Born at Alpraham in Cheshire in August 1797, like most people from history, it is impossible to know anything about his childhood and adolescence. But by his early 30s, he had moved from his native rural backwater to the largest city in Europe – London – and married Eleanor Brooks in Piccadilly.
He established himself as a manufacturer of polish to keep people’s shoes shiny and black. At George Yard just off Oxford Street, right in the middle of the metropolis, he advertised an unequalled product, “non-pareil blacking”.
The reason it was special, he claimed was “long study” that had allowed him to discover a “chemical ingredient” that stopped polished footwear from losing its gloss. He appealed to the spirit of the age, observing that “in this age of improvement it is much to be wondered at that so very useful and fashionable an article should have so long suffered to pass unnoticed”.
By this time he claimed that because of the economies of scale, as exporters and trade customers demanded more of his “improved article,” he could supply them more easily and cheaply.
In the 1841 census, Robert and Eleanor had a 14 year old servant called Elizabeth Rully living in their home, and a young clerk, presuming paying as a lodger.
His marketing paid off, and by the 1840s, Robert Cotgreave’s name appeared in The British Imperial Calendar as one of the tradesmen favoured with official business, in his case by the Master of the Horse’s Department. Given how many soldiers the department employed, it must have needed large quantities of boot polish and this was no doubt a profitable contract. The venture expanded overseas so that by 1848, the Sydney Morning Herald was announcing the import of 18 casks of “Cotgreave’s Liquid,” available by auction to storekeepers in 6 pence or 1 shilling bottles.
And business clearly thrived. Robert Cotgreave took out an insurance policy on the home he shared with Eleanor in Grosvenor Square. The couple’s household goods, clothes, books and kitchenware in the brick-built, tiled dwelling house were insured for £170, the pictures and prints were separately valued at £5 and there was another £25 for crockery and glass. At a time when £50 would have been a very decent annual salary, these numbers suggest a comfortable lifestyle.
Sadness came in the 1850s first with the death of Robert’s father, and then his wife Eleanor. In 1855, his father (also called Robert), who was parish clerk of Marbury in Cheshire, died at the age of 86. The old man knew that his son did not need any financial help, most of which went to the blacking-maker’s siblings and nephew. But Robert was bequeathed what his father described as “Bedsteads bedhangings and bedclothes thereto belonging in my farthest room”. Robert was also named as one of his father’s potential executors, but with his busy London life, he did not travel to Cheshire for the legal formalities and the role was carried out by his nephew Thomas and the local clergyman, the Rev James Yorke.
Then in 1857, Eleanor died and was buried in Brompton Cemetery, where Robert obtained permission to erect a “high stone” in her memory.
Robert Cotgreave was now 60, advancing in years, and perhaps running the business without Eleanor by his side proved unrealistic. He must have known someone important – perhaps a customer grateful for years of shiny shoes – because he managed to secure an appointment as an usher in the Court of Chancery, a salaried role with presumably fairly light duties.
But he was already ill with both heart disease and kidney problems, so it was perhaps not surprising when on 6 December 1859, at the age of 62, Robert Cotgreave died in Westminster, 200 miles from his birthplace, 9,000 miles from where the citizens of Australia were using his product, but right on the spot where for at least 30 years he had combined charcoal and oil and a mystery “chemical ingredient” to ensure that the Victorians of thriving London could walk around in shiny black boots and shoes.
Although he had obtained permission to erect a large headstone at the grave in which he had buried Eleanor and in which he himself was eventually laid to rest, that section of Brompton Cemetery is now overgrown, the memorials overrun by nature and covered in thick brambles – a reminder perhaps of Robert Cotgreave’s countryside beginnings in the middle of the busy metropolis where he built his success.
Cheshire Record Office: P40/1/4; WS Robert Cotgreave 1855
Westminster Archives: Parish Register of St James Piccadilly
The Post Office London Directory for 1836, p.126; for 1837, p.133; for 1860, p.14
Town and Country Advertiser 25 March 1835
Morning Herald, 27 January 1835
Ronson’s London Directory 1840, W Robson & Co, pp.234, 463, 1169
Pigot & Co London and Provinicial Directory 1840, pp.41, 125, 247.
National Archives, London: HO107/733/11; HO107/1488, f503,p.3; WORK 97/78; WORK 97/261; WORK 97/286
London Metropolitan Archives: CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11,936/579, no.1360276
The British Imperial Calendar (1843), London, p.110
Sydney Morning Herald 1 May 1848
Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages: Death Certificates