Monday, 29 October 2012

Hard Times in Felsham: the life of Robert Kidby 1813-1848

“Hard Times” is Dickens’ powerful description of the grim lives led by factory workers in a Lancashire mill town in the 1840s.  During the same period, life for farm workers in Suffolk could be equally grim and challenging.  Poets may have waxed lyrical about a rural idyll, but in reality, country life was frequently ‘nasty, brutish and short.’  Chronic illness could make you unfit for farm work and force you to become dependent on the 19th century equivalent of social security: charity handouts, parish dole and the dreaded workhouse.


Robert Kidby, a Felsham farm labourer, was dogged by persistent ill-health and weakness all his working life. He died young in 1848 at the age of thirty-five, and was buried in a pauper’s grave in the local churchyard.  During the last few years of his life, he and his family were in receipt of parish relief.  We know this because they appear in the official records of the overseers of the poor.

Robert was born in 1813 in a small cottage at Mudlin End and started work on a farm at the age of twelve.  He had regular work to begin with but eventually he ended up being a day labourer – employed only when work was available.

In 1840, when he was 27 years old, Robert married Esther Snelling in Felsham Church and soon after a son called Reuben was born.  Then, about a year after their marriage, Robert and his small family moved a few miles to the adjoining parish of Cockfield.

In 1845, the family were receiving help from the parish of Cockfield in the form of bread flour and small amounts of cash. Clearly, Robert’s illness prevented him from providing adequately for his family. In the same year, their four-year old son Reuben died.

However, a year later, Esther gave birth to a daughter, whom they named Caroline.  The family were still on the bread-line and receiving parish assistance but the time had now arrived for the family to be legally deported to their “village of settlement” which was Felsham.  Soon after his return to his village of birth, Robert is reported as being treated for his illness in the workhouse at Onehouse while his family is recorded as receiving “out-relief” from the Felsham overseers of the poor. 

After Robert’s death in 1848, Esther and her two-year old daughter Caroline moved to Bradfield St George.  They were recorded in the Census of 1851 but what happened to them after that we do not know.

(Oct 2012)


A detailed description of the life of Robert Kidby can be found in PART THREE of the illustrated booklet:

Available from Felsham Post Office priced £3.50