7 September 2018
‘The appointment by the Barnstaple Guardians yesterday of a lady relieving officer for the Combe Martin and Lynton district would, in normal times, have been regarded, probably, as a novel and somewhat questionable procedure. But the exigencies of war have swept away many prejudices formerly entertained…’
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 1917.
Melvina Robins was the first female relieving officer in Combe Martin, responsible for visiting and administering money to the poor.
Melvina Robins was born in Combe Martin in 1888, the youngest of six sisters. The Robins family were local to Combe Martin; Melvina’s father Samuel was a farmer of a small acreage, who later became the Relieving Officer for Barnstaple and Combe Martin, a district so large it included sixteen parishes comprising an ‘arduous, hilly, exposed, large, and difficult area’ (Western Times, 1914).
As the local Relieving Officer, Samuel was required to visit and make assessments of any family making applications for relief; to supply in person the weekly allowance of all paupers in the district and to provide emergency relief to those in need of it, including transporting persons and families to the workhouse if necessary.
The 1911 Census shows Melvina aged 23 working as the Deputy Registrar of the Barnstaple district. By mid-1917, Samuel, now aged 72, was looking to retire due to ill-health. Melvina had already been recommended as a replacement, providing her ‘appointment should only be a temporary one until after the war’. However, there were several objections and so the post was ‘thrown open, applicants not to be under military age.’
In all, the Barnstaple Board of Guardians received 49 applications for the post; Melvina was elected with a show of 26 hands out of 44. An ‘onlooker’ later wrote to the Western Times that despite the novelty of hiring a female relieving officer ‘stern necessity has led to the employment of women on a much larger scale in a variety of occupations.’ Miss Robins’ appointment was now deemed to be ‘only in accordance with the fitness of things.’
In 1920 a notion was put to the board that Miss Robins be asked to resign in order that her post be filled by a returning soldier. The notion was rejected, the Chairman stating that ‘as far as the Guardians were concerned, the appointment was the usual one, subject to behaviour. Miss Robins was a good officer [and] had served them faithfully and well in the past.’ The Board also approved an application for an increase in Melvina’s wages to £125 per annum.
Melvina continued in her post until 1935, when she retired, fully appreciated and respected by members of the Board and the local community. She never married and died in Combe Martin in 1967.
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 1917. ‘Onlooker’: Appointment by the Barnstaple Guardians. 8th September.
Rowe, Watts, & Wood Solicitors, 1967. Miss Melvina Robins, Deceased. 1st June. [typed letter] Combe Martin Parish Collection.4025A/PF/2. Barnstaple: North Devon Records Office.
Western Times, 1914. Mr S. Robins: Application for an increase in salary. 7th April.
Western Times, 1917. With regard to the resignation of Mr S. Robins. 11th August.
‘Melvina Robins’ (1911) Census return for Combe Martin, Barnstaple District, Devon. Public Record Office: 13345, folio -, p.- (1911). Available at: https://search.findmypast.co.uk (Accessed: 12/03/2018).
Available from: http://www.workhouses.org.uk/admin/index.shtml [Accessed on 12/03/2018]
Circa 1960s. Miss Melvina Robins [photograph] Combe Martin Parish Collection.4025A/PF/2. North Devon Record Office, South West Heritage Trust.
Circa 1910s. Mr Samuel and Mrs Mary Ann Robins [photograph] Combe Martin Parish Collection.4025A/PF/2. North Devon Record Office, South West Heritage Trust.