The First World War and Modern Masculinity*

Next week, all being well, I’ll be in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the annual conference of the American Men’s Studies Association. The title of the paper that I’ll be presenting is ‘”With prayer from your loving father”: faith, fatherhood and masculinity in one man’s letters to his son during World War One.’ The paper shares the results of my analysis of letters written by my great grandfather, Charles Edward Robb, to his son, my grandfather Arthur Ernest Robb, in early 1916, when the latter was a Private in the Royal Fusiliers, awaiting embarkation to the Western Front in France. I’ve written about these letters in earlier posts on this blog (start here and work forward), and I spoke about them at a seminar on fatherhood organised by the Open University’s Centre for Citizenship Identities and Governance a few years ago.

Coincidentally, one of the other presentations at next week’s conference is also about First World War writing, though of a rather different kind. Lowell T Frye will be speaking about the treatment of masculinities, war, and trauma, in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration. As preparation for attending the session, I’ve been reading the novel, something I’ve meant to do for a while. The action takes place in Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh, where shell-shocked soldiers were sent for treatment. Among the central characters are psychiatrist William Rivers and two of his more famous patients, the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

Staff and patients at Craiglockhart Hospital during the First World War (via

Staff and patients at Craiglockhart Hospital during the First World War (via

I’m about halfway through the novel at the moment, and I’ve just reached a passage which I suspect will find its way into the presentation at next week’s conference. Rivers is reflecting on a patient saying that he sees him not as a father figure but as ‘a sort of…male mother’:

He disliked the term ‘male mother’. He thought he could remember disliking it even at the time. He distrusted the implication that nurturing, even when done by a man, remains female, as if the ability were in some way borrowed, or even stolen, from women – a sort of moral equivalent of the couvade. If that were true, then there was really very little hope.


(F)athering, like mothering, takes many forms beyond the biological. Rivers had often been touched by the way in which young men, some of them not yet twenty, spoke about feeling like fathers to their men. 


One of the paradoxes of the war – one of the many – as that this most brutal of conflicts should set up a relationship between officers and men that was…domestic. Caring. 


The war that had promised so much in the way of ‘manly’ activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passivity, and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known. No wonder they broke down. 

These extracts provide an interesting link with the topic of my own paper. In analysing my great grandfather’s letters, I’ve been struck by the way in which his Methodist Christian faith provides him with two distinctive registers for his practice as a father, and his identity as a man. One, clearly drawing on the puritan earnestness of nonconformist Christianity, is a register of moral exhortation, emphasising effort, courage and persistence in the face of temptation – traditionally ‘manly’ virtues. But the other register is drawn more specifically from Methodism. The historian of masculinity, John Tosh, has written about the ways in which Methodism provided a language that allowed Victorian men to be emotionally expressive, with its emphasis on the love of God, a personal relationship with Christ, and an almost feminine image of Jesus.

However, it’s difficult to disentangle the influences on Charles’ performance of fatherhood and masculinity in these letters. How much can be attributed to his religious faith and how much to his personal biography? For example, I know that my great grandmother had died eleven years before these letters were written, leaving Charles to bring up their children (including Arthur, who was only seven years old at the time) on his own. To what extent was my great grandfather a ‘mother’ as well as a ‘father’ to my grandfather, and how might this be reflected in what he writes in these letters?

Then again, what does it mean to say that a man is ‘mothering’ his children? In what way is a man’s parenting different from that of a woman, if at all? Is William Rivers, as characterised in the novel, right to protest at the way that ‘nurturing’ is seen exclusively as a female virtue, and that men who nurture (whether children or other men) are simply ‘borrowing’ female characteristics? To quote the title of Canadian sociologist Andrea Doucet’s book about fatherhood: do men ‘mother’?

These are questions that continue to intrigue me as a researcher working on issues of gender and caring. In what sense is the care that fathers offer to children different from that provided by mothers? And is it possible to talk about these differences (if they exist) without falling back on stereotypes about men being responsible for setting boundaries and women as providers of emotional support? These questions have become particularly pertinent in the past few decades, as men have been urged to take a greater role in the day-to-day care of children, both in the home and professionally. For those who believe that gender is simply a social construct, the apparent ‘differences’ between men’s and women’s caring are simply the result of cultural conditioning and will disappear as relationships between the genders become more equal. For others, such as the psychologist Wendy Hollway, there is something irreducibly different about women’s ‘capacity to care’ (to quote the title of one of her books), because of the bonding that takes place between a mother and child before, during and after birth.

An image of masculinity from a WW1 propaganda poster (via

An image of masculinity from a WW1 propaganda poster (via

As for the claim, voiced in the last paragraph from Regeneration quoted above, that the trauma of the First World War somehow ‘unmanned’ men, and even changed the nature of masculinity, that’s a question beyond the scope of this blog post. Certainly, it could be argued that the straitjacketed, stiff-upper-lip masculinity of Victorian and Edwardian England expired on the killing fields of northern France. But the evidence in his letters of my own great grandfather’s masculinity – on the one hand patriotic and nationalistic but also anxious about the corrupting influence of the army on his son, morally earnest but at the same time loving and warmly emotional – suggest that ‘traditional’ masculinities may have been more complicated than we sometimes think.

*My title is a nod to Paul Fussell’s classic book The Great War and Modern Memory.


Presenting our research at the Houses of Parliament

Yesterday Brigid Featherstone and I gave a presentation at the Houses of Parliament to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fatherhood, on ‘Beyond Male Role Models’, the ESRC-funded research study that we worked on with Sandy Ruxton and Mike Ward (with support from Anna Tarrant and Gareth Terry) between 2013 and 2015. The study, which was a collaboration between The Open University and Action for Children, explored the role of gender in work with vulnerable young men.

David Lammy MP talks to participants at the APPG meeting

David Lammy MP talks to participants at the APPG meeting

The presentation seemed to go well and prompted some interesting questions from members of the audience, who included policy-makers, practitioners and service users, as well as other researchers. We also received many requests for further information – the pile of reports that I’d brought with me certainly disappeared very quickly – and we made some great contacts in the networking session at the end of the meeting. It was also good to see friends there from Working With Men, one of our other partners in the research, including some of the workers and young service users who had featured in the film we made as part of the project (and which you can view here).

Perhaps the most challenging question came from David Lammy MP, who chairs the APPG. In our talk, we had emphasised that the young men we interviewed valued the personal qualities of support workers – including respect, care, consistency and commitment – far more than their gender identities. David wondered whether we thought that the young men who used services needed to earn respect, rather than simply expect it. I think we acquitted ourselves well in our answer, in which we argued that unless workers offered unconditional respect to young men, many of whom have been treated with a lack of respect by professionals in the past, then it would be difficult even to begin to form a productive working relationship, in which young men’s behaviour could certainly be challenged further down the line. Anyway, we were encouraged that David Lammy asked for more information about our research, and by the suggestion that it might find a place in the review that he is carrying out, at the request of the Prime Minister, into young black men in the criminal justice system.

With Brigid Featherstone and Elina Einio (the blue shadow is because I was standing in front of the screen)

With Brigid Featherstone and Elina Einio (the strange blue shadow is due to the fact that I was standing in front of the projector screen)

There were two other presentations yesterday besides our own. Elina Einiö from the University of Helsinki in Finland shared the findings of her research into mortality rates among men who had been young fathers. Her large-scale population study certainly showed a connection between young fatherhood and early mortality, but it was difficult to draw conclusions about the precise causes. Was it because young fatherhood produced additional economic and emotional stresses, diverting men from investing in their own wellbeing? Did it mean that more support should be offered to young fathers, or conversely did the research demonstrate that early fatherhood should be discouraged? It was interesting to hear about Elina’s findings in the context of the conclusion, from our own study, that young fatherhood could actually have a positive impact on the lives of vulnerable young men, acting as a catalyst that helped them make the transition to a ‘safer’ and more responsible adult masculinity.

The final presentation, by Shane Ryan from Working With Men, reported on moves to establish a new Fathers’ Development Foundation. I attended the first meeting of the foundation at Kings Place, London, back in February. At the moment, the group is really a loose coalition of individuals and organisations with an interest in fatherhood matters, but the hope is that it will coalesce into a body that can have a positive influence on public policy, particularly in relation to the most marginalised and disadvantaged fathers.  According to the foundation’s website, an official launch is planned for next week.

IMAGES of men: a report from Vienna

Last week I was in Vienna, Austria for a consultative meeting organised by Promundo, the international organisation that promotes gender equality by engaging men and boys, as well as a number of other international agencies. The purpose of the meeting was to share the findings from IMAGES – the International Men and Gender Equality Survey – and to discuss possibilities for extending the survey to other countries. There were about thirty of us at the meeting – representatives from countries that have already implented IMAGES, as well as researchers and activists working on gender equality issues across Europe and beyond.

(New York, 19 September) — To kick-start a solidarity movement in support of women’s rights and full equality between women and men, UN Women held a special event for the HeForShe campaign from the United Nations Headquarters in New York today. With UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucka, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and event co-host Emma Watson called on men and boys worldwide to join the movement for gender equality today. They were also joined by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, senior UN officials, such as UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin and UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova, actor Kiefer Sutherland and civil society representatives, participated in a discussion about the central role men and boys can play in the achievement of gender equality. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer moderated the night. Pictured: Gary Barker, International Director, Promundo-US and Co-Chair, MenEngage Alliance Photo: UN Women/Simon Luethi For more on the event, please see: To join the HeForShe campaign, please visit:

Gary Barker of Promundo (via

IMAGES, which was created by Promundo and the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), is ‘a multi-year, multi-country effort to build the evidence base on how to change public institutions and policies to better foster gender equality and to raise awareness among policymakers and programme planners of the needs, realities and attitudes of men in terms of their health and development’. It was fascinating to hear, from Gary Barker of Promundo (US) and Øystein Gullvåg Holter from the University of Oslo, about the findings emerging from the survey so far, including claims about the impact of childhood experiences on adult attitudes. For example, it was suggested that if a boy sees his father taking a share in household tasks, then he is more likely have a positive attitude to gender equality as an adult. On the other hand, if a boy witnesses domestic violence in his family, or is involved in fights himself, then there’s a good chance that he will grow up believing that violence against women is acceptable. Perhaps the most encouraging message to emerge from the study was the positive correlation between men’s belief in gender equality on the one hand, and experiencing good mental health and a general sense of wellbeing on the other.


In addition to these general findings, there were two presentations from individual countries that have implemented the survey, both thought-provoking in their own way. One was from Eleonora Grosu from the former Soviet republic of Moldova, where there were certainly some encouraging signs, but also some worrying statistics, such as the finding that 41% of men and 19% of women think it’s sometimes acceptable for women to be beaten. Also intriguing was the presentation by Srjdan Dusanic from Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the legacy of civil war and inter-community conflict continue to have an impact. One notable observation was that men who held ethnocentric or extreme nationalist views also tend to have negative attitudes to gender equality: a case of one kind of intolerance fostering another. Interestingly, the same study found that boys whose fathers had been absent during the war, and had therefore had to help their mothers with household tasks, tended to continue taking an equal share in those tasks in their adult relationships. A perversely positive effect of father absence, perhaps?

The final presentation, from Shereen El Feki, reported on attempts to implement IMAGES with men in the Middle East and North Africa. The discussion offered a fascinating insight into how to work on gender equality issues in cultures perceived to be hostile to the concept. Shireen talked about the multiple and complex influences on men’s attitudes in the Arab world, where a nuanced understanding of contemporary masculinity needs to take account of factors such as widespread unemployment, political disruption, and the worrying rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the younger generation.

The meeting ended with a highly topical exploration of the possibility of extending aspects of IMAGES to the large numbers of refugee and migrant men who have recently arrived in Europe. Recent events, such as the assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, have focused attention on the sexual attitudes of refugee men from the Middle East and North Africa. Is it possible to study these men’s attitudes and the roots of their masculine identities, in a way that doesn’t reinforce racist stereotypes? At the same time, as I noted in a recent post, it’s important that gender researchers and campaigners don’t fall back into a cultural relativism that is reluctant to condemn sexist behaviour when it’s committed by non-westerners. I was reassured by the evenhanded approach advocated by Promundo, which places equal emphasis on getting men to take responsibility for their actions, and at the same time attempting to understand (but not explain away) that behaviour. My own contribution to the discussion was to suggest that one way of avoiding relapsing into biological or cultural essentialism was to focus attention on the impact that the disruption and displacement caused by war, loss and migration might have had on refugee men’s masculine identities.

Shereen El Feki (via the

Shereen El Feki (via

While its findings are intriguing, the work of IMAGES raises some interesting methodological issues. For example, is it possible to use the same survey, and the same research measures, in countries and cultures that are so widely different? For example, we heard that in Egypt, all research surveys have to be approved by the government. How might that influence men’s responses to the questions? Would they be concerned about giving the ‘approved’ answers in case they faced official consequences? And would they be worried about where the information might end up? More generally, is the whole notion of surveying personal attitudes rooted in the individualism of liberal western countries, where holding your own opinion is considered a virtue? How relevant is such research in cultures where men and women tend to draw their beliefs from collective traditions or religious teachings, rather than individual reflection? And if gendered inequality is deeply rooted in some of those contexts, is it surprising that many women choose to echo their male partners’ attitudes, even on issues such as domestic violence?

Despite these methodological concerns, it was clear from the Vienna meeting that IMAGES has already has achieved some important results that can provide support for promoting gender equality and engaging men. The proven positive correlation between gender equality and mental health can certainly be helpful in persuading men that promoting equality is in their own interest. And the connection between childhood experience and adult attitudes should encourage the growing field of positive work with boys on equality issues. It would be good if IMAGES, or aspects of it, could be extended to the United Kingdom – and it would be fascinating to see how the results here refleced the peculiarities of our national context – and whether they replicated those elsewhere in the world.

Inside out: working with offenders

Last week David Cameron made a major speech about prison reform, in which he set out his vision of ‘a modern, more effective, truly twenty-first century prison system’. Although the Prime Minister reiterated his belief that the role of prison is primarily to punish, he was also keen to emphasise that ‘we must offer chances to change, that for those trying hard to turn themselves around, we should offer hope.’ This week, the current Minister of Justice, Michael Gove, and his predecessor, Chris Grayling, jointly published an article highlighting the importance of rehabilitation, arguing that prisoners must be ‘kept occupied with useful activity, whether studying towards educational qualifications or doing worthwhile work whilst behind bars.’

For those of us with a longstanding involvement in the rehabilitation of offenders, this was music to the ears – and long overdue. Government ministers seem finally to have woken up to the fact that investing in rehabilitation makes sense pragmatically – it prevents future offending and lowers the crime rate – but also morally. As the Prime Minister said in his speech: ‘in a compassionate country, we should help those who’ve made mistakes to find their way back onto the right path.’

In at the deep end

My own interest in this issue goes back a long way – to the very beginning of my working life, in fact. Working with offenders helped to launch my career and set me on the path to the work I’m doing today as an academic. However, it came about through a series of accidents. When I finished my first degree, I had to wait a year before starting a postgraduate course. In the interim I applied to do some full-time voluntary work as a Community Service Volunteer. You filled in an application form, went for an interview, and then waited to be sent to wherever there was an organisation that could make use of your skills.

Prime Minister David Cameron Visits Wormwood Scrubs Prison And Makes A Speech On Criminal Justice

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, visiting Wormwood Scrubs prison, London

For some reason, I was sent to work in a hostel for emotionally disturbed ex-prisoners in Worcester. Iris House provided accommodation and support for men who had serious problems rehabilitating into the community. Some had been in secure hospitals, such as Broadmoor and Rampton, and many were persistent and serious offenders. Our job was to house them, feed them and offer practical and emotional support. It was all a bit of a shock for a rather sheltered English Literature graduate from suburban Essex.

We were a small, mostly young team and we worked in pairs, alternating between day and night shifts. The atmosphere in the hostel could be quite oppressive: some of the residents had violent pasts and a few had to be controlled by heavy medication. But there was also a quirky side to the place that was sometimes like being in a dated TV sitcom. For example, the highest room in the hostel was home to a very well-spoken white-haired resident, a former fraudster, who treated the place like a hotel and somehow managed to have residents of humbler origin waiting on him hand and foot.

Then there were the two probation officers attached to the project. One was a Salvation Army officer who fancied himself as an amateur psychoanalyst; he diagnosed one resident’s burglaries as ‘night-time penetration offences’ and put them down to sexual frustration. The other probation officer was a rather glamorous Swiss woman, at whose leaving party the project manager memorably, and inappropriately, thanked her for being the team’s ‘sex object’. But that was typical of the sexual attitudes prevalent at the time. I remember a tense house meeting at which the male residents vigorously denied accusations that ‘homosexuality’ was rife in the hostel. And then there was the stash of pornographic magazines kept in the medicine cupboard, which we were expected to hand out nightly with the sedatives.

The experience of working at Iris House was certainly a baptism of fire. It left me with a sense of the emotional damage suffered by many people who end up in prison, and of just how difficult it is to resettle such people into anything like ‘normal’ life. I returned to academia as a PhD student in Manchester with a sense of relief, never thinking that I would ever return to working with offenders. However, a couple of years later, feeling an urge to do some voluntary work in my spare time, I happened upon a literacy project run by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO), just a few streets from the university. Thinking this was an area where I could make a contribution, I signed up to spend an hour or so a week, helping mostly young male offenders with their reading and writing. In the process, I became keenly aware of the fact that a large proportion of offenders (60% of UK prisoners, according to recent figures) have poor literacy skills, making it tough for them to hold down a job or simply cope with the demands of everyday life, and as a consequence making it more difficult for them to stay out of trouble.

Essex boys

My student grant ran out before I finished my thesis, so I moved back home to Essex and began to look for paid work. I took a series of part-time teaching jobs – with the Workers’ Educational Association, local further education colleges, and a memorable spell teaching numeracy to blood-spattered trainee butchers in Smithfield. But then, quite by chance, a family member spotted a tiny ad in a local paper, seeking a full-time course development worker for a brand new education project being set up by NACRO in Basildon, about 15 miles from where I lived. It seemed tailor-made, so I applied and got the job.

The project, based in the local probation office, was one of a number being started around the country, funded under the government’s Voluntary Projects Programme for unemployed people. By coincidence, the scheme’s HQ was in Manchester, just around the corner from where I’d done my voluntary work: in fact, that project was being used as a template for the new centres. I went back to Manchester for my induction and met others who had been recruited to run similar schemes in other towns and cities. They encouraged me to apply for the vacant project manager post in Basildon: so I did, and I was successful.

Eventually we recruited other team members, two of whom – Debbie Amas and Sandy Ruxton – I’m still in contact with many years later, and indeed Sandy and I recently worked together on a research project with vulnerable young men. Our brief in Basildon was to provide basic education classes for offenders – again, they were mostly young, mostly male – who were referred by the probation service. But we also offered volunteering opportunities for the more able probation clients: one of our volunteers was David Akinsanya, who went on to become a successful filmmaker.

To begin with, the project didn’t have premises of its own, so we had to hire rooms in local community centres. Most mornings would find us loading equipment into the boot of a car and driving to one of the outlying estates, where we’d set up our classes. It was often a little chaotic, to say the least, but hugely rewarding when it worked. Again, it was a revelation to discover just how many of those who ended up in the criminal justice system had been failed by the education system. More positively, it was encouraging to see how a second chance at learning could help them to turn their lives around.

A clean break

After a year in Basildon, I found a more permanent job at yet another NACRO project, this time in inner London. The North London Education Project had been set up to provide housing and support for ex-prisoners who had begun to study inside and wanted to continue their education on their release. It owned two hostels – one in Islington, the other in Hackney, where I was based, and where my main responsibility was setting up a new education day centre in the basement of the building. This was partly for project residents, but also for local probation clients, and for local unemployed and disadvantaged people generally. We developed a lively programme of day and evening classes – not only literacy and numeracy, but also computing, cookery, dance, weight-training – even a political discussion group.

Pentonville Prison (via Getty Images)

Pentonville Prison (via Getty Images)

My job also involved visiting prisons to interview prospective hostel residents. This was both the most fascinating and the most dispiriting part of the job. We accepted referrals from all over the country, but our closest links were with the two North London prisons, Pentonville and Holloway, which were thoroughly depressing places to visit – the former because of its grim Victorian architecture, the latter because it housed many women who really shouldn’t have been there. Many of the women were themselves victims of violence, while others had psychological problems that were only made worse by incarceration. As I was writing this post, I read about the tragic case of Sarah Reed, a woman with severe mental health problems who died in her cell at Holloway only last month, suggesting that very little has changed in the intervening years.

For many of the men and women locked up in these prisons, education classes were a real lifeline – a route to new opportunities on their release. However, the prison education staff worked in very trying circumstances, with classes frequently being cancelled or prisoners refused permission to attend them, at the whim of prison officers.

It was an invigorating time to be working in inner London. Our project was at the heart of a vibrant multiracial community, working alongside a number of other innovative community projects, and we were funded by generous grants from the Greater London Council and the Inner London Education Authority (neither of which any longer exist). As I wrote in another post, it was a rude shock when I eventually moved to Oxfordshire, and found myself working on an all-white rural housing estate, with huge social needs but very little funding.

In moving to Berinsfield, I also left behind working with offenders and moved into generic community education work, and then later to The Open University. However, I never lost my commitment to the cause of offender rehabilitation, and my belief in the vital importance of education as a part of that process. In fact, soon after joining the OU I wrote and presented a programme on Radio 4 about women in prison, which involved revisiting some of the community organisations with whom I’d worked in North London, such as the Clean Break theatre company.

The need for a ‘third space’

My attitudes to crime and offending have inevitably mellowed over the years. When I worked for NACRO I was influenced by the ideas of radical criminology that were in the air at the time, viewing crime as a symptom of social inequality, and offenders as people who did what they did because they had very little stake in society. Perhaps it’s a sign of age, or being a parent, or a property-owner, but these days I find myself more likely to emphasise the role of individual responsibility and the impact of crime on the poor and powerless. I wrestled with these issues in a piece I wrote for the Huffington Post after the riots of 2011.

End-of-award conference for the 'Beyond Male Role Models' project, march 2015

End-of-award conference for the ‘Beyond Male Role Models’ project, March 2015

However, I’d still maintain that we need to strike a balance (as I think – to be fair – the government ministers do, in the interventions I quoted at the beginning) – between emphasising personal responsibility for crime, and attending to the social and relational factors that contribute to offending – and re-offending. As part of the Beyond Male Role Models research project that Sandy Ruxton and I, with other colleagues, were involved in recently, we interviewed young men at a support project for ex-offenders run by Action for Children in the west of Scotland (some of them were featured in the film we made as part of the study, which you can view here). Reading through the transcripts of the interviews took me back to my time in North London and those depressing prison visits, to the projects I worked on in Basildon and Manchester, and to the hostel in Worcester where my involvement in this work began. The stories the young men told were depressingly familiar: a lack of jobs, poor housing, chaotic childhoods and problems of addiction and abuse handed down from one generation to another.

But we also heard more positive stories of young men who, despite their terrible experiences, were beginning to turn their lives around. For some, it was the experience of becoming a father that was the catalyst for making the transition from irresponsible to responsible young masculinity. For all of them, the support project itself was a vital ‘third space’ where they learned new skills and began to see the possibility of leading a different kind of life – rather like the education projects that I was privileged to work on all those years ago.

The government’s new focus on rehabilitation is to be applauded, but as well as reforming what goes on inside prisons, I hope they won’t overlook the agencies and projects working with ex-offenders ‘on the outside’, many of which are facing cuts or closure at a time of austerity. As our recent research and my own experience show, these projects have a vital part to play, to quote David Cameron, ‘to help those who’ve made mistakes to find their way back onto the right path’.


Beyond male role models: gender identities and work with young men, the research project that Sandy Ruxton, Brid Featherstone, Mike Ward and I worked on together, was featured this week in an article at the Huffington Post, based on an interview with me.

Gloria, Bernie, and the perils of identity politics

The legendary feminist campaigner Gloria Steinem got into a spot of bother last week over her comments on the battle for the Democratic nomination in the US presidential election. Speaking on the Bill Maher show, Steinem, a prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton, suggested that young women were only supporting her rival Bernie Sanders in order to meet ‘boys’:

They’re going to get more activist as they get older. And when you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys?’ The boys are with Bernie.

It didn’t help that, on the very next day, another prominent Clinton supporter – former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – urged women to vote for Hillary on the grounds that ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.’

Gloria Steinem (via Wikipedia)

Gloria Steinem (via Wikipedia)

Both women have since attempted to explain and apologise for their remarks, but the damage was already done. A political campaign in trouble – Sanders won the New Hampshire primary convincingly and was neck-and-neck with Clinton in Iowa (see this post for my shameless attempt to claim a very indirect personal connection to his campaign) – looked like it was resorting to desperate measures, implying that it was the duty of American women to vote for Hillary, simply because of her gender. I wonder if Albright or Steinem would have said the same about Republican candidate Carly Fiorina, or a few years ago, about that bête noire of Democrats, Sarah Palin? And I’m not sure I can imagine other female politicians – such as Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, or Angela Merkel – arguing that people should vote for them simply because they were women.

The backlash against Steinem’s and Albright’s interventions has been pretty fierce, even among feminists. Cultural commentator Camille Paglia, a self-confessed Sanders supporter and never one to mince her words, wrote this about Steinem’s statement:

With Bernie Sanders’ thrilling, runaway victory over Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, the old-guard feminist establishment in the U.S. has been dealt a crushing blow. 

Despite emergency efforts by Gloria Steinem, the crafty dowager empress of feminism, to push a faltering Hillary over the finish line, Sanders overwhelmingly won women’s votes in every category except senior citizens. Last week, when she told TV host Bill Maher that young women supporting the Sanders campaign are just in it to meet boys, Steinem managed not only to insult the intelligence and idealism of the young but to vaporize every lesbian Sanders fan into a spectral non-person. 

Steinem’s polished humanitarian mask had slipped, revealing the mummified fascist within. I’m sure that my delight was shared by other dissident feminists everywhere. Never before has the general public, here or abroad, more clearly seen the arrogance and amoral manipulativeness of the power elite who hijacked and stunted second-wave feminism.

And as for Albright’s contribution, Paglia commented:

Waspishly policing the earth was evidently insufficient for the feminist politburo, who are now barging into the salvation and damnation game.

The rest of the article rehearses the reasons why Paglia fell out with those whom she calls the ‘old guard’ of second wave feminism.

Many people thought that Gloria Steinem’s statement was out of character, but I have to admit that it didn’t really surprise me. It brought back memories of when I heard her speak at an international gender equality conference in New York last year. (This was the same conference at which that other doyenne of feminist activism, Jane Fonda, made a surprise appearance at the end of our seminar presentation.) Steinem was one of the keynote speakers at the gala event on the first evening. For the first ten minutes or so, her speech was engaging and entertaining, and something of a relief, coming at the end of a three-hour event in which we’d heard a succession of very worthy but often rather dull presentations.

But then Gloria went off script and treated us to a long historical excursion, which was just as much out-of-left-field as her comments last week. The main burden of her argument seemed to be that, in the ancient world, everything in the garden was rosy in terms of gender equality – until nasty old European civilisation came along and began to oppress women. Turning to her own country, Steinem claimed that Native American women enjoyed full equality until, once again, those pesky Europeans intervened and spoiled everything. Gloria told us about her frequent visits to Central Park to hug the rocks that have been there since ancient times and which connect her to the lost world of gender equality that our horrible western civilisation destroyed.

Well, one doesn’t have to be a professional historian or a cultural imperialist to think that there might be some flaws in this account. Personally, I think Steinem had things back to front. I’m not an expert on ancient civilisations, and some of them were certainly matriarchal and others had features we might admire. But surely there’s a strong argument that it was only with the coming of the European Enlightenment, and its proclamation of innate human rights and liberty and equality for all, that it became possible to think of women as autonomous human agents, rather than the chattels that they often were in ancient times? Some would go further and argue that the Enlightenment built on a longer western tradition, based on the dual pillars of Judaeo-Christian ethics and Greek philosophy, that emphasised the sacred value of every human life.

By contrast, Steinem’s version of gender history seemed to be spun out of a kind of fanciful New Age romanticism, in which non-western cultures were idealised and modern western civilisation demonised. Does it matter? Well, I’d argue that perhaps it does.

Human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie being heckled at Goldsmiths College

Human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie being heckled at Goldsmiths College (via The Guardian)

In my online disagreement with Glen Poole back in December, I took issue with his attempt to write off feminism as a whole, because of some of its more extreme manifestations. At the same time, I acknowledged that, like any broad social movement, contemporary feminism certainly has one or two troubling aspects. I gave as an example the experience, earlier that month, of Maryam Namazie, the Iranian-born secular feminist campaigner, whose speech at Goldsmiths College in London was noisily disrupted by male members of the college’s Islamic society. Instead of standing up for her, the Goldsmiths Feminist Society issued an astonishing statement condemning Namazie and supporting the actions of the Islamic society. Since then, we’ve had the events in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve, when dozens of women were sexually assaulted by gangs of men, said to be of North African or Middle Eastern origin. Some feminist commentators seemed slow to condemn these actions and appeared more comfortable excoriating the admittedly racist groups who sought to take advantage of the situation than the perpetrators themselves.

For some, these examples confirm a trend within western feminism to ignore or downplay the oppression of women in non-western countries and cultures. I got into a disagreement on Twitter recently when I took issue with a United Nations report that highlighted the inequalities suffered by women in the United States, surely one of the freest and most equal societies in the world for women – rather than focusing attention and resources on the countries in the world where women are truly oppressed – whether that means being sexually enslaved in ISIS-controlled Iraq, married off before puberty in Yemen, or imprisoned simply for being dressed ‘inappropriately’ in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

These are deep waters, and as a mere male pro-feminist I’m reluctant to wade in, particularly as I know Gloria Steinem’s writings have meant so much to many women. However, I’d suggest that a straight line can be drawn between the kind of anti-westernism and romantic idealisation of non-western cultures that I heard Steinem espouse in New York – and the skewed priorities that we witnessed in the cases of Maryam Namazie and the Cologne attacks.

Young women voters supporting Bernie Sanders

Young women voters supporting Bernie Sanders (via The Guardian)

After Cologne a number of critics proclaimed the ‘death’ of feminism. They were wrong, of course. But if the movement for gender equality is to survive and win over a younger generation, and at the same time counter the criticisms of the men’s rights movement, then I’d argue that it needs to let go of cultural relativism and embrace a bold vision of universal human rights, without fear or favour towards any culture or grouping. And it needs to forsake the kind of crude identity politics that Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright indulged in last week. Indeed, some have argued that it’s precisely his refusal to play this game (despite being the first Jewish candidate, and indeed the first non-Christian, to win a US primary election), and instead his keenness to emphasise that ‘we’re all in this together’ that may help to explain why the ‘boys’ – and girls – are increasingly ‘with Bernie’.

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.