Joseph Priestley, St. Thomas Square and the Roe family: Part 1

When you’re researching your family’s history, there are some mysteries that nag away at you, and that you find yourself returning to again and again. As I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions, I’m intrigued by  the names that my great great grandparents Daniel and Mary Ann Roe (both born in 1829) gave to their children. There are two mysteries here, in fact. One of them I’ve written about in other posts, and that is why Daniel and Mary Ann gave the middle name Ellis to their son Daniel. I think I’m beginning to understand something of the close relationship that existed between the Roe, Blanch and Ellis families, though I don’t believe I’ve quite got to the roots of the mystery yet.

The other mystery that intrigues me, for different reasons, is why Daniel and Mary Ann gave their youngest son – my great grandfather, born in Great Windmill Street in 1862 – the name Joseph Priestley Roe. When I began my genealogical research, I was only vaguely aware of Joseph Priestley, the 18th century theologian, scientist and political radical. But my interest in my family’s history has coincided with a growing fascination with the political and religious movements of the late 18th and early 19th centuries: the age of reform and revolution. The more that I’ve read about Priestley, the more I’ve become intrigued by this key figure of the English Enlightenment.

Born in Yorkshire in 1733, Joseph Priestley trained as a minister at the Dissenting Academy in Daventry. He held posts in Suffolk and Cheshire and gradually became known as a writer on education and theology, before taking up a teaching post at Warrington Academy. Priestley’s intellectual interests expanded to include philosophy, politics and science – he wrote an important treatise on electricity and is often credited with the discovery of oxygen. His increasingly heterodox theological opinions (he was one of the founders of Unitarianism), and his support for radical political causes, including the French Revolution, led to his house and laboratory being ransacked by rioters in Birmingham in 1791. After this traumatic experience, Priestley took refuge in Hackney, where he taught at the Dissenting Academy and preached at the Old Gravel Pit Unitarian chapel. However, in the increasingly repressive atmosphere of the 1790s, life continued to be difficult for Priestley and eventually he emigrated to the United States, where he helped to found the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. He died in Pennsylvania in 1804.

Joseph Priestley

The question is: why would a London shoemaker in the 1860s name his son after this man? Given Priestley’s wide range of activities, there are a number of possible answers to this question. One might be that Daniel Roe was a political radical – we know that shoemakers were among the most politically active trades in early 19th century London – and he may have admired Priestley as an early advocate of reform. Another possibility is that Daniel had an interest in science: perhaps he was a working-class autodidact who had read about Priestley’s early electrical and chemical experiments. A third possible answer is that the Roes shared Priestley’s religious opinions. It seems unlikely that they were actually Unitarians, given that this denomination tended to be dominated by the educated middle-classes, and we know that the family had strong Baptist connections. But Priestley’s theological influence extended beyond Unitarianism, and the Hackney association may provide a clue.

This is where the question of my great grandfather’s name may intersect with another unanswered question in the Roe family history. Daniel Roe and Mary Ann Blanch were married on 30th October 1848 at St. Anne’s, Limehouse. The only information we have about their address at the time is that it was somewhere in Limehouse. Almost exactly two years later, on 7th October 1850, the birth of their first daughter was registered in Hackney, and the place of birth was given as St. Thomas Square. However, when Kezia Eliza was baptised three months later, on 12th January 1851, at St. Dunstans and All Saints, Stepney, the family residence was said to be Green Street, Globe Lane. Although the number of the house isn’t given, it’s likely it was No. 2, where Mary Ann’s parents, John and Kezia Blanch were living when the 1851 census was taken in March of that year. By the time of that census, however, Daniel, Mary Ann and five month old Eliza would be living a few streets away on the other side of Bethnal Green, at 3 Patriot Row.

A section from Cross' New Plan of London 1850 showing St. Thomas Square in relation to Bethnal Green

(In the above map – click once to open in new window, then click again to enlarge – St. Thomas Square is near the top of the image, just below Loddige’s Nursery. Patriot Row is just to the north and Green Street just to the south of Bethnal Green itself.)

I’m curious as to why Kezia Eliza was born in St. Thomas Square, a mile and half or so to the north of Bethnal Green and in a different parish. The precise location of Kezia’s birth was obviously important to the family. It was important enough for Kezia herself to give it as her place of birth in the 1891 census, when she was forty years old and living in Berwick Street, Soho. Indeed, it’s the clue that confirms that Eliza Temple, laundress, is almost certainly Kezia Eliza Roe (she had married Edward Temple in 1871). It was surely unusual for people to include the name of the square or street when providing details of their birth: the county and borough or parish usually sufficed. It indicates that the precise location of her birth had been imprinted on Kezia’s memory by her parents, despite their apparently brief stay there.

One reason for this may have been the prestige associated with the address. St. Thomas Square, on the east side of Mare Street, was an impressive Georgian development which in 185o was still a comfortable middle-class enclave. At the time of the 1851 census, the houses in the square were occupied by (among others) a physician, a solicitor, two retired merchants and a number of insurance brokers. One house was home to a bricklayer and his family, but even they were able to afford a servant. The home of Samuel West, labourer, is the only anomaly in this otherwise well-heeled square.

How did Kezia Eliza Roe come to be born in St. Thomas Square? Were her parents living there at the time of her birth, and if so, why did they move away from the Stepney area where they were married and would be living in the following years? And how did a young journeyman shoemaker and his wife come to be living in a fashionable suburban square? When I’ve found other working-class ancestors of mine at middle-class addresses in the records, it’s usually because they’re working as servants. But is it likely that this would be the case for a newly-married couple?

My search through the 1851 census, which was taken just five months after Kezia’s birth, has suggested no clues. None of the names in the records are familiar or appear to have any associations with the Roes or their relatives. There is one caveat: I’m not sure that the census records for St.Thomas Square in the National Archives are complete. In 1851, the square can be found in Enumeration District 11 in the Hackney sub-registration district. However, the description of the enumeration district includes the phrase ’round St. Thomas Square on the left hand side’ (suggesting that there were also houses on the right hand side) and the actual record only includes Nos 1-10. Other records appear to suggest that there were 17 dwellings in all, but I haven’t been able to find the remainder in the digitised records. At Ancestry, we jump from District 11 to District 12b.

There is another possibility – and this is where the question of religious affiliation might come into play – which I want to pursue in Part 2 of this post.

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3 Responses to Joseph Priestley, St. Thomas Square and the Roe family: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Joseph Priestley, St. Thomas Square and the Roe family: Part 2 « Martin Robb’s Family History Blog

  2. Pingback: Phoebe Holdsworth and the Hackney connection « Martin Robb’s Family History Blog

  3. Pingback: Guy Alfred Aldred (1886 – 1963) | Martin Robb’s Family History Blog

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