Robert was born in 1822 to James Earle and Elizabeth Tyser in the Cambridge Heath area of Bethnal Green/Hackney.
Elizabeth and James had been married in St. Mary’s Whitechapel on the 26th of December 1818. It was the custom at the time to be married at Christmas.
Robert was James’ and Elizabeth’s second child, the first James Earle was born in 1821 and it must be assumed died in infancy – there is a record of him being baptised at St. John of Jerusalem, Hackney in February 1821.
Robert was baptised at the St. John of Jerusalem church, Hackney on October 20th 1822.
This church is not the same as that which currently stands there, and which was built in 1848. The title of the church comes from an old connection between the neighbourhood and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. One of the many manors that supported the work of the Order was located in Hackney.
The first church was built in 1810, and that, and the later one seem to have been very fashionable places to attend. Later clergy there were also men of means and owned land elsewhere. The medieval gate of the original priory of the Order can still be seen in Clerkenwell and is now the headquarters of the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade.
Generally James Earle was associated with the parish of St. James the Less in Bethnal Green but perhaps he saw more status in having this son baptised in Hackney.
At the time of Robert’s childhood most of Hackney consisted of land given over to market gardens and possibly this is also where James Earle worked.
Robert’s boyhood took place during a time of great social upheaval in Britain. The passing of the electoral reform act of 1832; the catholic emancipation act; the controversy over the corn laws; the abolition of slavery; and the rise of demands for more general manhood suffrage all contributed to change in the country. The eighteenth century English had a reputation as an ungovernable people and with the rapid increase of the urban population in that century and the next century this belief seemed to have been reinforced. Significantly also the land issue, with common land being more and more in the hands of the rich, led to the fact that nineteenth century emigration literature lingered over the comparative ease of acquiring land in the colonies.
Robert’s education must have taken place in Bethnal Green – a pointer to what this might have been like can be found in Hector Gavin’s ‘Sanitary Ramblings’ (1848) where he describes a room holding as many as 90 children who would congregate for their tuition for up to 3 hours a day.
Although in the 1840s the most common occupation was agriculture, life was changing and the increasing use of the term ‘town dwellers’ reflected the fact that the population was surprisingly mobile . Between 1801 and 1851 40% of people were under 15 years of age; ¾ of the working class had at least minimal reading skills; and the average worker was much better off in the 1830s than in any decade before the 1820s .
It is relevant in view of Robert’s later life that savings among families in the middle and lower classes were sufficient to enable emigration to take place.
So in this context Robert grew up but he decided not to follow his father’s occupation, as would be expected, and instead he went to sea.
Sailors generally went to sea as boys. By the time they were 16 they could be rated as seamen, and normally served at sea for another ten years, before settling down and taking a shore or local sailing job. The idea of being single, free of responsibilities and well paid would have made a career at sea obviously alluring, but the attractions could also undoubtedly wear off, and only a small percentage of men stayed on at sea, rising to be naval petty officers and merchant shipmasters.
‘When sailors disembarked from a long journey and left the dock to spend what little time and money they had in town, they were clearly distinguishable from other men by their gait. On ship, they had to learn to deal with the ship’s movement as it rolled and pitched over the waves. They gained stability by widening their stances, which gave them a distinctive bow-legged appearance, and learned to rock with the rhythm of the waves. Once the vestibular system of the inner ear (i.e. the system responsible for balance) had adjusted to the constant motion of a ship, it had a difficult time readjusting to land, meaning that when sailors returned to land, they felt off-balance because the ground was no longer moving beneath their feet and as a result, they continued to sway. Thus, sailors could be told apart from others on land by their sea-legs, which gave them a widened stance, and a swagger of sorts’.
‘Being a sailor incurred many risks. Many injuries and fatalities resulted from falls from the rigging, slips (whether onto the deck or overboard), drownings, or getting caught in a rope. Minor cuts could easily result in infections, which often went untreated and thus resulted in amputations, many of which were not successful. Several diseases – some of which resulted from deficiencies in diet – were commonplace as well. For example, scurvy – a vitamin C deficiency that causes exhaustion, pale skin, irritability, swollen gums, joint pain, and bone loss – was prevalent until the mid 18th century when James Lind discovered that fresh fruit or citrus juice could prevent scurvy. Osteomalacia (vitamin D deficiency), tetanus, and venereal diseases (gonorrhea and syphilis in particular, likely caught from time spent with prostitutes at port) were not uncommon to whaler or merchant crews either’.
‘The damp conditions aboard ship allowed viruses and bacteria to flourish; as a result, colds, pneumonia, and tuberculosis were familiar illnesses to sailors. The damp conditions and presence of food also attracted rats (which would chew through books, bedding, and even bite sleeping sailors) and insects (which would crawl into everything, especially food). These vectors of disease enhanced the pervasiveness of sickness. Poor air quality – especially below deck – caused by smoke from candles and tobacco, mold, mildew, vapors from tar and waste in the bilges, and hydrogen and carbonic acid gases from the ventilation systems, contributed to the long-term poor health of sailors who often developed permanent lung problems’.
‘Whaling ships had their own set of hazards, as evidenced in Moby Dick by the leg Captain Ahab lost to the whale, and Ahab’s eventual death during the pursuit and harpooning of Moby Dick (Melville)’.
‘The integration of steam machinery into ships introduced new jobs with new dangers. Firemen and coal heavers were responsible for the engines. Firemen managed the fires in the boilers that powered the ship via steam, and coal heavers filled the boilers with coal. These jobs put them in close contact with fire, scorching hot metal, and smoke; as such, common injuries involved serious burns and lung problems’ .
This provides us with the context within which Robert grew up and which also must have provided him with the stamina which was needed in his later life.
Possibly, it was while he was at sea in 1848 that his mother Elizabeth died.
In the 1851 census Robert was still listed as a mariner and, of course, by which time he had met his future wife Eliza Betty.
Eliza is recorded as being baptised on June 8th 1829, her parents were Thomas and Ann. In the church of St. Nicholas Kenilworth (In the 1851 census she is listed as 26 and the 1841 census as 16 which gives her birth year as 1825, so there was a long gap between birth and baptism and this may have been due to a rather keen priest catching up on those who hadn’t been baptised. They lived in Albion Row, Kenilworth in common with other families also involved in the comb making trade.
Kenilworth was historically an important place; its castle, ruined for some centuries, had received visits from at least 5 kings of England. It had become an important industrial centre in the early part of the nineteenth century and was known as Little Birmingham. There were two tanneries in the town and the skins of the local Warwickshire long horn cattle were used in manufacturing while the long horns of the cattle were used to make combs and beakers. In the 1841 census a number of workers gave their occupation as ‘comb maker’. (Some local historians have questioned whether the long horn cattle specifically were in fact the origins of the industry, especially since combs were also made in other parts of the country.)
At some point in the 1840s the Betty family moved from Kenilworth to Bethnal Green, we cannot be sure of the reasons for this but it is certain that the comb making industry was in decline, largely because metal ones became popular and the increase of mechanisation in producing the product would have led to unemployment. By 1851 they were living in Hammond Gardens where in 1848 Hector Strong in his book ‘Sanitary Ramblings’ describes the place as ‘a court of 7 houses with small yards in front. At the entrance to the court was a large dust and garbage heap. There was one privy serving all the houses and 1 butt to supply them all with water’. Hammond Gardens was just off the Old Bethnal Green Road, as is Essex Court where the Furnesses lived.
In 1851 Eliza is described in the census as a mattress maker, and interestingly in this same census, Thomas her father was absent and visiting in Kenilworth. His occupation remained as comb maker, which he must have pursued while living in Bethnal Green. Perhaps he went to Kenilworth to get combs in order to sell them in London.
We do not know how Robert met Eliza but the family homes were geographically close and the social life of the area with its many pubs might have enabled them to meet.
Certainly we know that on September 17th 1851 Robert married Eliza in the relatively new and large parish church of St John of Jerusalem Hackney – a rather more fashionable church than those in Bethnal Green.
Robert was listed as living in Goring Street, and interestingly not in Essex Place, and Eliza and her family were now living in Sheep Lane, Hackney, an area described in a history of Hackney as containing a number of cramped houses.
Eliza may not have been literate since in the later birth certificate of her daughter Eliza Ann she signs it with her mark.
The witnesses of the wedding were Eliza’s sister Elizabeth, her father and Robert’s brother William.
We do not know where they began their married life but in the previous May of that same year gold was discovered in Australia and that event heralded the next significant phase of Robert’s eventful life.