Digging up history in these diaries

THEY are the sketchy comments of a man with limited education for whom one long, arduous day must have seemed like any other.

But for local history enthusiast Jean Samuels, the faded, pencil-written diary entries of grave digger Robert Pole have provided a fascinating glimpse into the past of Belton.

Since being given the three hard-bound diaries by family friend Jean Searby, the widow of a direct descendant of Mr Pole, Mrs Samuels, 54, of Yare Road, Belton, has pored over the daily entries from 1888 to 1890 and pieced together a picture which contrasts harshly with today’s village of comfortable, modern living.

She said: “His handwriting and spelling were not good, but if you persevere, you get a real glimpse of his hard life, working six days a week with Christmas and Whitsun Bank Holiday the only days off other than Sunday.”

For a man working outdoors as the grave digger and groundsman at Belton’s All Saints’ Church, the weather was clearly important and the severe winters of the time are reflected in his entries.

On January 6, 1889, he writes: “16 degrees of frost,” and even as late as April 2, he observes: “Ground white with snow this morning, very cold.”

On November 27, 1890, he records: “10 inches of snow, very cold today, sharp frost”, and the following day: “Snowing all night and day, 15 inches of snow.”

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Mrs Samuels, a delivery van driver, said: “Robert sometimes calls a storm a tempest which suggests to me that he may have learned to read using the Bible.”

Mr Pole, who lived to the age of 82 despite his hard life, meticulously recorded all the village deaths and burials for which he would have been paid by the families – and the list reveals 16 children died during the three years.

“Infant mortality would have been high as there were no antibiotics and no immunisation, and in the summer of 1888 he appears to be burying a child every two weeks,” said Mrs Samuels.

The diaries also show the many varied tasks he performed to earn his crust from ploughing – or plowing, as he writes – to rent collection, the entry for April 6, 1888, recording: “John Skipper half year rent due for cottage. Paid �2. Left due 12 shillings and 6 pence.”

He also collected the school rate – the penny a week parents paid for their children to attend the church-run school.

From a terse comment on October 26, 1889, “Rose Burrage killed on line”– the only pen-written entry in the diaries most likely reflecting the tragedy’s momentous impact – Mrs Samuels has researched the suicide of an unmarried, pregnant woman and discovered her own family was involved in the story.

She said: “During that era a woman in those circumstances would have been ostracised, and she had not even told her father.

“Her baby was born as she lay dying on the track and my great-great uncle Jacob Saul, who worked on the railway as a plate-layer, heard the baby’s cries and helped rescue it.”

The infant, Reginald Burrage, whose place of birth was recorded as “on the Great Eastern Railway” was taken in by a local family and went on to live into his 80s.

There are some diary entries that reflect possible leisure time – May 24 1888: “Went to races at Somerleyton”; August 20, 1888: “Went to beach with George W Pole”; March 8, 1890: “Frank’s first ride on pony” – but the abiding impression for Mrs Samuels is the hard, uncompromising life of the time.

“What would he think if he came back now,” she pondered.