History,  Travel

Travels with my Ancestors #8: From the Fenlands – the Robinson family

This is the eighth in the Travels with my Ancestors series. You may wish to read the first post for context. You can find it here.

When Hardy Robinson disembarked from the immigrant ship Irene in the Australian spring of 1852, he carried with him a new baby daughter, some luggage, and his tattered hopes for life in a new country. Accompanying him were his other two children, Harvey aged five and Elizabeth, three. The children looked confused and overwhelmed by the events that had overtaken them. Hardy looked exhausted and deeply troubled.

What had happened to this little family between embarkation in England and arrival in Australia? Some tragedy had struck, destroying the vision that had propelled them to emigrate.

My father rarely spoke of his father’s background, and once (in his later years, when his memory was fading fast) told me that he thought his paternal grandmother was German as ‘she had a sort of German-sounding accent.’ Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Elizabeth Robinson, my great-grandmother, was in fact from Lincolnshire, in England’s east midlands.

This is how Lincolnshire came to be included in the Travels with my Ancestors itinerary.

I’ve explored the city of Lincoln in the county’s north, with its incredible history and castle, medieval canal and cathedral. Now I’m heading south, to Sleaford and the cluster of smaller villages from where the Robinson family originated.

Much of southern Lincolnshire is flat, marshy land. Incredibly green to Australian eyes, dotted with black faced sheep and small hamlets, the fenlands were first drained back in the 1600’s during the reign of Charles I. Today it is rich farmland, though prone to flooding.

Leading up to the fateful journey as assisted immigrants, Hardy (my 2 x great-grandfather) had worked as an agricultural labourer around the village of Helpringham, in this fenland country.

All his life he’d been surrounded by the smell of the marshes and the lush green fields of the fens, where the heavy soil produced crops of wheat, oats, beans, barley and potatoes. Now, as he stepped off the ship at Newcastle in the colony of New South Wales, he wondered if he would ever experience the sights and scents of his homeland again.

Before my own journey of exploration, I had spent a day at the State Library of NSW, poring over the journal of the ship’s surgeon on the Irene. I knew that Hardy’s wife, Mary, had boarded the vessel with her husband and children. I also knew that she did not disembark with them on arrival. I was searching for clues as to why.

I had initially assumed that Mary gave birth to her baby, little Hannah, on the voyage – a horrifying scenario given the cramped and unhygienic conditions of shipboard life at the time. What I found in the surgeon’s journal suggested otherwise.

In the nineteenth century, the ship’s surgeon was responsible for the health and wellbeing of all on board. He assigned chores, facilitated daily activities for adults and lessons for children to reduce boredom, oversaw cleaning routines and the allocation of rations. Of course, there were also medical problems to contend with, ranging from childbirth to digestive problems, injuries, infections.

At that time, dark beer such as porter was considered a healthful way to support the production of breastmilk. Surgeon Willmott ordered each nursing mother to be allocated 1/2 pint twice daily. I found Mary’s name on the list of nursing mothers at the beginning of the voyage. So, Mary did not die in childbirth as I had thought. I examined the journal, day by day, to discover what had killed her.

Every surgeon dreaded the first sign of a communicable disease such as typhus, smallpox or scarlet fever. What surgeon Willmott had to contend with was measles.

On day two of the Irene’s voyage, the first case was reported: the sister of a woman who had left the ship before they sailed, after breaking out in the tell-tale rash and fever. Over the next weeks, the disease spread at a steady rate. Some sufferers were sent to the ship’s ‘hospital’ (usually a curtained or boarded section of deck with bunks for people needing care), while some remained in their own berths. Given the highly infectious nature of the disease, it was no surprise that cases multiplied.

Willmott took his duties seriously and did all he could to prevent the spread of the disease as well as to minimise infection and discomfort from other causes. Despite this there was a great deal of illness on board, and he had to perform another duty, that of carrying out the burial rites when someone had died, before they were ‘buried at sea’ – essentially, wrapped in a shroud and tipped overboard. Altogether, thirty-four passengers lost their lives: not uncommon at this time.

Mary held out against measles, scurvy or diarrhoea, all of which affected many of her fellow passengers. Until just two weeks before making landfall at NSW, when the Surgeon’s journal noted:
Wednesday, 29 September Buried Mary Robinson at 8 am.

My guess is that she contracted measles, but I can’t be sure.

Poor Mary. To die so close to their destination, knowing she was leaving her husband, newborn daughter and two other little ones to make their new home without her. It’s such a tragic scenario but one which played out all too often. These people took such risks in coming to Australia. There had to be compelling reasons to uproot themselves and venture forth on such an uncertain adventure.

With all this in mind, I begin my Lincolnshire exploration in Helpringham, where Hardy had been born in 1819. There had been Robinsons in Helpringham and Sleaford, about ten kilometers north, for at least a century and a half. His great-grandparents and their grandparents before them had all been born and raised in that part of the county. His grandparents Robert and Mary had run a coaching inn there, the Willoughby Arms, in the late 1700’s. The churchyard at St Andrew’s in Helpringham held many Robinson graves. I can assume Hardy was baptised there.

Next stop is Great Hale along with its smaller sister, Little Hale, just north. This is where Mary was born and grew up, and where she and Hardy married in 1847, at the Hale Magna Church of St John the Baptist. The church stands on the site of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery from the seventh century and has the typical square Norman tower, with features and chapels added over successive centuries.

As I walk through the door where Hardy and Mary entered on their wedding day, I’m sure that neither of them could have imagined that just four and a half years later, Mary would be dead.

The other thing I notice is a quote in the church guide booklet. The Vestry Book in 1663, refers to the excommunication of several people from the parish, for their constant contempt of the laws, commands and constitution of the Church of England…
It goes on to exhort members of the parish to refrain from any commerce and conversation with them of any of them or theirs by lying, following, eating, drinking or talking with any of them…until they lawfully go ask that formal absolution in their behalf… {Brief notes on the Hale Magna Church 2021}

These individuals and their families were being sent to Coventry, completely expunged from the social and spiritual life of the community.

It is harsh, but we should remember that it was after the English Reformation when profound religious differences divided communities, and the turmoil of the Civil War was a very recent memory. Indeed, a crucial battle in the Civil War, won by Parliamentarians against Royalist forces, took place at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. All of these events left an intense need for conformity to the religious and social standards of the day.

This is of interest to me because in later years, there is a distinct pattern of ‘non-conformity’ of religion in the Robinson family. Methodism and Wesleyanism gained a strong following in Lincolnshire in the late 1700’s and Hardy Robinson and his children were Wesleyans before and after their emigration. Today these religious differences are hardly worth a comment, but in previous centuries they affected many aspects of life, not just how you worshipped.

Indeed, all my visits to various churches on my Travels with Ancestors have brought home to me the central role that religion played in the daily lives of everyone from the monarch, bishops and nobles to tradespeople, shopkeepers, farmers and labourers. The annual calendar revolved around church festivals and celebrations, along with seasonal ones like harvest time. The main records kept of the life events of ordinary folk were those of baptism, marriage, and burial, to be found in the parish church. It was the church that was largely responsible for the distribution of ‘poor relief’ and aid to its community. Government had a much smaller role in everyday life then; the church a much larger one.

The county town of Sleaford is another place of note in the Robinson family tree, with my 5 x great-grandfather Abraham Robinson being baptised there in 1713. It has a grand church, St Denys, and today is a comfortable and prosperous looking town of Georgian and red-bricked Victorian buildings, a busy high street and a canal through its centre, a feature that I imagine is a common one in this marshy fen territory.

I leave Lincolnshire content to have walked in some of the Robinson footsteps from long ago.

And what of Hardy and his family in NSW?

Six months after their arrival, baby daughter Hannah died. Hardy must have felt like packing up his sad little family and returning to Lincolnshire, but that was beyond their means, having arrived as assisted immigrants. They settled in the Hunter Valley and Hardy found work. He remarried twice over, so his life was again marred by death of a spouse. He lived until 1900 when he died at the good age of eighty-one.

His daughter, Elizabeth, married Beadon Newton (my great-grandfather), so uniting those two families.

I wonder what my father would have said to the news that his grandmother was from the Lincolnshire fens, not from Germany. I imagine he may have given a wry smile at his mistake.

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All photos by the author.

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