Men’s care: same or different?

In my recent contribution to the webinar on men and childcare hosted by the BALTIC Centre, I drew on arguments from my book, Men, Masculinities and the Care of Children: Images, Ideas and Identities [1] to suggest that there are flaws, as well as strengths, in both ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ arguments for a greater role for men in the care and upbringing of children (while noting at the same time that ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ are both inadequate, shorthand terms for the positions I’m describing).

The main strength of the ‘conservative’ or traditionalist position derives from a belief in clearly differentiated notions of masculinity and femininity, and thus in gender complementarity, providing a powerful argument for men having a distinctive role to play in the upbringing of children and in family life generally. However, the principal weakness of the position, as I see it, is that it has no concept of masculinities as mutable and variable, and therefore little sense that some kinds of masculinity might not be good for children, or for women, and that as a consequence some men’s presence in families – and in children’s lives – might not necessarily be a good thing. Reading some ‘conservative’ accounts of the increasing absence of men from families (and I analysed a couple at length in my book), one sometimes gets the impression that, for these commentators, any man will do.

Male childcare worker (via

Turning to ‘progressive’ arguments for greater involvement by men in children’s lives (which are actually the dominant arguments in current policy debates, certainly in the UK and Europe), I suggested that their key strength is precisely that they are rooted in a social constructionist belief in the mutability of gender roles, making it possible to argue that there are no innate barriers to men being just as caring and nurturing as women. If gender is simply a social construct, which can be altered by a change in social conditioning or social structures, then there’s no essential reason why a man can’t be a stay-at-home dad, or a childcare worker – and be just as good in these roles as a woman – just as (on this view) there’s nothing stopping a woman taking up traditionally ‘masculine’ roles or occupations, such as firefighter, or CEO.

But I also highlighted what I see as a major flaw in the ‘progressive’ position, when it comes to arguing for a greater role for men in caring for children, whether in families or in the caring professions. If men’s care for children is no different – in quality or kind – from that provided by women, then on what basis should we argue for more men to be involved in childcare? Why can’t we be happy for a child to be raised by two mothers, or a single mother, or for a daycare centre, or a primary school, to be staffed entirely by women? What might men bring to the care of children that’s distinctive – or necessary? In short: what are men for, when it comes to care?

Jo Warin (via

In my view, most arguments for ‘hands on’ fatherhood, or for recruiting more men to work with children, tend to dodge these questions. Wary of falling back on essentialist ideas of innate differences between the sexes, or of articulating those differences in stereotypical ways, ‘progressive’ advocates tend to resort instead to pedagogic or political arguments. In my book, I quote Jo Warin, Professor of Gender and Social Relationships in Education at Lancaster University, and one of the UK’s leading researchers on gender and childcare, who writes:

The greater involvement of men in the care and education of children has the potential to transform gender relations…The inclusion of more male teachers and carers…can make a vital contribution to the ongoing development of a more gender-egalitarian society.

Elsewhere, Warin argues that ‘the inclusion of more men in early childhood education has the potential to challenge traditional gender roles and…is a small step in the direction of “undoing” gender and moving beyond the gender binary.’ [2]

Maurice Hamington (via care

The care ethicist Maurice Hamington, Professor of Philosophy at Portland State University, in the course of a beautiful description of his own ‘hands on’ care for his daughter, argues that ‘caregiving in this manner on the part of the father adds significance to the moral education of the child’ and that ‘acts of corporeal care by the father will break down the exclusive connection between motherhood and care.’ [3]

It’s notable that neither of these writers claims that there is anything substantially different about men’s care, or that the involvement of men will somehow improve children’s experience of being cared for. Instead, the arguments are pedagogic (men’s care will teach children something about the nature of gender) and/or political (men’s care will contribute to social change, including a change in the nature of gender relations). As I concluded (perhaps provocatively) in my book: ‘Thus, it could be argued…that progressives are not campaigning for more men to be recruited to work with children primarily for the good of children themselves, or to enhance the quality of care, but to influence the next generation of men into becoming more caring, and thus to effect social change’.

But is it really the case that there’s no difference between men’s and women’s care for children? Yes, of course, women and men are more alike than they are different, and we’re all individuals, so it’s invidious to generalise about all men or all women. But if you were to ask any mother, watching a husband or partner interacting with their child, or any parent, observing their child’s interactions with a male nursery worker, then surely they would say that yes, there is a difference of some kind, even if they found it difficult to find appropriate words to articulate that difference? 

So how do we find the language to describe the difference in men’s caring (if indeed there is a difference) without falling back on sexist language and outdated stereotypes? It’s an issue I continue to struggle with, but one I want to use future posts on this blog to explore. As always, comments and counter-arguments are welcome!


I should make it clear that nothing I’ve written here should be taken as a general criticism of either Jo Warin’s or Maurice Hamington’s work, for which I have the greatest respect. I know and have worked with both of them: Jo and I co-edited, with Yuwei Xu, a journal special issue on gender and childcare, while I recently contributed to a book on care ethics and religion that Maurice is co-editing.


  1. Robb, M. (2020) Men, Masculinities and the Care of Children: Images, Ideas and Identities, New York and London: Routledge
  2. Warin, J. (2018) Men in Early Childhood Education and Care: Gender Balance and Gender Flexibility, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
  3. Hamington, M. (2002) ‘A father’s touch: caring embodiment and a moral revolution’, in Tuana, M., Cowling, C., Hamington, M., Johnson, G. and MacMullan, T. (eds.), Revealing Male Bodies, Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Where’s the dad in the Christmas ad?

Is it just me, or do the Christmas ads arrive earlier each year? This year they seemed to be off the starting blocks as soon as Hallowe’en was out of the way. And more retailers than ever seemed to want to get in on the act, seeking ever more imaginative ways to separate us from our money, by conjuring up heartwarming and occasionally tearjerking festive scenarios.

Besides being designed to sell products, these short films can also be seen as mini morality tales that reflect some of society’s current concerns. For those of us who research and write about families and relationships, the ads – which, unsurprisingly, tend to focus on families coming together to celebrate Christmas – offer a valuable snapshot of how those relationships are now viewed.

As I watched this year’s crop of Christmas ads, one question kept coming up for me: where’s the dad? Now, it could be that, given my research interests in fatherhood and men’s relationships with their children, this might have been a case of selective perception – but I don’t think so. Take this year’s John Lewis ad, for example. Once again, the retailer broke new ground by using scenes from the life of a celebrity – Elton John – as the vehicle for its Christmas message.

I was struck by the way the ad focuses on the relationship between the young Elton (real name Reginald Dwight) and his mother and grandmother, and by the complete absence of a father, or indeed any significant adult male character, in the story. Now it’s true that Elton’s father was often absent during his childhood, and he was raised mainly by his mother and grandmother. But his dad, who had been a trumpeter in a semi-professional big band, was apparently a key influence on his son’s developing musical talent. What’s more, his parents didn’t divorce until Elton was fourteen (some years after the iconic scene in the film when the child gets a piano for Christmas) – and then his mother got married again to a man who, by all accounts, was a caring and supportive stepfather. Didn’t either of these men merit a mention in the story of Elton’s rise to fame?

I suppose, strictly speaking, the emphasis on Elton’s relationship with his mother and grandmother is faithful to the reality of the musician’s childhood. And you can see why the filmmakers, charged with making a three-minute commercial, wanted to keep the story simple and the number of characters to a minimum. But is it completely accidental that they chose to feature a story from which anything resembling a father figure is totally absent?

The sense that the John Lewis video might not be a one-off, but perhaps part of a trend, was confirmed when I saw this year’s ad from Boots. This held a particular interest for me, as we saw it being filmed in our local market place in Hitchin back in November.

The rather cheesy story, told in the adapted words of Robbie Williams’ She’s The One (changed to ‘She’s me mum’) is about a teenage girl who sees her mother as a rather irritating presence who disapproves of everything she does and is intent on spoiling her fun. But then she sees her mum singing loud and proud – ‘stunning and strong’ – in a choir performing in front of the town Christmas tree, realises what a wonderful person she really is, and mother and daughter are reconciled in a heartwarming exchange of presents on Christmas morning.  All fine and good – a nice, if rather twee story of a daughter learning to value her mother. But again: where’s the dad?

Yes, of course this reflects the reality of family life for an increasing number of children and young people: a 2013 report claimed that a million children in Britain were growing up without a resident father, and that the number of lone parent families was set to increase by 20,000 per year. But like the John Lewis ad, doesn’t this film also send a message: that dads are not really necessary or important?

In some of this year’s other Christmas advertisements, there is a faint suggestion that a father might be around, but he often seems to be peripheral to his children’s lives. For example, the Sainsbury’s ad centres on a school Christmas show, focusing on a little African-Caribbean girl who is dressed as a star – and indeed, turns out to be the star of the show. At first her voice is hesitant, then it grows in confidence, and her mother is seen in the audience willing her on, then beaming with pride. The film tracks back and forth between the two faces – those of the little girl and her mother. Right at the end, as the applause rings out, we get a glimpse of the mother leaning on a male shoulder, but we don’t see the face: is it a son, or a partner? If the latter, why don’t we see his pride in his daughter’s performance?

Once again, while it’s admirable that advertisers are sending a positive message about mothers, and the importance of maternal relationships (something I’ve written about elsewhere), I was still left asking: what about the dad, and once again why have the film makers chosen to focus on a fatherless scenario?

Of course, it could be argued that fathers are somewhat peripheral to the story of Christmas. When our children were young, we bought a set of Nativity figures to display in the fireplace at Christmas. When we unpacked them, we found that the set consisted of seven figures: Mary holding the baby Jesus, an angel, two shepherds and three kings – but no Joseph. It’s as though he’d been erased from the narrative – and I suppose some would say that the notion of a virgin birth makes a human father pretty redundant anyway. (On the other hand, I’ve always liked that line from the Gospel narrative: ‘He…shall turn the hearts of the fathers to their children.’) But maybe that’s a discussion for another time…

Against this background, it was a relief to come across a Christmas ad suggesting that dads might actually have a role to play at Christmas – and in their children’s lives generally. The ad for Barbour (yes, even they have a Christmas ad this year) re-tells the story of The Snowman, but this time it’s a girl rather than a boy who wonders if her snowman will come to life. She waits patiently in the cold, snowy garden as night falls, until her father comes out and affectionately puts a warm Barbour coat (what else?) around her shoulders.

However, for the season’s most touching father-child interaction we have to cross the Channel, and watch this ad for Bouygues mobile phones – even if it does rely on totally unfair stereotypes about ‘dad dancing’!

And finally, if you want to see a real tearjerker about dads at Christmas, then I’ll leave with you with this 2015 ad from German supermarket Edeka.

Frohe Weihnachten Papa! And a Merry Christmas to dads (and mums, and sons and daughters) everywhere…

Care ethics and precarity: reflections on an international conference


Pioneer Courthouse, Portland

Last week I was in Portland, Oregon, in the United States, for a conference on ‘Care Ethics and Precarity’, organised by the Care Ethics Research Consortium. I’m a relative newcomer to care ethics: my interest in the field has grown out of my academic work on issues of gender, identity and care, and in particular my research on men’s care for children, whether as fathers or paid workers. The relatively new discipline (or, more accurately, interdisciplinary field) of care ethics, and feminist care ethics in particular, has helped me to think about the ways in which men develop a capacity to care, and has converged with my growing interest in phenomenology, a philosophical tradition that underpins the work of many care ethicists.

My own contribution to the conference was a paper on marginalised young men and the development of caring masculinities, which drew on two recent research studies in which I’ve been involved, and discussed the ways in which the family relationships of young men from disadvantaged backgrounds influence their capacity to care, attempting to frame this within the relational perspective on identity advanced by care ethics. (To download the slides from my talk click on this link: CERC2018presentation_MartinRobb2) It was a pleasure to find myself on a panel with Jeanne Enders and Lukas Robuck from Portland State University, and to discover surprising affinities in their work on the role of family relationships in the development of leaders in business ethics.


Presenting on ‘Young men, social disadvantage and the development of caring masculinities’, alongside Jeanne Enders and Lukas Robuck

The conference as a whole was an intellectually stimulating and challenging experience. It was a privilege to hear presentations by some of the key figures in the field, including Joan Tronto and Eva Feder Kittay, two of the ‘founding mothers’ of feminist care ethics. And it was good to finally meet people whose work I’ve admired from a distance – such as Carlo Leget from the University of Humanistic Studies in the Netherlands, arguably the ‘nerve centre’ of care ethics, Petr Urban from the Czech Academy of Sciences, with whom I’d previously been in email contact, and Maurice Hamington from Portland State University, whose writing on men’s embodied care I’ve found particularly inspiring.

Maurice also deserves credit for hosting such a well-organised and welcoming conference, in which careful attention was paid not only to scheduling a diverse programme of lectures, panels and presentations, but also to offering an aesthetically and socially pleasing experience, which included art, photography, music – and superb catering!

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Carlo Leget and Maurice Hamington opening the conference

One of the things I really liked about the conference programme was the way it combined the philosophical and theoretical with the empirical and practical, with sessions ranging from explorations of ancient Greek understandings of care and precarity, through to a very moving presentation on work with prisoners, which included first-hand accounts – and poetry – by young men who had themselves been incarcerated (and whose powerful poem ‘Toxic Masculinity’ echoed many of the themes of my own presentation). Before attending the conference, my understanding of the concept of precarity had been fairly vague, but I came away with many new insights: Carlo Leget’s talk helped me to see that precarity could be chosen, as in the case of St Francis of Assisi, while Luigina Mortari drew out the etymological roots of the term, and Eva Feder Kittay’s keynote lecture clarified the difference between precarity and precariousness, in the process radically challenging the ways we understand the lives of disabled people.

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Stephen Fowler and Noah Schultz give poetic voice to their experience of the American prison system

The conference also added considerably to my already extensive care ethics and philosophy reading list. To mention just a few: Carlo’s talk prompted me to want to re-read Simone Weil, Merel Visse’s presentation on abandonment aroused my interest in the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, and Petr pointed me towards political ethnographer Didier Fassin as a resource for understanding the (un)caring practices of the state.

Care ethics and politics: a few thoughts

A number of the conference talks had a political dimension, with a common theme being care ethics as an alternative or challenge to the current wave of neopopulism sweeping both American and European politics. I admit that I had some reservations about the ways the issue was framed, particularly in an important presentation by Joan Tronto, whose book Caring Democracy has been influential in this debate. From a British perspective, I have to confess that it was a little annoying to see Brexit listed, alongside the election of Trump and of reactionary governments in Europe, as an instance of right-wing populism, and I think it pointed to a possible weakness, or absence, in the anti-neopopulist argument as it was formulated by some speakers at the conference.

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Joan Tronto

Firstly, the inclusion of Brexit in this list overlooks the large numbers of British people who supported the ‘Leave’ campaign from a left-wing position, or for reasons that were far from reactionary, such as dissatisfaction with a perceived democratic deficit in the European Union and concern about the growth of a bureaucratic European superstate and the concomitant erosion of national identities. Secondly, it points to a need not simply to dismiss so-called neopopulist movements as inherently wicked, but to try to understand the genuine feelings of dissatisfaction and alienation that give rise to them: in Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci’s formulation, to identify the kernel of good sense within the common sense of neopopulism.

Both in her conference talk and in Caring Democracy, Tronto proposed care ethics as a framework for the renewal of democratic politics, in opposition to the undemocratic and authoritarian tendencies of neopopulist movements. But what if neopopulism itself is, at least in part, an expression of a desire for greater democracy and local control, in reaction to what are perceived to be distant and faceless supernational bureaucracies? In the words of British political commentator Paul Embery, it’s possible to view neopopulist movements as ‘defensive crusades against rapid cultural and demographic change, against the rapacious and disruptive power of global finance, and the weakening of democracy and sovereignty at the hands of remote and unaccountable institutions’.

What’s more, Tronto characterised neopopulism as a reaction to neoliberalism, whereas it could equally well be seen a rejection of paternalist state welfarism. There’s a danger that a care ethical approach could be perceived simply as a return to what political theorist Adrian Pabst calls ‘state-administered equality’, rather than offering a genuine alternative to the failures of both welfarism and neoliberalism. Incidentally, the British experience is a reminder that neopopulism is not only a feature of the political right: here in the UK we are currently witnessing a left-wing version that shares many of the features of its right-wing mirror image, including a cult of personality, media-blaming, conspiracy theories, and a strain of racism – in this case antisemitism.

If care ethics is to offer a real challenge to neopopulism, then surely it needs to understand the genuine feelings of alienation that have given rise to it, including the perceived loss of the communal and national identities that give meaning to many people’s lives: in Pabst’s words ‘a respect for settled ways of life, a sense of place and belonging, a desire for home and rootedness, the continuity of relationships at work and in one’s neighbourhood’. In other words, neopopulism could itself be seen as the expression of a desire for a renewal of relationships of care and connection, albeit often in a distorted form. Perhaps a care ethical alternative to neopopulism might incorporate some of the ideas developed in an alternative strain of British progressivism – the movement that has come to be known as ‘blue Labour’ – including work by thinkers such as PabstMaurice Glasman and Jonathan Rutherford.

Given its feminist provenance, it’s not surprising that care ethics tends to be associated with the political Left. But if it’s to offer a real alternative to neopopulism, and one that connects with the experiences and aspirations of ordinary people rather than imposing solutions from on high, then I would suggest that care ethics needs to avoid being tied too closely to one side of the political divide, and to offer a genuine challenge to the orthodoxies of both left and right.

‘Supporting Boys’ in Glasgow

Glasgow intro audience

Dave Devenney of Fathers Network Scotland introduces the conference

Yesterday I was in Glasgow to speak at a conference on ‘Supporting Boys’ organised by Policy Hub Scotland and Red Harbour. I’m grateful to Mark Bellamy and Claire Hunter for the invitation to take part in what turned out to be an inspirational and thought-provoking event. Attended by practitioners from diverse backgrounds from across Scotland, the conference included presentations and interactive sessions on a mind-blowing variety of topics – from educationalist AliMcClure talking about differences in the structure of boys’ and girls’ brains and getting audience members skipping and dancing, through Laura Sharpe from SeeMe on screen addiction and mental health, Daljeet Dagon of Barnardo’s on boys as victims of sexual exploitation, Graham Goulden on the need to invite, not indict boys, to Martin Daubney on young men and pornography.

Glasgow daljeet

Daljeet Dagon talks about young men as victims of sexual exploitation*

My own session focused on young men, masculinity and role models, and drew on the findings of two research projects in which I’ve been involved in the past five years: ‘Beyond male role models’, in collaboration with Action for Children and funded by the ESRC (ES/K005863/1), and ‘Young men, masculinity and wellbeing’, in partnership with Promundo and supported by Axe/Unilever. As part of my presentation, I showed the shorter version of the video that we commissioned as part of the former study, featuring young male service users and support workers at two centres: Working With Men in London and Moving On in Kilmarnock. It’s a powerful film, illustrating not only the broken relationships and horrific experiences that many ‘at risk’ young men have been through, but more positively, the fact that it’s never too late to make a change. However, both the film and our wider research highlight the fact that, for many young men who have led troubled lives, making the transition from reckless and self-destructive young masculinity to responsible adult masculinity can be a difficult process – and there’s a desperate need for the kind of support offered by services like Working With Men and Moving On, to hold and carry young men through that transition.

Moving On screen shots WWM screen shot

Screen shots from the ‘Beyond male role models’ video

I’d been asked to speak about the importance of male role models, but while acknowledging the grain of truth in what our research team termed the ‘male role model’ discourse, I tried to highlight some of the dangers of too great a focus on the gender identity of the adults who work with boys and young men. Yes, many of the young men who end up using social care services have not had a consistent father figure in their lives, but drawing a straight line of cause and effect between this absence, and the multiple challenges they face as young men, may be too simplistic. What’s more, our research clearly shows that ‘present’ fathers, and other men, can be a problem too, often modelling exactly the kinds of hypermasculine behaviour that have got boys into trouble in the first place. There’s also a risk of overlooking, or worse stigmatising, the positive role that mothers and other women can play in boys’ healthy development, even when there isn’t a man around. Often, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, or older sisters, have been the only consistent and positive influence in a boy’s life, and many men will admit that if they’ve learnt anything about how to be a good father – and by extension a good, caring man – it’s been mainly from their mums.

Finally, I made the point that, whenever we’ve asked boys and young men whether the gender of the worker, or the adult supporting them, is important, the overwhelming response has been that it’s much less significant than the individual’s personal qualities. To be sure, some young men preferred working with a male member of staff, but just as many said they responded better to a female worker, while the vast majority claimed gender – or indeed, any other kind of social identity – wasn’t really a key factor. Instead, what young men using social care services told us time and again was that they valued adults who were committed, consistent, respectful – and above all, who genuinely cared about them. And support workers told us that building consistent, respectful relationships of care with troubled young men was absolutely vital in helping them to turn their lives around.

Glasgow panel

Panel discussion with Dave Devenney, me, Martin Daubney, Ali McLure, Graham Goulden and Douglas Guest

These are themes that I’m hoping to take forward in future research. For example, I’m currently working with a group of colleagues, from a range of organisations, on a funding proposal around young fathers, relationships and wellbeing. We’ve already identified some groups of young dads, and support workers, in the south of England, who are keen to work with us, but we’d be really interested to make contact with others, especially those based in in the north of England, Scotland and other parts of the UK, whether working in the community or in prisons, with similar interests.

You can email me at:

*Thanks to my fellow conference participants, via Twitter, for the photos of the event used in this blog post.

Exploring aspects of fatherhood

This post is by way of an update on my current research activities. As reported in the previous post, my most recent piece of academic research was on young men, masculinity and well-being, working with Sandy Ruxton and David Bartlett, as part of a three-country study led by Promundo. The study I worked on before that – Beyond Male Role Models, which was funded by the ESRC and organised in partnership with Action for Children – also focused on young men and issues of gender identity. However, since completing those studies, I’ve been involved in discussions about a number of possible projects relating to an earlier – and continuing – research interest of mine: fatherhood.

Last year, I reported on a meeting I attended in Amsterdam, with colleagues from the UK, Iceland, Belgium and the Netherlands, exploring the possibility of undertaking some methodologically innovative research with fathers of disabled children. Since that meeting, a number of pilot interviews have been carried out, in some of the partner countries, and we’re currently looking for funding for some small-scale research with fathers here in the UK. The plan is to use fathers’ own ‘home videos’, perhaps recorded on their mobile phones, as a means of exploring their relationships with their children, and their experiences of interacting with professionals.

father and son

Father and son: via

At the same time, I’ve been working with a major national charity, and with colleagues from other universities, on a research proposal on young fathers and relationships. Both ‘Beyond Male Role Models’ and the Promundo study highlighted the positive role that fatherhood can play in the lives of young men, but also some of the challenges for young fathers in sustaining relationships with partners and with their children. We’re hoping to acquire funding to work alongside young fathers, both to explore these issues in depth, and also to develop some kind of resource that can support both young fathers and the services that work with them.

More recently, I’ve started work with my Open University colleagues Kerry Jones on a pilot project, exploring fathers’ experience of antenatal and perinatal bereavement, a topic that we believe is seriously under-researched. We’ve begun by reviewing the existing literature, and at the same time exploring the ways in which bereaved fathers are supporting each other through blogs, social media and other online resources.

If you are currently working on any of these topics yourself, or are interested in being involved in any of these projects in some way, do please contact me at

Scenes from a clerical life

The title of George Eliot’s novel – slightly adapted in my heading – seems singularly appropriate to the life of my 9th great grandmother, Anne Wane, who is the subject of this final post in my series about remarkable women from my family history. Her life story is noteworthy, not because of anything she actively achieved, but because of its peculiar circumstances – to modern sensibilities, at any rate. To put it in a nutshell: Anne spent all fifty years of her life at the rectory of Clayton-cum-Keymer in Sussex, first as the daughter of one rector, and then as the wife of no fewer than three of his successors.

Anne Wane’s life coincided with a period of dramatic change in English history. Born in 1611 in the eighth year of the reign of James I, the year in which the Authorised Version of the Bible was published and Shakespeare’s The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale were first performed, she was a young woman when Charles I was king, brought up her children during the tumult of the Civil War, and died a year after the Restoration of the monarchy.

Birth and background

Anne was the daughter of William Wane, who was already rector of Clayton when she was born, and his wife Joan. William Wane was born at Westerham, Kent in 1561, in the third year of the reign of Elizabeth I. He was ordained deacon on 28th May 1598 and priest on 24th June in the same year. Having served briefly as the curate of Wivelsfield, Sussex, he was appointed rector of Clayton-cum-Keymer on 1st January 1601 or 1602 (depending on whether you’re using the old Julian or or modern Gregorian calendar). Clayton is a small village in west Sussex, about 10 miles to the west of Lewes and 7 miles north of Brighton. Its ancient parish church is famous for its colourful murals, uncovered during repair work in Victorian times, and probably painted in the Middle Ages by monks from Lewes Priory.

One of the murals uncovered in Clayton parish church

One of the murals in Clayton parish church

Anne Wane was christened at Clayton, presumably by her father, on 2nd March 1611. I haven’t found evidence of any other children born to William and Joan Wane. According to one source, in 1606/7, William ‘was in trouble with the Court on account of his relations with a woman named Ellenor Poulter’, though the exact nature of those ‘relations’ and its impact on his family and his position remains unknown. He died in 1626, in the second year of the reign of Charles I, and was buried at Clayton on 22nd September. I don’t know when Anne’s mother Joan died, but I have reason to believe that she predeceased her husband.

First husband 

Just six days after William Wane’s funeral, a new rector arrived in Clayton. He was John Bantnor, who had been born in Westmeston, Sussex, in 1595/6, the son of the local rector. John Bantnor had been ordained deacon in 1618 and priest on 18th December 1625. On 9th July 1628, a little under two years after his arrival in Clayton, John Bantor married Anne Wane. He was about thirty years old at the time, though she would have been only 17. It’s possible that John Bantnor found the orphaned Anne living in the rectory when he arrived, and took responsibility for her, marrying her when she reached an appropriate age.

I’ve found christening records for two children born to John and Anne Bantnor. A daughter named Anne was baptised at Clayton on 17th May 1631, while a son named Thomas was christened there in 1635. John Batnor died in 1638 when he was about 42 years old. Anne would have been about 27 at the time.

External view of the parish church of St John the Baptist, Clayton

External view of the parish church of St John the Baptist, Clayton (via

Second husband

The next incumbent of Clayton was William Chowne, who was instituted as rector on 17th July 1638. He was the eldest surviving son of Thomas Chowne Esquire of Alfreston and his wife Rachel Campion, and grandson of Sir George Chowne, who had been Member of Parliament for Rochester in 1593. Rachel was the daughter of William Campion of Camberwell and sister of Sir William Campion, the Royalist leader who was killed during the Siege of Colchester in 1648. Some sources suggest that William Chowne was the person of that name who went up to Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1625 and was later a fellow of St John’s College.

Four months to the day after his arrival in Clayton, on 17th October 1638, William married the widowed Anne Bantnor née Wane. Perhaps, like his predecessor, he found Anne living in Clayton rectory on his arrival there, possibly with two young children (we know that her son Thomas, at least, survived to adulthood), and felt moved to take them under his wing.

I’ve found a baptismal record for a William Chowne, born to William and Anne and christened at Clayton on 5th October 1639. Sources tell us that this child died in infancy, though he was still alive when his father William made his will in May 1640, since a number of properties were bequeathed to him and his mother Anne. William Chowne senior was buried at Clayton on 10th June 1640, leaving Anne a widow for the second time.

Third husband

Six weeks later, a new rector arrived in Clayton, fresh from his curacy in Wadhurst, east Sussex, which was close to his family home in Burwash. This was Magnus Byne, my 9th great grandfather, and destined to become Anne’s third husband. Magnus, who had graduated from Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1634, was inducted to the rectory of Clayton-cum-Keymer on 24th July 1640, two years before the outbreak of civil war in England. He was 25 years old, four years younger than Anne.

Magnus and Anne Byne had five children together over the next decade or so, coinciding with the period of the Civil War. Despite the Royalist connections of Anne’s previous husband, there seems little doubt that the Byne family, like most of Sussex, were supporters of the Parliamentary faction (though, of course, many families had divided loyalties during the war). Magnus Byne’s brother Edward, also an Anglican minister, was a notorious Puritan rabblerouser when he was at Cambridge in the 1640s, and after Anne’s death, Magnus would marry the daughter of another prominent Puritan (see below).

Magnus and Anne Byne’s daughter Mary was baptised at Clayton on 29th July 1641 but died in infancy and was buried there on 26th August 1643; their daughter Ann was baptised there on 18th January 1643 but died at the age of twenty in 1662/3; their son Stephen was born in 1649; Edward was next, though the exact date of his birth is unknown; and John (my 8th great grandfather) was baptised on 11th March 1651/2.

Cover of Magnus Byne's book

Cover of Magnus Byne’s book

In 1656 Magnus Byne published a book entitled The Scornfull Quakers answered and their railing Reply refuted by the meanest of the Lord’s servants Magnus Byne, which was printed in London by William Bentley for Andrew Crook at the sign of the Green Dragon in St Paul’s Churchyard. The book, which was prompted by Magnus’ encounter with two Quaker evangelists in his parish, is written in question and answer form and contains a good deal of personal invective. It provoked a reply by one of the evangelists, Thomas Dawson, which was also published in 1656, the shorter version of whose title is The Lip of Truth opened against a Dawber with untempered Morter, A few words against a book written by Magnus Byne, Priest in the county of Sussex…   The founder of the Quakers, George Fox, also responded to Magnus’ book in his 1659 publication, The Great Mistery of the Great Whore unfolded and Antichrist’s kingdom revealed unto destruction.  (Seventeenth-century polemicists had a thing about long book titles.)


Anne Byne died when she was fifty years old and was buried at Clayton on 11th March 1661/2, a little less than a year after the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. There may have been an epidemic or an outbreak of plague in the area at the time, since Thomas Bantnor, Anne’s son from her first marriage, was buried at Clayton three days later; he was 26 years old.

When their mother died, Stephen Byne was fifteen years old and had probably already begun his apprenticeship as an upholsterer in London; Edward was about thirteen years old; and John eleven. Six months after Anne’s death, their father Magnus would get married for a second time, to Sarah Bartlett, daughter of the radical stationer and bookseller John Bartlett, who had been imprisoned under Charles I for printing ‘schismatical’ books, but was later commissioned to publish the text of Parliament’s ‘Grand Remonstrance’ against the King. Magnus’ son John would also work as a stationer at Tower Hill, and my theory is that he was apprenticed either to his stepfather or to the latter’s son, who was also a bookseller. (John later married Alice Forrest, daughter of a Tower Hill haberdasher, and it was their daughter Mary Byne who married goldsmith Joseph Greene: see my last post).


What are we to make of the strange circumstances of Anne Wane’s life? The fact that she was married to three successive rectors of Clayton seems to be evidence that, before the modern era, women were regarded as a superior kind of property. When John Bantnor, William Chowne and Magnus Byne each in turn became rector of Clayton, it appears that Anne ‘came with the territory’, and marrying her was almost a condition of their appointment.

Nor was this a unique case. Adrian Tinniswood’s book about the Verneys, a prominent seventeenth-century family, includes the story of the newly-appointed rector of a Buckinghamshire parish, who was unable to take possession of the rectory because the former incumbent’s widow refused to move out. After protracted but unsuccessful negotiations, he solved the problem by marrying her. Did something similar happen in the case of my ancestor Anne Wane? And does that mean that none of her marriages, including her last marriage to my 9th great grandfather Magnus Byne, were for ‘love’? Or does Anne’s story emphasise the futility of trying to impose modern notions on people living in very different times?

It’s frustrating that we don’t have access to my 9th great grandmother’s side of the story. Did she insist on remaining in the rectory when her father, and then her first two husbands died, like the woman from Buckinghamshire mentioned above? Perhaps the marriages were actually her idea, a way of securing a home for herself and her children, rather than something that was imposed on her? There’s no way we can ever know.

As I was writing this post, I was listening to a discussion on Radio 4 about the lack of films about women’s lives. One of the contributors argued that this is because, apart from a few rare individuals, most women’s lives are literally hidden from history – or at least, the official histories. The records of what most women in previous centuries thought, felt and achieved simply don’t exist. Anne’s last husband Magnus, my 9th great grandfather, was a published writer, so we have some insight into his thoughts and feelings. And the actions of a number of of my other male ancestors are written about in contemporary records. But no records remain of what Anne thought or felt. In common with countless other women, her voice is lost to history. Recovering her story, and and those of other women in my family history, is a small step towards making up for that loss, and honouring their memory.

A tale of declining fortunes in Georgian England

This is the second in my series of posts about remarkable women in my family history, in which I’m attempting to bring together my interests in genealogy and gender issues. In the first post in the series, I wrote about my great great great grandmother Eliza Holdsworth (1801 – 1885), who worked for most of her life as a domestic servant. In this post, I’m sharing what I’ve managed to find out about Eliza’s grandmother, Elizabeth Gibson, whose life spanned much of the previous century, and whose early life could not have been more different from that of her granddaughter. Elizabeth Gibson grew up in the kind of grand house in which her granddaughter Eliza would work as a humble servant, though she ended her life as a poor widow. In fact, much of Elizabeth’s early life reads like an extract from a Jane Austen novel, while her closing years seem more darkly Dickensian.

London in the middle of the 18th century

London in the middle of the 18th century

Birth and background

Elizabeth Gibson was born in 1733 at Tower Hill in the City of London, in the sixth year of the reign of King George II. She was christened on 17th May at the church of St Botolph without Aldgate. Elizabeth was the third child of John Gibson and Mary Greene who had married four years earlier at the church of All Hallows, London Wall. Their older daughters were Mary (who did not survive) and Jane.

John Gibson’s origins remain obscure, but we know more about Elizabeth’s mother Mary. She was the only surviving daughter of goldsmith Joseph Greene and his wife Mary Byne, who lived at the sign of the Golden Ball and Ring at the corner of Little Tower Hill and the Minories. Mary Byne’s family origins lay in rural Sussex, while Joseph was the son of Captain William Greene, a mariner from the hamlet of Ratcliffe, Stepney, who served as a warden of Trinity House under Samuel Pepys.

A genteel childhood

When Elizabeth was two years old, her younger sister Frances was born, and two years later saw the birth of another sister, Ann, both at Tower Hill.

On Boxing Day 1737, when Elizabeth was four years old, her grandfather Joseph died. He was obviously a wealthy man, since he bequeathed Elizabeth’s parents the princely sum of one thousand pounds – equivalent to about £100,000 in today’s money. He also left sufficient funds for his widow, Mary, to purchase the manor of Woodredon at Waltham Abbey, Essex, from the Duke of Bedford, which she did in the following year. Mary Greene immediately transferred the ownership of the manor to her daughter and son-in-law, Elizabeth’s parents. Woodredon, a substantial country house in the fashionable Georgian style, is now home to a riding school.

Woodredon House today

Woodredon House today

Although we can’t be sure, it’s safe to assume that Elizabeth spent much of her childhood at Woodredon, which is about fifteen miles north-east of London, and was probably reached in about half a day along the main highway via Woodford. However, we know that the Gibsons also retained their home in Tower Hill, since Elizabeth’s younger brother Bowes John Gibson was born there in 1744, as was her youngest sister Sarah in 1746. In other words, the Gibsons enjoyed the typical life of the eighteenth-century minor gentry, keeping both a house in town and a country retreat.

A degree of mystery hangs over the next phase in Elizabeth’s life. I’m fairly certain, though I haven’t been able to prove it beyond reasonable doubt, that Elizabeth’s father is the John Gibson who in 1742 was convicted of fraud against the Crown, and was then declared bankrupt and incarcerated in the Fleet prison, until an appeal to Parliament led to his eventual release. This John Gibson was a coal factor, described in one document as an ‘agent or crimp for many of the masters of ships in the coal trade’, though on his release he seems to have taken up brewing. Gibson appears to have managed to hold on to some of his assets, including Woodredon, by bequeathing their ownership to his mother-in-law Mary Greene, so perhaps the family didn’t suffer unduly from his misfortunes. Confirmation that the family retained their country home came in 1752, when Elizabeth’s older sister married William Coates at nearby Theydon Mount. The parish register describes Jane Gibson as being from Waltham Holy Cross.

A secret marriage?

The fact that her father was in prison, or otherwise detained, may explain why, at the age of twenty, Elizabeth Gibson contracted what seems to have been a secret marriage. On 21st February 1753, Elizabeth Gibson of Waltham Abbey married John Collins, a ‘gentleman’ of Epping, at St George’s Chapel in Mayfair. This church had a notorious reputation for clandestine marriages, and it seems likely that, being both under 21, the couple did not have the approval of their parents. John was the son of Richard Collins, a landowner with a number of properties in the Epping area, and therefore a near-neighbour of the Gibsons at Woodredon.

St George's Chapel,. Mayfair

St George’s Chapel, Mayfair

The third Gibson marriage in three years took place in the following August, when Elizabeth’s younger sister Ann married Charles Gottfried Schwartz, who seems to have been a German-born merchant, at the church of St George-in-the-East.

One thing that Elizabeth Gibson shared in common with her granddaughter Eliza was the brevity of her first marriage. We don’t know when or how John Collins died, but he was certainly dead by 1763, when Elizabeth married again. Nor do we know where the couple lived during their marriage, or how they supported themselves, though my research into family wills reveals that John had been left a considerable amount of property by both his father and one of his aunts. The only glimpse we have of John’s and Elizabeth’s life together is the record of the baptism of their daughter, Frances, on 8th July 1759, in Elizabeth’s home parish of St Botolph’s. As far as we know, she was their only child. The family’s address is given as Darby Street, off Rosemary Lane, which I’m fairly sure was where Elizabeth’s parents were living at this time.

In January 1761, Elizabeth’s sister Frances married Captain Michael Bonner of Stepney at St Botolph’s church. Two years later, in February 1763, Elizabeth’s father John Gibson died of fever and was buried in the churchyard of St Dunstan’s, Stepney. In the following year, Sir John (later Baron) Henneker began to acquire the manor of Woodredon from the Gibson family, though the process was not completed until after the death of Elizabeth’s mother Mary in 1790.

Second marriage: an Essex farmer’s wife

On 20th May 1763, in the third year of the reign of King George III, Elizabeth Collins, a widow, married Joseph Holdsworth, a bachelor, at the church of St Mary Magdalene, Bermondsey. Why this particular church was chosen is unclear, though a number of members of the Gibson and Bonner families would later live in the parish. Joseph had been born in Northowram in Yorkshire, into what seems to have been a family of Dissenting farmers, and at some point had come into the possession of a property at South Weald, Essex. How Elizabeth met Joseph is another mystery, though it’s possible that it was through her first husband John who may have owned land in the area.

Three years later, in 1766, Elizabeth’s younger brother Bowes John Gibson married Elizabeth Hendly at St Dunstan’s, Stepney. We know very little about Bowes John’s early life, but it seems likely that he spent time abroad with the East India Company, for whom he would later work as an auctioneer, and in whose military branch two of his sons would serve as officers. By this stage, it’s likely that the widowed Mary Gibson had moved, with her unmarried offspring, to Mile End Old Town, which was then an expanding middle-class enclave.

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 (my great great great great grandfather), 1771; and Godfrey, 1773. During this period Joseph served as a parish councillor, overseer of the poor, and leet jury member.

In June 1780, a month before the Gordon riots erupted in London, Frances Collins, Elizabeth’s daughter from her first marriage, married John Godfrey Schwartz at the church of St Botolph, Bishopsgate. I’m almost certain that the two were cousins, John being the son of Elizabeth’s sister Ann and her husband Charles Schwarz. A few years earlier John Godfrey Schwartz had been apprenticed to a London-based German merchant.

Another experience that Elizabeth shared with her granddaughter Eliza was losing her eldest daughter while the latter was still young. In October 1780 Joseph and Elizabeth Holdsworth’s oldest child, Elizabeth, died in South Weald; she was just fourteen years old.

In April 1788, Elizabeth’s mother Mary Gibson composed her last will and testament, in which she left her daughter Elizabeth Holdsworth an annuity of five pounds, as well as her second largest punch bowl and ‘the plates with parrots’. Mary Gibson died in October 1790 and was buried at St Dunstan’s, Stepney. Her youngest daughter Sarah, who never married, had been buried ten days earlier at the same church: she was 44 years old and was said to have suffered a ‘decline’. In her will, composed in 1789 Sarah had left her older sister Elizabeth the sum of one hundred pounds.

Widowhood again

From the mid-1780s onwards, and as they came to maturity, Joseph and Elizabeth Holdsworth’s children began to move away from South Weald. The family appears to have fallen on hard times, for reasons that are not clear. We know that the 1790s saw rising prices and poor harvests, culminating in the ‘famine’ year of 1795, as well as the problems created by wars abroad and political unrest at home. There certainly seems to have been nothing for any of the Holdsworth children to inherit, so that the sons had to make their living by following a trade, and the only surviving daughter by finding a husband, away from the village.

In October 1786, when she was 19 years old, Sarah Holdsworth married Stepney plumber Edward Porter at St Botolph, Bishopsgate. My 4th great grandfather William Holdsworth, who worked as a shoemaker, married Lydia Evans at the same church in November 1792, when he was 21. Joseph Holdsworth junior, a carpenter, married Margaret Miller at Christ Church, Spitalfields, in February 1792, when he was 22 years old. Godfrey Holdsworth, whose occupation is unknown, married Diana Cam at St Paul’s, Covent Garden, in August 1793, when he was 20, and they lived in Whitechapel. It’s unclear what became of Henry, but it’s possible that he is the person of that name who died in Southwark in 1813.

The Holdsworths’ eldest son, John, remained in South Weald until after his father Joseph’s death in 1795, perhaps in the hope of inheriting the family farm. In the event he moved to Chipping Norton, where he married Mary Webb in 1797, and then Oxford, before returning to live in Stepney and working as a builder.

It appears that Elizabeth, too, left South Weald and returned to London after the death of her second husband, when she would have been 62 years old, perhaps living with her daughter Sarah or with one of her sons. It’s unclear whether her older sister Jane Coates was still living, though we know she had three children, all born in Epping, with her husband William. No further trace has been found to date of Elizabeth’s sister Anne Schwarz,  though she and a daughter, Frances, were mentioned in Mary Gibson’s will of 1788. Frances Bonner and her husband Michael had two children, John William and Michael junior, both of whom were married by this time.

Elizabeth’s younger brother Bowes John Gibson had ten children by his first wife, Elizabeth, who died some time in the 1790s. Having lived for a time in Bermondsey, Bowes John was now back in Mile End Old Town and providing financial and brokering services to the East India Company. In 1799 he married for a second time, to Mary Catherine Bretman, with whom he would have eight more children.

The fortunes of Elizabeth and her younger brother could not have been more different. As mentioned above, Bowes John Gibson’s sons John Thomas and George Milsom Gibson served as officers in India. George died there in 1814. John married Henrietta, the daughter of the composer Charles Frederick Horn: their children included a major general and a vicar, while among their later descendants were landowners and writers spread as far afield as Canada and South Africa.

By contrast, Elizabeth’s children were shoemakers, carpenters and builders. We don’t know if Elizabeth had any contact with her brother’s family after she moved back to London, but it doesn’t seem likely that she or her children received any financial support from him.

Death and burial

St Dunstan's church and burial ground, Stepney

Elizabeth Holdsworth would live for fourteen years after the death of her second husband Joseph. By the time she died in 1809, she had as many as twenty-two surviving grandchildren. When she drew up her will in the year of her death, Elizabeth appointed as co-executor her daughter Sarah, who by this time had herself been widowed, had lost her only child, and had married for a second time, to William Parker.

It seems clear that Elizabeth had very little money to bequeath to her children or grandchildren. She left forty pounds for funeral expenses in the keeping of her son Joseph, now living in William Street, Stepney, and anything remaining was to be divided equally between her five sons. All her furniture and apparel she left to Sarah.

Elizabeth Holdsworth died on 1 March 1809, aged 77 years, and was buried a week later, as she had wished, in ‘the vault in the church yard of St Dunstan Stepney built by my grandfather and where my brothers and sisters lay.’ She was buried with her grandparents Joseph and Mary Greene and three of their children, and with her great grandparents Captain William Greene  and his wife Elizabeth. Thus Elizabeth was reunited in death with her wealthy and distinguished forebears, a reminder of how far her fortunes had changed in the course of her long life.


Elizabeth Gibson’s life story highlights a number of key features of women’s experience in early modern Britain.  The secrecy of her first marriage is a reminder that – certainly for women – marriage for love and without the approval of parents was socially unacceptable during this period. As was the case with her granddaughter Eliza, much of Elizabeth’s  married life was taken up with giving birth and raising children: seven children in ten years must have taken quite a toll, particularly as Elizabeth was already in her thirties when she married Joseph Holdsworth. As would also be the case with her granddaughter, it’s clear that Elizabeth’s economic status, and that of her children, depended largely on that of her husband. However, unlike Eliza, as a respectable middle-class woman, there was no prospect of Elizabeth working to provide for herself after her first husband died. Her only hope was to find a new husband, and quickly. Similarly, the change in her second husband Joseph Holdsworth’s economic fortunes, and then his death, meant that Elizabeth’s social status, and that of her children, changed very quickly. They were thrown from the relative comfort of the rural middle classes into the uncertain status of people in ‘trade’ having to labour for their living, in the maelstrom of early nineteenth-century East London. So Elizabeth’s story probably tells us as much about changing relationships of class as it does about gender.

In the third and final post in this series, I’ll be going back another four generations to early seventeenth-century Sussex, to tell the unusual story of rector’s wife Anne Wane, another of my remarkable female ancestors.

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 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.


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.

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.

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).