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.

Barkway

Barkway

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 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.

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.

Reflections

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.

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