Memoirs of a Surrey Labourer


The last years of Frederick Grover and his epileptic wife Lucy are movingly but unsentimentally chronicled by George Sturt in “Memoirs of a Surrey Labourer” published in 1907. In the Memoirs various individuals are given pseudonyms and it must be remembered that Sturt himself wrote his earlier books under the name of George Bourne. Some cross reference with  the Journals is helpful.  In this article I make reference to ‘Fred’ except in extracts from the Memoirs where Sturt refers to him as ‘Bettesworth’.

The ‘Memoirs’ cover the period from December 1892 until Fred’s death on July 25 1905 during which he worked as a gardener to Sturt at Vine Cottage and entertained his employer with his “pleasant garrulity” and “queer anecdotes and shrewd observations” of a way of life which all but lost by the end of the nineteenth century. While recording fragments of his conversation, Sturt never let on that he had made  Fred  the subject of a book as this knowledge “would send him boastfully drinking about the parish and make him intolerable to his familiars and useless to any employer”.

With Lucy’s history of epilepsy, Fred started to look for a cottage near to his work. In October 1899 he and Lucy moved into what is now Little Willows Cottage. Sturt describes the setting

“One of the steep and narrow lanes mentioned above is that which runs down beside this garden where Bettesworth’s work lay. Within (his) memory it afforded access even for a wagon right down to ‘the Lake’ and so over into the meadow opposite; but the last hundred yards of it, from Mrs Skinner’s cottage downwards, have long been washed out into a mere foot-track, deeply sunk between its banks, swooping down precipitously to the stream level, and scarce two feet wide……Then the footpath winds along to the left (eastwards) having the cliff on one hand and the stream on the other, to a wider stretch, until with this for its best approach you come to a little hovel of three rooms and a lean to shed, standing with its back walls close against the sandy cliff……After emerging from the gully  the public footpath runs close in front of the doorway of the place, leaving some eight feet of garden between itself and the stream”

Sturt admitted to having reservations over Fred’s decision to take the tenancy but, sensing his employee’s dogged defiance, thought better of expressing his concerns.

Much of Fred’s  earlier life was unknown to Sturt and it wasn’t until 1902 that he discovered that Fred had signed up at sixteen and served a year and eight months with the ‘Forty-eighth’ in the Crimean War. His memories of savage cold and starvation were vivid; -being supplied with “boots big enough to get into with your shoes on” and graves so shallow that the feet of the dead quickly became exposed. The only coffin he saw was Lord Raglan’s, whose funeral procession he described as being “seven miles long”. Unbeknown to Sturt,  Fred had previously attended two grand dinners for veterans of the Crimea, but in 1903 he decided not to attend, sensing perhaps that he would be one of the last of the surviving veterans “among a few kiddies from Aldershot”.

Also in 1903, having been unable to get repairs done on Little Willows, Fred resolved to move away. When one of three cottages on the hillside opposite and, ideally, within view of Vine Cottage became available, Fred obtained the tenancy of one of these on Sturt’s recommendation. Only later did Sturt realise his mistake, not having seen Lucy for some months nor entered  Little Willows. Lucy was “going about unwashed, grimy, like a dreadful apparition of poverty from the middle ages” Her epilepsy had impaired her intellect and a broken wrist that had never healed satisfactorily impaired her ability to cope with the daily chores of living. The couple were given formal notice to quit. Following a period of great anxiety for them both, Sturt succeeded, with difficulty, in renting a cottage owned by a retired bricklayer which he then sublet to them.

Between 3 March and 16 May, Fred contracted bronchitis and, with Lucy unable to provide him with nursing care, the couple were admitted to the workhouse infirmary. Sturt reports “how fervently everybody hoped, then, that Bettesworth would leave his wife behind, if he ever came out of the institution himself alive” In the event, the two walked the two mile journey home on the day before Good Friday; they two together, not to be separated.

The late summer and early autumn of 1904 was a stressful time for Fred. Lucy’s deteriorating health required him to make various visits: to the relieving officer for orders for medical attendance, to the doctor and finally to order a ‘fly’ to transport Lucy to the infirmary .In his Journals (pg 442-443) Sturt refers to his  niece, Lou and a neighbour Mrs Edwards  trying and failing to dress the old lady and the darkly humorous journey to the Infirmary.  On 27 September, not having regained consciousness since entering the infirmary, Lucy died. In laying out his wife “all that he did and said, so simple and unaffected and necessary, was done as if it were an act of worship”

Fred, looking “very dignified, showing a quiet, unaffected patience” was accompanied by Sturt to the funeral on 1 October

”There were but few people present: four or five relatives besides the bearers and the undertaker and sexton; while a young woman (Mrs Porter) with her little boy Tim stood in the background, she carrying a wreath she had made. She is a near neighbour to us, and a very impoverished. One to whom the old man has shown what kindness has been in his power; while she on many mornings  has called him into her cottage at breakfast time to give him a cup of hot tea”

Until his admission to the Infirmary on 9 February for a month, Fred, with failing eyesight and increasingly missing his Lucy, worked with Sturt at Vine Cottage planting, grubbing up tree roots and laying turf. The relationship drifts between simple enjoyment of shared work and talk of village life to mutual grumbling and irritation – Sturt expresses irritation at the old man’s growing habit of repeating himself and hogging their conversations – “Bettesworth’s talk went drivelling on. Was he really getting dull”?

On leaving the Infirmary, Fred surrendered his fiercely cherished independence to move in with his nephew and niece  Tom and Lou Grover  (given the pseudonyms Jack and Liz in The Memoirs), where he was looked after as he had not been for some years. On his last visit to Vine Cottage on 17 May, Frederick sat with Sturt in the garden and conversed about the neighbours, the passing of traditional crafts and an unusual shortage of local employment. Not long after, Sturt records that “for the first time in my acquaintance with Bettesworth I had to search for topics of conversation”. Later, asking the doctor if he would give him something to “help me away from here” and getting the response ‘Where do you want to go to?’, Bettesworth replied “Up top o’ Gravel Hill  to the churchyard”

Returning from his penultimate visit to Fred, Sturt meets an old road mender at work

“straightening up from his work as I passed (he) asked ‘Can ye keep yerself warm sir?’. And I laughed ‘Pretty nearly. How about you?’ ‘It boils out’ he said. The perspiration stood on his face while he spoke of motor- cars and the dust they raised; but to me dust and swift travelling cars and all seemed to tell of summer afternoon. And though the reason is obscure, somehow it seems fit that possibly my last talk with Bettesworth should be associated with the blue distant English country and the summer dust, and that sunburnt old folk jest which consists in asking, when it is so particularly and exhilaratingly warm as to-day ‘ Can you keep yourself warm?’

The last entry – “July 28 (Friday) This afternoon I went to the funeral.”

Having located where Fred and Lucy were buried in unmarked graves in the Old Churchyard, The Bourne Conservation Group have erected two  notices that read as follows:-

Fred Grover

‘Bettesworth in his prime was ready for any task that came to hand: and the harder the work, the more he rejoiced in his strength to wrestle with it. For thirty years – or forty is nearer the truth, he lived this varied life, careless, confident and strong. He is a type of his class. His talk is full of anecdote about neighbours as capable, as energetic, as resourceful as himself. This one is the best well sinker… another excels in making ladders; a third has a supreme value as a carter.  It seems as though destiny has decreed that this class of men, by centuries of incalculable struggle and valiant endurance, should prepare England’s soil not for themselves, but for the reaping machine and the jerry-builder.”


Taken from George Sturt’s Bettesworth Book [published 1901]






Lucy Grover

“Her black straw hat is shaped like an inverted bowl, and has a drooping brim… observe the grey hair how it straggles out below the hat brim… there is neither regularity of length to it nor evenness of disposal.  She is short of stature, but if you can peer under the hat brim… the face there, though placid and kindly, is somehow hardly in keeping with our modern times. It is short and broad; the eyes in it have a dark unspeculative gleam; the teeth have gone and the lips have fallen in yet are held tightly together…. Her face is the face of the fields: it is unhomely, undomesticated. The old woman is far removed from comeliness. She seems too unlovely to be loved. (She) has played her infinitesimal yet vital part in the doings of the English…She has a brave record, although for details there is little beyond surmise to go upon. One or two incidents, one or two allusions to her by her husband – that is all the foundation one has on which to build up an account of her life.”


Taken from George Sturt’s Lucy Bettesworth [published 1913]



Extracts taken from Memoirs of a Surrey Labourer by George Sturt, Caliban Books edition 1978.