Presumably of Scottish descent, his first known job in Philadelphia was assisting Robert Smith with Benjamin Franklin’s home off of Market Street in 1764 for which he was paid £120. On December 2, 1766, he married Rachel Gunning at the Market Square Presbyterian Church in Germantown. The following March 29, 1767, their daughter, Margaret, was baptized at the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. A year later, a second daughter, Jane, was also baptized at the First Presbyterian Church on April 13, 1768.
Allison began his land acquisitions in 1767 purchasing two lots of ground on George Street in Southwark from Samuel Rhoads and his wife. Allison is listed as a resident of Southwark, a carpenter with one servant, on the 1769 tax list. He began his long career of community service by accepting an appointment to a committee to work out suitable financial arrangements for Captain Condy who was overseeing the building of the new Presbyterian Church at Fourth and Pine Streets.
Allison was building on his own as well. In 1771 Gunning Bedford, surveyor for The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire inspected Allison’s home on the west side of “Georges Street between Cedar and Plum Streets in the district of Southwark where he dwells.” This two-story structure, twenty feet front, thirty feet deep, included chimney breasts, double cornices, entry wainscoting and a Doric frontispiece, was not yet finished and ultimately not insured by Allison for a few more years.
The 1770s were busy ones for Allison and his family. A new daughter, Rachel, was baptized at the First Presbyterian Church in 1772 and the household was swelled by the addition of apprentices: John Strickland in 1772, and Robert Hall, Robert Leech and Francis Kain in 1773. All were to be taught the trade of a house carpenter. Robert Leech was to have time to go to evening school one quarter each winter and Francis Kain was to be able to be taught to read the Bible, “write a legible hand and cypher as far as rule of 3.” In addition to teaching his craft, Allison was to provide food, lodgings and laundry. Allison had been elected to the Carpenters’ Company of Philadelphia in 1773 along with Joseph Ogleby and William Williams. Records show that he worked on the Jacob Graff house during this period, and presumably also built on his own property, including 2 tenements on the southwest corner of Shippen and George Street, (surveyed by Bedford in 1774). Smaller than Allison’s own home, Bedford noted in his survey that the carpenters’ work was done in a plain way except the hanging of the doors. Allison also applied for a loan of £200 from the Contributionship in 1774 offering as collateral two houses on Penn Street near Cedar. He received the money in February 1775 on the proviso that he insure the houses. Within the year he applied for an additional £150 on the properties which the Board agrees to pay out of the first money that can be spared.
On January 17, 1775 Allison was elected a member of the committee of the Carpenters’ Company for the upcoming year along with Robert Smith, Thomas Shoemaker, James Bringhurst, Benjamin Loxley, William Colladay, James Pearson, Joseph Rakestraw, William Lownes, Gunning Bedford, Thomas Nevel, Joseph Ogelby, James Worrel, and Joseph Fox, Esq. He continued his land dealings, purchasing property from Samuel Powel and his wife on Penn Street in late 1774, then selling a section of that land to James Hunter. October 1, 1775 he sold a frame tenement and lot to Francis Gurney. He also purchased two copies of the first architectural book published in the colonies by Robert Bell, Abraham Swan’s The British Architect with engravings by John Norman (published in England in 1745).
1776 was a momentous year for the colonies, certainly Philadelphia and also for Robert Allison. In January of 1776, he was elected to the Carpenters’ Company’s Standing Committee for Settling Prices along with most of his colleagues from the Committee the prior year. He also began to cultivate political connections. He was elected to the Committee for the City and Liberties of Philadelphia for the District of Southwark for a six-month period. He began the year with a measuring job, shelving at Captain David Sproats’ store with Edward Bonsall, but was soon engaged with the construction of a fort on Liberty Island with James Worrell. Other work took place on Province Island, Mid Island and Fort Mifflin.
A son, George, was born on February 26, 1776, and baptized on March 2, 1776 at the Third Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. It is likely that an earlier son, Robert, was born in 1775 although no birth or baptismal records can be found. (A Robert Allison is recorded as buried at Third Presbyterian in 1822, and we know Allison did have a namesake who handled some details of his father’s funeral in 1811.)
His defense work continued through 1777. Additionally that year he, together with David Evans, removed the State House bells to Allentown for safekeeping. His work for the cause of the Patriots took on a new dimension as he began his service in the militia. Pennsylvania law required all males capable of bearing arms, between the ages of 18 and 53, to serve in the militia for two months of active duty. Philadelphia had eight battalions; it appears that divisions generally fell along neighborhood lines. The men in these divisions elected their officers who were then commissioned by the State and subject to a three-year tour of duty. Allison was elected a lieutenant colonel in 1777 and served until 1780. Seemingly, he was responsible for much of the organization work; he was allotted $100 by the Council of Safety for recruiting expenses at the critical point when General Howe was threatening to invade Philadelphia and was also paid for the procurement of muskets just prior to the Battle of Brandywine. Allison’s sixth battalion was called to active duty at Swedes Ford. However, once the battalion’s two-month tour of active duty ended, a new battalion replaced them. Substitutes could be found or fines paid if one needed to avoid duty. This clearly enabled the colonists to continue as much as possible with everyday life.
Allison’s carpentry work continued through 1778 with the commission to remove the plank, scantling etc. left by enemy troops and remove them to safety. He was also asked to draw plans for repairs to the courtroom in the State House and provide needed materials. In September he was to deliver to Colonel Bull the materials he retrieved from enemy redoubts to complete structures at Billingsport and Mud Island. He was also paid for repairs on the old workhouse, the Schuylkill bridge, and sundry small jobs. One of the most interesting was the removal of lead spouts from houses upon order of the Council of Safety with Evan Evans and James Worrell, to be delivered to J. Watkins, presumably the lead was to be used for ammunition. Allison, Evans and Worrell petitioned Congress in 1779 to appoint someone to value the lead and repay those citizens who were affected.
Allison maintained a strong political presence; the issues of currency devaluation were of paramount interest to him. He served as the committee representative from Southwark to stop the issuance of paper money and to raise money by subscriptions raised by canvassing the neighborhood, although apparently nothing came of this. It may, however, have led to the petition submitted to Congress by hundreds of citizens, requesting that its members determine the extent and quantity of paper money to be issued and when it shall stop. They further suggest raising revenue by subscription. This was read on September 13, 1779.
In May of that same year Allison and others sent another petition to Congress regarding the decay of credit and depreciation of money. His concerns reached beyond the financial, however. In a city where political sympathies were divided, tensions could run high. Allison signed a petition pledging support for those loyal to the American cause who were being dissuaded by Loyalists from testifying against them during the time of the British occupation. He was elected again as a member of the Committee for the City and Liberties in the late summer of 1779. He also took the time to aid individual colleagues, signing a petition with others including David Rittenhouse and Robert Smith in support of William Brown’s efforts to become the auctioneer of the city in 1779. In 1778 he signed a petition endorsing John Norman’s efforts to raise funds to finish the publication of a treatise on artillery. Even earlier in 1777 he was one of 19 Master Carpenters who signed a petition to the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania supporting George Ingels for the office of measurer for the city.
In 1780 Allison received £720 from David Rittenhouse, payable to Messrs. Allison and Smith, for planks used in refitting the public stables for the use of members of the Assembly etc. It is likely that this was the stable at Sixth and Chestnut Streets, advertised for sale in 1778 with stalls for 22 horses, and room for hay. The stable was used by the local militia during the war and was offered at public auction in 1782, listed as lately occupied by the Militia Lighthorse. Allison served on the Sheriff’s Committee in 1780 to divide the estate of his colleague, Robert Smith, who had died in 1777. Given the timing of this project it was probably Robert Smith’s son John, who worked with Robert Allison on this project. The 1782 and 1783 supply tax lists show entries for “Smith & Allison, “ but it is unclear whether this is related to his work with Robert Smith’s estate or a partnership with the son.
In 1781 Allison was chosen assistant Master of the Carpenters’ Company working with Master Samuel Rhoads. Allison is credited with building Washington College’s first building in Chestertown, Maryland in 1783, a work he undertook with Joseph Rakestraw. By 1784 he returned to Philadelphia and together with Gunning Bedford, measured the carpenters’ work on the Free Quakers’ Meeting House. In 1785 he was paid for measuring and painting , carpenters’ work for T. Worrell in settlement of Eden Haydock’s estate, who died in 1776. Allison continued to reside at 35 East George Street. He remained active in the Carpenters’ Company proposing Ebenezer Ferguson and Francis McAllison as new members in 1785.
By the late 1780s the depression which engulfed the city took its toll on Robert Allison and he entered into bankruptcy on October 9, 1788. The following day, Ebenezer Ferguson entered his claim for £200. Notices appeared in the Pennsylvania Packet soon after and on October 16, 1788, Robert Allison, “house carpenter, dealer and chapman” was to surrender himself to commissioners for the bankruptcy commission as well as on November 18 and November 26 at which time his creditors were to come prepared to prove their debts.” (A chapman is defined as one who buys and sells, a peddler, a hawker or in 1793, a “cheapener.” That same year his property on Catherine Street was sold at Sheriff’s sale. In 1789, ten Southwark lots (some developed) belonging to Robert Allison along George Street and Shippen Street were sold at Sheriff’s sale. Additional lots on Water Street, Swanson Street and Love Lane were also sold. ` Allison rebounded from this major blow, and in 1790 petitioned City Council “to be employed as a Carpenter when a City-Hall shall be built.” He continued to reside on George Street, according to the 1790 census. Residing with him were 9 free white males under 16, presumably some apprentices, and 5 white free females. Along with other master builders he endorsed the work of Zane Chapman & Company makers of composition ornaments.
By 1792 Allison was purchasing property again with James Corkrin from John Dickinson Sargeant. He also finally paid off his bond and interest to The Philadelphia Contributionship. Throughout the next few years Allison bought and sold different pieces of the property from South to Gaskill Streets between Third and Fourth Streets. He moved his family to the property on South Street by 1793. After the death of William Williams in 1794, Allison and John Smith were employed as master carpenters on the house intended for the President of the United States. Allison devoted more time to Carpenters’ Company affairs in these years, and was chosen as a member of the Committee of the Carpenters’ Company in 1795.
In 1796 Allison repurchased the adjoining South Street properties held by James Corkrin and then sold sections of the property to John Smith, John Batten, Barney McCarrell, and Joseph Knox. He continued to live at 117 South Street, the 1798 direct tax values the property at $1237.50.
John Smith sold the South Street property back to Allison in 1801 who in turn sold it as part of a larger lot including two houses, to Joseph Sims for $5,000. It is likely that this was the Smith house as well as Allison’s own home. In the midst of this transaction, his wife, Rachel Allison, died, on March 5, 1801. Her death was recorded in both the deed and in the newspaper, a simple line: “Mrs. Allison, wife of Col. Robert Allison.”
The money disappeared quickly and in 1802 Allison applied to the Carpenters’ Company for both a loan as well as relief money. He continued his commitment to the company, this time serving as one of a committee of 15 to revise the price guide. In March of 1804 he offered to sell the Carpenters’ Company his copy of Gibbs Designs, which it purchased for $8.
Still funds were hard to come by as he explains in a letter to the Committee in February of 1805.
With pain I am under the Disagreeable necessity to beg your favours for some small trifle to help me a little along. You know the severity of the winter having hardly anything to do and I could not get any money from those that owned moneys. It’s made me live very miserable. If it is as much as [the] purchase of a half Cord of wood as I am afraid wood will be higher. Do Oblige if you can.
In 1806 Allison’s financial affairs hit bottom. An undated letter to the Carpenters’ Company reveals a myriad of financial concerns, of debts owed to him and by him, and legal issues and court sittings, and it is likely from this same trying period. A note towards the end of his letter hints at tension between Allison and the Company:
I have been troublesome I must own but God knows far against my will. I am a member of this Company – you will therefore Judge of my ___situation at present.
While Allison blames his financial difficulties on lack of work, and debts owed, the Carpenters’ Company records show another side of the issue. In 1806 Allison was imprisoned for debt, and a special meeting of the Carpenters’ Company Managing Committee had been called “for the purpose of taking into consideration the condition of our member, Robert Allison, who is represented to be in prison for debt.” George Summers, Daniel Knight and Jacob Lybrand were appointed a committee to check on the situation and be certain he was “comfortably accomodated.” Five days later the committee reported that they had done this. Seven months later, the committee’s minutes note that application was made on behalf of Robert Allison for aid. Jacob Lybrand and Jonathan Roberts were directed “to call on him and acquaint him that the committee will not consent to assist him until he changes his mode of living.” Within six months, on July 1, 1807, the committee authorized the payment of five dollars to Allison for relief. According to the Philadelphia City Directory Allison lived on Lombard Street at his point, listed as “measurer of carpenters’ work.”
It is uncertain how plentiful work was but Allison began to rely more heavily on relief funds from the Carpenters’ Company. He received another $5 in 1807 and a total of $20 in 1808. These amounts began to increase in 1809 and the Company began to provide goods as well as money. In 1809 the committee instructed David Flicknir to provide Allison with a half of cord of wood, overcoat, shoes, stockings and $5. Other payments followed n 1809 and by 1810 he was receiving stipends every other week, sometimes $5 and sometimes $3, perhaps to keep him from squandering larger sums.
Allison died on December 20, 1811. Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser of December 23, 1811 carried the following notice:
Died – on Friday morning in the 73rd year of his age, after a short but painful illness, which he bore with Christian fortitude and resignation, Mr. Robert Allison, a respectable inhabitant of this City.
The Carpenters’ Company paid for many of the funeral expenses. The Committee reimbursed William Powell for $16 for funeral expenses for Robert Allison on December 20, 1811, and paid David Flickner $14 for part of Allison’s funeral expenses. They also paid Henry Connelly $10 for his plain walnut coffin. A final entry in the minutes from January 8, 1812 reads:
Robert Allison handed to the Committee several bills of the Funeral Expenses of his father. Jacob Lybrand was directed to pay two dollars the amount of two bills and inform him that the committee would not pay the other bills.
Allison clearly was a skilled master builder, a trusted Patriot and a willing supporter of colleagues and friends. He appears in his prime years to have been respected by colleagues and it is thought he may have been a worthy successor of Robert Smith, although at this time few major building connections have been found. He was extremely proud of his militia rank of Colonel and used it frequently. He and his wife left behind a sizeable family, although unfortunately little is known of their lives. Allison counted among his contemporaries some of the city’s leading and wealthier citizens. Unfortunately he seems to have lived beyond his means for much of his life and his financial misfortunes ultimately overshadowed his earlier contributions.Written by Carol Smith, for the Philadelphia Architects and Builders website.