Now that we’ve explored the lives of Phoebe and Sarah, two of the daughters of my 4 x great grandfather William Holdsworth, we come at last to the story of their sister Eliza, my 3 x great grandmother. The first point to note is that she mustn’t be confused with her cousin and namesake, the daughter of her uncle John Holdsworth, whose life we have already discussed. The two cousins had a lot in common, not least the fact that they both spent much of their lives in domestic service, both followed their employers to other parts of the country, and both worked for a time in the homes of clergymen. But the key difference between them is that, whereas the first Eliza Holdsworth never married, her cousin, my 3 x great grandmother, was married twice and raised five children.


Eliza Holdsworth’s birth recorded in the Nonconformist Register

Eliza Holdsworth was born on 19th April 1801, the fourth child of Baptist shoemaker William Holdsworth and his wife Lydia Evans. As noted in an earlier post, Eliza’s birth was recorded in the Nonconformist Register held at Dr Williams’ Library. Although Eliza was born on Mile End Road in Stepney, she spent most of her childhood in nearby Bethnal Green, to which her parents moved when she just a few years old. In 1817, when Eliza was sixteen years old, her brother Samuel married Lucy Roberts. In 1820, when she was nineteen, her older sister Phoebe married bricklayer Thomas Chamberlin. And in 1821, when Eliza was twenty, her younger sister Sarah married silk weaver Thomas Parker.

These three siblings would remain in London, Samuel living in Stepney, while Phoebe and Sarah stayed close to home in Bethnal Green. Why Eliza didn’t follow their example and find work, and a husband, in London, is something of a mystery. Nor do we know when, or why, she moved away from London as a young woman. What is certain is that, on 25th April 1825, soon after celebrating her twenty-fourth birthday, Eliza Holdsworth was married in the (oddly named) church of St Edward or St James in the village of Blunham, about eight miles to the east of Bedford.


Blunham parish church, Bedfordshire, in 2015 (author’s photograph)

How did Eliza come to be there? Given what we know of her later employment, and the path trodden by other young Holdsworth women, there’s a strong possibility that she left London to take up a post as a live-in domestic servant. There were very few other employment opportunities for unmarried women in early nineteenth-century England, and as the daughter of a tradesman, Eliza would have been expected to earn her keep as soon as she reached her teenage years. As for why she ended up in Bedfordshire, another (not incompatible) explanation is that Eliza went to live with, or close to, her mother’s family. At Eliza’s wedding in 1825, two of the witnesses were Mary Evans and William Bowtell, the latter being the husband of Mary’s sister Martha. Mary and Martha were the daughters of Caleb Evans, a malt-maker and Baptist deacon in the town of Biggleswade, about six miles to the south of Blunham. Caleb’s wife Ann Marsom came from a long-established Bedfordshire Baptist family, whose members had included a close associate of John Bunyan. My theory is that Eliza’s maternal grandfather, Francis Evans, was related to the Evans family of Biggleswade.

Not only did Eliza have possible family ties to Biggleswade, but the man she married in April 1825 also lived in the town. Daniel Roe was a shoemaker, like Eliza’s father, with a shop in Stratton Street, in the centre of Biggleswade. This makes the couple’s decision not only to marry in Blunham, but to return there a year later for the christening of their first child, somewhat puzzling. Did Eliza live and work in Blunham before her marriage, possibly as a servant in the household of the rector, the Rev Robert Porten Beachcroft, who officiated on both occasions and who was an Evangelical known to be sympathetic to the local Baptist congregation? After all, Eliza would later work as a servant in another clerical household, that of Rev Robert Merry in nearby Guilden Morden. Unfortunately, there are no census or other records that would enable us to track Eliza’s movements between leaving her home in Bethnal Green and her marriage to Daniel Roe in 1825.

Daniel’s origins are somewhat obscure, but he seems to have been the son of John Roe, another shoemaker, and his wife Hannah Role, who were married in Layston, near Buntingford in Hertfordshire, in January 1795. Besides Daniel, who was born in about 1800, they had three daughters, Elizabeth, Martha and Ann, who were married to James King, John Sharp and John Mays respectively, and all of whom lived in the same north-eastern corner of Hertfordshire, close to the border with Cambridgeshire. John and Hannah Roe, Daniel’s parents, appear to have moved a few miles further south: Hannah died in the Butchery Green area of Hertford in 1821, while John spent his final days in the Hertford Union Workhouse, where he died in 1835.


Daniel and Eliza Roe made their home above Daniel’s workshop in Stratton Street, Biggleswade, which is where their eldest child Anna Maria was born early in 1826. Over the course of the next few years, the couple would also have three sons – Richard John in 1828, my great great grandfather Daniel junior in 1829, and Caleb in 1833 – and another daughter, Eliza, in 1834.

Daniel Roe senior died in 1836, from unknown causes, leaving Eliza as a relatively young widow to provide for five young children, which she seems to have done by starting (or returning) to work as a domestic servant. Oddly, Eliza appears to have been counted twice in the census of 1841. She and her children were living either in Sand Pitts, near Biggleswade High Street and not far from the Evans and Bowtell families, or in a house in St Andrews Street to the west of the town. The duplicate entry might be explained by the fact that Eliza and her eldest daughter Anna Maria (already, at the age of fifteen, following in her mother’s footsteps) were working as servants for a family in the second location when the census was taken.

Anna Maria Roe died in 1844, at the age of eighteen, again from causes unknown; she was buried in the Baptist burial ground in Biggleswade. Shortly afterwards, Eliza and her surviving children began to leave the town, drawn back to the shelter of Eliza’s family in Bethnal Green and Stepney, though both of Eliza’s parents were dead by this time. Eliza, Daniel junior and the young Eliza appear to have moved to London shortly after Anna Maria’s death. Caleb would stay behind in Biggleswade for a time, working as a servant, before also coming south to the city. The only one of the Roe siblings never to move to London was Richard, who would be apprenticed to a carpenter in Barkway and eventually marry there, before emigrating to Australia.

The first record we have for the Roe family after their arrival in London is for Eliza’s own second marriage, on 11th September 1845, to John Sharp, a widower, at the church of St George-in-the-East. The couple both gave their address as 16 Chapel Street, and Eliza’s sister Sarah and her husband Thomas Parker were witnesses. John Sharp was a carpenter and publican in Barkway, in north-east Hertfordshire: he was also the widower of Martha Roe, the sister of Eliza’s late husband Daniel. Martha had died in May 1845, just four months before John’s marriage to Eliza. So this appears to have been a case of a recently bereaved brother-in-law and sister-in-law coming together, probably for economic and social convenience, since (as we shall see) there is little evidence that John and Eliza Sharp ever actually lived together.

The next record that we have for the Roes is for the marriage of Eliza’s son Daniel, to Mary Ann Blanch, the daughter of Eliza’s cousin Keziah Holdsworth and her husband John Blanch. The ceremony took place on 30th October 1848, at what seems to have been the family’s favourite church of St Anne, Limehouse. Daniel and Mary Ann Blanch were my great great grandparents. Given that Daniel Roe junior would work as a shoemaker, like his father, I’ve often wondered if he was apprenticed to his future father-in-law, also a shoemaker. They would certainly work together at a later date. As we noted in discussing the first marriage of James Blanch, John’s father, it was quite common for apprentices to marry their masters’ daughters: though in this case, there was the added factor that Daniel and Mary Ann were already related.


Part of an old map of Hertfordshire, with Layston, Buntingford, Barkway and Nuthampstead visible close to the eastern border of the county

The next of the Roe siblings to marry was Richard, who wed Fanny Elizabeth Debney in March 1850. The wedding took place at the church of St George, Hanover Square, in the west end of London, even though the couple were living with Fanny’s family in Layston, Hertfordshire. Once again, Thomas and Sarah Parker were present as witnesses. Fanny was the daughter of William Debney, a currier in Layston. In 1847 Richard Roe had been apprenticed, at the age of seventeen years and six months, to Nathan Warren, a carpenter and builder in nearby Buntingford, for a period of three years. The fee of £20 was paid by his stepfather John Sharp.


Indenture certificate for Richard Roe (via Julie Mapletoft Campbell)

At the time of the 1851 census, a year after their marriage, Richard and Fanny could be found living in Buntingford High Street, with Fanny’s widowed father William and his teenage sons Alfred, Arthur and Charles, as well as Richard’s and Fanny’s ten-month-old-daughter Emily. Two years later, Richard, Fanny and Emily would sail on the Marian Moore from Liverpool to Australia, where they would settle in Clunes in the state of Victoria, eventually adding six more children to the family. Fanny died in Clunes 1876 in Clunes and Richard in Wunghnu in 1915.



Richard and Fanny Roe, with two of their children

Back in England, the youngest Roe sibling, Eliza, was following the example of her mother and namesake. At the time of the 1851 census she was working as a domestic servant in the Upper Tulse Hill household of Clarissa Clark, a merchant’s widow. Two year later, in April 1853, Eliza Roe the younger married her first cousin Thomas Parker junior, a baker and the son of her mother’s sister Sarah Parker née Holdsworth, at the church of St George-in-the-East.

Seventeen-year-old Caleb Roe was the only member of the family remaining in Biggleswade in 1851. He was working as a general servant in the household of Edward Argles, a solicitor in Stratton Street. Caleb must have moved to London at some point in the next few years, since in July 1856 he would get married at St Jude’s church in Bethnal Green, to dressmaker Sabina Collinson. She was the daughter of Shoreditch-born carver and gilder Enoch Collinson and his wife Ann Wingrove, with whom Sabina and Caleb were living at the time of their marriage, at 10 Albion Buildings, to the west of Cambridge Heath Road and south of Hackney Road, near Felix Street.


Eliza Roe née Holdsworth in old age

As for Eliza Sharp, formerly Roe, née Holdsworth, by 1851 she had left London again and was employed as a nursery servant in the home of the Walbey family, wealthy farmers and landowners in the village of Nuthampstead, while her husband John was living a couple of miles away in Barkway High Street. In 1861 Eliza was still living away from home and working as a domestic servant, but by now she had moved to the home of Rev Robert Merry, the vicar of Guilden Morden, just across the county border in Cambridgeshire. Interestingly, the abbreviation ‘m’ for married has been crossed out in the census record and ‘u’ for unmarried substituted, casting further doubt on the status of Eliza’s marriage to John Sharp.

Ten years later, Eliza was still with the Merry family, but by now Rev Merry had died and his widow had moved with her children to Tormorham near Torquay, Devon. Mary Ann Merry took Eliza, as well as a number of other servants, with her, promoting her from nurse to housekeeper. What’s most striking here is that Eliza was still working as a domestic servant at the age of sixty-nine. As a working-class woman with no other means of support, I suspect she had little choice. Curiously, according to the 1871 census record Eliza had reverted to her previous married name of Roe, although I’ve discovered that John Sharp was still alive and living in the workhouse at Bassingbourn, Cambridgeshire: evidence of the narrow dividing line between poverty and penury in Victorian England. He died there later that year.

Some time between 1871 and 1881 Eliza finally retired from working as a domestic servant and went to live with her daughter Eliza and her family in Camberwell, south London. However, her retirement was all too brief, and she died in 1885, at the age of eighty-four.