One of the more interesting aspects of being in lock down has been reading how friends and family have been keeping sane whilst their normal lives are on hold. So it has been rather fun getting detailed recipes from the ”Corona Kitchen’ in Edinburgh’, a daily Blog from Uppsala in Sweden covering meanderings off the beaten track whilst taking daily exercise, as well as regular updates on facebook providing gardening hints and problems associated with laying turf in Essex.
My contribution to all this endeavour has so far at least, been purely personal. For nearly forty years I have been researching my family history in an on-and-off kind of way – mostly off if I am honest and pre-pandemic, I decided it was time to write it up before I wandered off to some cloud to learn to play the harp.
So just before we left for the UK in February, I managed to circulate to my immediate family the first part of my magnum opus which deals with my four grandparents. I read somewhere that this is a good place to start because there is a good chance that you actually knew them and/or other family members are still around, who did.
For me it worked. They became real people, not just old folk whom I barely tolerated in my grumpy teenage years and the project encouraged me to continue with the second part which is to deal with the generations which came before.
Lock down has given me both the opportunity and no excuse not to do it!
At this point I can discern an urge in you dear reader, to hit the exit button as you begin to suspect that you are about to be deluged with all sorts of stuff about which you have no interest whatsoever. You can do that if you wish but you will miss the tale of one family who lived, loved and suffered in nineteenth century rural England and abroad
I bring you the lives of my 3x Great Grandparents, Benjamin and Caroline Burt.
Benjamin and Caroline were born in rural Dorset about the end of the eighteenth century and thus well before the time when the official registration of births, marriages and deaths was introduced in England. Hence for much of the information relating to them, we are heavily dependent on parish records, many of which have survived but with varying degrees of both quality and accuracy. There are no photographs of these people and given the fact that they and their families were agricultural labourers, they have left very little trace of their lives beyond that which can be gleaned from the limited records which are available.
Agricultural labourers at the beginning of the nineteenth century were almost by definition, poor. Life was hard, brutal even, for the whole family. Increasing farm mechanisation and depressed wages during and following the Napoleonic Wars, meant financial hardship for many rural folk, and perhaps just as important, with the passing of various Land Enclosure Acts, little or no possibility of producing their own food on common land, which they had been able to do in earlier times.
Benjamin was born around 1787, the son of John Burt and Jane Terrell. He was baptised on September 16 of that year together with his twin brother Thomas in the Parish Church at Sturminster Marshall, in Dorset which was and remains, a small village a few miles north of Poole.
The twins had two older sisters and a further brother and sister were to follow.
We have no information relating to Benjamin’s childhood but it seems likely that at some point his twin brother Thomas, may have died. I can find no record of him anywhere although it has to be said that nor can I find a record of his death. However, Benjamin’s first born son was called Thomas and i think this may be significant.
Benjamin himself does not appear again in any parish records until he married Caroline Gooby on March 6 1820 at Sturminster Marshall.
Note that both Benjamin and Caroline could not write and made their respective marks. This would have been normal among the labouring classes at that time.
Caroline Gooby (or Gobey) was the fifth child of Thomas Gobey and Mary Pardock (nee Syms) and was baptised at Corfe Mullen, Dorset on July 27 1794.
There are a number of variations on the spelling of her surname but I have chosen to use the one which appears on the record of her marriage.
There is also some confusion too, regarding her Christian name. It is Caroline on her marriage and death certificates but Anne seems to have been the name she used when she had her children baptised.
This has caused me a problem over the years because I thought for a long time that there must have been two separate families – Benjamin/Caroline and Benjamin/Anne but I could never find a marriage for the second and I could never find a death for Anne. There again, I could not find any children directly associated with Caroline.
Eventually, I decided (like everyone else researching this family) that Caroline and Anne had to be one and the same. All the other evidence fits, even including one reference which I read, that Anne was sometimes used as a diminutive for Caroline. This, it was claimed, is explained by the fact that in a West Country accent the two rhyme! Coming from Somerset, I can just about accept this but even so, I have to admit, there remains a small element of doubt regarding the names.
Benjamin and Caroline had at least six children:
Mary born c. 1821 bapt. Lytchett Matravers Mar 17 1822
Thomas born c. 1821 bapt. Lytchett Matravers Mar 17 1822
Jane born c. 1824 bapt. Lytchett Matravers Nov 7 1824
Caroline born c.1826 Lytchett Matravers
Sarah born c. 1829 Lytchett Matravers
Henry born c 1832 Lytchett Matravers died c. 1835
Lytchett Matravers is another small village which lies about three miles west of Sturminster Marshall. We know very little about the day-to-day lives of Benjamin and Caroline but there is some not inconsiderable evidence which indicates that it was not easy. I say this partly in the context of economic factors referred to earlier which meant that the life of the agricultural labourer and his family was difficult in the early half of the eighteenth century but also because we know that the Overseers of the Poor in Lytchett Matravers clearly saw this family in particular, as one which they would have preferred had not moved there from Sturminster Marshall.
This move took place not long after Benjamin and Caroline were married because Mary and Thomas were both baptised in Lytchett Matravers in 1822. In 1826, the authorities there, attempted to challenge the settlement order under which responsibility for the family had been transferred from Sturminster Marshall. The case was lost and the family were allowed to stay.
This action may have been prompted by the fact that Benjamin had been charged in 1825 with stealing apples. Although he was acquitted, it was not the first time he had had a brush with law. Indeed over the years there were to be a number of such cases, all relating to what nowadays we would call petty pilfering but in those harder times, any transgression was regarded in a much harsher light with corresponding punishments.
As his criminal record indicates, Benjamin was clearly someone whom the authorities had their eyes on and were out to get. That said, with one exception he was never convicted although, as will become apparent, he was not the only member of the family to have brushes with the law.
Benjamin Burt – Criminal Record
Date Where Alleged Offence Convicted/Acquitted Punishment
06/02/19 Dorchester Prison Stealing an Axe Acquitted Discharged 23/04/19
01/10/25 Dorchester Prison Stealing Apples Acquitted Discharged 04/10/25
25/02/40 Dorset Assizes Receiving Stolen Acquitted Discharged Stockings*
07/02/41 Dorchester Prison Stealing Potatoes Convicted 3 months Hard Labour
* Benjamin’s son Thomas (Aged 19) was also charged with this Offence and acquitted
Henry the second son of Benjamin and Caroline died about 1835 but I have been unable to find any record of his death and indeed, there may have been another daughter, Eliza born c. 1825 for whom no records survive. Whatever, Caroline perhaps worn out by years of child bearing, poverty, insecurity and concern for her family, became ill and died of consumption (TB) in August 1839 .
In February 1840 just months after the death of their mother, daughters Caroline aged 13 and Sarah aged 10 were charged and convicted of stealing stockings and both sentenced to one week’s hard labour!
Worse was to follow because in October 1840, Jane and Caroline were arrested and subsequently convicted for stealing a cap and a pocket handkerchief. Aged just 16 and 14 they were sentenced to be transported and in April 1841, they left for Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), never to return to Dorset.
While they were in prison their father was convicted for stealing potatoes and sentenced to three month’s hard labour.
Words fail me. This was clearly a family in crisis and yet they were treated no better than animals by the authorities.
Presumably it was left to young Thomas and Mary aged just nineteen or twenty to keep the remaining family together but how they coped, we can only imagine. However, just to compound matters, we do know that Mary died in 1844.
Thanks to contact with Marion Taylor, a distant cousin in Australia, I was given a wealth of information on what happened to the two young women transported to Australia.
Both married within a few years of arrival and were given their freedom, never to transgress again. Jane had a number of children and her descendants are numerous. Caroline also had children but she, her husband and three of their children succumbed to various illnesses contracted in the unhealthy conditions found in the temporary settlements which accompanied the Goldfields of Victoria in the 1860’s.
It seems doubtful if there was ever any contact with Benjamin or the rest of the family because no one could read or write.
This is a photograph which Marion sent me of Jane and her husband James Wright in later life.
As for the behaviour of the British authorities, in his definitive work on transportation, Robert Hughes writes:
‘Australia was settled to defend English property …. from the marauder within. English lawmakers wished not only to get rid of the ”criminal class” but if possible to forget about it.’
So the teenage daughters of my 3x Great Grandparents became two of the 160,000 convicts who were transported between 1787 and 1868.
In this context, Marion Taylor comments:
Do not think too badly of Jane and Caroline because many of the convicts sent to Australia were guilty of petty crimes which today would not even attract a prison sentence. Many of these people were victims of the times with unemployment and poverty forcing them to obtain food and clothing by whatever means they could. Because of the system in force in Britain and Ireland during the late 1700s and early 1800s, the powers that be saw transportation as a means of ridding their countries of the underprivileged as well as petty criminals. I have 9 convicts in my direct line and all were transported for petty crimes. None of them ever committed a crime after their arrival in Australia, which says something about them. It certainly proves that they were no habitual criminals.
On a lighter note, the Criminal Records are interesting from another perspective. They describe the appearance of the person who is the subject of the record and thus, pre-photographic images, we can get an idea of what people looked like.
So, for example, we know that Benjamin was 5 ft 10 ins tall, with grey hair, dark hazel eyes and a sallow complexion, with a cut to the middle of his forehead, a pock mark to his left eyebrow, another pock mark to his top cheek bone and with several moles to the bottom of his left cheek.
Thomas was 5 ft 9 ins tall with rather dark brown hair, grey eyes and a rather sallow complexion, with a mole to the side of the right side of upper lip and a cut on the right side of the middle finger to the right hand.
After Mary’s death in 1844, the tasks of running the household must have fallen to young Sarah but in 1847, then aged 18, she took perhaps the easier option and married George Christopher. By the time of the 1851 Census they were living in Lytchett Minster with two children and with Benjamin installed as a lodger.
At the time of the 1861 Census, Benjamin who is described as formerly an agricultural labourer, was lodging with Hannah Wilkins and her daughter at Waterlane Plot, Lytchett Minster.
I like to think of him perhaps nursing a pint in the St Peter’s Finger pub in Lytchett Minster.
Thanks to the Upton Millenium Project for the historic photograph.
Benjamin died aged 82 in the late spring of 1867 and was buried on May 9 at Lytchett Minster. He had had a hard and eventful life with his wife having died young from a disease of the poor and two of his children transported for trifling crimes. He was clearly a bit of a rogue but he seems to have tried to do his best for his family and he was also a survivor. I rather admire him.
The cover photo is the house where I believe Thomas Burt lived in Lytchett Matravers.