Stephen Forsdick (b. 1835): An Introduction

I was utterly reckless. My faith was shattered, and I did not care whether I lived or died. (p. 37)

Stephen Forsdick was born on 8th October 1835 in Watford, Hertfordshire, England to parents John and Juliet Elizabeth Forsdick. He was the youngest of five boys and two girls, living at the home of the Earl of Essex, in an estate called Cassiobury. When Stephen was born, his father worked as Game Keeper for the Earl of Essex, which he had been doing since the age of 21, ‘breeding and raising game birds’ (p. 1) until the family was transferred to another part of the estate where his father became Park Keeper. As his family occupied a small part of the estate, they often encountered Royalty visiting, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Map of Watford recorded in early 1800s.

Stephen’s attitude towards his memories of childhood are those of fondness. He recalls the former Park Keeper before his father often bringing him apples, ‘He would often bring apples and hide them on an evergreen tree… he would take me to the tree and shake it and the apples would fall.’ (p. 1). He also recalls experimenting with gun powder that was left over from Prince Albert’s hunting sessions on the grounds, to which he attempted to light in a barn full of hay, leaving him with a black face and humiliated by his siblings, ‘My brothers saw me and began to laugh.’ (p. 2) Stephen’s childhood is particularly enticing, and one of the reasons I was so intrigued about the rest of his memoirs, as these detailed memories covey his personality. He appears adventurous and brave at such an early age and this characteristic is developed as his life unfolds.

“Free School” in 1840s.

Stephen’s first recollection of school was called “My Lord’s School”, provided by the Earl of Essex, before he started a new school a few miles from this one called “Free School” where he attended until he was 14. He explains how his teaching was based on reading, writing and arithmetic, which was standard education for the working class in this period. He also attended Sunday School and often went to Church with his mother. Religion and education are also key themes throughout his memoir as they come to play huge parts in the path he takes in his life.

Religion becomes the focus of Stephen’s memoir as he writes about the Mormon community coming to town in 1849, which he became ‘thoroughly infatuated’ (p. 6) with and converted to their religion at just the age of 14. Although most of Stephen’s thoughts throughout his memoir are quite neutral and he does not go into too much detail on how he felt about certain events, he confesses that he ‘sometimes thought that my parents should have prevented me from joining this church.’ (p. 6) As he only confesses his emotions on rare events in his memoirs, it almost feels as if Stephen is revealing a secret thought about his life, which makes his writing feel all that more personal when he does.

Stephen joined the Mormon church and by the age of 21, was ordained a Priest and then had major responsibilities within the community, which is the reason he emigrated to America in the 1850s. He had to leave his job at the Silk Mills where he earned sixteen shillings per week, which was a very high wage for a young man of his age at this time, he explains. Stephen’s life in America is the primary focus of his memoirs. He spent roughly seven years in America, mostly residing in Salt Lake City where the Mormons held meetings and preached their teachings.

Mormon meetings in Salt Lake City.

Stephen’s recollections of America are what makes this memoir so interesting and enticing. His personality traits of bravery and independence are echoed throughout his journey in America. Travelling through the Great Plaines in the 1850s, he experienced death and destruction between American troops and Native Americas, or as he labels them the ‘Indians’ and he witnessed blackmail and corruption among the Mormon community. But all of these events led to meeting his first wife, who he calls his ‘Sweetheart’, who he took home to England for a few years, bearing their first child there. Stephen’s life in America is deeply intriguing and provides an insight into life in America at this time as well as England.

However, despite being raised in England, Stephen makes it clear that he preferred living in America due to the impact of class assumptions in Victorian England. When he returned home with his wife, he took up work in Birmingham in the Parcel’s Department on the ‘lowest wages’ (p. 55) he had earned in his life time. It was in this job that he experienced friction between the classes for the first time. A gentleman had reported him to his superior for the way he had spoken to him, which Stephen did not feel he had to be punished for. This was the turning point in Stephen’s life in England when felt he belonged in America.

Stephen spent the rest of his life in Sidney, Iowa. After his first wife died, he remarried, and she also fell ill. After losing both wives, he decided to move into a farmhouse with one of his daughters, where he spent his remaining years writing his memoirs and reflecting on his eventful, adventurous life.

Stephen’s memoirs were written at the age of 75, although it is unclear what age he died. At the end of his memoir he reflects on his experiences and how they differ in the two countries he called home and describes the scene from his daughter’s porch in Nebraska, ‘as the Twilight approaches, the clouds have all cleared and the sun is slowly pinking.’ (p. 67) Stephen’s memoir is a rich documentation of a working-class life, with two different experiences of culture and class across the globe. His writing is poetic in some parts, and it is clear that he values his experiences greatly. It is for this reason that I have connected with him so much, and I am honoured to have gotten the chance to read about his extraordinary life.

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