When I started my ‘Helots’ Tale’ research into the lives of Robert Bright and Mary Ann Goulding or Goulden or Golding, I had only the sketchiest of information about them.  My research led me down paths I had not imagined and as the days went by I found the story almost writing itself as the pages of history unfolded. 

I concentrated initially on Robert.

Robert Bright emerges

I knew from readily available records (see a record above including the updated information I contributed) that he had been sentenced in Cambridge some time before 28th September, 1831 to 7 years transportation for housebreaking. 

My wife’s cousin had found a man named Robert Bright who was born at about the right time in the right area and I began working through his genealogy.  However, it didn’t take me long to realise that she had the wrong man (dates just didn’t align) so I started again. Eventually I discovered the real Robert who had in fact been born in the – at that time – poorer district of Castle Hill in the city of Cambridge in 1813, the son of James Bright and Elizabeth Gee.

This was an early red flag – records weren’t always telling you what you thought they were saying! Further digging showed he had been christened on 5th December (my birthday, coincidentally!) and although I couldn’t find a birth certificate, I was able to pinpoint a date of birth as the 3rd December.

One particularly interesting outcome was to discover a previously unknown twin brother, Benjamin after corresponding with the Cambridge Family History Society.  Through contact with Benjamin’s descendants in New Zealand, I found that Benjamin ended up joining the army and eventually died on active service in India while Robert was in Australia.

Robert’s occupation on the convict records was stated as ‘farm labourer’ and my initial reaction was that he must have been an unskilled worker, however as I read further it became apparent that the farm labourer was far from unskilled.  Maintaining farmland, sewing crops, harvesting, threshing, storing required organised teams of men and women, each with their own skills to bring the harvest home.

Life and Times

To understand more about Robert’s (and Mary Ann’s) early life I also started reading in more depth about life at that time[i].   Robert was born into an age of conflict – the Napoleonic wars, the American war of Independence, Indian and South African colonial ventures.  Mad king George III was on the throne.  It was also an age witnessing the dawning of the Industrial Revolution and an age of rigid social classes.

Robert grew up in an agrarian England with farming dominated by a rigid structure of landlords, tenant-farmers and hired labourers.  Profound societal changes brought on by the ‘Enclosures’ acts had turned more than 6 million acres (or ¼ of cultivated acreage) from open-field, common land, meadow or waste into private fields.  This revolutionised farming (and incidentally as a by-product the English landscape) but also condemned those on the lower rungs to a life of poverty and an existence essentially dependant on charity (if you want to know more, look up the Speenhamland system and later provisions of the Poor Laws).

The large tenant-farmer like those we meet in Downfall were generally able to prosper in good times and bad but his hired hands like Robert not so.  From the labourer’s point of view he was an increasingly remote boss who “rarely did any personal labour whatsoever” according to one commentator, supervising and giving “the proverbial pig the proverbial prod while leaning over the proverbial gate”.

The dire state of life for the labourer, often leaving people and families desperately hungry and destitute, exacerbated by wage pressures as a flood of soldiers discharged from the army swelled the workforce, led to the Swing riots (something that my schooling had totally omitted to cover somehow), the Luddites (14 men were hanged at York in this year) and the Tolpuddle martyrs.  All seeking to improve wages and conditions.  These protests, followed in some cases by violence and destruction of machinery were seen by those in power as a threat to the establishment and contributed to the policy of transportation.  Although I have no direct evidence that Robert was engaged in these riots, I place him amongst this activity in the book – it’s unlikely that he was not involved in some way, even if in passing.

Why Burwell?

If Robert was living in Cambridge, I asked myself how did he get to Burwell where he was living when he was arrested for housebreaking?  Burwell is a small village, a good day’s walk to the east, an agricultural area, so it’s logical that Robert was working on a local farm.  How did that likely come about?

Hiring of labourers often happened at one of the country fairs where employer and prospective employee would meet up and negotiate terms.  And, if so, Reach Fair was the obvious event, the village being roughly mid-way from Cambridge and Burwell.

Reach was granted a charter to hold a fair by King John in 1201 and it has continued to this day.  It was originally held on Rogation Monday[ii] but is now held on the early May Bank Holiday.  According to original custom, the Fair is opened by the Mayor of Cambridge accompanied by the Aldermen in full regalia, an event I have described in Downfall.

Looking into local papers of the time I was also able to incorporate local residents and merchants of the time into the story, including Robert’s employer.  Burwell village also retains much that existed in Robert’s time so I was able to pinpoint the house that he broke into, the streets that he would have walked and the church and pubs he would likely have frequented.  All still there today and the subject of an interesting outing if anyone minds to retrace the footsteps of history, including reflection at St Mary’s church and downing a pint of ale at the Anchor.

Having placed Robert in Burwell, the story now developed as he entered his late teens and brushes with the law began to shape his life.  But more on that later.

[i] Two books in particular were of great interest – The Village Labourer 1760–1832 (Hammond) and Captain Swing (Hobsbawn & Rude).

[ii] [ii] In the Anglican church, the fifth Sunday after Easter Sunday is followed by Rogation Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday – days for fasting and prayer devoted to asking for God’s blessing on agriculture and industry.  The Thursday of the week then sees the feast of the Ascension – the 40th day after Easter. 

The post Downfall Back Story – Robert Bright, convict! first appeared on David Cairns of Finavon.

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