Elizabeth Gibson: a life in Georgian England

I’ve written a fair amount, under various headings, about my great-great-great-great-great grandmother Elizabeth Holdsworth, formerly Collins, née Gibson, who was born in 1733 and died in 1809. However, I thought it might be helpful to put everything we know about her together in one continuous, chronological narrative. There’s still a great deal we don’t know about Elizabeth, but the main outlines of her life are becoming clearer and provide an interesting case study of a certain kind of life in Georgian England. As always, I’m indebted to the work of other researchers, in particular Ron Roe and Adrian Holdsworth.

Firstly, a reminder of my connection to Elizabeth: her son William (1771 – 1830) had a daughter Eliza (1801 -1885 ) who married Daniel Roe (d. 1836). Their son, another Daniel Roe (b. 1829), married Mary Ann Blanch (1827 – 1860), and their youngest son Joseph Priestley Roe (1862 – 1947) was the father of my maternal grandmother, Minnie Louisa Roe (1902 – 1987).

Birth and background

Elizabeth Gibson was born in 1733 in the Minories in the City of London, in the sixth year of the reign of King George II, when Robert Walpole was prime minister. She was christened on 17 May about a half a mile away, at the church of St Botolph without Aldgate. Elizabeth was the third daughter of Lieutenant John Gibson and Mary Greene who had married four years earlier at All Hallows, London Wall. Their elder two daughters were Mary (who did not survive) and Jane.

If his burial record is correct, then John Gibson was born in about 1699, though at this stage we can’t be sure of his parentage or origin, nor do we know much about his occupation, except for his (naval?) rank. Mary was the only surviving daughter of Citizen and goldsmith Joseph Greene (1677 – 1737) and his wife (also Mary) who lived at the corner of Little Tower Hill and the Minories. In fact, Elizabeth was born in her grandparents’ house, though her parents’ home was in nearby Tower Hill. When she was two years old, Elizabeth’s younger sister Frances was born, and two years after that saw the birth of another sister, Ann, both at Tower Hill.

Woodredon House, Waltham Abbey (now Woodredon Equestrian Centre), home of the Gibson family

On Boxing Day, 1737, when Elizabeth was four years old, her grandfather Joseph died, leaving the sum of one thousand pounds to her parents. He also left sufficient funds for his widow, Mary, to purchase the house and manor of Woodredon at Waltham Abbey, Essex, from the Duke of Bedford in the following year. Mary Greene immediately transferred the ownership of the manor to her daughter and son-in-law, Elizabeth’s parents.

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 a half a day or so along the main highway via Woodford. We know that the Gibsons retained their house 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 the following year, the Gibsons would have been aware of the crowds thronging to witness the public beheading on Tower Hill of the aged Lord Lovat, in the aftermath of the crushing of the 1745 Jacobite uprising: he was the last person to be executed in this manner.)

The beheading of the rebel (Jacobite) lords on Great Tower Hill: a contemporary image which gives a useful impression of the buildings in the area

First marriage to John Collins

Confirmation that the Gibsons regarded Woodredon, as much as London, as their home came in 1752, when Elizabeth’s older sister married William Coates at nearby Theydon Mount. The parish register describes Jane as coming from Waltham Holy Cross.

Three months later, on 21 February 1753, Elizabeth herself was married at St George’s Chapel, Mayfair, to John Collins. Her address was said to be Waltham Abbey, while the bridegroom was described as a ‘gentleman’ of Epping. John was almost certainly the son of Richard Collins, a landowner with a considerable number of properties in the Epping area, and therefore a near-neighbour of the Gibsons at Woodredon. The reasons for marrying at this particular chapel, which had a reputation for private and secret marriages, are unclear. Since both Elizabeth and John were both still under twenty one, perhaps the marriage did not have the approval of one or both sets of parents?

We know from their mother’s will that the married name of Elizabeth’s younger sister Ann was Schwarz. The most likely marriage took place in August 1754 at the church of St George in the East: the bridegroom was Charles Gottfried Schwartz of that parish.

The only glimpse we have of the brief married life of Elizabeth and John Collins is the record of the baptism of their daughter, Frances, on 8 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 and a few streets to the east of Tower Hill and the Minories. Since John Collins was left considerable property in the Epping area, by both his father and his aunt Elizabeth, it seems unlikely that this was the couple’s only home and probable that, like Elizabeth’s parents, they divided their time between town and country.

St Botolph without Aldgate

In January 1761, Elizabeth’s sister Frances married Captain Michael Bonner of Stepney at St Botolph’s church. A year later, the Bonners would themselves be living in Darby Street – perhaps in the same house as John and Elizabeth Collins? – when their first child, John William Bonner, was born.

John Collins must have died some time between 1759 and 1763, when Elizabeth married for a second time. The apparent absence of a burial record for John in the London registers increases the likelihood that the couple also kept a home in a rural parish.

Elizabeth’s father is almost certainly the John Gibson of St Botolph’s, Aldgate, who died of fever and was buried in February 1763 at St Dunstan’s, Stepney. In the following year, Sir John 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 to Joseph Holdsworth

On 20 May 1763, in the third year of the reign of King George III, Elizabeth Collins, a widow of thirty, 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 lived in the parish at various times. Either Joseph or his father John had been born in Yorkshire and had taken a farm at South Weald, Essex. How Elizabeth met Joseph is another mystery, though we know that members of the Collins family owned land in neighbouring villages and it’s possible that Elizabeth knew of Joseph via her first husband.

Three years later, in 1766, Elizabeth’s younger brother Bowes John Gibson married Elizabeth Hendly at St Dunstan’s, Stepney. By this stage, it is likely that their widowed mother Mary had moved, with her unmarried offspring, to Mile End Old Town. Bowes John and his wife Elizabeth were certainly paying land tax on a house there in 1766-67, and a Mary Gibson on a separate house in 1768.

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

Weald Hall, South Weald, Essex

In June 1780, a month before the Gordon riots erupted in London, Frances Collins of Romford (only a few miles from South Weald) married John Godfrey Schwartz at St Botolph, Bishopsgate, a church that would later be the location for the marriages of two of Joseph and Elizabeth Holdsworth’s children. My theory is that Frances was the Elizabeth’s daughter from her first marriage to John Collins (see above), and that John Godfrey was the son of Elizabeth’s sister Ann and her husband Charles Gottfried Schwartz. In October of that same year, Joseph and Elizabeth Holdsworth’s oldest child, Elizabeth, died in South Weald; she was fourteen years old.

In April 1788, Mrs Mary Gibson, a widow of Mile End Old Town, 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, née Greene, died in 1790 and was buried on 26 October 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, the year of the French Revolution, Sarah had left her older sister Elizabeth the sum of one hundred pounds.

All of Joseph and Elizabeth’s surviving children seem to have moved away from South Weald, mostly to London, as soon as they reached adulthood. In October 1786, when she was about 19 years old, Sarah Holdsworth married Edward Porter at St Botolph, Bishopsgate. William Holdsworth married Lydia Evans at the same church in November 1792, when he was 21. Joseph Holdsworth junior married Margaret Miller at Christ Church, Spitalfields, in February 1792, when he was 22 years old. Godfrey Holdsworth married Diana Cam at St Paul’s, Covent Garden, in August 1793, when he was 20. It’s unclear what became of Henry, but since it’s possible he is the person who died in Southwark in 1813, it’s likely that he also moved to London.

The exception to the rule was the Holdsworths’ eldest son John, who married Mary Webb at Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, in 1797, when he was 32. John was the only Holdsworth sibling to wait until after his father’s death to marry, so it’s possible that, as the eldest son, he remained at home to help his ageing father with work on the farm, and perhaps to settle his affairs after his death.

The fact that Joseph and Elizabeth’s children were impelled to leave home suggests a downturn in the family’s fortunes, as well as a lack of employment and other opportunities in their home village. 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.

We must assume that Elizabeth remained in South Weald, at least until after the death and burial of her husband Joseph in June 1795. Then, the presence of most of her children in London and her other family ties there, must soon have drawn the widowed Elizabeth back to the city of her birth.

Old age

My assumption is that Elizabeth spent her declining years living with one or other of her married children, somewhere in the Stepney area. At the time of Joseph Holdsworth’s death in 1795, their daughter Sarah was living in Mile End Old Town, with her husband, plumber Edward Porter and their infant son Edward Parker Porter. Godfrey Holdsworth and his wife Diana were also in Mile End Old Town, where Godfrey also worked as a plumber (were he and his brother-in-law in business together?): at this date, they had two young children, Joseph and Sarah. Joseph junior was living in Marmaduke Street with, or close to, his brother William: both were working as cordwainers or shoemakers. Joseph and his wife Margaret had two young children, Sarah and John Clark, while William and his wife Lydia had two infant sons, Isaac and Samuel (their biblical names reflecting their parents’ Baptist affiliation). John Holdsworth was still in Oxfordshire, but he and his family would also be drawn to Stepney in due course.

Mile End Old Gate and Whitechapel Turnpike, 1798

As for Elizabeth’s own siblings, 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. Michael and Frances Bonner would both die in 1802 in Bermondsey and be buried at St George’s in the East.

Elizabeth’s younger brother Bowes John Gibson had ten children by his first wife, Elizabeth, who died some time in the 1790s. Having lived in Stepney and Bermondsey, Bowes John was now back in Mile End Old Town and working as an auctioneer, providing financial and broking 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. We don’t know whether Bowes John Gibson had any contact with his widowed and probably impoverished older sister.

Death and burial

Elizabeth Holdsworth would live for another 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 Holdsworth was living in Mile End Old Town, probably with her daughter Sarah, whom she appointed as co-executor, and who by this time had herself been widowed, lost her only child, and married for a second time, to William Parker.

St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney, in 1805

Clearly, Elizabeth had very little money left to bequeath her children or grandchildren. She left forty pounds for funeral expenses in the keeping of her son Joseph, now living in William Street, 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 a ‘vault in the church yard of St Dunstan Stepney built by my grandfather and where my brothers and sisters lay.’ She is buried with her grandparents Joseph and Mary Greene, three of their children, her great grandparents Captain William Greene of Ratcliffe and his wife Elizabeth, as well as her nephew John William Bonner, who would die in 1817, and her eldest son John, who would die in 1848 and whose name is inscribed below hers.

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