(New readers should start here.)

Our story begins with the arrival in Stepney, in the closing years of the eighteenth century, of a widow and her five adult children. For Elizabeth Holdsworth, this was a return to the city of her birth: she had been born at Tower Hill in 1733 but since 1763 had lived in the Essex village of South Weald with her second husband Joseph. Elizabeth was my maternal 5 x great grandmother.


Tower Hill at the end of the seventeenth century

My maternal ancestors – Elizabeth’s forbears – had lived in London since at least the middle of the seventeenth century, when my 8 x great grandfather John Byne, the son of a Sussex clergyman, left his home village and moved to the city, where he worked as a stationer and set up home at Tower Hill. In about 1675 John married Alice Forrest, the daughter of a Worcestershire-born haberdasher. In 1701 their daughter Mary married Joseph Greene, a London goldsmith and the son of Captain William Greene of Ratcliffe, a mariner who had served as Warden of Trinity House under Samuel Pepys. In 1729 Joseph and Mary Greene’s daughter, another Mary, married John Gibson, a coal factor. I told the story of my seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London ancestors in another blog, Citizens and Cousins.

John and Mary Gibson kept two homes: a town house at Tower Hill and a country estate at Woodredon, near Waltham Abbey. Their only son, Bowes John Gibson, worked for the East India Company as an auctioneer and broker, while their daughters married farmers, merchants and mariners. Their daughter Elizabeth, my 5 x great grandmother, was briefly married to John Collins, the son of an Epping farmer, and they had one daughter, Frances, before John’s early death. In time Frances would marry her cousin, the daughter of Elizabeth’s sister Anne.

In 1763, at the age of thirty, Elizabeth married her second husband Joseph Holdsworth, a Yorkshireman who had inherited a farm at South Weald near Brentwood and who served the parish as a councillor, overseer of the poor and member of the leet jury. Over the course of the next ten years, Joseph and Elizabeth Holdsworth would have seven children, all of them christened at the church of St Peter’s, South Weald: Elizabeth, born in 1764; John, 1765; Henry, 1766; Sarah, 1767; Joseph, 1770; William, 1771; and Godfrey, 1773. Elizabeth Holdsworth the younger died at the age of sixteen, and it’s not known what became of Henry.

At some point during this period, Joseph and Elizabeth Holdsworth’s fortunes seem to have experienced a steep decline. All of the surviving Holdsworth children moved to London on reaching adulthood, probably because of a lack of opportunities in their home village, but also perhaps due to the family’s deteriorating economic circumstances. The 1790s were a decade of poor harvests and rising prices, culminating in the ‘famine year’ of 1795, in addition to the problems created by war with France and political unrest and repression at home.


Entrance to London from the Mile End or Whitechapel Turnpike in 1798, by Thomas Rowlandson © Museum of London

Elizabeth would make her own move back to the city some time after Joseph’s death in 1795. Stepney was a natural destination, since Elizabeth’s mother Mary Gibson had moved there following the death of her own husband, and Elizabeth’s brother Bowes John would also make his home there for a time. These relatives owned houses in Mile End Old Town, at the time a genteel semi-rural suburb just outside the gates of the city. Elizabeth’s own circumstances, however, seem to have been far from genteel: she left very little money in her will, and her children worked as (or in Sarah’s case married) tradesmen and craftsmen, their occupations decidedly humbler than the professions pursued by Elizabeth’s forbears, or even by her brother.

Elizabeth Holdsworth would live for fourteen years after the death of her husband Joseph. By the time she died in 1809, she had as many as twenty-two surviving grandchildren. At the time of her death Elizabeth was living in Mile End Old Town, probably with her daughter Sarah, whom she appointed as her co-executor, and whose story will be the subject of the next post.