Robert Arthington – Philanthropist – The Millionaire Miser

From Liberia to Teignmouth

The Cemetery continues to raise bizarre connections with the outside world.

In April 2012 Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, was found guilty by a Special Court in the Hague of eleven charges of atrocities including terror, murder and rape.  He was subsequently sentenced to 50 years in prison of which the Presiding Judge, Richard Lussick, said: “The accused has been found responsible for aiding and abetting as well as planning some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history.”

A gruesomely true story which has a strangely ironical connection with Teignmouth.

Charles Taylor was born in Arthington, Liberia, a small town situated on the St Paul river northwest of Monrovia, the capital city.  Arthington was first settled in 1869 and was named after Robert Arthington, a Victorian philanthropist whose life and beliefs are diametrically opposed to those of Charles Taylor.

Robert Arthington is buried in Teignmouth Old Cemetery and his story is extraordinary.  A millionaire, he lived like a pauper and gave his wealth to initiatives that spread the gospel across the world in Africa, Asia and South America.

As usual the story began with the discovery of his grave and its strange epitaph which reflects the Victorian aethos of his philanthropy.

“Robert Arthington, His life and wealth was devoted to the spread of the Gospel among the Heathen.”


A Brief History

Robert Arthington – From Leeds Photographic Archive collection

Robert Arthington was born in Leeds on 20 May 1823.  He was one of four children, and the only son, of Robert and Maria Arthington, a wealthy Quaker family.  Perhaps somewhat surprisingly for a Quaker, his father ran a successful brewery business but his conscience eventually caused him to give it up and devote himself to the cause of temperance.

Robert jr studied at Cambridge University where he apparently excelled as a student but chose not to take a degree. Following his mother and two of his sisters, he left the Society of Friends and joined the South Parade Baptist Church in 1848. When his parents died in 1864 (within a couple of months of each other) he found that he had inherited an enormous fortune of over £200,000.  Despite this capital he never started his own business but invested his money instead, mostly in British and American railways, which proved a very successful way of increasing his wealth.

We may never know whether this was fortuitous or whether he really had an astute business sense.  What is widely documented though is that he had a clear purpose and vision of what he wanted to do with his wealth.  He was determined to direct it to good causes, in particular the promotion of missionary work around the world in the unknown areas then being explored and opened up particularly in Africa and Asia.

It appears that a second major change in his life occurred in his late forties.  The story goes that around 1870 he fell in love and he had a large new house built in Headingley Lane for himself and his prospective bride – but he was jilted at the last minute.  Whether true or not, it seems that from this point he drifted further and further into a reclusive life in the house he had built.

Headingley House – From Leeds Photographic Archive collection

He occupied a single room, cooked his own meals, wore the same coat for seventeen years and made friends with students who were in need. He slept on a chair, wrapping himself with his coat. He did not allow anyone access to his room, except special visitors. He would not even light the room for visitors, as he believed that “it was possible to speak as well in the dark as you could in the light“. He limited his weekly expenditure to half-a-crown. This self-imposed austerity and eccentricity earned him a nickname – the “Headingley Miser”. No one saw him smile, and his greeting was always an enquiry after your soul.

The Thoresby Society (The Historical Society of Leeds and District) portray him thus:

“In the later years of the nineteenth century an odd, gloomy figure was to be seen from time to time in Headingley village, buying a few necessities of life, dressed in old clothes green with age and an ancient stovepipe hat passed down from his father. This was Robert Arthington, often called ‘the Headingley miser’, the subject of much talk and speculation in his lifetime and legendary after his death for his legacies of over a million pounds.”

Found amongst his belongings after his death was a letter from a missionary who wrote:

“Were I in England again, I would gladly live in one room, make the floor my bed, a box my chair, another my table, rather than the heathen should perish for the lack of knowledge of Jesus Christ.”

Maybe this influenced his style of life.

As for his links with Teignmouth I have found one reference, in “Olive Trees”, a monthly journal of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America:

His life in his Teignmouth retreat was cleaner, if humbler, for on arriving be inquired of an old boatman for lodgings.  The boatman, seeing an aged man of poverty-stricken appearance, offered him quarters in his own house. And there Robert Arthington ended his days among kindly people, who had no suspicion of his fabulous wealth.

Press reports at the time of his death suggest that his health had been failing and he moved to Teignmouth for that reason in 1896.  There was a small personal bequest in his Will to Mr & Mrs Bennett, with whom he lodged, and a suggestion that the bequest be given to their daughter.  Was Mr Bennett that boatman?

However he came to be in Teignmouth we know that Robert Arthington died on 9 October 1900. In his deathbed, he requested to have read to him the Sermon on the Mount and Psalm 72. After the reading, he said, “Yes, it is all there – all!

His works and beliefs

When informed once of the size of his fortune he replied “No man has a right to so much money”.  His subsequent generosity can perhaps be attributed to the teachings of his mother who believed “a man should do his duty to his fellow creature”.

Arthington was a “premillennialist” who believed that when the unevangelized had heard the gospel, Christ would return. Acting upon this belief, he devoted his time and fortune to those parts of the world where the gospel had not been heard.

In October 1886, Arthington wrote a letter to all the missionary societies of Europe and America, pleading with them to “lose no time” in dividing up the world for the preaching of the gospel. His letter begins:

“It may be assumed that all real Christians would rejoice in heart if every living person was a Christian indeed. But do we indeed expect that more than a few comparatively, in any one locality, will ever be real Christians? Look to the Scriptures and to secular history for the answer. Of course, as seen at the last, the saved are an innumerable multitude, coming out of every nation and tribe.” (Missionary Review, January 1887:18)

Arthington continued by suggesting that if the world were divided up, success would be sure – nothing would be lost by trying, which is what he did.

A selection of the works supported by Arthington’s philanthropy during his lifetime include:

  • In 1859 he informed the London Missionary Society:

.. to assist to [sic] the accomplishment of my anxiously cherished desire for the evangelization of the Deccan — that is the distinct publication of the Gospel throughout it – I have resolved to invest money in the extension lines of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway Comp. knowing that the railway is the great means of spreading news, and so this the best of all news the glad tidings of the Gospel. At the same time I have in view the developement [sic] of the resources of India as they concern especially the production of cotton, so as to counteract American Slavery. The Railway once extensively existing all over India, people will, I anticipate confidently, travel into the parts adjoining those to which it facilitates the entrance, and tracts Gospels etc. will be more widely and largely distributed and disseminated.

  • Boys at Arthington House 1880

    In 1868 he financed the voyage of fifteen families of freed American slaves from South Carolina and Georgia to Liberia where they settled in the new town he established, later named Arthington.  In agreeing to the finance he instructed the American Colonisation Society (ACS) to establish an inland settlement “consisting as much as possible of men of Missionary spirit and deeply and prayerfully interested in the moral redemption of all Africa”.  He insisted “We must have universal elementary education in Liberia” and reminded the ACS:

I am set for the redemption – the deliverance from the curse of slavery and the evangelisation of Africa”.

His passionate anti-slavery beliefs are also evidenced in his correspondence with William Lloyd Garrison, prominent American abolitionist, journalist, suffragist, and social reformer who was one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and promoted “immediate emancipation” of slaves in the United States.

In 1869 Queen Victoria appointed Robert Arthington as the Consul at Leeds for the republic of Liberia.

  • Launch of the Congo Mission in 1877
  • Believed to be the same steamer Peace on the Congo river

    Purchase of the steamer Peace in 1880 to advance the mission up the Congo river.  Built by Thornycroft at Chiswick, it was constructed to draw only eighteen inches when carrying six tons of cargo, and to take to pieces at the cataracts.

    Some interesting features were described in the Press at the time:

    ”engines of sufficient power to steam 12½ knots so as to escape from any attack of hostile native canoes ….” (Poole & Dorset Herald)

    ”a wire awning is fitted to stop the arrows and missiles, which there is every reason to anticipate will be shot or hurled at the passengers in some regions of the Congo ….” (North Devon Journal).

Getting the steamer to her ultimate destination would not be a trivial task:

She will be taken to pieces and sent to the mouth of the Congo.  From thence it will be borne by 800 men a distance of 300 miles up to Stanley Pool, where the steamer will be reconstructed by missionaries”

  • In 1886, or thereabouts, he supported the missionary work of John Ross in Korea by paying for the publication of the Korean New Testament which Ross had translated.  Ross was known as the father of Protestant churches in Manchuria and Korea.
  • Establishment of the Arthington Aborigines Mission in 1889 for the evangelisation of tribal people (reputedly “fierce headhunters”!) in northeast India.  This included formal education of the Mizos and documentation of their language.  Arthington himself reached Mizoram on 11thJanuary 1894 which is now a public holiday known as “Missionary Day” in Mizoram.
  • Extension of mission funds in 1892 to reach the Upper Nile
  • Central America Expedition

    1894-1896 he financed the Arthington Exploration, led by H C Dillon, in Central America whose purpose was “to gather information on the Indian population toward the objective of reaching these people with the Gospel.”

  • He contributed to advance missionary work in China
  • He paid for the construction of a steamer built in America to be used in South America
  • Continued support to the Leeds Hospital for Women and Children throughout his lifetime (in recognition of his charity a new hospital he financed at Cookridge and which opened in 1905 was named the Robert Arthington Hospital).

Not surprisingly he had dealings with both Livingstone and Stanley during his funding of missionary works in Africa. However, he was very clear about supporting work that was directly relevant to his evangelism. So when Stanley wrote to him in 1887 to ask for the use of the SS Peace in his rescue expedition of Emin Pasha he got short shrift:

Leeds January 15th 1887
Dear Mr Stanley, I have much regard for you personally although I can not, dare not, sanction all your acts.  I am very sorry if I cannot give assent to your request, but I fully believe you will be no sufferer by the circumstance of not having the SS Peace.  Yesterday I was able to come to a decision.  Mr Baynes, of the Baptist Missionary Society, Holborn, will, he hopes, make you any communication he judges proper.  If you have any reverential regard for the “Man of Sorrows”, “the King of Peace”, may He mercifully preserve and save your party.  I have no doubt of the safety of Emin, till his work is done.  I believe he will be brought through his trial in perfect safety.  God seems to have given you a noble soul (covers for the moment, if on your sad sin and mistakes), and I should like you should “repent and believe the Gospel” with real sense and live hereafter in happiness, light and joy for ever.  Here delay in you is more dangerous than delay for Emin. Your faithful friend, Robert Arthington”

After his death

On 9 June 1900 he prepared his last will and testament in which he bequeathed a major portion of his estate to Christian missions, and only one-tenth of it to his first cousins, or if they were deceased, to their children.

To put his will into perspective, the Leeds Times of 22 December 1900 reported:

“The charitable bequests of Mr Robert Arthington will make the present year a record one in respect of the amounts given to charity.  A million and a half of money has already been bequeathed to charity this year and, with Mr Arthington’s bequest, the amount will be nearly two millions and a half.”

His will was poorly drafted though and it took five years for it to be approved by the High Court of Chancery in 1905. Because of outstanding claims from the family it was another five years before the actual distribution of the estate took place.  By then the monetary value had risen to £1,273,894.  After 21 cousins received their share and other miscellaneous charitable requests the balance of almost £1 million was divided (5:4) between the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) and the London Missionary Society (LMS).

This became know as ‘Arthington’s million’ and helped to provide hospitals and schools as well as missions in remote areas in India and Africa, some of them still in existence today.  The bequest was to be used within twenty-five years.  Alfred Henry Baynes, the General Secretary of BMS, became the trustee until his death in 1914. He fervently pursued evangelisation of Africa, which had been the pre-dominant interest of Robert Arthington. The LMS on the other hand extended their mission to China and India, in addition to Africa.  The Trust disbanded in 1936.

In his Will he also left small bequests to other beneficiaries amongst which was £100 to Teignmouth hospital.


This has been a revealing journey and the above only scratches the surface of Robert Arthington’s life. There is probably enough material around to write a book on the impact that his work achieved.  He was certainly a remarkable man, possibly the most significant British philanthropist at the time of his death.  It was probably because of his strong religious faith and principles, starting from his Quaker roots and subsequent conversion to Baptism, that his philanthropy was focussed on evangelical activities.  I would venture though that it goes back further to his mother who believed a man should ‘Do his duty to his fellow creature‘.

Whilst his type of evangelism may seem quaint or strange (or out-of-place) to us these days I think that Robert Arthington undoubtedly believed that it was his path, his way to “do his duty” with the resources that had been made available to him.  He had the nous to realise though that evangelism wasn’t simply about sending out a missionary with a bible; it required the logistics behind it.  So if we look at his endowments we see that much of the money was spent on the infrastructure behind evangelism – boats, railways, missions, schools and education, hospitals, settlements.  When he died he made provision for that to continue for a further 25 years.  Maybe that’s what he meant when he said on his deathbed “Yes, it is all there – all!”


There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of newspaper articles about Robert Arthington – before his death in relation to the various endowments he made and projects he supported; and after his death concerning his Will and the subsequent activities supported through the Arthington Trust.  They can not all be mentioned here.

The above story is a compilation from a number of other sources which are often repetitive; unless otherwise stated in the text, I haven’t referenced them individually in connection with separate facts or statements.  So this is simply a list of other sources I have looked at, all on-line.  All reference links are correct as at the time of posting.

The Angus Library and Archive …..

Arthington Development Organisation …..

The Baptist Bible Tribune 1 …..

The Baptist Bible Tribune 2 …..

Camino Global – 100 and Counting …..

Council for World Mission – London Missionary Society Archive …..

Digital Commonwealth Massachusetts Collections …..

The Free Library – The Legacy of John Ross …..

George Grenfell and the Congo …..

Grenfell Family History …..

Grey River Argus 1910 – An Eccentric Miser …..

Independent Baptist Argentina …..

International Bulletin of Missionary Research …..

Kuki International Forum …..

Leodis Photographic Archive of Leeds  …..

Mission Frontiers …..

Mundus Gateway to Missionary Collections …..

North Carolina Slave – The Journey of Nancy Askie …..

Olive Trees 1901 – Presbyterian Archives …..

The Price of Liberty – African Americans and the Making of Liberia, Claude A Cleg III …..

Quora – Seven sisters …..

The Thoresby Society …..

Trekkers n Trotters – Gracious Mizoram …..

United Methodist Conference 1912 …..

University of Edinburgh – Commerce and Christianity article …..

Wikipedia …..