In the last two posts, I’ve written about the later years of my great great great grandmother, Eliza Roe, and particularly about her work as a servant for the Walbey and Merry families. Exploring her employers’ background and the local context has cast some light on Eliza’s life after the death of her first husband Daniel. But it’s the earlier years of her life that still intrigue me, and over which hang a number of unanswered questions. How did Eliza, born in Stepney, end up getting married in the Bedfordshire village of Blunham, and how did she meet her Biggleswade shoemaker husband?In this post, I want to explore one theory put forward by my distant relative and fellow family historian, Ron Roe – a theory that suggests a possible family connection in Bedfordshire.
My 3 x great grandmother was born Eliza Holdsworth in Mile End Road on 18th April 1801, the daughter of William Holdsworth and Lydia Evans (or Evins). William and Lydia, members of Little Alie Street Baptist meeting in Whitechapel, were married in 1892 at St. Botolph’s church, Bishopsgate, and Eliza was the fourth of their six children. William, born in 1771 in South Weald, Essex, was the son of Joseph Holdsworth and Elizabeth Greene, while Lydia, born in 1770, was the daughter of Francis and Elizabeth Evans.
We know a fair amount about the Holdsworth family, but we don’t have any definite information for Francis and Elizabeth Evans. It’s not certain when and where they were married, or if they had any other children besides Lydia. Someone by the name of Francis Evans married Elizabeth Harvey at St. Mary’s, Whitechapel on 15th December 1768, but we can’t be sure that this is the right couple. Whether they were from London, or (like the Holdsworths) had moved there from elsewhere remains, for now, a mystery.
There’s a gap in our knowledge of Eliza Holdsworth’s life between her birth in 1801 and her marriage to Daniel Roe at Blunham parish church on 25th April 1825, when she was 24 years old. But it’s the record of that marriage that might provide a clue to the mystery of Eliza’s move to Bedfordshire. There were two witnesses at the wedding of Daniel Roe and Eliza Holdsworth. The first name is difficult to read. The Christian name appears to be William (abbreviated to ‘Wm’) and the surname begins with ‘B’ but after that is unclear: it could be Bowers (I don’t think it’s ‘Bowtell': see below). The second name, however, is very clear: Mary Evans. So who was she? We can’t be absolutely sure, but Ron Roe has found a Caleb Evans living in Biggleswade at this time who had at least two children: Martha and Mary. Is this the same Mary who witnessed Daniel’s and Eliza’s wedding – and more importantly, is she connected in some way to Eliza’s mother’s family?
The two families certainly shared a common religious affiliation. According to Ron, Caleb Evans, who was born in about 1780, is mentioned in a history of the Baptist church in Biggleswade. Apparently the vicar of nearby Harrold made a disparaging remark in 1801 about uneducated preachers, including one Caleb Evans, who was employed as a malt-maker. It seems that Caleb was a deacon of the Baptist meeting in Biggleswade until 1835.
I can find no trace of Mary Evans after her birth (apart from her possible appearance at the wedding in Blunham, when she would have been the same age as the bride), but her sister Martha married carpenter James Bowtell in 1826. In 1841, Martha, James and their children can be found living in Back Street, Biggleswade, next door to Caleb, 60, and his wife Ann, 70. Caleb Evans would die in the following year and be buried in the Old Meeting House burial ground, where Eliza Roe’s daughter Hannah Maria would be laid to rest two years later. At the time of the 1841 census, the widowed Eliza and her children were living only a couple of streets away from the Evanses and the Bowtells.
Caleb Evans’ wife Ann was a Marsom by birth, born in Potton in 1771, from a long-established Bedfordshire Baptist family. I’m grateful to Margaret Rowley, nee Marsom, who has traced her family back through the generations and has generously shared her findings with me. Ann’s cousin Samuel, a farmer and market gardener, ran the Crown Hotel in Biggleswade for thirty years. Her great grandfather Thomas Marsom was an ironmonger and Baptist preacher (a combination that recurs across the generations of Marsoms) whose son, also Thomas, was a hymn writer and poet. Ann’s great great grandfather, yet another Thomas Marsom, founded the first Baptist church in Luton and in about 1668 was imprisoned with John Bunyan, at which time he is said to have persuaded the latter to publish the book that would become Pilgrim’s Progress.
As for Caleb Evans himself, I’ve been unable to find any record of him before his marriage to Ann in Biggleswade in 1798. There are plenty of men by the same name in the Baptist records, including some who achieved a degree of fame, but most of them were full-time, educated ministers, and as far as we know ‘our’ Caleb was merely a part-time deacon and preacher. Most of these other Caleb Evanses lived either in Wales or the Bristol area. We know that Caleb was born outside the county, so perhaps he or his family moved to Bedfordshire from elsewhere?
According to a history of the Welsh Baptists, an assistant minister named David Evans (presumably originally from Wales) was baptised in 1734 (remember that Baptists are baptised as adults), began to preach in 1736, then served in Hook Norton, Ireland, Newport Pagnell – and finally Biggleswade. A history of the English Baptists states that David Evans settled in Biggleswade in 1751. Could he have been a relative of Caleb’s: perhaps even his father?
That’s about all the evidence we have, for now, of a possible link between Eliza Roe and the Evanses of Biggleswade: the rest is speculation. Perhaps Eliza’s mother Lydia was a cousin or even a sister of Caleb Evans? Perhaps Eliza was sent to Biggleswade to stay with her relative (uncle?), and while there she met her future husband Daniel, possibly through the Baptist chapel? Then, it’s possible she found work (as a servant?) in Blunham, which might explain how she came to be living there at the time of her marriage, and why she and Daniel decided to hold the wedding there. Until we find definite records linking the two branches of the Evans family, we can’t be certain about any of this.
There’s another, not incompatible, theory about how Eliza came to be in Blunham, which I want to explore in the next post.