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
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
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
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.
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
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.