A life in service

In the last post I wrote about my interest in family history. I argued that a great deal of genealogical research tends to treats women’s lives as a sideshow to the main pursuit of tracing the male line. In a bid to correct this, I’ve decided to share the stories of three remarkable female ancestors whose lives I’ve researched, reflecting on what their biographies can tell us about the changing experience of women and the changing nature of family relationships.

In this post, I want to provide an overview of what I’ve managed to discover about the life of my maternal great great great grandmother Eliza Holdworth, who spent most of her life in domestic service.

Birth and family background

Eliza Holdsworth’s life spanned much of the nineteenth century. She was born on 19th April 1801, in the 41st year of the reign of George III and died in 1885, in the 48th year of Victoria’s long reign. Eliza was born on Mile End Road, Stepney, which was then a semi-rural suburb on the edge of London, but which by the time of her death would be a densely-populated district at the heart of the Victorian East End.

Mile End Road in 1798, a few years before Eliza was born

Mile End Road in 1798, a few years before Eliza was born

Eliza was the fourth of six children. Her parents were William Holdsworth, a shoemaker, and Lydia Evans. William had been born in the village of South Weald, Essex, in 1771, the son of Yorkshire-born farmer Joseph Holdsworth and his London-born wife Elizabeth Gibson (whose ‘riches-to-rags’ story I’ll share in another post). Lydia was the daughter of Francis and Elizabeth Evans. Although William and Lydia had married at the Anglican parish church of St Botolph, Bishopsgate, London, in November 1792, we know that they were Dissenters. The records of Little Alie Street Baptist Chapel in Whitechapel show that they were admitted to membership there in the summer of 1798.

In the early years of their marriage, William and Lydia lived in Marmaduke Street, Stepney, and that was their address when Eliza’s older siblings Isaac, Samuel and Phoebe were born. Isaac Holdsworth seems to have died in infancy, but Samuel and Phoebe survived, and would have been six and five years old respectively when their sister Eliza was born. Eliza Holdsworth’s arrival in the world was recorded in the Nonconformist register held at Dr Williams’ Library.

Eliza Holdsworth's birth registration certificate

Eliza Holdsworth’s birth registration certificate

In 1803, when Eliza was nearly two years old, her younger brother Edward was born and in 1806 she gained a younger sister, Sarah. By this time the Holdsworths were living in Wilmot Street, on the edge of Bethnal Green. In 1817, when Eliza was sixteen years old, her brother Samuel married Lucy Roberts at the church of St George the Martyr, across the river in Southwark. Three years later in 1820, Eliza’s sister Phoebe married bricklayer Thomas Chamberlin at St John’s, Hackney. And in 1821, Eliza’s younger sister Sarah married silk weaver Thomas Parker at the church of St George-in-the-East. 

Bedfordshire and first marriage 

We can’t be sure when or why Eliza Holdsworth moved from London to Bedfordshire, but she was certainly there by 1825, when she was married in the parish church of Blunham, about 8 miles to the east of Bedford. Given her later occupation, and that of other young women in the family, 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 respectable but poor tradesman, Eliza would have been expected to earn her keep as soon as she reached her teenage years.

The village of Blunham, Bedfordshire, a hundred years ago

The village of Blunham, Bedfordshire, a hundred years ago

Another possible but not incompatible explanation is that Eliza moved to Bedfordshire to stay with 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 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 Evanses of Biggleswade.

On 25th April 1825, a few days after her twenty-fourth birthday, Eliza Holdsworth married Daniel Roe in Blunham. Daniel was a shoemaker, like Eliza’s father. He lived in Biggleswade, so the couple’s decision to marry in Blunham, and to return there a year later for the christening of their first child, is something of a mystery. 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 (see below).

Daniel Roe’s workshop was in Stratton Street, in the centre of Biggleswade, which is where he and Eliza were living when their eldest daughter Anna Maria was born early in 1826. In the next few years, the couple would have three sons – Richard in 1828, Daniel junior (my great great grandfather) in 1829 and Caleb in 1833 – and another daughter, Eliza, born in 1834.

Biggleswade Old Town Hall

Daniel Roe died in about 1836, 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 the 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 15, following in her mother’s footsteps) were working as servants for a family in the second location when the census was taken.

Eliza must have been distraught when Anna Maria died in 1844, at the tender age of 18; 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 Stepney (although both of Eliza’s parents were dead by this time). Eliza, Daniel junior and the younger Eliza appear to have moved to Stepney shortly after Anna Maria’s death. Caleb would stay behind in Biggleswade for a time, working as a servant in a solicitor’s house in Stratton Street, before also moving to Stepney. His brother Richard remained in the area for longer, being apprenticed as a carpenter in the village of Barkway in north Hertfordshire. 

A second marriage of convenience?

The parish register of the church of St George-in-the-East, Stepney, notes that on 11th September 1845 Eliza Roe, a widow, married John Sharp, a widower. John was a carpenter in Barkway and it seems fairly certain that he had been married previously to Martha Roe, who may have been Daniel Roe senior’s sister. Martha had died in May 1845, four months before John’s marriage to Eliza. So this may have been a case of a recently bereaved brother-in-law and sister-in-law coming together, probably for economic and social convenience. I noted in my last post that I’d found definite examples of people marrying for love, and of companionate marriages, in my family history, defying the usual stereotypes. However, I’m not sure that my great great great grandmother Eliza’s second marriage fell into this category, and reviewing the evidence from later records, I wonder if she and John Sharp ever actually lived together.

In July 1848, Eliza’s son Daniel married Mary Ann Blanch at the church of St Anne’s, Limehouse. Mary Ann was Daniel’s second cousin, the daughter of Eliza’s cousin Keziah Holdsworth and John Blanch, another shoemaker. It’s possible that Daniel, who would also work as a shoemaker, had been apprenticed to his future father-in-law (apparently it was common for apprentices to marry the daughters of their masters). In March 1851, Eliza’s son Richard married Fanny Elizabeth Debney in the village of Layston near Barkway. A few years later, Richard and Fanny would emigrate to Australia, and I doubt if Eliza ever saw her son again. Meanwhile the youngest member of the family, Eliza, was following her mother’s example, and working as domestic servant in the Tulse Hill home of a wealthy merchant’s widow. In April 1853 Eliza Roe junior married her cousin Thomas Parker junior, a baker, at the church of St George-in-the-East, Stepney. Three years later, in July 1856 her brother Caleb, now working as a carpenter like his brother Richard, was married at the church of St Jude, Bethnal Green, to dressmaker Sabina Collinson.



As for Eliza Sharp, formerly Roe, née Holdsworth, the 1851 census finds her working as a nurse or 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. Eliza was nearly 60 years old when the next census was taken in 1861. She was still living away from home and working as a domestic servant, but by now she had moved to the household 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.

Meanwhile, Eliza’s son Daniel, his wife Mary Ann and their children were living in Soho, where they had moved with Mary Ann’s parents from Bethnal Green. Richard Roe and his family were now settled in Australia, while Eliza’s other son Caleb, his wife Sabina and their children were living in Shoreditch. Eliza junior, her husband Thomas (now working for the Indian Military Stores) and their children could been found in Walworth in south London. 

Old age and death

Eliza in old age

Eliza in old age

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 69. As a working-class woman with no visible 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.

Death never seemed to be far away from poor families in the Victorian era. Eliza’s daughter-in-law Mary Ann Roe died of tuberculosis in 1870, and it seems that her son Daniel also died around the same time, leaving Mary Ann’s mother (Eliza’s cousin) Keziah Blanch to look after most of their orphaned children. Eliza’s daughter Eliza and her husband Thomas Parker were now living in Camberwell, and for a while they cared for Daniel and Mary Ann Roe’s youngest child, eight-year-old Joseph Priestley Roe, my great grandfather.

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. However, her retirement was all too brief, and she died in 1885, at the age of 84.


My great great great grandmother had spent the better part of her life in the service of the families of the Victorian middle class. The fact that she was retained by families like the Walbeys and the Merrys for so long, and trusted with their children and with managing their household affairs, suggests that she had a reputation for reliability and hard work. But the stability and continuity of her employment came at a high price. By the time she retired, Eliza had seen two husbands and two of her children die, and another child emigrate to the other side of the world. She had only enjoyed eleven years of married life with her first husband, Daniel, before his early death, during which time she was preoccupied with giving birth to and looking after five children.

Eliza Holdsworth’s life story undermines the stereotypical view of Victorian women as homemakers who didn’t work outside the home and depended on a husband to provide for them. This may have been true of middle-class women, but from her youth, Eliza had no choice but to work, and for only a few precious years was she able to depend on a husband’s income. After her first husband Daniel’s death she barely lived at home, since as a domestic servant she was fated to spend most of her remaining years in the houses of others, at the beck and call of other people’s children, rather than spending precious time with her own children and grandchildren. And yet somehow she kept going, and survived, and made it possible for those children and grandchildren to survive and thrive. I admire the love and courage that must have driven her, and to which I and all her descendants owe so much.

Posted in Family relationships, History, Mothers, Women and girls | Leave a comment

On feminism and family history

When I tell people that one of my interests is family history, they tend to smile indulgently. Genealogy doesn’t have a great image: it’s often associated with older people with too much time on their hands, obsessively poring over obscure archives. But as someone who has always been passionate about history, and especially social history, researching the story of my family has simply been my ‘way in’ to exploring aspects of the past that I’ve wanted to know more about. Whenever I manage to push my family tree back another generation, or another century, it’s a pretext for immersing myself in the events and way of life of that period.

Without being too pompous about it, I also believe that researching, and writing, the stories of people hitherto hidden from history has a moral and political purpose. To adapt the words of the late E. P. Thompson in The Making of The English Working Class, my aim has been to rescue from obscurity the servants, shoemakers, laundresses and law clerks whose lives created the conditions for my own – and without whom I wouldn’t be here. And then, of course, there’s the sheer enjoyment to be had from the detective work of chasing down new information about one’s ancestors.

Crowds at the annual 'Who do you think you are?' exhibition at the NEC

The popular ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ exhibition at the NEC

My interest in family history was first awakened when I was a teenager, and my father’s cousin Edna visited from New Zealand. She used her time over here to explore the history of the Robb family, and discovered some intriguing information about our Scottish roots. Edna left us with a few typed extracts from a long-lost family Bible, out of which I constructed the beginnings of a family tree. Some years later, the advent of the internet renewed my curiosity, and I was able to use websites such as Ancestry and Scotland’s People to fill in some of the gaps in the story of my family. Eventually I started a blog, Past Lives, to record my findings, and this had led to three spin-off blogs in which I’ve explored the lives of Catholic recusants and religious dissenters linked to my family, as well as the history of the Essex estate where I grew up.

To begin with, I was much more interested in my father’s family than my mother’s. Both of my parents’ families have their roots in the East End of London, where I was born. However, the Robbs’ origins in Scotland, not to mention their supposed aristocratic connections and involvement in the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, gave them a particularly romantic allure. My mother’s family of East End and Essex labourers and gravediggers just couldn’t compete.

Mains of Badenscoth farm, Auchterless, Aberdeenshire, where my ancestors lived in the early 18th century

Mains of Badenscoth farm, Auchterless, Aberdeenshire, where my ancestors lived in the early 18th century

At the same time, I think I was also influenced by the intrinsically patriarchal nature of family history. As a result of our naming system, whereby women (at least until recently) automatically assumed their husband’s surname on marriage (unlike countries like Spain, where children tend to retain their mother’s as well as their father’s surname), genealogy has tended to focus on tracing the male line in families. Women often feature as something of an adjunct, attracting less interest from genealogists, despite the fact that genetically we are as much the products of our mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers as of our fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers. I have to admit that I was initially as guilty as anyone of this gender bias, obsessed as I was with tracing the Robb line back through the generations, and failing to follow up the women who married into the family, even though they were just as much my ancestors as the men.

I spent a number of years energetically pursuing the history of my father’s family, back to a village in eighteenth-century Aberdeenshire. But at some point the available records ran out and I hit a brick wall. It was then that I turned to my mother’s family, without any great expectations to begin with. However, by linking up with other researchers online, and thanks to the substantial number of records available for the London area, I was able to trace this branch of my family tree much further back, and it turned out to be rather more interesting than I’d imagined.

In Common People, Alison Light’s book about her own quest to discover her family’s history, she suggests that if any of us go back far enough, we’ll find that we stand on the shoulders of countless generations of anonymous labourers and servants. My experience was almost exactly the opposite. In the late 19th and early 20th century my mother’s family were poor, working-class and definitely hidden from history, but further back it was a different story. I discovered that my maternal ancestors included a wealthy eighteenth-century coal trader who was convicted of defrauding the Crown, a seventeenth-century sea captain who was an associate of Samuel Pepys, a Civil War-era vicar who wrote a notorious diatribe against the Quakers, a Tudor schoolmaster who held on doggedly to his Catholic faith after the Reformation – and going back beyond them, a succession of wealthy landowners and ironmasters in late medieval Sussex. It all seemed a long way from my memory of my Nan, my mother’s mother, in her tiny terraced house in East Ham.

My Nan, Minnie Louisa Roe and my Grandad, George John Londors, on their wedding day in 1925

My Nan, Minnie Louisa Roe and my Grandad, George John Londors, on their wedding day in 1925

The list of remarkable ancestors that I cited above just happen all to have been men. But one of the really fascinating things about exploring my mother’s family history has been uncovering, and reconstructing, the life stories of a number of equally remarkable women. The detailed investigation of individual lives in one’s family history tends to undermine easy stereotypes about family life in the past. For example, I’ve discovered evidence that some of my ancestors certainly married ‘for love’ rather than simple convenience, and that many of them enjoyed what we would recognise as companionate marriages. And some women, especially those from more middle-class backgrounds, were able to be relatively independent economically and even to run family businesses. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that most of my female ancestors led lives that were far more constrained than their male contemporaries, and that were often dominated by a seemingly endless round of childbirth and domestic toil, often resulting in early death.

Against this background, the courage and resilience of some of my female forebears stand out as truly impressive. I thought it might be interesting to bring together my personal interest in family history and my academic interest in gender and family relationships, and to tell some of these women’s stories in this blog, at the same time reflecting on what their biographies reveal about the changing experience of women and of family relationships. So, in future posts, I’m going to be focusing on the lives of three remarkable women, all direct ancestors of mine, one from the nineteenth, one from the eighteenth and one from the seventeenth century. I’ll be starting with my great-great-great-grandmother, Eliza Holdsworth, who spent the best part of her life as a domestic servant in the houses of the well-to-do.

Posted in Family relationships, History, Mothers, Research, Women and girls | Leave a comment

Bernie and Larry and me: an extremely tenuous connection to the US presidential election

With Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont making waves in the US Democratic primary campaign, it’s not surprising that the media in this country have been featuring interviews with his brother Larry, who has lived here for many years. Listening to Larry talking, often quite emotionally, about his brother ‘Bernard’, has brought back memories of when we worked together on the Berinsfield estate in Oxfordshire in the 1980s. I was the Community Education Organiser for the area, and Larry was one of two social workers who had the estate as their ‘patch’.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders

Berinsfield is a post-war housing estate, a ‘new village’, built as an overspill estate for working-class families from nearby Oxford. It quickly gained a reputation as a ‘sink’ estate, particularly after the main local employer went out of business, and then the controversial closure of its secondary school. Marooned in the Oxfordshire countryside, cut off by ring roads, and dependent on unreliable public transport, the local population suffered from many disadvantages, but were fiercely proud of their community.

My post was based in a tiny office – a converted store cupboard, really – in the local primary school, and my job was to organise educational opportunities for people living on the estate and in the neighbouring, more affluent, villages. I’d come from running an education day centre for ex-offenders and other disadvantaged groups in inner London, in the heyday of the GLC, the miners’ strike and anti-racism campaigns. Arriving on a windswept rural housing estate, with a virtually all-white population, and little or no infrastructure or funding, and where my management committee included the local lord of the manor, was, to say the least, a bit of a culture shock.

In this context, I found my contacts in the local social work team something of a lifeline. I worked most closely with the community social worker, Halina Pasiecznik, and together we organised a number of initiatives, based around the school and the estate’s unemployment project, which included a family centre. It was through Halina that I met Larry Sanders. Larry was a widower: his late wife Margaret had also been closely involved with the Berinsfield community, and indeed the local branch of the Workers’ Educational Association – an all-women group – was and still is named after her. It was odd at first to see this larger-than-life New Yorker, with his unmistakable accent and fund of Yiddish expletives, dropped into the English countryside. But Larry was absolutely dedicated to this struggling working-class community, and the local people loved him.

Although I had the word ‘adult’ in brackets after my job title, part of my brief was to look after the needs of what were officially termed ‘disaffected’ school pupils – in other words, truants, most of whom were boys. Since Berinsfield’s own secondary school had closed, children were bussed daily to and from one of the schools in Abingdon, seven or eight miles away. The journey provided multiple opportunities for ‘bunking off’: either deliberately missing the bus and hanging around the estate or getting off the bus in the town centre, with the opportunities it offered for illicit activities such as shoplifting.

There was a small group of boys who were persistent offenders, and whom the schools had virtually given up on. Larry and his co-worker Ginny had responsibility for some of them and used to run a group for them one evening a week. Halina and I started to go along and as a result we came up with the idea of doing something to make up for the education that the boys were missing. As an education worker I had access to some of the mobile classrooms on the site of the abandoned school. Maybe we could scrape together some equipment and materials and invite the boys to come along in the daytime for some kind of informal educational activity, rather than hanging around and getting into trouble?

We managed to secure a meeting with the director of education for Oxfordshire, Tim Brighouse, who had a reputation as something of a radical. However, to say that he was unsupportive of our proposal would be an understatement. Looking back, I now realise that he couldn’t possibly endorse any venture that might be seen as encouraging young people to stay away from school and get their education elsewhere. As we saw it, the boys weren’t going to school anyway, so why not provide something positive for them?

My recollection is that, even after our official rejection, we continued to provide activities for the boys ‘under the radar’. I recall bleak mornings in draughty classrooms, trying to find imaginative ways to interest the boys in learning. We led some of the classes ourselves, but we also found a local volunteer, Ruth, who was home-schooling her own children and was happy to add a few more to her flock. In retrospect, it was all a bit thrown together and chaotically ‘alternative’, and I’m not sure what the ‘me’ of 2016 would have made of it all.

I left Berinsfield in 1989, to take up a post running an adult basic education project in Milton Keynes, and then two years later moved on to The Open University. Larry eventually retired from social work and became a Green Party councillor in Oxford, and more recently a parliamentary candidate. I occasionally see his name attached to campaigns and petitions, and I often find myself in disagreement with him on key issues. But I recognise, and admire, his continuing dedication to the wellbeing of the disadvantaged and downtrodden. It’s the same passion that seems to be driving his brother Bernie’s presidential campaign, and which an increasing number especially of young people appear to find appealing. Even though I’m pretty sure that, were I a US citizen, I wouldn’t vote for Bernie Sanders, when I hear him speak, I hear the same passion and commitment, and the same unmistakable Brooklyn accent, that I remember fondly from my days working in Berinsfield, and that I associate with his brother, my former colleague.

Posted in Boys and young men, Community, Education | Leave a comment

‘This Boy’

I’ve been reading This Boy: A Memoir of A Childhood by Alan Johnson, the Labour MP, ex-Home Secretary and former union leader. As one of the reviewers quoted on the cover says, it’s probably the best memoir by a politician that you’ll ever read: a beautifully-written, moving and often humorous account of a poverty-stricken and emotionally difficult London childhood in the 1950s. Johnson’s book can be read on a number of levels: as an indictment of the harsh conditions in which many working-class families lived before the economic boom and social reforms of the Sixties, as an account of London in the era of race riots and the early stirrings of youth culture, or even as the story of one young man’s failed attempt to break into the music industry.

This Boy cover

However, as an academic interested in questions of childhood, gender and relationships, I was particularly struck by the depiction of Johnson’s disrupted family life and its impact on him as a young man. On one level, the book can be read as an extended and heartfelt tribute, even a love letter, to his late mother, who died when Alan was in his early teens. Abandoned by her unreliable and abusive husband and suffering from the heart condition that would eventually kill her, Lily Johnson brought up two children – Alan and his older sister Linda – in appallingly unhealthy conditions in condemned housing in Notting Hill. After her death, Alan was looked after by his sister, who was herself only sixteen at the time, and it is the love, courage and resilience of these two women that shine through the book.

In a sense, Johnson’s memoir provides confirmation that women are able to provide positive role models for boys as well as girls. The reader certainly comes away with the impression that it was Lily’s clear moral sense (she was a fierce opponent of those fomenting racial discord in west London at this period), as well as her dedication to her children and aspirations for their future, that provided the inspiration for her son’s later achievements.

In the second volume of his memoir, which I’ve yet to read, Johnson writes: ‘I had the example of my own father to guide me in what not to do – a kind of reverse role model’ (thanks to Sandy Ruxton for this quotation). When his father, Steve, finally abandons the family, Alan and his sister Linda feel nothing but relief:

For me, it was a red-letter day; a Saturday I would always remember for the happiness I felt when I was sure Steve had really gone. The sense of exhilaration floods back every time my mind returns to that morning…My dread was not that Steve would be lost to me for ever but that he might come back…For Linda and me, Steve’s departure marked the end of a terrible life and the start of a brighter future.

Johnson’s attitude to Steve’s departure is something of a rebuke to those who suggest that having a father around is always preferable to not having one. Nor is there any evidence in Johnson’s story to support the theory that boys with absent fathers tend to look for alternative male role models elsewhere, often with negative consequences:

There are no surrogate fathers in this story. The lack of any meaningful relationship with Steve did not spur me to seek an alternative father figure. In fact it had the opposite effect: it made me mistrustful of men in general and uncomfortable in their presence. I much preferred being with women.

Johnson’s appreciation and admiration of women seems to have stayed with him, though his later friendships with other men suggest that his mistrust of masculinity was only temporary. However, Johnson does reflect on the kind of father he would like to have had, if things had been different: ‘But if I had been inclined to fantasise about the ideal father…Albert Cox would have been my choice.’ Albert was the father of Johnson’s close friend, Tony Cox, and he was invited to live with the family for a time after his mother’s death. For Johnson, Albert Cox ‘epitomised the kind of steady, decent, hard-working man who had fought the war in the forties and delivered the peace in the fifties…. Mr Cox provided for his family: not only did he dedicate all his wages…to ensure their wellbeing, he devoted his spare time to the same cause.’

Of course this is very much a Fifties ideal of the father as breadwinner and provider. However, from other comments we gather that Albert Cox was also an affectionate husband: Johnson describes Mr and Mrs Cox snuggling together on the sofa each evening and watching television with their ritual glass of whiskey. For Johnson, it seems to have been Albert Cox’s reliability and consistency of care, as well as his obvious affection for his family, that marked him out as something of a model father.

This Boy exemplifies the way in which personal accounts of childhood, and of family relationships, can serve to disrupt easy stereotypes about gender roles and their impact on children’s wellbeing and development. Of course, Alan Johnson’s childhood would have been materially and emotionally richer if he had experienced the care of two loving parents. But his story is a reminder that simplistic generalisations about the impact, especially on boys, of ‘absent fathers’ and ‘lone mothers’ can sometimes misrepresent the complexities of real-life experience.

Posted in Boys and young men, Culture, Fathers, Masculinities, Mothers, Politics, Women and girls | 1 Comment

Remembering Jeff

Yesterday I received the sad news that Jeff Hunt had died. Jeff was an Open University postgraduate research student, and I was one of his supervisors, along with Rose Capdevila. Jeff had a longterm medical condition and suffered from frequent and prolonged bouts of ill health. He told us that doctors often expressed surprise that he had survived so long. Nevertheless, Jeff’s death comes as a profound shock and my thoughts today are with his wife Kate, who supported him in his studies and in so much else, and with their two daughters, to whom Jeff was devoted.

Jeff came from a background in computing but he had developed a passion for psychology and a fascination with psychoanalytic theory, which he was keen to apply to an examination of fatherhood, and particularly the connection between fathering experience and masculine identities. He originally approached Wendy Hollway, then Professor of Psychology at the OU, but since she was unable to take on more PhD students Wendy suggested that he contact me. Like me, Jeff was deeply influenced by Wendy’s work, in particular her application of the ideas of Melanie Klein to the study of identities and relationships, as well as her development of the Free Association Narrative Interview method.

Rose and I enjoyed many stimulating conversations with Jeff about theory and methodology, and a couple of years ago he gave a well-received presentation on his research plans to a postgraduate seminar at Walton Hall. However, Jeff’s health problems meant that he had frequently to suspend his studies for long periods, and every attempt by him to get started on empirical work was eventually frustrated. Not that he let that dampen his enthusiasm. Even during his times in hospital, Jeff would keep on reading, thinking and emailing us with ideas. On one occasion he even carried out a pilot interview with a patient in the next bed. That was the kind of person Jeff was: full of boundless mental energy and determination, and immensely courageous, in the most challenging of personal circumstances.

It was a privilege to know him.


Posted in Fathers, Masculinities, Research, Students | Leave a comment

Parenting and distance

In June this year the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent is organising a conference on ‘Parenting and Personhood: Cross-cultural perspectives on expertise, family life and risk management’. The Children, Young People and Families Research Group, based in the Faculty of Health and Social Care at The Open University, will be presenting a paper at the conference. The topic we’ve chosen to focus on is ‘Parenting and distance’.

There’s a tendency to think of parenting as something that depends on close, intimate and regular contact (hence perhaps the moral panic about ‘absent’ fathers). But what are the implications for parenting practice and experience when parents and children are separated for unavoidable reasons? The three exemplars that we’re focusing on, and which form the basis of research in which we’re currently engaged as a group, are: children and parents separated by migration (very topical at the moment, with charities urging the UK government to accept large numbers of unaccompanied child refugees from Syria); children in long-term residential care; and young people in prison.

The last of these three examples is of particular interest to me. My first full-time job was running a NACRO education project for (mainly) young offenders in Basildon, Essex. Then I moved to another NACRO project in inner London, which included the education day centre which I was responsible for managing, but also a residential block where we provided a temporary home for ex-prisoners who wished to continue their studies on their release. Part of my role involved visiting prisons and young offender institutions, mostly in London and Kent, to interview prospective students / residents. I became keenly aware of the difficulties involved in maintaining meaningful contact between prisoners and their families, and yet such contact was vital for the rehabilitation, especially of young offenders, into everyday life.

Rochester Young Offenders Institution: the original 'Borstal'

Rochester Young Offenders Institution in Kent: the original ‘Borstal’

The subject of ‘parenting and distance’ also forms a key dimension of another piece of research in which I’ve recently been involved. At the end of March I’ll be attending the annual conference of the American Men’s Studies Association in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where this year’s theme is ‘(Un)Masking Masculinities: Constructing and Deconstructing Representations of Masculinities.’ I attended last year’s conference in New York City, where Mike Ward and I presented a paper on our ‘Beyond Male Role Models’ study. This year, I’ll be talking about something rather different. The title of my paper is ‘”With prayer from your loving father”: faith, fatherhood and masculinity in one man’s letters to his son during World War One’. I’ll be analysing letters written by my great grandfather to my grandfather, when the latter was a private in the army awaiting embarkation to the Western Front in early 1916 (exactly one hundred years ago this month, in fact).

The letters offer an intriguing glimpse of one man ‘doing’ fatherhood under conditions of traumatic separation and extreme anxiety. I’ll be arguing that the letter writer manages the anxiety of separation by presenting a reconstruction in language of the familiar world of home and church. A number of things intrigue me about my great grandfather’s letters: not least the fact that he was a widower, and therefore arguably having to fulfil a maternal as well as paternal role towards his son. This links to a wider question that continues to engage me: what exactly is it that fathers do that’s distinctive from what mothers do, or is it just more of the same?

My grandfather, Arthur Ernest Robb, in his army uniform

My grandfather, Arthur Ernest Robb, in his army uniform

I’ve written extensively about my work on my great grandfather’s letters on this blog (if you’re interested, start here and follow the links forward). I also gave a presentation on the same topic in 2013 at a seminar on ‘Fathers and fatherhood’ organised by the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance at The Open University. You can see the Powerpoint slides for that presentation here (scroll down to the foot of the page), and you can watch a video of my talk here (second screen down).

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My interview for ‘The Telegraph’

Just before Christmas I was interviewed by Chris Moss from The Telegraph‘s ‘Thinking Man’ page as background for his end-of-year review. The article was published on 28th December and you can read the whole thing here.

Chris generously described me in the piece as an ‘expert on gender and identity’, which is certainly a gross exaggeration. I’ve had my share of disagreements with other authors commissioned by Chris (notably Glen Poole and Dan Bell), but I have to admit he quoted me very faithfully in his article.

Here are a couple of extracts:

Each new generation sweeps away some of the prejudices of the previous one. That sexuality is now viewed as something malleable is perhaps due at least in part to the way young people present themselves and share information online. While it can be argued that social media flattens identity, replacing the clan or gang with a thousand vague “Friends”, it also exposes people to attitudes not prevalent in their immediate school and class group.

“Gender equality campaigns, such as HeforShe and White Ribbon, have gained additional traction via Facebook and Twitter,” says Dr Martin Robb, an expert on gender and identity and senior lecturer at the Open University.

“Emma Watson’s speech to the UN was a case in point. Social media can certainly do a great deal to change attitudes – but whether support for change goes beyond a hashtag, or changing the colour of your profile picture on Facebook, is of course debatable.

“On the negative side, Twitter debates on gender equality, as on other issues, occasionally descend into name-calling and people adopting simplistic positions – ‘feminist’ vs. ‘men’s rights’, for example – when the issues are far more complex and nuanced.”


But 2015 was, on the whole, a positive and even groundbreaking year. The success of the South Bank’s ‘Being A Man’ festival – praised by male and female attendees alike – reflected a good vibe and open minds in the myriad debates around gender.

“I think there is definitely a generational change,” says Dr Martin Robb.

“The big ‘positive’ for me in 2015 has to be the increasing involvement of men in campaigns for gender equality…. The international movement ‘MenEngage’ held a number of high profile events, some of them around the UN Commission on the Status of Women (Beijing +20) in New York.

“It’s been good to see politicians of all parties, business leaders and campaigners agreeing that gender equality won’t happen without the active participation and support of men.”

Incidentally, the title of Chris’ piece – ‘Was 2015 the year we eradicated gender?’ – is undoubtedly what the journalist John Rentoul would call a QTWAIN.


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