Norfolk gravedigger’s diary recounts life 100 years ago
14:23 11 February 2011
Archant Norfolk 2011
They reveal the unremittingly arduous life that was the lot of rural labourers in East Anglia little more than a century ago.
As reported in the EDP last month, the pencil-written diaries of Belton gravedigger Robert Pole give a fascinating insight into his six-days-a-week toil in all weathers, the depressing lack of free time and such bleak social trends as high infant mortality.
However, the three hard-bound volumes, unearthed by village local history enthusiast Jean Samuels, shed little light on the man making the brief observations of his life from 1888 to 1890.
Now Robert’s great-grandson John Jacques has come forward with important information and pictures to help complete the jigsaw.
Mr Jacques, 85, of Stowmarket, Suffolk, has been researching his family tree for 25 years but found it illuminating to read the diaries sent to him by Mrs Samuels.
He said: “My sole knowledge of Robert is from what remains in writing and a few golden words, together with some photographs, from an aunt, his granddaughter, just before she died.
“I have now seen how the diaries affect my research.”
Mr Jacques, a retired area bank manager, revealed that gravedigging was just one part of Robert’s duties as Belton parish clerk, an office he held for 48 years.
“He was so highly regarded as a church worker that after he died in 1911, his photograph was framed and placed in a prominent position near the choir stalls,” he said.
He said his first thoughts on reading the diaries was how hard life must have been without the modern luxuries of electricity, mains water and sewerage, with dawn-to-dusk work, both inside the house and in the fields.
“In his early 60s when he wrote the diaries we see how hard it was for Robert to work his smallholding with no sons to share the load.
“He records pigs and cows on his farm and I see that in addition to the usual crops of wheat, barley, potatoes, beet and turnips, he cultivated peas, lettuces, asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries, gooseberries and other fruit. He appears to have rented a stall on Yarmouth market on Wednesdays and Saturdays to sell his produce,” he said.
In addition to his parish clerk work, keeping the churchyard tidy as well as digging and tending graves, Robert owned a cottage he rented out.
Mr Jacques’ research shows Robert’s mother Ann had died when he was just five but his father Henry had a good business as the village shoemaker, emplying two assistants.
It turns out Robert was following in his grandfather Noah’s footsteps, as he had been parish clerk from 1777 to 1837.
Mr Jacques said: “Schooling for Robert was short-lived and at the age of 13 a position was found for him with a wealthy lady in the village as a manservant.
“Clearly an adventurous spirit, we find him some 10 years later trying his hand as a fisherman, a living scraped by many residing so close to the North Sea.
“Marriage to his wife Elizabeth in 1852 brought him ashore again and he settled down and began to develop the new skill of market gardening, also allowing him to follow in the steps of his grandfather as the parish clerk.”
Mr Jacques said the photograph of Robert placed in the church had eventually fallen from the wall and remained hidden for many years until discovered by one of his great-grandsons to be treasured by the family.
Robert and Elizabeth were married for nearly 60 years and had four children, one of whom, Alice, married Lincolnshire builder George Searby and settled down locally, developing a farm at The Laurels, Browston.
Mr Jacques said that after her husband’s death Alice carried on running the farm. “In the days preceding the second world war, Alice ruled as a queen entertaining many of her 15 grandchildren, of whom I was one,” he said.