating, throws up his valuable appointment in these extraordinary words: “The instructions of the Lord Jesus Christ are to keep myself from idols, and to flee from idolatry. The East India Company require me to unite myself with idols, taking part in their worship by assisting others therein. As I prefer to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, I must renounce the service of the Company, which I therefore now do. I have accordingly to request that my name be struck out of the list of civil servants on the Madras Establishment; all the privileges of which station I hereby resign, etc, etc, etc. (Signed) Robert Nelson.



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