An Undated Sketch of Robert Thomlinson,
An Undated Sketch of Robert Thomlinson, Image: Newcastle City Library Photographic Collection

Robert Thomlinson was born in 1668 at Wigton, in Cumbria, the younger son of Richard Thomlinson. After taking both a BA and MA at Queen’s College, Oxford he took up the post of vice-principal of St. Edmund’s Hall Oxford, in 1692. In 1695 he returned back north, to Newcastle, as a lecturer at St. Nicholas Church.

For the rest of his life, he seems to have divided his time between the north and south, between his religious duties and academic scholarship. He was elevated by Lord Crewe to the rectory of Whickham, which he held until his death. In 1719 Robert received a Doctorate in Divinity from Cambridge and was appointed Prebend of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

As a lecturer in Newcastle, Robert had received an income of £120 pa. The positions of Rector of Whickham and Prebend of St Paul’s provided substantial additional sources of income. In 1715 Robert was also receiving fees as Master of St. Mary the Virgin and St. Mary Magdalene hospitals. As a result of having multiple sources of income, he became a very wealthy man.

Perhaps unusual for the time, Robert’s philanthropy began during his lifetime. Whilst Rector of Whickham he had amassed a large personal library. In 1734 he gifted 1,600 books, only a part of his full library, to the people of Newcastle. This is the foundation of Newcastle’s public library. The salary of the librarian, Nathaniel Clayton (1754-1832) was covered by Sir Walter Blackett (1707-1777), but Thomlinson donated £5 per annum for the purchase of new books. In 1738, he helped found a second library, this time in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The Newcastle library was only one of the many projects Thomlinson championed during his lifetime. Between 1720 and 1725 he founded the College of Matrons, a hospital, in his hometown of Wigton. He helped rebuild his alma mater St. Edmunds Hall, Oxford, in 1734. He also donated generously to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, of which he had been a student member at Queen’s College, Oxford. At least three schools credit their establishment to Robert; a parish school at Whickham founded with the support of Mrs Blakiston and two schools in Cumberland, one in Wigton and a second at Allonby.

A marble tablet on the North Chancel Wall in Whickham church where Robert was buried reads:

‘Reader if thou wouldst know the character of the deceased, 

learn it from the following account of his pious munificence and charity’

It is perhaps even more remarkable given Thomlinson’s love of books and the efforts he went to raise literacy in his parish and across the North East, that Thomlinson himself was blind from 1736, then aged 68.


Seccombe, T. & Carter, P. (2004). Thomlinson, Robert, Available here (Accessed: 06/06/2018).

The Newcastle Collection: Robert Thomlinson. Available here (Accessed: 06/06/2018).

History of Whickham. Available here (Accessed: 06/06/2018).