Revisiting the French family

As often happens, an email from a distant relative has prompted me to revisit a neglected branch of my family tree. Gareth Sanger is, like me, a descendant of Stepney bootmaker Frederick French (1810 – 1887) and his wife Sarah Elizabeth Bull (1813 – 1857), who were my 3rd great grandparents. Gareth is descended from Frederick’s son Charles (1852 – 1932), whereas I trace my descent from another son, Frederick French the younger (1847 – 1917). This Frederick French married Emily Hindley (1847 – 1918), and their daughter Mary (b. 1873) was my great grandmother. Mary French married George Webb (b. 1874): their daughter Mary Emily Elizabeth Webb (1898 – 1965) married Arthur Ernest Robb (1897 – 1979), and they were my grandparents.


My great great grandmother Mary Webb née French, in old age

Prompted by Gareth’s email to review my research into the French family, I realised that it’s almost ten years since I last wrote about them on this blog, and even then I didn’t tell their story in chronological order, or in very much detail. I hope to put that right in this and in forthcoming posts.


What do we know of the origins of the French family? My late Auntie Grace (my father’s older sister) wrote in a letter: ‘Gran [i.e. Mary Webb nee French] used to tell me that her ancestors were French smugglers who settled in England and changed their name from De’rench (?) to French.’ Gareth was told a rather different story by his grandmother: that the Frenches were landed gentry who fled to England to avoid persecution at the time of the French Revolution, and that their original name was Laroche, or similar.

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Old photograph of Dorchester, Dorset, birthplace of Frederick French

Whatever the truth of these family stories, census records tell us that Frederick French the elder was born in Dorchester, Dorset, in about 1810, while the record of his marriage provides the information that his father’s name was William and that, like his son and grandsons, he too was a shoemaker. So far, I’ve failed to find a record of Frederick’s birth or baptism in the Dorset parish records. The closest I’ve come is the record of the christening on 15th April 1810 at Wincanton, about 30 miles to the north of Dorchester, of Frederick French, son of William and Jane French.

As I’ve noted before, there is a long-established firm of shoemakers by the name of French in Southampton, with its roots in Dorset, and with a number of Williams and Fredericks in their family tree. The website of W.J.French and Sons, ‘shoemakers of distinction, est. 1803’, includes the following information:

The French name originated in France and traditionally the French family were shoemakers in the reign of Queen Anne and also connected with the American French’s […]

Francis French began his apprenticeship with shoemaker Richard Wareham at Dudsbury, Parish of Hampreston in Dorset, and in 1803 began their business from a house in Kingsland Place, Southampton.

However, at this stage, any connection between the Frenches who migrated from Dorset to Southampton and the French family who moved from Dorset to East London must remain a matter of speculation.

Frederick French and Sarah Elizabeth Bull

The first clear sighting of ‘our’ Frederick French in the official records occurs at the time of the 1841 census. This finds Frederick French, said to be 31 years old, and Sarah French, 25, living with their three children, Sarah, 9, Seth, 7, and William, 2, at Parnham Street, close to Salmon Lane in Limehouse. At this stage, Frederick is described as a labourer, rather than a shoemaker. Both he and Sarah are said to have been born outside the county (Middlesex), while their children were all born within it. From parish records, we know that their daughter Sarah had been baptised at the parish church of St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney, on 22nd July 1832. Seth Frederick was christened at the same church on 21st August 1836: the parish register describes his father as a cordwainer (i.e. shoemaker) and states that the family home is in Mile End Old Town. I’ve found a record of William Henry’s birth in the Civil Registration Birth Index for 1839, but I’ve yet to trace a record of his baptism.

1868 map Salmon Lane Limehouse

Limehouse, from Edward Weller’s 1868 Map of London (via

More children followed in the next decade: Sarah Jane in 1841, Eliza in 1844, Frederick junior in 1847 and Caroline in 1850. The 1851 census finds the family living at 5 Wilson’s Place, a little to the south of Parnham Street. From this record we learn for the first time that Frederick senior was born in ‘Dorsetshire’ and Sarah in Horsleydown, Surrey. Frederick is working as a shoemaker with Sarah alongside him as a shoebinder. We also learn that Sarah junior and Seth were born in Stepney, while the younger children were all born in Limehouse.

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Record of the marriage in 1853 of Frederick French and Sarah Elizabeth Bull (via

Frederick and Sarah’s eighth and youngest child, Charles, was born in 1852. The following year saw the publication of the most puzzling and intriguing record in the couple’s history. On 10th July 1853, at the parish church of All Saints, Poplar, Frederick French and Sarah Elizabeth Bull, both said to of ‘full age’, were married. How are we to explain this anomaly? I’ve always assumed that the couple had lived together without being married, but at some point after the births of their children, they decided to legitimise their status. The fact that they gave separate addresses – Frederick at No. 9 Mary Street, Sarah at No. 14 – suggests an attempt to pretend that they were not actually cohabiting. (Mary Street was off Salmon Lane, and not far from the Rhodeswell Road area where the family would eventually settle.)

However, new information shared by Gareth Sanger has suggested another possible explanation. Gareth believes that his ancestor Charles French, the youngest son of Frederick and Sarah, was brought up as a Catholic. If the Frenches were originally Catholic, then perhaps my 3rd great grandparents were originally married in a Catholic ceremony, and their Church of England wedding in 1853 was a way of regularising their status in the eyes of the Established Church at a time when Catholics still suffered from many social disadvantages?

The Bull family

Complicating the matter further is the suggestion, also from Gareth, that Frederick French’s wife Sarah Elizabeth Bull, was a Quaker. We learn from the record of her 1853 marriage to Frederick that Sarah was the daughter of John Bull, a cooper. She was born on 9th November 1813 in Horsleydown, a small parish close to the southern bank of the Thames, opposite the Tower of London, and baptised in the parish church of St John on 10th April 1814. Born in Southwark in 1778, Sarah’s father John was said to be the son of Job Bull, a butcher, and his wife Mary. On 21st August 1803, at the parish church of St Mary, Newington, in Southwark, John Bull married Sarah Jobber. John and Sarah Bull appear to have had eight children: John William (1805), Charles (1807), William (1808), Henry (1811), Sarah Elizabeth (1813), Seth (1816), George Frederick (1818) and Caroline (1820).


Portrait of Elizabeth Fry, by Charles Robert Leslie (via

I haven’t yet found any evidence of the Bull family’s Quaker affiliation. Gareth Sanger reports the curious story that Sarah Elizabeth Bull ‘was said to be a companion to Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer’ who apparently gave her two brass jugs which were passed down through the French family. How this activity aligned with her marriage to Frederick and raising eight children is not clear.

Some years ago, I was contacted by Annette Sutton from Queensland, Australia, who is a descendant of George Frederick Bull, who also went by the surname of Goodwin. According to Annette, the Bulls moved across the river to Whitechapel in 1813 or 1814 (soon after Sarah Elizabeth’s birth), where they lived in Gower’s Walk. By the time of the 1841 census, John Bull had died (probably in 1833) and his widow Sarah was living with their daughter Caroline, now married to Thomas Curtis, in Church Street, Stepney. Sarah Bull appears to have died in 1843.

George Bull alias Goodwin was transported to Australia in 1837 for the seemingly trivial offence of stealing a handkerchief.  Here’s an extract from the record of his trial at the Old Bailey:

GEORGE GOODWIN, alias Bull, was indicted for stealing, on the 26th of November 1 handkerchief, value 2s., the goods of James Hunter, from his person. 

JAMES HUNTER . About four o’clock in the afternoon of the 26th of November I was in the Commercial-road, and observed the prisoner and another walk as close after me as they could—I looked over my shoulder, and saw the prisoner and another walking fast—I then walked slowly till we came to Albion-street, where they turned down—I felt, and my hand kerchief was gone—I called the police, and pursued them—they parted—the prisoner was taken—one of them threw something into a passage of a door, but my handkerchief has not been found. 

WILLIAM CLAY (police-constable K278.) I was called about four o’clock—the prosecutor said, “I have lost my handkerchief, come with me”—the prisoner and another saw me coming, and the other one got into a house about six doors down Albion-street—the prisoner attempted to go in, and chuckedin a dark handkerchief, and when I came opposite the door it was shut—I pursued the prisoner, and he ran me down Albion street, till he came to a court in Duke-street—I then caught him, and brought him back—I found one handkerchief on his person, which I produce—I asked the gentleman if it was his—he said, “No “—this is a silk handkerchief—the house he threw the handkerchief into is a bad house—the girl he cohabits with lives there.

Prisoner. I was sent on an errand for my mother, and was standing at this house—the policeman came and took me—I never had any handkerchief but this, which is my mother’s. 

GUILTY. Aged 18.— Transported for Ten Years.

Marriages and deaths

In December 1856 Frederick and Sarah’s son Seth died, at the age of twenty-two. His mother, Sarah Elizabeth French née Bull, died in the following year – on 20th April 1857, at Copenhagen Terrace, just off Salmon Lane in Limehouse – and was buried at the City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery. She was 43 years old.

The 1861 census finds her widower, Frederick, aged 51, living either in, or just off Rhodeswell Road in Limehouse. Of his children, five are still living at home: William, 21, Sarah, 28, Frederick, 14, Caroline, 11, and Charles, 9. The older three are working in the family trade: William and Frederick as shoe makers, like their father (and presumably with him), and Sarah as a shoe binder. Susan Jane, who was now 18 and working as a laundress, can be found visiting a family in Bethnal Green at the time of the census. Her sister Eliza, who was a year younger, was working as a cook for a family in Bromley-by-Bow.

Later in 1861, Frederick’s son William Henry married Katherine Marney, daughter of Stepney warehouseman William Marney, at St Thomas’ church in Stepney. In the following year, his older sister Sarah Caroline married John Scully, a Dublin-born smith and ‘hammer man’, who had been lodging with the French family at the time of the census. In 1867, Frederick French junior married Emily Hindley, the daughter of ship chandler William Hindley, at All Saints church in Poplar.

By the time of the 1871 census, only 19-year-old Charles French was left at home, still living and working with his 61-year old father Frederick, in Mary Street. The head of the household was now Frederick’s son-in-law John Scully, who lived in the same house with his wife Sarah and their three young children. Frederick French junior and his brother William, together with their young families, were sharing a house in nearby Rhodeswell Road, and presumably working together in the same shoemaking business.

The three younger French sisters were all working away from home as servants at this time: Caroline for a retired builder and his wife in Limehouse, Eliza with the family of a naval architect in Mile End Old Town, and Susan in the household of an auctioneer and estate agent in Hampstead. As far as I can tell, Caroline and Eliza would never marry, but later in 1871 Susan would marry colliery worker John Watoff Tomlinson, in his hometown of Seagrave, Leicestershire.

On 12th September 1872 Charles French married Charlotte Jane Kayley, daughter of blacksmith James Kayley, at All Saints church in Poplar. It’s believed that Charlotte’s family were Quakers.

In 1877 Eliza French died at the age of 32 and was buried in the City of London Cemetery. Her address was given as 64 Coutts Road, Stepney. That was the address (now apparently buried under Mile End Stadium) where her father Frederick, now 71 but still working as a shoemaker, could be found at the time of the 1881 census. As before, this address was also home to Frederick’s daughter Sarah Scully, her husband John, and their four children, including 16-year-old John junior, who was working as a shoemaker, almost certainly with his father-in-law. Another of Frederick’s children, Caroline, had moved back home and was working as a tailoress.

In 1881 Frederick French junior and his brother William and their families were still living in Rhodeswell Road and working together as shoemakers. Their sister Susan was with her husband John Tomlinson and their five children in Pentrich, Derbyshire. Meanwhile their younger brother Charles and his wife and young family had moved to Alexander Street in West Ham, where Charles had set up his own bootmaking business.

Frederick French senior died in 1887 at the age of 77 and was buried on 27th March at Manor Park Cemetery in East Ham, even though his last abode was said to be 59 Coutts Road in Mile End. Perhaps this was because the funeral arrangements were handled by Charles?

In future posts, I’ll explore the lives of Frederick French’s children.


A new blog about my Glasgow ancestors

I’ve started a new blog – Merchant City Cousins – that grows out of my research into the family of my 4th great uncle, George Robb, a merchant in early nineteenth-century Glasgow and the brother of my 3rd great grandfather, Charles Edward Stuart Robb.

John Knox, ‘Old Glasgow Cross or the Trongate’ , Glasgow Museums, via

Although my search for information about George Robb began as an attempt to establish his connection with my own family, I soon became intrigued by his story, and that of his extended family, for its own sake. I discovered that he and his wife and children were part of a nexus of families linked by marriage that included merchants, manufacturers, plantation owners, lawyers, artists and administrators – many of them implicated in the infamous ‘triangular trade’ that connected Glasgow with Africa and the New World.

It is the story of that extended family – of interest in its own right, but also providing a fascinating insight into life in Glasgow, and the city’s links with the New World, in the nineteenth century – that I plan to tell in the new blog.

Roes in Luton: the family of Ruth Roe (d. 1840)

I’ve written recently about three members of the Roe family who lived in Luton in the first half of the nineteenth century, all of whom were shoemakers: Peter Roe (1801 – 1873), William Roe (1811 – c. 1863) and George Roe (1811 – 1857). There is good reason to believe that the three men were brothers, that they were the sons of John Roe, another Luton shoemaker, and that they were related in some way to my own Bedfordshire Roe ancestors, including my 3rd great grandfather, Biggleswade shoemaker Daniel Roe.

I’ve now discovered evidence that Peter, William and George may have had a sister. Much of the information that I’ve found about Ruth Roe, including her own marriage and those of her children, suggests a connection to the same network of Baptist shoemaking families living in Luton around this time.

The first record we have for Ruth is of her marriage on 2nd May 1819, at St. Mary’s church, Luton, to William Field, who also seems to have been a shoemaker. William was born in 1799, the eldest child of John Field and Elizabeth Day, who had married in the previous year. As was the case with his sisters Elizabeth (1800) and Sarah (1804), William’s birth was recorded by his parents in the Register of Births kept by the Luton Baptists.

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William Field’s birth recorded in the Baptist Register of Births, Luton (via

William’s sister Sarah Field would marry Sawbridgeworth shoemaker John Clarke in 1838: curiously, the marriage seems to have taken place at the church of St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney, though I’m unaware of a London connection in either family. John and Sarah Clarke lived in Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire, and had three children: David (1838), Emily (1842), and John (1844).

As for William’s other sister, Elizabeth Field, she seems never to have married. I haven’t managed to find any trace of her between her birth in 1800 and the 1861 census when, aged 60, she was living in the home of Nathan Beadle, a widowed tailor, in High Road, Sawbridgeworth, and describing herself as a ‘gentlewoman’.  Elizabeth is described in the census record as an ‘aunt’, though it’s not clear whose. With her are Emily Clarke, described as a ‘sister-in-law’ – presumably the sister of her sister Sarah’s husband John Clarke – and Sarah Field, described as a ‘cousin’. Sarah was the daughter of Elizabeth’s brother William and his wife Ruth Roe. Ten years later Elizabeth Field, 70, describing herself as ‘independent’ and her niece Sarah, 45, a dressmaker, would still be living together, in London Road, Sawbridgeworth. By 1881, 80-year-old Elizabeth would be back living with the Beadle family, in the same road, and describing herself as an ‘annuitant’. She would die three years later.

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(image via

William and Ruth Field seem to have had four children: John, born in 1821; Elizabeth, born in the same year, and possibly John’s twin; Sarah, in 1825; and finally Samuel, in 1835. In December 1839 their daughter Elizabeth married William Huckle, yet another shoemaker, who was the brother of Sarah Huckle, the wife of William Roe.

Ruth Field née Roe appears to have died in 1840, and at the time of the 1841 census the widowed William Field was living with his sons John, 20, and Samuel, 7, in Park Lane, Luton, where his near neighbours included not only his daughter-in-law Elizabeth and her family, but William Roe and his wife Sarah, as well as various members of Sarah’s Huckle family.

In 1843 William Field married again, to Mary Day: presumably she was related in some way to William’s late mother Elizabeth Field, nee Day. The witnesses were his son-in-law William Huckle, and the latter’s sister Susan Attwood, née Huckle. William Field seems to have died by 1851: in the census of that year, his widow Mary was living in New Town, Luton, and by December she had married again, to William Smith.

In 1851 William Field’s daughter Elizabeth and her husband William Huckle were living in Bull Court, Luton. By now they had four children: John, born in 1841; Zachariah, 1843; Jesse, 1847; and Elizabeth, 1849. They also had a lodger: Elizabeth’s 16-year-old brother Samuel, now working, like his brother-in-law William Huckle, as a cordwainer’s journeyman. By the time of the 1861 census, the family had moved to Chase Street, Luton, where William was working as a shoemaker, Elizabeth as a bonnet sewer, their son Zachariah as a boot closer, and daughter Elizabeth as a bonnet sewer. They now had a daughter, Eliza, 4, and a son William Gentle Huckle, 1.  Their son John, another boot closer, had married Ann Souster, and in 1861 they were also living in Chase Street with their infant daughter Sarah. I haven’t been able to find John’s brother Jesse Huckle in the 1861 census; perhaps he didn’t survive into adulthood.

Elizabeth Huckle, née Field, died in December 1861, leaving her husband William a 41-year-old widower with two young children. Five years later, in 1866, William Huckle set sail for America, taking with him his 20-year-old son Zachariah, his 6-year-old daughter Eliza and 4-year-old son William, and arriving in Boston in August of that year. At the time of the United States Census of 1870, William and his children were living with his sister Susannah, her husband, bootmaker Daniel Attwood, and their daughter Jessie, in Foxboro, Massachusetts. I suspect William’s motive for emigration was as much about getting help with looking after his young family as finding work: presumably he was now working alongside his brother Daniel Attwood.

By settling in Foxboro, William Huckle was joining a growing emigrant community of Luton-born Huckles and Roes. As I noted in earlier posts, Daniel Roe, the son of William’s sister Sarah and her husband William Roe, had arrived there in about 1855, with his brother John Huckle Roe following soon afterwards. William’s sister Susannah Attwood and her family had arrived in 1857.

William’s son John Huckle, his wife Ann and their daughters Sarah, Lizzie and Elizabeth, joined him in America for a while, arriving there in 1867. In 1870 they were living in Franklin, Massachusetts, where John had found work as a shoemaker. However, by 1881 they were back in England, living in Hastings Street in Luton (interestingly, the street where a certain John Roe, shoemaker, possibly the father of William, Peter, George and Ruth Roe, had died in 1849). They would remain in Luton, where Ann would die in 1897 and John in 1937.

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Foxboro in 1906 (via

The 1881 census finds William Huckle still living close to the Attwoods in Foxboro, but in a separate dwelling, with daughter Eliza, 23, and son Zachariah, 30. Father and son are working together as boot and shoe repairers, and Eliza is working in a straw hat shop. William’s son William Gentle Huckle seems to have returned home to England as a young man, principally in order to marry Leicester-born Alice Clark in 1881. They must then have returned for a time to the United States, since their son Cyril Theodore (or Ted) Huckle, was born in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1890; son Vincent Vernon in Philadelphia in 1892; and daughter Florence in Alleghenny, Pennsylvania in 1897. The family was back in England for the 1901 census, living in Southampton, where the reason for their peripatetic lifestyle becomes clear. William Gentle Huckle is said to be the chief of an international detective bureau: something of a change from the manual trades of his siblings, parents and grandparents. The family seem to have returned to the United States soon after the census was taken.

In 1880 William’s daughter Eliza Huckle, now working as a seamstress, married John Henry McTernan in Norwood, Massachusetts. They would have two children: Charles in 1882, and Jessie in 1891.

In 1881 William Huckle married his unmarried sister-in-law, Sarah Field. According to the Massachusetts marriage records, on 3rd September 1881, William Huckle, a 59-year-old shoemaker, born in Luton, England, the son of John and Mary Huckle, married 56-year-old Sarah Field, also from Luton, the daughter of William and Ruth Field, in Foxboro. The marriage record notes that it was his second marriage and her first.

William’s son Zachariah died in 1891 at the age of 47. William himself would live until 1915 and Sarah until 1917.

Roes in Luton: the family of George Roe (1811 – 1857)

In writing about the Roes of Luton, I’ve overlooked the existence of a possible third brother – George – to go alongside Peter and William, and I’m grateful to my fellow researcher Margaret Lewis for drawing him to my attention.

George Roe was a Luton shoemaker, like Peter and William, and according to the record of his second marriage, his father was shoemaker John Roe – the same information that we find on William’s second marriage certificate. George was born in Luton in 1811, just like William, so it’s possible they were not only brothers but also twins. Another connection is evident in George’s marriage, on 14th January 1832, to Lucy Fensome. Born in May 1809, Lucy was one of the six children of John Fensome and his wife Sarah. In my earlier post about William, I noted that at the time of the 1851 census there were a number of Fensomes living with or visiting William and his wife Sarah in Barbers Lane, Luton. This is because Sarah’s sister, Mary Huckle, had married Joseph Fensome. I’m not yet sure how the two branches of the Fensome family tree are connected.

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Record of Lucy Fensome’s birth in the Luton Baptist Register

Lucy’s birth, like those of her siblings, was recorded in the Register of Births kept by the Luton Baptists. My Roe ancestors in Biggleswade were Baptists, as were those in Pirton with whom they are probably connected: this record is the first (albeit indirect) evidence I’ve found of a Baptist link with the Luton Roes, and it strengthens the case for them being part of the wider Roe family.

George and Lucy Roe would have two children – Emma, born in 1832, and Sarah in 1836. In 1841 the young family were living in Adelaide Terrace, George Street, in Luton, just a few houses away from Peter Roe and his family. Lucy seems to have died in 1847, at the age of 36, leaving George with two young daughters. Towards the end of that year, he married his second wife Hannah Jones, who had been born a Fensome. She was the daughter of another Joseph Fensome, and his wife Ann, who was yet another Huckle. In 1834 Hannah had married Henry Jones and they had a daughter, Harriet, born in 1836, and a son, Henry Thomas, in 1839, before Henry senior’s early death in 1840.

At the time of the 1851 census, George, described as a cordwainer, and Hannah, were living in Park Street West, Luton, with George’s daughters Emma, 17, and Sarah, 15, from his first marriage, and Harriet, 14, Hannah’s daughter from her first marriage, all three working with Hannah as straw bonnet makers, as well as Hannah’s son Henry, 12, an errand boy, and George and Hannah’s own infant daughter Elizabeth, aged 10 months.

George and Hannah Roe would have another daughter, Annie Isabel, in 1856, before George’s death at the age of 47 in the following year. I don’t think their daughter Elizabeth survived, but Annie continued to live with her widowed mother. In 1861, when Hannah was 46, and Annie was 5, they were together in Albert Road, Luton, where Hannah was working as a bonnet sewer. However, by 1871 they had moved to London, where they were living in Charles Street, Knightsbridge – though Hannah was still doing similar work, as a straw hat platter.

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Nineteenth-century Knightstbridge (via

Five years later, when she was 20, Annie Isabel Roe married Edward Pausey at St George’s church, Hanover Square. Edward was the son of a Chelsea leather seller, and would himself work in the boot trade, so perhaps there was a Roe family connection. The 1881 census finds Edward and Annie living in Middle Street, Brompton. Annie’s mother Hannah is not mentioned, but since she would die in Kensington in the following year, she can’t have been far away.

Edward and Annie Pausey would have three children – Edward, Annie and Isabel, all apparently born in the Haggerston area. In 1911, now in their fifties, the couple were living with Edward’s parents in Brompton. Electoral registers from the 1920s find Edward and Annie living in Baxendale Road, Bethnal Green. I’m not sure when or where Annie died, but there’s a record of an Edward Pausey dying in 1931, in Hitchin – coincidentally, the town where I’m writing this, and just a few miles from Luton, where his late wife Annie Isabel Roe had been born.

The death of Daniel Roe, shoemaker

Yesterday I made an important discovery about my maternal great great grandfather, Daniel Roe. I’ve managed to find out a great deal about Daniel and his family, but until now I hadn’t known when he died, or where he was buried, despite searching for this information for a number of years.

Born in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire in 1829, Daniel was the son of shoemaker Daniel Roe senior and his wife, Stepney-born Eliza Holdsworth. Following the death of his father, the family came to London, where in 1848 Daniel married his second cousin, Mary Ann Blanch, the daughter of Bethnal Green shoemaker John Blanch and his wife Keziah Holdsworth (the cousin of Daniel’s mother Eliza). 

                 Victorian shoemaker’s shop

Like his father and father-in-law (to whom he may have been apprenticed), Daniel Roe worked as a shoemaker, at first in Bethnal Green and later in Great Crown Court, Soho – in the parish of St James, Westminster – where he and Mary Ann moved, together with their children, and with Mary Ann’s parents, in the 1850s. Daniel and Mary Ann had five children: Kezia Eliza (1850), Daniel Ellis (1854), Mary Ann Blanch (1857), John Richard (1859) and finally, in 1862, my great grandfather Joseph Priestley Roe

I’ve known for some time that Mary Ann’s father John Blanch died in December 1869, and was buried on 22nd of that month at the City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery. I also knew that Mary Ann herself had died on 7th December 1870, at the age of 34, at Dufours Place, which was off Broad Street in Soho. The cause of her death was phthisis, or tuberculousis. I’ve always assumed that Daniel must also have died around this time, since at the time of the 1871 census his and Mary Ann’s children were living with their widowed grandmother, Keziah Blanch née Holdsworth, in Broad Street. But until yesterday, I’d been unable to find any record of Daniel’s death, or his whereabouts from the mid-1860s onwards.

The breakthrough came yesterday as I was researching the Roe family of Luton (see the last two posts), following up on leads provided by a fellow researcher. I found myself looking through the Non-Conformist and Non-Parochial Registers now accessible via Ancestry, initially for evidence of the Baptist affiliation of the Luton Roes. However I then decided to search in the whole archive for members of my own branch of the Roe family, including Daniel. Eventually I came across a reference to the burial record for a ‘Daniel Rowe’ (sic) in Hackney.

I don’t know why I hadn’t found this record before: perhaps the spelling of his surname, or the location (thinking he had died in Westminster) had put me off. But when I looked up the record, there it was: ‘Daniel Rowe’, aged 40, of 8 Great Crown Court, St James, had died – or had been buried – on 20th November 1869, in Victoria Park Cemetery in Hackney. Searching further, I discovered that Daniel’s wife Mary Ann was also buried in the same cemetery (presumably in the same grave?) in the following year. 

So I now know that my great great grandfather Daniel Roe died in November 1869, just a month before his father-in-law John Blanch, and that my great great grandmother Mary Ann Roe née Blanch lived for a year as a widow, before her own death just over twelve months later. When his parents died, their youngest child – my great grandfather Joseph Priestley Roe – would only have been seven or eight years old.

Entrance to Meath Gardens (via tower

Despite its Hackney address, Victoria Park Cemetery was actually in Bethnal Green, close to where the Blanch and Roe families had lived before moving to Soho. Any hope of finding my ancestors’ graves was dashed by the discovery that the cemetery was closed in the 1870s and later turned into a public park – now known as Meath Gardens. Apparently all that now remains of the burial ground is its entrance arch. 

Roes in Luton: the family of William Roe (b. 1811)

Continuing with my exploration of the Roe family of Luton, and following on from my last post about the family of Peter Roe, in this post I’ll summarise everything I’ve managed to discover about the family of William Roe, another nineteenth-century Luton shoemaker, who I strongly suspect was Peter’s brother.

William Roe was born in Luton in about 1811, according to census records. We know from the record of William’s second marriage, in 1852, that his father was John Roe, a Luton shoemaker – as William himself would be. On 26th January 1831, when he would have been about 20 years old, William Roe married Sarah Huckle at St. Mary’s church in Luton. Born in Luton in 1813, Sarah was one of the ten children of John Huckle and his wife Mary Boston. William and Sarah Roe’s first child, John Huckle Roe, was born about ten months after their wedding, on 6th November 1831. A second son, Daniel, followed in March 1834, then daughters Sophia and Mary Ann in 1836 and 1838 respectively, and son Isaac in 1840.

At the time of the 1841 census, the young family was living in Barbers Lane, Luton, where William was working as a shoemaker. As well as their five children, Sarah’s mother Mary Huckle, aged 55 and working as a dressmaker, was also living with them. Sophia Roe died in 1842, at the age of six, while 1844 brought the birth of another son, William junior. 1847 saw the death of Mary Huckle, the mother of Sarah Roe née Huckle; it was William Roe who registered his mother-in-law’s death.

A Luton girl plaiting straw (via

In 1851, William Roe, 40, now a shoemaker master employing one man, was still in Barbers Lane with Sarah, 38, who was working as a straw bonnet maker, John, 19, and Daniel, 17 (both journeyman shoemakers, presumably working alongside their father), Isaac, 10, Mary Ann, 13, and William, 7. Also at the same address were Sophia Fensome, 14, described as a niece and a straw bonnet sewer; William Fensome, 20, a married nephew and journeyman shoemaker (presumably William senior’s employee); and Sarah Fensome, 22, a married niece and also a straw bonnet sewer. All are said to have been born in Luton. Sophia and William Fensome were the children of Joseph Fensome and his wife Mary Huckle, who was the sister of Sarah Roe née Huckle. William Fensome had married Sarah Costin on 13th May 1848 at St. Mary’s church, Luton; presumably she is the Sarah Fensome mentioned in the census record.

Sarah Huckle Roe died in January 1852, aged 39, leaving William a widower with five children. This may explain the speed with which William found and married a second wife: his wedding to Elizabeth Maddocks, who had been born in the village of Shillington and who seems to have been a widow, took place at St Mary’s church on 7th June 1852, just six months after Sarah’s death. Elizabeth already had two children, a son James and daughter Sarah.

Illustrated map of Foxboro, Massachusetts, in 1888 (via

In the course of the next few years, John and Daniel, William Roe’s two eldest sons from his first marriage to Sarah, who were now both in their early 20s, emigrated to America. Daniel Roe seems to have been the first to depart, arriving in Boston in 1855. He settled in Foxboro in Norfolk County, Massachussetts, where on 3rdJuly 1857 he married fellow immigrant Margaret Dixon, who had been born in 1835 in Glasgow. In 1859 their first child, Joseph, was born. John Huckle Roe left home for America a year after his younger brother, arriving in New York in 1856, with his wife Eliza Cain, whom he had married in Luton two years earlier, and their infant son John junior. William and Eliza also settled in Foxboro, where their son William Thomas was born in 1859.

The United States Federal Census of 1860 finds the two brothers and their families living as close neighbours in Foxboro. John is maintaining the family tradition and working as a boot maker, while Daniel is employed in another familiar industry, working as a labourer in a bonnet shop. Daniel and Margaret Roe would have three more children sons, Robert Frederick (1861), Daniel Percy (1863), and Irving Adamson (1866), before Margaret’s death from consumption in 1874 at the age of 39. In 1876 Daniel married his second wife, Louisa Emily Hewins. As for John Roe, his wife Eliza had died in 1861 and in 1865 he married Sarah Jane Beatty, who was originally from Ireland. They would have ten children together. John would die in Ashland, Massachusetts, in 1898, and Daniel some time after 1900.

John and Daniel were not the only members of their extended family to emigrate to the United States. Their aunt Susan or Susannah Huckle – their mother Sarah’s older sister – had married shoemaker Daniel Attwood in Luton in 1831, and for a time worked alongside him as a shoe binder in Luton. In 1857, when Daniel and Susan were already in their 40s, they set off for America with six of their children, and ended up living in Foxboro, Massachussetts, close to their nephews John and Daniel Roe.

We left John and Daniel’s father, William Roe, and his second wife Elizabeth, in Luton in 1852.They would have one child together: Henry, who was born in 1856. In 1860 William’s son Isaac from his first marriage married Eliza Chantry and at the time of the 1861 census they were living in Chobham Street, Luton, where Isaac was following the family tradition and working as a cordwainer. They would have one daughter, Rose or Rosa, born in 1863. Isaac’s remaining siblings, Mary Anne, 23, and her brother William Roe junior, 17, another shoemaker, were living together at this time in Back Court, Luton. Both were as yet unmarried.

As for William Roe senior, in 1861 he and Elizabeth and their infant son Henry were still in Barbers Lane, together with Elizabeth’s two children from her first marriage, 16-year-old Sarah and 14-year-old James, both now given the surname ‘Roe’. Sarah was working alongside her mother as a bonnet sewer, while James was employed as a stationer’s lad. The family also had two boarders, both bonnet sewers: the aptly named Harriet Straw, 25, and Charlotte Odell, 17. I’m keen to find out more about Charlotte: the surname Odell occurs in the history of the Pirton Roes, and I’m intrigued by the fact that she was born in Northill, near Biggleswade, where my own Roe ancestors lived.

I haven’t been able to find any trace of William Roe after 1861, and there’s a record that shows someone of that name dying in Luton in 1863, when he would have been 52. His second wife Elizabeth seems to have died in Luton in 1878.

Providence, Rhode Island, in the late nineteenth century

At some point between 1861 and 1867, William’s daughter from his first marriage, Mary Ann, joined her older brothers John and Daniel in America, where she married Irishman James Dingwell on 15thAugust 1867 in Foxboro. However, the couple seem to have settled in Providence, Rhode Island, which is where their son Charles would be born in the following year. However, some time before 1881 James Dingwell must have died, and Mary and her son returned to England, since the census of that year finds them back in Luton, where Mary, now 43 and a widow, is working as a straw hat finisher. In 1891 and again in 1901 she would once again be sharing a home, in Elizabeth Street, Luton with her brother William Roe junior, still unmarried and still working as a boot maker. William died in 1910 at the age of 66, but in 1911 Mary, now 73, would still be in Elizabeth Street, sharing the house with her son Charles, now 42 and working as a labourer. Charles is said to have a naval pension, so I assume he was away at sea in the intervening years. Mary Ann Roe would die in 1916, at the age of 78.

Mary’s younger half-brother Henry Roe had married Kate Emma Rush in Luton in 1877. They lived for a time in Greenwich in south London, where Henry was employed as a grocer’s shopman, before moving back to Luton, where he worked as a straw hat maker. He and Kate had two sons, Henry and William, and two daughters, Lillie and Daisy, before Kate’s death in 1897 at the age of 39. Henry married a second wife, Sarah Jane Draper, in the same year. However, I understand that he was committed to an asylum in Biggleswade in April 1900, where he died in October of that year.

Roes in Luton: the family of Peter Roe (1801 – 1873)

I continue to be intrigued by the Roe family of Luton – specifically, Peter Roe and William Roe, both of whom were shoemakers in the town in the first half of the nineteenth century. I’m convinced that they are connected in some way with the Roes of nearby Pirton and Barkway, who were linked somehow to my own Roe ancestors, and particularly to my 3rd great grandfather Daniel Roe, a shoemaker in Biggleswade, who died in 1838. A number of my distant Roe relations have discovered DNA links to descendants of the Luton Roes, though I’ve yet to find such a ‘match’ myself.

I suspect that Peter Roe and William Roe were brothers. We know that William was the son of John Roe, also a shoemaker, who may be the man of that name and occupation who died of typhus fever in Luton in 1849 at the age of 66. In the next few posts, I’ll summarise what I’ve managed to find out about Peter’s and William’s families – starting in this post with Peter – in the hope that this may throw some light on their wider family connections.

Peter Roe was born in Luton, Bedfordshire, in about 1801. On 20thAugust 1827, when he was around 26 years old, Peter married Dinah Scrivener at St. Mary’s church in the town. Dinah was born in the village of Kings Walden, about five or six miles from Luton and just across the county border in Hertfordshire. From census records, we can determine that she was born in about 1798, so she was already in early thirties when she married Peter Roe. Peter and Dinah Roe’s eldest son George was born in Luton in May 1833. Two more sons, Daniel and James, followed, in 1835 and 1839 respectively.

At the time of the 1841 census, the Roes were living at Adelaide Terrace, George Street, in Luton. The record is difficult to read, but it looks as though Peter was working as a shoe maker, the trade he would follow throughout his life. Ten years later, Peter and Dinah, now in their early fifties, are still at Adelaide Terrace, and we can now see clearly that Peter is a shoemaker and that Dinah, like many other women in Luton and surrounding villages at the time, is working as a straw bonnet sewer. But it wasn’t just women’s work: their 17-year-old son George is said to be similarly employed, while 16-year-old Daniel is described simply as a ‘labourer’. As for their youngest son James, he is absent from the 1851 census record and may be the person of that name who died in Luton towards the end of 1841: if so, he would have been just two years old.

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Victorian Luton

In early 1861 Peter and Dinah’s son Daniel, now aged about 26, married Fanny Walton, 25, described in different census records as coming from either Aylesbury or Waddesdon, in Buckinghamshire. By the time of the census taken in that year, Daniel and Fanny were living with his parents (or vice versa) at 35 Princess Street, Luton. Peter Roe, 60, is still working as a boot and shoe maker and Dinah, 63, as a bonnet sewer, while Daniel is employed as a carpenter and Fanny as a dressmaker.

Daniel’s brother George had married three year earlier, to Elizabeth Hague, a cordwainer’s (i.e. shoemaker’s) daughter from Hemel Hempstead. Their first son Charles was born in Luton in 1860, but by the time of the 1861 census the young family were living in Bushey, Hertfordshire, where George was employed as a whitesmith. In the next ten years George and Elizabeth Roe would have three more sons: George (1865), William (1866) and James (1868), all of them born in Hemel Hempstead, which is where the young family would be living at the time of the 1871 census.

Meanwhile, Daniel and Fanny Roe had also produced three children: Edward (1865), Annie (1865) and Fanny (1869). By 1871 they, and Daniel’s parents, had moved to Stuart Street in Luton: Peter and Dinah (now 71 and 73 respectively) were at No. 16, with Daniel and Fanny and their children next door at No. 18.

Peter Roe would die two years later, in 1873, at the age of 72. By 1881, Daniel and Fanny, now both 45, had moved to Lee Road, Luton, where Daniel was now described as a master carpenter employing one man and one boy, and Fanny was working as a straw hat finisher. All three of their children were still at home: Edward, 16, working as a grocer’s assistant; Annie, 15, doing the same work as her mother; and Fanny, 11, still a ‘scholar’. As for Daniel’s widowed mother Dinah, who was now 83, she was living in an almshouse in Chobham Street, where she is described demeaningly as an ‘imbecile’. She would die later that year.

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Hemel Hempstead High Street in the 19th century

Daniel Roe’s brother George and his wife Elizabeth had produced three more children by the time of the 1881 census: Emma Jane (1872), Sophia (1876) and Albert (1880). By this time the family had moved to Bath Street, Hemel Hempstead. Sons Charles,21, and William, 15, were working as saddlers, and 13-year-old James as an errand boy. George and Elizabeth’s second son, George Roe junior, was no longer living at home but his whereabouts at this time, when he would have been about 16 years old, are unknown. It’s likely he was in London, studying for the occupation that he would follow later in life: as a pharmacist. By 1891 he would be married to his wife Kate and living in Fulham.

By the same date, George Roe senior and his wife Elizabeth, now 57 and 56 respectively, would be living in Hemel Hempstead High Street – presumably George’s whitesmith’s shop was there. Still living at home were Charles, 31, a stoker in an iron foundry; Emma Jane, 19, and Sophia, 25, both dressmakers; and Albert, 11, a ‘scholar’. William was no longer at home: he was now a corporal and saddler / harness maker in the Royal Engineers and in 1887 had married Bermuda-born Margaret Mary Clifford, the daughter of another soldier. At the time of the 1891 census the young couple, with their two infant sons William and George, were living in army quarters in Cheriton, Kent. In time they would produce seven children and seem to have lived a peripatetic live, moving between army bases in England and Ireland, until William retired from the Royal Engineers in 1907. I believe that William may have died in London in 1929 and his wife Mary in Hampshire in 1931.

The 1901 census finds George Roe senior and Elizabeth, now in their sixties, living by themselves at 3 Cherry Bourne, Hemel Hempstead, while their unmarried daughters Emma Jane and Sophia were still living together in the High Street and working as dress makers, on their ‘own account’.  I’m not sure where their son Charles was at this date, if indeed he was still living. His brother James was working as a clothier’s assistant and boarding with a family in Buckingham. Three years later James would marry Kate Elizabeth Newman from Luton: they would live in Kent, with their daughter Gladys Mary, where James would work as a gardener and then as a house painter. As for Albert, he was now working as an assistant to his brother George, the pharmacist, in Fulham.

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Victorian Fulham

George Roe senior died at the age of 69 in 1903 and by the time of the 1911 census his widow Elizabeth, together with her daughters Emma and Sophia, had moved to Fulham, where they were living with Albert, still working as a chemist’s assistant. Elizabeth Roe would die there a year later, at the age of 77.

Returning to George’s brother Daniel and his wife Fanny in Luton: by 1891, and now in their 50s, they had moved to Holly Walk. Their three children, all in their 20s, were still living at home. Edward, 26, was working as a carpenter, presumably alongside his father. Annie, 25, was still working as a straw hat finisher, while Fanny, 21, was a dress maker. Fanny Roe senior would die four years later, at the age of 59. Her death would be followed three years later, in 1898, by that of her son Edward, aged only 33. The 1901 census finds widower Daniel Roe with his two unmarried daughters, Annie, now working as a domestic servant, and Fanny, still a dress maker, still together in Holly Walk. Daniel would die at the age of 74 in 1909, leaving his property to ‘Annie Roe and Fanny Roe spinsters’. The two sisters would still be unmarried and still at Holly Walk in 1911, and indeed when the England and Wales Register was compiled in 1939. Both seem to have died in 1945.

A note on the family of George Roe junior, pharmacist

The story of George Roe junior, son of whitesmith George Roe and his wife Elizabeth Hague, and grandson of Luton shoemaker Peter Roe and his wife Dinah Scrivener, is interesting enough to merit a separate discussion – if only because George seems to have been the first member of his branch of the Roe family not to have worked as a manual labourer.

As noted above, George was born in 1865 in Hemel Hempstead and in 1871 was living with his parents and siblings at 152 Alma Road in the town, but has so far proved impossible to find in the census taken ten years later, when he would have been sixteen years old. However, by 1891, when he was 26, George was married and living at 23 Radipole Road in Fulham, where was working as a ‘hospital dispenser’. His wife, Kate or Katie, 27, is said to have been born in Battersea, though I’ve yet to find a record of her birth. It seems likely that the couple are the George Maslen Roe and Kate Rosina Bond who were married in Islington in 1887. By 1891 they had been married for four years, but there was no sign of any children, and nor would there be.

Living with George and Kate Roe in 1891 was 55-year-old Annie Damant, a single lady living on her own means and described as an aunt – presumably Kate’s? – from Waldringfield, Suffolk. They could also afford a domestic servant, 15-year-old Elizabeth Illing from Bermondsey. Also at the same address, though described as forming a separate household, of which he was head, was London-born Arthur Smith Loftus, a 32-year-old ‘registered medical practitioner’ and surgeon, born in Haggerston.

Screenshot 2019-04-25 at 08.07.43

At the time of the next census in 1901, George and Kate would be at different addresses. Kate was in Bournemouth, at ‘Lindisfarne’ in Christchurch Road, with her aunt Annie Damant, and the aforementioned Arthur Smith Loftus, who is now revealed to be Kate’s cousin. Interestingly, the census record reveals that the renowned religious writer Baron Friedrich von Hügel and his daughters were just a few doors away in the same street, at ‘Pembroke’, at this time. At first, I thought that perhaps Kate and her relations were taking a seaside holiday, but Arthur Loftus would still be at the same address in 1911.

Meanwhile, George, 35, was back home in Fulham, at 281 Lillie Road, working as a chemist and druggist and employing two assistants, one of them 60-year-old Henry Pearce, also described as a servant, and the other George’s younger brother Albert, 20 (see above). Another servant, Clara Caseley, a 40-year-old widow, was employed as a housekeeper. Kate Roe would also be absent from the family home ten years later, in 1911, when the census finds George, now 46, at the same address in Fulham, with only Mrs. Caseley for company. George is said to be married, so we know that Katie must still have been alive, though as yet I’ve been unable to find her in the census records. George Roe would die in Fulham in 1929 at the age of 63.

The reason for the couple’s apparent separation remains a mystery, as do Kate’s origins and her connection with Annie Damant and Arthur Smith Loftus, whose family stories often seem like something out of a Victorian novel. If Arthur Loftus was born in Shoreditch, then he is probably the child of that name born there in the second quarter of 1859, and it should be a simple matter to order a copy of his birth certificate and discover the names of his parents. However, it’s almost certain that he is also the Arthur Smith Loftus who, having been born on 17th March 1859, was christened seven years later, on 29th July 1866, at St Luke’s church, Chelsea. Arthur’s mother’s name is given as Jane Loftus but the name of his father is not supplied.

The details in the parish register make it possible for us to confirm that Arthur is the child who was present at the same address when the 1861 census was taken. At the time, he was two years old and described as a ‘nurse child’, in the home of Sarah Smith, a 77-year-old ‘almswoman’ and her daughter Eliza, 53, a cook and domestic servant. There is no sign of his mother Jane: was she living elsewhere, or had she in fact died, leaving Arthur in the care of a relative – or was he given the middle name Smith in honour of his carers?

I’ve been unable to find Arthur Smith Loftus in the 1871 census, but in 1881 he was still living with Eliza Smith, now 71 and described as a retired housekeeper, in Upper Cheyne Row, Chelsea. Arthur, now a 22-year-old medical student, is said to be Eliza’s godson. Ten years later, as we have seen, he was living in Fulham with his supposed cousin Kate Roe, her husband George, and aunt Annie Lamant.

Arthur Smith Loftus’ movements can be tracked, not only in census records, but also through city and medical directories. It’s interesting that his first appearance in a medical directory, in 1890, the year before he turns up in the same house as the Roes in Radipole Road, Fulham, places him at 8 New Crown Terrace in Lillie Road – the same road where George Roe would be living and working ten years later. This directory entry gives his date of qualification – L.S.A. or Licence of the Society of Apothecaries – as 1884, at Charing Cross (Hospital?), and lists a number of other qualifications and awards. An electoral register for 1894 gives his address as Lindisfarne, Fulham Road – the same name that he gave his (second?) home in Bournemouth. A city directory for 1900-1901 has him back at Lillie Road, Fulham. As we have seen, a number of local directories from this period also refer to Loftus’ address in Bournemouth, the last of them being from 1911.

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Arthur Smith Loftus in The Medical Directory of 1890 (via

Arthur Loftus appears to have been related both to his supposed cousin, Kate Roe, wife of George, and to her aunt Annie Damant. But in 1909 Loftus added another connection to the Damant family when he married Ellen Marianne Damant in Ipswich, Suffolk. Ellen, born in Ipswich in 1866, was the daughter of James Damant, a builder from Waldringfield, the same village as Kate Roe’s aunt Annie Damant, and his wife Emma Rollinson Smith – a common enough surname, but possibly a relation of the Eliza Smith who acted as Arthur Loftus’ godmother, and effective substitute parent? Arthur and Ellen would both have been in their early 40s when they married, so this seems like a case of two unmarried members of the same extended family – distant cousins? – seeking companionship in their declining years.

My search for Ellen in the records before 1909 has yielded very little so far. But it has thrown up another Ellen Damant – this time with the middle name Maria, rather than Marianne – who was admitted to St Luke’s Lunatic Asylum in 1874. Taken together with the mystery of Arthur’s parentage, his being raised by a poor housekeeper, but somehow managing to qualify and have a career as a respected surgeon, not to mention the unexplained connection to the Damant family and the mysterious separation of George and Kate Roe – and this begins to sound like a plot from a novel by Wilkie Collins or Charlotte Bronte. More research will be necessary to solve some of these mysteries – but if anyone with ancestral connections to these families can throw any light on them, I’d certainly welcome their insights.

ThruLines™ to shared ancestors

Ancestry DNA® results can be tantalising – but also extremely frustrating. Being given a long list of strangers who may be your 5th to 8th cousins is certainly exciting – but in most cases it’s impossible to prove their connection to you. More often than not, there are no shared matches with other people, and the names in their family trees (if they have one) may have no overlap with your own.

Hooray, then, for Ancestry DNA’s new ThruLines™ tool, which illustrates how you might be related to your DNA matches through a common ancestor. Basically, you’re given a list of ancestors that you share with DNA matches. By clicking on them, you can see how your family trees overlap. As well as helping you to see why some random stranger is on your list of DNA matches, ThruLines can also help to confirm some of your genealogical hunches – which, for me, is the main value of having taken a DNA test in the first place.


For example, if I look at the ThruLines entry for my supposed maternal 4th great grandfather William Holdsworth (1771 – 1827), I find that I have one DNA match via his daughter Eliza, my 3rd great grandmother, which I already knew about (a second cousin), and three DNA matches via his daughter Phoebe (1796 – 1875) – which I didn’t previously know about. Opening up the tree, I discover that these are people who are descended from Phoebe’s son Thomas and daughter Ann, from her first marriage to Thomas Chamberlin (1794 – 1837). ThruLines tells me that one of these descendants is a 5th cousin of mine, while the other two are 5th cousins once removed. If I were relying simply on their individual DNA reports, I would never have discovered the nature of their connection to me: in all three cases, there are ‘no shared matches’, and only one of them has a single matching surname in their tree.

Plaque on the former premises of Blanch & Sons, coach builders, in Church Street, Chelsea

At the same time, this ThruLines connection provides me with confirmation that I’m on the right track in my research into my maternal ancestors, and that I am indeed descended from William Holdsworth, a shoemaker in Whitechapel and Bethnal Green in the early nineteenth century. This is not a huge surprise, but in other cases, ThruLines has provided evidence of connections about which I’ve had significant doubts. For example, I’ve often wondered whether my maternal 3rd great grandfather John Blanch (1802-1869), another East End shoemaker, was indeed the brother of Soho and Chelsea coachbuilder David Blanch (1810 – 1866), and the son of Bristol-born patten maker James Blanch (1755 – 1840), especially as there seemed to be some discrepancy in the christening records. However, ThruLines tells me that I have a DNA match with a descendant of David Blanch – a 5th cousin – and also one with another Blanch brother William Henry (1804  – 1857) – this time a 4th cousin once removed.

I’m hoping that future matches via ThruLines will provide confirmation of more distant ancestors – but that, of course, relies on other researchers having ventured as far back in our shared families’ histories as I have.

The death of Caleb Evans

I recently took delivery of a copy of the death certificate of Caleb Evans, a coal porter of Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, who died on 3rd February 1842 at the age of 65. The certificate reveals that the person who registered Caleb’s death was none other than my maternal 3rd great grandmother, Eliza Roe.

Death certificate of Caleb Evans (via General Register Office)

Why is this of interest? For some time, I’ve been trying to establish a definite connection between my Roe ancestors and the Evans family of Biggleswade. Eliza Roe had been born Eliza Holdsworth in 1801, the daughter of Stepney shoemaker William Holdsworth and his wife Lydia Evans, the daughter of Francis and Elizabeth Evans. William and Lydia were members of the Little Alie Street Baptist chapel in Whitechapel. As a young woman, Eliza seems to have travelled from London to Biggleswade where she met and married Daniel Roe, another Baptist shoemaker, in 1825. One of the witnesses at the wedding was Mary Evans, who seems to have been the daughter of Caleb Evans, who was apparently a deacon and lay preacher at the Baptist ‘Old Meeting’ in Biggleswade. This suggests that Eliza may have been drawn to Biggleswade by the presence there of her Evans relatives.

Recent research by my distant relative Keith Roe found a possible connection between the Roe family and another Evans – Rev. David Evans, the Baptist minister of Biggleswade in the late eighteenth century. Keith has discovered that David Evans married Mary Moss, the sister of Martha Moss, who was married to a certain William Roe of Pirton, which is across the county border in Hertfordshire but only ten miles from Biggleswade. There’s a strong likelihood that William Roe was related to the Daniel Roe who married Eliza Holdsworth.

Back Street, Biggleswade, in 1904 (via

Now, it’s possible that Eliza Roe registered the death of Caleb Evans simply because they were neighbours – the 1841 census shows Caleb living in Back Street, Biggleswade, while Eliza lived in nearby Sand Pit Lane – or because they were fellow worshippers at the town’s Baptist chapel. But given that Eliza’s mother was an Evans, as well as the presence of Caleb’s daughter Mary at Eliza’s wedding, it seems much more likely that Caleb was actually a relative of Eliza’s. As to why the death wasn’t registered by Caleb’s widow Ann, it’s possible that she was too old or too ill: she was 70 years old in 1842, and would die two years later.

Caleb’s wife Ann was born Ann Marsom, and came from a long-established Bedfordshire Baptist family. As for Caleb’s origins, the 1841 census record notes that he was born outside the county, but we are still no clearer about his family background. Could he have been the son of Rev. David Evans, or related to him in some other way? David Evans was born in Mydffai, Camarthenshire, Wales, in about 1710. He took up his post in Biggleswade in 1751 and in the same year married Mary Moss in Potton, a village a few miles to the north of the town (coincidentally, or perhaps not, the village where Ann Marsom would be born twenty years later). David would have been about forty years old when they married, but Mary was not quite nineteen, having been born in 1732. So it’s just about possible that she could have had a child in 1777, when she would have been in her mid-forties. The problem is: Mary Evans, née Moss, makes no mention of any children in her will of 1806 (her husband David had died in 1786).

So the search goes on. It would be a major breakthrough if we could find the record of Caleb Evans’ birth, or discover more about the origins of Eliza Roe’s maternal grandfather, Francis Evans.

William Robb at Witherby’s

My cousin Alison has kindly sent me some documents about our family’s history that belonged to her late mother – my Auntie Kit (Katharine May Jesse Tulk, née Robb, born 1923, died 1985). The documents include handwritten extracts from the elusive family Bible, and I’ll have more to say about these when I’ve had more time to study them. However, one piece of new information that immediately stood out from these pages reads as follows:

William Robb was employed by Witherby’s of Birchin Lane, Cornhill, London, E.C. for 45 years prior to his death in 1888.

William Robb (1813 – 1888) was my great great grandfather, the son of my 3rd great grandparents Charles Edward Stuart Robb (1779 – 1853) and Margaret Ricketts Monteith (1782 – 1843). Born in Richmond, Yorkshire, in 1813, William came to London with his Scottish-born parents in about 1830 and in 1836 married my great great grandmother Fanny Sarah Seager. Fanny died shortly after giving birth to my great grandfather, Charles Edward Robb in 1851. In 1854 William married his second wife, Marianne Mansfield Palmer.

Birchin Lane today (via

William was described in the census record of 1841 simply as a ‘clerk’, but in the census records of 1851, 1861 and 1871 his occupation is given more precisely as ‘law stationer’s clerk’, and in 1881 as ‘stationer’s clerk’. In my last post, in which I reconstructed my ancestors’ lives in the London of Charles Dickens, I wondered if William might have been employed by William Seager, a Bloomsbury law stationer, and if that was how he met his wife Fanny. Some years ago, I speculated that William Robb might also have worked for Walter Blanford Waterlow, a law stationer with offices at 49 Parliament Street, since my ancestor gave this as his address when he registered the death of his brother George William Robb in 1847.

However, the information about William Robb’s employment at Witherby’s is the first real evidence we’ve had of his place of work. If he had been working for Witherby’s for 45 years at the time of his death, that means William started work there in 1843, when he would have been thirty years old. He had been married to Fanny for seven years and by the end of the year was the father of one son, William junior, and a daughter, Elizabeth Margaret, another daughter, Fanny Margaret Monteith, having died in infancy three years earlier. Given his age in 1843, it seems likely that William had at least a decade of work experience behind him when he started at Witherby’s, so it’s still possible that he had been employed by William Seager during this time, though it does seem to rule out the possibility that he was working for Waterlow in 1847, and means that his use of 49 Parliament Street as an address in that year remains something of a mystery – assuming, of course, that the information in the family Bible is accurate.

Trade card c.1780 (via

Witherby’s, one of the oldest publishing companies in Britain, was started by twenty-one-year-old Thomas Witherby in 1740 at 9 Birchin Lane, next to the Sword Blade coffee house. The location served as a convenient shortcut between the Royal Exchange on Cornhill and Lombard Street. Clients would bring Thomas their wills and marriage settlements, as well as articles of agreements between merchants, for him to write up with his apparently ‘exceptional’ handwriting. The company was passed down from father to son for seven generations. By 1810, as many as thirty writers were employed by the firm.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century ownership of the company devolved to William Witherby, whose son William Henry was also employed as an apprentice. In 1817 William was elected to the Court of the Stationers’ Company, becoming Master for the year 1821-22. He retired in 1834 aged 76, having been with the firm for 62 years. In 1838, Witherbys opened a branch office and shop in Westminster, increasing the amount of parliamentary business the firm dealt with. The company acquired a printing business in 1860, a well-timed move as in 1862 the Lord Chancellor decreed that all chancery affidavits and depositions were to be printed. A year later Walter and William Henry retired leaving Henry Forbes Witherby as sole partner.

The company’s records are held by London Metropolitan Archives and include partnership deeds, minutes, liquidation papers concerning acquisitions; and balance sheets, journals, ledgers and account books. A highlight is Thomas Witherby’s Precedent Book containing pro forma specimen court documents and forms written in his hand intended for the guidance of his staff of law writers. Apparently Witherby’s was featured in the television series Who Do You Think You Are? when sports commentator and former footballer Gary Lineker was filmed at Witherby’s, viewing a document signed by his ancestor Thomas Billingham, who, like William Robb, was one of the firm’s clerks. The programme suggests that Billingham learned to write to the standard expected of a law clerk during his time as a pupil at Christ’s Hospital, and that he then served an apprenticeship. I wonder if my great great grandfather’s path to his long career at Witherby’s was similar – and whether the company’s archives include any examples of his work?