Monday, 6 July 2015

Penniless Lithuanian noble ships son off to Australia

I thought this extract from an article in The Western Australian of 23 February 1929 was worth a mention as it touches on a few human-interest themes: Baltic nobility, youth emigration schemes to Australia, and famous connections:

 The Largs Bay Passengers
Among the passengers on the liner Largs Bay, which reached Fremantle from London last night were: ....
Mr Robert de Ropp, son of Baron de Ropp, a former wealthy landowner of Lithuania whose estates were confiscated during the wartime revolution.  He is proceeding to South Australia, and is the only Little Brother for that State among a party travelling on the boat under the auspices of the Big Brother movement.

The Ropp family was indeed a wealthy landowning power in Lithuania under czarist rule, operating several manorial estates.  They had probably arrived in Lithuania Minor with the Teutonic knights in the Middle Ages and stayed, gradually extending their influence. The statement in The Western Australian that the estates were confiscated during the wartime revolution is probably not correct, as the family appears to have maintained estates in Lithuania until the arrival of the soviets in the Second World War.  

The Big Brother movement (see link to the NAA's fuller explanation of the scheme) was a British/Australian youth migration scheme which paired the emigrants (Little Brothers) with adults in Australia (Big Brothers) who would provide support after their arrival.

Wikipedia, which cannot be relied upon as an accurate source but which nevertheless carries much valuable information, has this to say about Robert Sylvester de Ropp's early life:

Ropp was born in London, England, in 1913, the son of William de Ropp (originally Wilhelm von der Ropp) by his marriage to Ruth Fisher. The Ropp family had been land-owning barons in Lithuania. William was of Teutonic and Cossack descent, and although entitled to use the title of “Baron”, was perpetually in shaky financial circumstances. He had settled in England in 1910 and become naturalised in 1913. Ropp's mother, Ruth .... died in the 1918 flu pandemic.[3] Robert de Ropp had also contracted the flu during the pandemic, and by the time he fully recovered from its ravages he was seven years old.[2]  

.......   After Ropp's recovery from the flu, his father sent him as a boarder to a preparatory school ....... In 1925 Ropp's father, being in financial difficulties, could not pay the school fees and took him out of the school. His father also remarried, and the family went to live in the old baronial estate in Lithuania. Shortly after, Ropp's father obtained work as an agent for an aircraft company in Berlin and, taking his wife there with him, abandoned Robert in the rambling ruin of the family home, where he lived with a family of Latvians attached to the old Ropp baronial estate. He lived a rustic existence in Lithuania, left to his own devices and picking up the ways of the peasants.

Two years later, when he was fourteen, his father shipped him off to the semi-desert south-Australian "outback", to live with, and work for, a hardscrabble-farm family. Three years later, the farmer went bankrupt amid dust storms. Lonely and nearly penniless, hard-bitten Robert eventually made his way back to England, where one of his maternal aunts took him in. In a while, he moved in with his mother's cousin, Adeline, who lived in Dorking with her husband, the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.[2]

  1. Community Trees. FamilySearch. 28 July 2009. Retrieved 2012-05-31.
  2. Ropp, Robert S. de, Warrior's Way: a Twentieth Century Odyssey (Nevada City, CA: Gateways, 1995 and 2002)
  3. Office for National Statistics - Death Indices

Source:, [downloaded 10 May 2015]

Robert de Ropp appears to have led an interesting life; he went on to became a biochemist and academic in London, migrated to the USA in 1945, and from the 1960s while living in California developed his interests as a writer and teacher in the development of human potential and the search for spiritual enlightenment.  His father Baron William Sylvester de Ropp may have had an even more colourful life, including operating as a British spy while befriending Hitler: see the link to Wikipedia here.

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