Written by Christine Shackell
In July 2018, Stories of Lynn museum hosted an exhibition on the life of Robert Henry Bollin, 1812-1885. His story had been unearthed during family history research and showed how, by searching beyond dates of birth, marriage and death, a more interesting picture of the man could emerge. Robert was not a native of King’s Lynn but came to the town in 1847 as a result of the building of the railway and made his mark during his ten year stay.
Coming to Lynn
Robert was born on 15 August 1812 in Richmond, Surrey, the eldest of ten children of house painter and glazier, Charles Bollin and his wife Anne. Robert did not follow in his father’s footsteps, but pursued his love of horses. By the age of 26, he was advertising in the Cambridge and Peterborough Gazette as proprietor of a new stage coach running between Hitchin and Cambridge. Coach travel was then at its peak. As well as driving a coach, Robert part shared ownership of the coaches and horses needed to keep up a regular coach service. Robert and his partners later extended their route on from Cambridge to Lynn, arriving at the Globe Hotel in the Tuesday Market Place.
But the rapid expansion of the railways gave serious competition to long distance stagecoach travel as coaches had to stop roughly every ten miles to rest or change horses. Once the railway came to King’s Lynn in 1847 the less comfortable stagecoach instantly ceased to be viable.
The reporter from The Lynn Advertiser and West Norfolk Herald (20 November 1847) recalled
“We believe in the history of coaching no teams were better conducted than those driven by Mr Bollin and his colleagues who came up and down on alternate days. We have several times travelled on this road over which the traveller passed between Lynn and Northampton. The journey was greatly relieved by the sprightly and in many instances intellectual conversation of these literary coachmen.”
The Cambridge Chronicle (13 November 1847) conjured up the scene of the last journey of Mr Bollin’s coach, the Victoria, from Lynn to Cambridge. “There was a sadness in the face of the once merry driver, the reins hung loosely in his hands, and the whip dangled as if conscious of the fallen greatness of its owner, while the horses from their sober jog-trot seemed to sympathise with the coachee’s griefs.” But Robert’s skills afforded him new job opportunities.
He settled in King’s Lynn as a coach builder and landlord of the Albert Tavern. Soon after, an opportunity arose to run the posting department at the Duke’s Head Hotel, in the Tuesday Market Place.
Robert announced his new business venture in the Norfolk Chronicle of 24 December 1847. The advertisement indicates he was also running all forms of horse transport, with stabling and coach houses from the rear of the hotel. In 1850 he took on the running of the Duke’s Head Hotel, a much larger and more prestigious opportunity.
A Death in the Family
In the census of 1851, Robert was Hotel Keeper at the Duke’s Head Hotel with his eighteen year old sister and assistant, Louisa. His maternal uncle, Robert Foreman, a retired solicitor, and Reuben Green, his brother in law, were staying as visitors. They had arrived for the funeral of Robert’s mother Ann, who died in Lynn on 28th March, two days before the census took place. Imagine Bollin’s horse drawn funeral hearse with ostrich plumes at each corner, on its solemn journey from The Dukes Head Hotel via the High Street to St Margaret’s Church for the funeral service on 31st March.
Robert entered into the life of the town and in 1850 played a major part in the setting up of Lynn Races.
The new course was built on 50 acres of pasture in West Lynn on land previously the river bed before the River Ouse was straightened by the Eau Brink Cut. It was a mile long, with a substantial grandstand at the north end. Local worthies subscribed £150 towards the stakes for the 6 races. Robert became the clerk of the course and well as racing his own horse. The course opened on Wednesday 11th September. The Lynn Advertiser reported “a good day’s out-door amusement” for “our holiday-making and race going townsfolk”. Special trains were laid on and it was said that 20 to 30,000 people came to town. Many spectators arrived in carriages and pony carts which allowed their owners a better view. The paper described ‘a motley crowd’, ‘all were dressed in their best – and you saw that they had made their minds up to be happy’. At the end of the day the crowd dispersed in a good humoured and orderly fashion. The success of that first days racing was celebrated with a banquet at the Duke’s Head for the sixty gentlemen who were the patrons, stewards and their guests, hosted by Bollin. Self congratulatory speeches and toasts were made before the gentlemen retired for the night.
Encouraged by their success, a two day event was planned for August the following year. A couple of weeks before the races, one of Robert’s horses, described by the Norfolk Chronicle as ‘a high spirited blood mare’, appeared to have got the better of him. Driving his two wheeled gig home one evening, the horse reared up, throwing himself and his passenger to the ground. The horse ran the mile home at speed, the gig bouncing along behind. At the final turn into the Tuesday Market place the gig struck a shop window breaking the glass. Fortunately no serious injuries occurred to horse or passengers, and Robert hopefully reimbursed the unfortunate shop keeper.
Undeterred, Robert threw himself into the race day arrangements. Prize money was raised, and extra trains laid on but the pouring rain deterred the crowds. The 3,000 race goers brave enough to attend were soaked and covered in mud. The second day fared better with the weather, but the crowds only reached about 10,000. Throughout 1852 Robert and his partners planned to improve the event. “Nothing that could be suggested, or that there was any possibility of doing has been disregarded by Mr Bollin” said the Norwich Mercury. But the rain fell heavily in “merciless storms”, and “Mr Bollin was thoroughly soaked”.
The organisers decided not to hold an event in 1853 but the following year a day’s racing was set for the 4th October. The day was fine but the crowds only numbered a few thousand. The first race was delayed with subsequent races getting farther behind their starting time. It was dusk by the time the last race started leaving, the judge being unable to tell if Mr Bollin’s horse Addenda or Mr Higgin’s horse Hawk, was the winner. Hawk was the decisive winner of the next two heats and the final result was not in doubt. The usual banquet, known as ‘the stewards ordinary’ was held at the end of the day with fireworks in the evening, but the gentlemen decided not to risk the venture for a fifth time.
In January 1857 Robert was declared bankrupt. The report of the Court of Bankruptcy noted his occupation as coach proprietor, innkeeper and hotel manager. It seems his financial affairs had never been in good order, his accounts having started with a debt of £500 and closing with debts of £1790 and the court concluded that ‘trading had been improvident and otherwise unfavourable’ (Norfolk Chronicle, 23 May 1857).
To repay his debts, Robert’s thirty carriages of all different descriptions were put up for sale by auction along with planks and screws from his coach building business and his household furniture. The list of goods for sale demonstrates the extensive business Robert had built up (Stamford Mercury, 13 March 1857).
Two aspects of Robert’s character come across clearly in his life story. One is his love of horses which defined his working life and leisure time. Secondly, his conviviality, which endeared him to his passengers, race goers, pub customers and hotel guests. I expect the inhabitants of Lynn were sad to see him leave.
Life after Lynn
Having left Lynn, Robert quickly re-established himself as an omnibus proprietor in his native Surrey, taking passengers from the railway station at Shalford to Godalming, a distance of about 3 miles, for four pence a trip.
In 1861 he was running the Old Hat Public House Ealing but in 1869 was made bankrupt again. By 1871 Robert was once more a Hotel Keeper, at the Bull Hotel, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire. By the 1881 census he had given up hotel keeping and was back to being an “omnibus proprietor” in Acton, one of the new middle class suburbs, offering transport for commuters from the railway station.
Robert Henry Bollin died, aged 72 years, on 24 March 1885 at St George’s Hospital, London and was buried in Hanwell Cemetery four days later.