In 1874, when Darwin fell out spectacularly with the zoologist St George Jackson Mivart, and refused to communicate any further with him, an intermediary was proposed – a Mr Roberts. But Mr Roberts proved intriguingly elusive: was he a Catholic priest, or an eager bridegroom – or possibly even both?
In the 1860’s Mivart had supported Darwin’s theories, but later he became less enthusiastic and more disputatious (as discussed in volume 19 of the Correspondence. After an unforgivable anonymous attack on an article by Darwin’s eldest son, George, Thomas Huxley suggested approaching Mivart through an intermediary, a Mr Roberts, who came to his public lectures.
So who was Mr Roberts? A letter from Huxley to Hooker (19 December 1874) refers to Roberts as Mivart’s ‘ghostly father’ and also describes him as ‘a gentleman’. Rome’s recruits (a list of English converts to Catholicism) lists in its earlier editions a ‘William W. Roberts, M.A., Oxford. A priest’ and in the published lists of Oxford students we find ‘Roberts, William Walter, [first son of] John Walter, of London . . . Merton College, matric[ulated] 15 March, 1849, aged 19’. He appears in the 1851 census, an Oxford undergraduate, with his widowed mother and his sister as the son of Capt. John Walter Roberts, R.N. In 1859, Father Roberts was mentioned in a bizarre court case apparently involving a pupil whom he refused to allow to leave his school. He appears in the censuses for 1861 and 1871 as a Catholic priest in London; in 1871 he is also described as a landowner. There is no evidence of his death as a Catholic priest.
However, there is a report in the Scotsman of 28 February 1879 on the efforts of the Revd William Walter Roberts to live with his wife, Ann Shannon Caird, the daughter of James Caird, of the Seafield Arms Hotel, Cullen. The couple had contracted an irregular marriage on 10 September 1878, but the bride’s father was unwilling to give her up to her husband. William and Ann Roberts and their subsequent family appear in the censuses for 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911. He is always described as a clergyman. William Walter Roberts died aged 81 on 28 August 1911.
So is there just one William Walter Roberts? Since the name is not uncommon, we had to make sure we weren’t conflating two separate individuals, even though the catholic priest’s death was unrecorded and the married priest’s previous life was undocumented.
In the end, all was made clear in an article by Mivart about Thomas Huxley that explained the transition. Roberts’ mother was an aunt of Cardinal Henry Manning by marriage. After his wife’s early death, Henry Manning converted to Catholicism in 1851. ‘Mr Roberts was at that time  leading a very austere life, dwelling at a school in a slum known as Charles Street, Drury Lane. At that time Mr Roberts was Father Roberts, a priest of the Congregation of the Oblates of St Charles Borromeo [founded by Cardinal Manning]… about eight years after the Vatican Council [1869-70] he seceded from the Catholic Church.’
In the end we found lots of facts about William Walter Roberts, but not the ones you really want to know. Was he a religious enthusiast with a taste for litigation, an idealistic objector, or a handsome charmer who fell for younger women? The editors are undecided . . .