As the seventeen-year-old George Cobay left his Lincolnshire village on a cold February day in 1833, could he, an illiterate labourer, have imagined that he would live into the next century, that he would become Speaker of the Cinque Ports, that three of his sons would be mayors of Hythe, that two of them would have businesses in London’s exclusive Bond Street or that he himself would die full of honours and that a Baronet would send a wreath to his funeral? Probably not. What he clearly had though was a desire to see more of the world than Claypole (population 593) could offer.
George was born on 3 October 1815 in Claypole. He started his working life as a labourer, but when he was seventeen he joined the army, making his mark on his attestation papers – he could not write. He served in the 19th Regiment of Foot, where he rose in 1843 to the rank of Sergeant and his character and conduct were judged to be excellent. Judging by his later career, he must also have learned to write. He spent over ten years abroad, in the Mediterranean, the West Indies and North America before being discharged as unfit after twenty-one years in 1854. He was then thirty-nine and was diagnosed as having ‘chronic rheumatism originating and caused by length of service and constitutional infirmity’. George was five feet six inches tall, with hazel eyes and a sallow complexion.
Presumably some of his service in the United Kingdom was in Ireland, because by the time he was twenty-four he was married to Hannah, a Co. Cork woman. She travelled with him on his postings. Her eight children were born in Dublin, Malta, Canada, Cephalonia, at sea in the Mediterranean, Winchester and the last in Hythe, where the family settled immediately George left the army.
Why Hythe? The link is the new School of Musketry in the town. Colonel Hay, the first Commanding Officer, who arrived in the town in June 1853, had appointed that August the first instructor, Sergeant MacKay of the 19th Foot. He was the same rank and from the same Regiment as George. They must have been known to each other. Did Sergeant McKay recommend the place to George? Or recommend George to Colonel Hay? Quite possibly. At any rate, George took the civilian post of mess master at the School.
By 1861 he had acquired the licence of the Swan Hotel in the High Street. It was a large coaching inn and likely to profit from the large numbers of officers and NCOs visiting the town. It was also conveniently situated near the Town Hall and could provide dinners and banquets for civic functions.
He prospered, becoming as well as a landlord, a landowner. He acquired a parcel of land off Donkey Street on the Romney Marsh and started to call himself a grazier rather than an innkeeper. In 1877 he was able to give Hythe Cricket Club his land next to Ladies Walk in the town. That was the year that Hannah died, aged only fifty-six.
Six of her eight children had survived to adulthood, though two infant daughters, Mary, born in Malta and Maria, born in Quebec, did not. She had seen the eldest three, Margaret, George and John married. The three younger sons, Henry, William and Robert, were well on the way to becoming successful business men, and she had become a grandmother.
George had also become a Town Councillor in the 1860s, retiring in 1898, and a JP – he was still on the bench only four months before his death. He was mayor of Hythe in 1881 and 1882 and Speaker of the Cinque Ports in 1882. He was, according to the local newspaper, greatly respected in these roles as well as in private life. His illness was reported in the papers in early August 1900. Until then, he had been in robust good health and enjoyed taking long walks. The chronic rheumatism of his army days seems to have been cured by Hythe’s sea air. His funeral was a grand affair at St Leonard’s church, attended by the great and good of Hythe, and graced by a wreath from the town’s MP, Edward Sassoon, Bart.
The grave of Robert and Hannah Cobay and of their three unmarried sons, Henry, William and Robert. The inscription reads:
In/affectionate/remembrance/of/Hannah the beloved wife of/George Cobay/who died 27th June 1877/aged 56 years
Also of George Cobay/husband of the above/who died 12th August 1900/in his 85th year
Also of Henry Thomas Cobay/son of the above/who died 30th November 1903/in his 50th year
Also of their sons/William Richard Cobay/died 26th March 1920, in his 68th year
And/ Robert Cobay/died 9th May 1924 in his 67th year
To be continued…