Poverty and death pervaded the short life of Harriet Roberts. In the High Weald of eastern Sussex, earlier generations carved rather poor farmland out of the vast woodland that had thrived there for centuries. From the 14th century the forests supplied vast quantities of oak timber to the Medway and Thames rivers for shipbuilding. Increasing numbers of farming people settled in the new clearings and carved out a living of sorts. The plentiful supply of wood also provided charcoal to the iron industry in the Weald, where ironstone could be extracted easily.
Harriet’s father Stephen, who leased a small field on the edge of a woodland known as Dallington Forest, may have been involved in processing wood into charcoal. The Roberts family lived here in the little parish of Dallington through the early decades of the 19th century. The field stood on land owned by the Earl of Ashburnham who amassed great wealth through involvement in the iron ore industry and from his considerable landholdings. He held some 14,000 acres surrounding the family’s country seat of Ashburnham Place, which was to the east of Dallington. The house was one of the most magnificent in the Weald with a large park of lakes and trees, landscaped by Capability Brown. Ashburnham Place housed a large collection of pre-Renaissance artworks and ancient manuscripts. Needless to say, the Earl’s tenants, such as Harriet’s father, shared few of the benefits of this vast wealth.
Harriet’s father’s field was beside the Willingford Stream near Bomden farm
[source: OS Six-inch England and Wales, surveyed 1873-4]
One of six daughters, Harriet was born on the farm and baptised at Dallington church in 1811. Receiving no education, her childhood would have been spent doing chores around the house and farm. At 22 she married Samuel Clapson, a young man from the nearby parish of Warbleton. Samuel was a tailor, not a well-paid trade in those days. He and Harriet lived “on the Common”, which probably refers to the cottages that ring the triangular green in the centre of Rushlake Green, the largest village of Warbleton parish.
Cottages at Rushlake Green in 1926
[source: Warbleton Parish Council website]
Samuel and Harriet joined the growing nonconformist movement that dissented from the governance of the Church of England, a movement that was strong in the High Weald. Their church became the Independent Chapel at Punnett’s Town. The congregation of Independents was established here in 1787 and grew to include a significant segment of the population of the parishes of Dallington, Warbleton and Heathfield, that were all near Punnett’s Town. A new chapel, which still stands today, was built by the congregation in 1809. As the congregation grew, the baptisms celebrated in the chapel increased from only 12 baptisms in 1800 to 55 in 1836.
Heathfield Independent Chapel, Punnett’s Town c.1930
[source: Heathfield and Waldron Parish Council website]
Harriet bore five children to Samuel between 1836 and 1844, and they were all baptised at the Independent Chapel. Unfortunately, times soon became tougher for Harriet. Anne the eldest and Mercy died in early childhood at just three years old. Barely a month after young Mercy’s death in 1845 Samuel also died, leaving Harriet with three children under 8 years old to fend for and no means of support. The only social welfare at this time was the meagre ‘poor relief’ provided by the overseer of the poor for the parish. As a dissenter, Harriet would not have been treated kindly by the Anglican overseer.
It was common for widowed women in this situation to seek a new husband to provide for her and the children. Harriet did not remarry, but she became pregnant with her sixth child three years after Samuel’s death. She named him George but did not identify George’s father when she registered the birth.
George Clapson’s birth record, 1848 [source: GRO]
Harriet returned to Dallington, perhaps to live with her parents who were probably still on the little farm near Dallington Forest. Soon however Harriet became ill with consumption (now known as tuberculosis). Consumption, a highly-infectious bacterial disease, was a frequent killer in the mid-19th Century. The disease was easily spread in the cramped living quarters common among poor people, especially in the tenement dwellings of the cities. The small labourers’ cottages of rural Sussex would have been effective conduits of the disease.
After what was, presumably, a lengthy illness, Harriet died in her father’s house in 1849. She was taken to Warbleton to be buried with her husband Samuel in the little churchyard. She was only 38 years old. Baby George was only 15 months old.
Harriet’s death record 1849 [source: GRO]
Harriet’s four orphaned children were now in a vulnerable position. The three older children, David, Caroline and Ellen, were admitted to the house for the poor in Hellingly. Commonly known as workhouses, these institutions dispensed charity and care in very small measure. Here the children were undoubtedly undernourished and poorly educated. After four years there, Ellen succumbed to the awful conditions, aged just nine years. David and Caroline survived and eventually left the workhouse and grew to adulthood. Unlike Caroline, who married and had several children, David never married and died in his thirties in London.
George, though apparently fatherless and just a toddler, was the most fortunate child. Perhaps being too young for the workhouse, George was taken care of by Henry Robins, a widower, and his mother Sarah. What was the reason for this arrangement? The Robins family, like Harriet, were members of the Independent Chapel congregation and would have known about the family’s plight and perhaps had a close friendship with Harriet. Indeed, we now know that Harriet and Henry were extremely close. DNA testing of George’s descendants and descendants of Henry’s brothers has revealed that we share common ancestors, who must be Henry’s parents James and Sarah Robins. The testing provides concrete evidence that George’s father was, in fact, Henry Robins. Henry and Harriet had lost their spouses well before Harriet’s pregnancy and perhaps both were looking for new partners. (An alternative explanation could be that George’s father was a brother of Henry.)
When Henry took in George he was farming 50 acres at Greenwood, a hamlet a mile to the west of Dallington Forest. The early 1850s was probably the most prosperous period of Henry’s life, as later, when agricultural conditions deteriorated, he found only intermittent work as a farm labourer. Farm hands were only taken on for a year at a time or less in those days and were very poorly paid. In the 1860s Henry and his second wife Mercy Kemp moved to Marden in western Kent at the other side of the High Weald, chasing after farm work for Henry and his sons. They lived in this area for the rest of their lives.
Now using the surname Robins (he had never really known any other family), at 16 George too became an agricultural labourer, and he joined the growing union of farm labourers who were agitating for better wages. The Kent and Sussex Agricultural and General Labourer’s Union gathered considerable strength in the early 1870s, when the so-called Revolt of the Field of 1872 brought to national attention the dire poverty in which many farm labourers’ families semi-starved. Unlike the National Agricultural Labourers Union whose approach led to widespread lock-outs, the union in Kent adopted tactics that minimised the use of strike action, thus succeeding in keeping men in work.
Arthur Simmons, the secretary of the union, realised that one way to improve wages and conditions was to encourage some men to emigrate, thus reducing the size of the local workforce. This policy also provided an avenue for emigrating labourers to lead better lives in the new colonies and eventually to have land of their own. Simmons claimed to have helped 4000 Kent and Sussex families to emigrate during the 1870s, by working with New Zealand government immigration agents.
George Robins and his half-brother Samuel accepted free passage to New Zealand in 1874. George thrived in Otago on the plentiful food and work. He married and had five children and later adopted an orphan baby, perhaps a repayment to the community for his own lift from extreme poverty. Harriet would have been proud of him.