Hay, Robert (ca. 1754-1850)
Robert Hay (ca. 1754-1850), a native of Scotland, was a skilled woodworker—chairmaker, wagonmaker, carriage maker, and briefly a house carpenter—prominent in New Bern in the early 19th century. According to Hay’s obituary in the Newbernian of December 10, 1850, he arrived in America at the close of the American Revolution and settled in New Bern around 1800. In 1816 he married Nancy Carney, and among their children was William Hay, a house painter.
Lachlan C. Vass, who became minister at First Presbyterian Church in 1866, where Hay had been a founding member in 1818, related what he had been told about Hay by those who remembered him. Vass focused on Hay’s life as a Presbyterian, citing records showing that Hay had joined a Presbyterian church near Kelso, Scotland, at the age of about thirteen and that he had resided in Gordon Parish in Scotland from infancy until 1786. Before the Presbyterian congregation was formed in New Bern, Hay had worshipped with the Methodists but had not affiliated with that denomination. He was a founding member of New Bern’s First Presbyterian Church in 1818 and was a ruling elder, long remembered for his piety and his devoted service to the church.
According to Vass’s account, Hay began his working life in New Bern as a “house builder, or finisher of the inner wood-work; and first labored on the Harvey Building.” The Harvey Mansion, built around 1800, is an imposing Federal style residence and office, distinguished by elaborate interior woodwork. No documentation of its construction or builders is known. New Bern memoirist John D. Whitford, who would have known Hay (and might have been Vass’s source), stated that Hay had worked on the Harvey Mansion and had carved the “artistic and elaborate” ballroom mantel with his pocket knife. Whitford also stated that Hay was associated for a time in house building with house joiner and carpenter John M. Oliver, and that Hay resided at Oliver’s house for a period.
Later in the 19th century, Hay concentrated on the chairmaking, carriage making, and wagonmaking trades. In June 1812 he took John Chadwick, an orphan aged fifteen, as an apprentice to the chairmaker’s trade. In 1815 he bought a large collection of specialized woodworking tools from the estate of cabinetmaker Thomas Youle, including “ovals and beeds,” planes, knives, saws, turning chisels and gouges, and a tool chest. By the early 1820s, as memoirist Stephen Miller remembered, Hay was operating from a shop near the site of Tryon Palace, “for the manufacture of vehicles of all sorts—chairs, gigs, coaches, and wagons. I have seen much of his work in use, which was generally approved.”
Hay bought a modest, Federal-style frame townhouse in 1816, the same year he married Nancy Carney, and he lived there until his death in 1850, at the age of 96. To accommodate a growing family and business, Hay enlarged the house between about 1820 and 1830, with a rear addition consisting of a double piazza and two small heated rooms. Now part of the Tryon Palace complex, the house has been restored and furnished to the period ca. 1830-1850 to represent the way of life of a substantial artisan family.
According to all accounts, the devoted Presbyterian Hay was a man of unusual piety and integrity. Stephen Miller related an anecdote he had heard (and which was repeated by Vass) that characterized the man:
In his old age, the earnings of his life of industry were swept from him to pay the debts of a brother-in-law, an insolvent bank officer. A leading lawyer of Newbern, grieved, as were all men there, at this catastrophe to a man so blameless, visited Mr. Hay, at his workshop, where, bent with age, his face furrowed with care, and hair whitened by the snows of perhaps eighty winters, the good old Christian still wrought on, day by day. Greeting him sympathisingly [sic], the lawyer exclaimed: ‘This will never do, Mr. Hay. Your house must be saved; you cannot be turned out homeless in your old age, without a shelter for your family. We must devise ways and means to save your house, if nothing more.’ Leaning upon his implements of toil, with bent head and deeply thoughtful, the old man suddenly turned his face, full of emotion, towards his friend, exclaiming, in his strong Scotch accent: ‘Weel, George, my mon, save my hoose if ye can, George; but mon, save my conscience first!’
Hay evidently retained or regained much of his property, for in 1850 the U.S. census listed the 96-year-old chairmaker with $1,500 worth of real estate and five slaves. He was head of a household that included his wife Nancy, aged 67, and Frances, 30, and Mary, 16. Hay died in New Bern on December 6, 1850, at the age of ninety-six.
- Lynda Vestal Herzog, “The Early Architecture of New Bern, 1750-1850,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California (1977).
- Stephen F. Miller, “Recollections of New Bern fifty years ago, with an appendix Including letters from Judges Gaston, Donnell, Manly and Governor Swain,” Our Living and Our Dead (1874-1875).
- Peter B. Sandbeck, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina (1988).
- Lachlan C. Vass, History of the Presbyterian Church in New Bern, North Carolina (1886).
- John D. Whitford, “The Home Story of a Walking Stick—The Early History of the Biblical Recorder and Baptist Church…” (1899-1900), John D. Whitford Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Thomas M. Youle Estates Papers, Craven County Estates Papers, Microfilm, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Contributors:Robert Hay, attributed house carpenterDates:Ca. 1798-1800Location:New Bern, Craven CountyStreet Address:219 Tryon Palace Dr., New Bern, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:Peter B. Sandbeck, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina (1988).Note:The tall, brick townhouse was built to include merchant John Harvey's business as well as his residence and originally featured a ground level passageway through the house leading from the street to his wharves on the Trent River. It is among the oldest of New Bern's surviving brick townhouses and contains unusually elaborate interior woodwork, including typical New Bern "wave" stair brackets, paneled wainscot, and Adamesque mantels. Especially notable is the drawing room, one of New Bern's most elegantly finished rooms of the period, highlighted by a mantel with composition ornaments and carving. Thus far no documentation has been found to identify the workmen involved. The attribution to Hay comes from the statements of Presbyterian minister Lachlan C. Vass and local memoirist John D. Whitford, the latter of whom probably knew Hay as an old man.