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 artuk.org

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 ancestry.co.uk)

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 http://www.hertfordshire-genealogy.co.uk)

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 wikipedia.org)

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 gravelroots.net)

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 hamlets.gov.uk)

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 historicengland.co.uk)

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 knowol.com)

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.

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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 ancestry.co.uk)

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.

via Ancestry.co.uk

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 biggleswadehistory.org.uk)

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 7birchinlane.co.uk)

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 witherbypublishinggroup.com)

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?

My ancestors in the London of Charles Dickens: December 1843

I’m in the habit of reading a Dickens novel in the weeks leading up to Christmas. This year it’s Nicholas Nickleby, last year it was Bleak House, and the year before that Our Mutual Friend. My preference is for the books set wholly or partly in London: there’s something about this time of year that makes me want to imaginatively inhabit the city of my birth in those first few decades of the nineteenth century. My brother Michael, whose mini-biography of Dickens will be published next year, has a different tradition: every December he and his family re-read A Christmas Carol, which has the dual advantage of a London setting and a seasonal message.

I can’t read Dickens, or imagine Dickens’ London, without thinking of my Robb ancestors, who were living there at the very time that he was writing. And conversely, when I’m researching the lives of those ancestors, Dickens frequently comes to mind. Not only did my forbears reside in the parts of London that he writes about, but their lives had many similarities with his own. What’s more, their stories often strike me as positively Dickensian, as if life were imitating, or anticipating, art.

In this pre-Christmas post, I want to offer a glimpse of my ancestors’ lives in Dickens’ London. What were my great-great and great-great-great grandparents doing – where were they living and working, what was happening in their lives – when Charles Dickens was writing, just a few streets away? To focus our attention, I’ll attempt to re-construct my Robb forbears’ lives on a specific date: the day that A Christmas Carol was published, Tuesday 19th December 1843, exactly 175 years ago today.

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Title page of the first edition of ‘A Christmas Carol.’

Let’s imagine that we could travel back in time to that day – a mild day for December, by all accounts – and find ourselves, for argument’s sake, outside the offices of Dickens’ publisher, Chapman and Hall, at No. 186, The Strand. Then let’s imagine  that we are walking along that broad, busy street, bustling with carts and carriages, in the direction of Trafalgar Square. On arrival, we’ll discover that the square itself is still under construction – it would only be completed in 1845 – and that the famous statue of Nelson had only been placed on top of its column in the previous month.

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Trafalgar Square under construction, with St Martin-in-the-Fields in the background, circa 1843

If we then look to the left towards Westminster, past the famous statue of King Charles I, we’ll see more building work in progress in the distance. The medieval Palace of Westminster had been destroyed by fire in 1834, and Charles Barry’s grand Gothic replacement wouldn’t be finished for another ten years.

Immediately in front of us, between Trafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament, we can see the street we know today as Whitehall, though in the 1840s the official address of its upper end was Charing Cross. Here, on the left hand side as you look towards Parliament, is a jumble of shops and inns, most of them with two or three floors of residential accommodation above – as is clearly visible in this image from 1839, thought to be the earliest photograph of London. One of those buildings on the left hand side of the street, in the middle distance in the photograph (just before the image becomes blurred), was home to my great-great-great-grandparents.

1839 whitehall from trafalgar square

Photograph of Whitehall from Charing Cross,  by M. de St. Croix, 1839

As the late Gavin Stamp wrote in The Changing Metropolis: earliest photographs of London 1839-79, this particular image is ‘hauntingly and tantalisingly beautiful’. He adds: ‘The calm beauty of the street is clear, as are the details of the shops and houses. All is recorded with tantalising precision. All is so real that, Alice-like, one is tempted to enter the picture’. So let’s do that.

Starting on the corner of the street, outside the shop of William Coles, trussmaker, we find ourselves passing the premises of Charles Prater, an army clothier, followed by William Jolley the glover, Richard Morse the watchmaker, Johnston the confectioner, Stubbing the butcher, and Walter Oram the baker (I gleaned all of this information from contemporary census records), before we come to the King’s Arms, which had been the scene of violent anti-pressgang riots half a century earlier. Once past the inn we arrive at our destination. Sandwiched between the King’s Arms and a bookshop belonging to a certain Francis Pinkney is No. 29 Charing Cross, its ground floor occupied by a tobacconist’s shop, owned in the 1840s by a young man by the name of Matthew Cholerton.

I’ve discovered that this very building had briefly been home to the radical tailor and political agitator Francis Place. He lived there for two years, between 1799 and 1801, before moving up the road to No. 16. Looking back on those years from the vantage point of the 1820s, Place recalled the gin shops and brothels that once dominated the neighbourhood: ‘It seems almost incredible that such a street could be in the condition described, but so it was – people were not then as now offended with grossness – dirtiness – vulgarity – obscenity – and atrocious language…I need hardly notice how highly respectable the street is now.’

Charing Cross c.1833

Map showing Charing Cross and Whitehall in the 1830s.

If we were to enter the tobacconist’s shop and walk through to the stairs at the back, leading to the residential apartments above, we would find that, in addition to the shop’s proprietor, there are two other families living in this building, probably occupying rooms on separate floors.

One of these apartments is occupied by a middle-aged man named Geoffrey Atkins, his young wife and their five-year-old son. If we were to knock on the door of the other apartment, depending on the time of day, it might be opened by a man in his early sixties, perhaps dressed in the wide-collared tailcoat that he wears for his job as a legal clerk (an occupation that Dickens himself had followed as a young man). I imagine him leaving the house to spend each day sitting at a tall desk, rather like Bob Cratchit (and wondering, like Cratchit, whether he’ll be allowed the day off work next Monday to celebrate Christmas), possibly at the Inns of Court at the far end of the Strand. When he speaks, you can still catch the hint of a Scottish accent, though he left the land of his birth some thirty years ago.

This man is my great-great-great-grandfather Charles Edward Stuart Robb. He recently celebrated his sixty-fourth birthday, though I doubt it was a particularly happy occasion. Just a few weeks earlier, he had buried his wife, my great-great-great- grandmother Margaret Robb, at the nearby church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. She had died on 1st December 1843, at the age of sixty-one, from ‘bilious obstruction’.

St Martin-in-the-Fields

Charles and Margaret Robb had moved to London, with two of their three sons and one of their two daughters, some time in the late 1820s or early 1830s. According to family records, Charles had been born in 1779 in rural Aberdeenshire, the son of a farmer who fought for the Bonnie Prince in the ’45: hence his Christian names. Charles married Margaret Ricketts Monteith in Glasgow in 1802. Another family tradition claims that she was the granddaughter on her mother’s side of the Jacobite Viscount Stormont, though I’ve yet to find any independent evidence of this. Recently I speculated that Margaret’s middle name suggested a link to the Ricketts family who were merchants and landowners in Jamaica. If so, this may have been how she and Charles met, since his brother George Robb was a Glasgow merchant, also with Caribbean connections. Another brother, Rev. William Robb, was an Episcopal clergyman in St Andrews, chaplain to Lord Elibank, and a published poet. Both brothers were long dead by 1843.

Newman Noggs comforts Kate Nickleby: illustration from the 1875 edition of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’

I’ve always imagined Charles as the black sheep of the family, failing to emulate either the wealth or eminence of his brothers. Although he described himself in official documents as a ‘gentleman’, Charles worked mostly as a humble clerk and, certainly after the move to London, lived in extremely modest circumstances. Perhaps he was like Newman Noggs in Nicholas Nickleby: a gentleman who had fallen on hard times?

Certainly the locations of his children’s christenings suggest someone constantly on the move, in search of work and struggling to keep his head above financial waters. He and Margaret moved first to Aberdeen, then to Alloa, then Kilmarnock, before crossing the border and arriving in Yorkshire. For a time they lived in Whitby, then Richmond (where their son William, my great-great-grandfather was born in 1813) and then Malton, where Charles advertised himself as an accountant and engraver. And so finally to London, where I imagine them arriving by coach at Charing Cross – at about the time that the fictional Pickwick Club was meeting at the nearby Golden Cross Hotel – and settling on the nearest available accommodation.

Not all of their children accompanied Charles and Margaret Robb to London. Their eldest daughter, Matilda, aged thirty-eight and still unmarried in 1843, was at this time working as a lady’s maid for Lady Frances Bassett, heiress to a tin mining fortune, at Tehidy Park, her stately home near Redruth in Cornwall. Charles and Margaret’s youngest son John, who was twenty-seven in 1843, is described in records from this period as a mariner, though he would later follow in his father’s footsteps and work as a legal clerk, for a parliamentary agent. His whereabouts in December 1843 are unknown, but it’s likely he was already wooing Mary Ann Downes, the Lambeth shoemaker’s daughter whom he would marry in the following spring.

Charles and Margaret’s youngest child Elizabeth, who was now twenty-three, had come with them to London, but by 1843 she was married and living elsewhere in the city. Two years earlier she had married Derbyshire-born dentist Joseph Boden. I’ve written a whole blog about my suspicion that Joseph and Elizabeth were both bigamists, Joseph with Georgiana Westbrook – who sounds like a character from Thackeray – and Elizabeth with ‘professor of pianoforte’ Edmund Vineer – his surname reminiscent of the nouveau riche Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend. In fact, the whole story of Elizabeth and Joseph’s married life, with its sad ending in separation and suggestions of domestic violence, has a decidedly Dickensian flavour.

Charles and Margaret’s eldest son, named Charles Edward after his father, had accompanied them to London but died of a fever in 1836 at the age of 26. Two other sons had been at home with Charles and Margaret at the time of the 1841 census. George William, who would have been thirty-two years old in 1843, seems to have remained single. He also worked as a legal clerk and may already have moved out to nearby Villiers Street, off the Strand (close to Hungerford Stairs, where twelve-year-old Charles Dickens had been put to work in Warren’s Blacking Factory).

 Victorian law clerks at work 

The other son, my great-great-grandfather William Robb, who was thirty years old in 1843, must have been paying his parents a visit on the night the census was taken, since he had been a married man since 1836.

In May of that year William had married Fanny Sarah Seager at the church of St George the Martyr, Queen Square, Holborn, just a few streets from where Charles Dickens was living at the time, in Doughty Street. Fanny was the daughter of Samuel Hurst Seager, a porter at the Inns of Court. William Robb would spend the whole of his working life as a law stationer’s clerk, and I’ve often wondered if he met Fanny through working for one of her relatives. A law stationer by the name of William Seager lived in Little James Street, not far from St George’s church, and even closer to Dickens’ home. (I wonder if he was he anything like Mr Snagsby, the law stationer in Bleak House?) Was this William Robb’s employer, and did he introduce him to Fanny?

Although I haven’t been able to prove that William Seager was related to Fanny, a curious – and oddly Dickensian – story hints at a connection between their families. In 1839, William Seager’s father Thomas, an ironmonger, had died as a result of an accident on what was then the New Road, now Euston Road. The cause of death was recorded as ‘mortal injury to the head by an accidental fall from a chaise cart’. This is reminiscent of a story told in her memoirs by the New Zealand detective novelist Ngaio Marsh, who was the granddaughter of Fanny Seager’s brother Edward, and thus the great-granddaughter of Fanny’s father Samuel Hurst Seager. Marsh writes:

Among the Seagers […] there appears briefly an affluent and unencumbered uncle to whom my great-grandfather [i.e. Samuel Hurst Seager] was heir. The story was that this uncle took his now impoverished nephew to Scotland to see the estates he would inherit and on the return journey died intestate in the family chaise. His fortune was thrown into Chancery and my great-grandfather upon the world. 

Marsh notes that her relatives were initially sceptical of the tale, adding that ‘stories of “riches held in Chancery” have a suspect glint over them, as if the narrator had looked once too often into “Bleak House”‘. But apparently evidence confirming the story was found among the papers of Marsh’s grandfather, Edward William Seager, after his death. 

Ngaio Marsh

My great-great-grandmother Fanny Seager certainly grew up in less than luxurious surroundings. The Seagers lived in Crown Court, a narrow alley leading directly off the north side of the Strand, to the east of St Clement Danes church and forming part of a dense network of streets between the Strand and Lincoln’s Inn Fields. These streets would be demolished in 1870, to make way for the Royal Courts of Justice. The Middle Temple, where Fanny’s father Samuel was employed, was on the south side of the Strand, immediately opposite the entrance to Crown Court. Samuel Hurst Seager died in 1837, the year after Fanny’s marriage to William Robb.

A narrow courtyard off the Strand, similar to Crown Court where the Seagers lived

The Seagers were Nonconformists, whereas the Robbs had been Episcopalian in Scotland and thus Anglicans when they moved to England. At some stage, my great-great-grandfather William Robb embraced Methodism. Perhaps his conversion predates Fanny, and explains how he met her, but more likely it was a result of her influence. (Dickens, of course, had something of an antipathy to Nonconformists: see the unflattering portrayals of Mr Chadband in Bleak House, and Mrs Clennam in Little Dorrit, among others.) Whatever the truth of the matter, William initiated a family association with Methodism that would be passed down through the Robb family, from father to son: my own father only recently retired as a Methodist lay preacher.

William and Fanny’s first child, Fanny Margaret Monteith Robb, had been born in 1838 at 6 Tavistock Street, Covent Garden, but had died of croup two years later. By the time their son William Henry was born in 1841 the couple had moved to 12 Compton Street in Soho. (Karl Marx and his family were living just around the corner in Dean Street at about this time.) A move along the road to 33 Compton Street followed soon afterwards. It was here that their daughter Elizabeth Margaret was born on 1st December – the very day that her grandmother Margaret died, hence the child’s middle name. So it was in Compton Street, about a fifteen minute walk from William’s father Charles at Charing Cross, that William and Fanny Robb would have been living on the day that A Christmas Carol was published.

The years following the publication of Dickens’ bestseller saw many changes in the lives of the Robb and Seager families. In 1844, John Robb married Mary Ann Downes in Lambeth and two years later they would have a son, who was christened Charles Edward Stuart Robb after his grandfather, but who died before his first birthday. At some stage Charles himself would himself move from Charing Cross to lodgings at 40 Tenison Street, off York Road in Lambeth, perhaps to be near his son. If anything, this accommodation was even more modest than Charles’ previous home at Charing Cross. The building was shared by four families, including those of a coppersmith and a portable water closet maker. I’ve often wondered why none of Charles’s children was able to accommodate him in his old age, particularly as his death certificate notes that he been suffering from ‘paralysis’ for six years – unless their circumstances were even more straitened than his own.

In 1847 Charles’ son George William Robb, who by this time was living in Villiers Street, would die from influenza and bronchitis at the age of thirty-six. He was buried, like his mother,  at St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Great Queen Street Chapel

Methodist chapel, Great Queen Street

As for William and Fanny Robb, they would have two more children. In 1846, their daughter Matilda Fanny was born, while January 1851 saw the birth of my great grandfather Charles Edward Robb. Sadly, Fanny died four days after giving birth to him and was buried at Whitefield’s Tabernacle in Tottenham Court Road; she was thirty-six years old. William had his infant son christened at the Methodist chapel in Great Queen Street, off Drury Lane, and by the time of the census in March of that year he and his older son William Henry had moved to Queen Street, Soho, while his two surviving daughters were staying with their Seager relations in nearby Gerrard Street.

Over the next few years, three of Fanny Seager’s brothers would emigrate to New Zealand. Edward, the grandfather of the aforementioned Ngaio Marsh, became a pioneer of mental health provision in his adopted country; Samuel junior was a carpenter and builder: his son and namesake would become a notable New Zealand architect and town planner; while Henry Fowle Seager worked as a printer and compositor.

Edward Seager

Edward William Seager, born 1828 in St Clement Danes, London, died 1922 in Christchurch, New Zealand

My great-great-great-grandfather Charles Edward Stuart Robb died in June 1853 at the age of 73. A year later, my great-great-grandfather William Robb married for a second time, to Marianne Mansfield Palmer, the daughter of a Methodist bookbinder from the Staffordshire Potteries. It seems likely that the couple met through attending the chapel in Great Queen Street. By 1855 they had moved out to Stepney, though to a rather more respectable district than the ‘squalid maze of streets, courts, and alleys of miserable houses let out in single rooms’ that Dickens found when he visited the area at around this time (see The Uncommercial Traveller). Here William and his new wife would produce an astonishing ten children in the space of twenty years. In time, William’s son Charles, my great-grandfather, would find employment as a caretaker at the Wesleyan Methodist Mission in Whitechapel, where my grandfather was born. The family later moved further eastwards, to East Ham, where my father was born – as was I.

Thus the Robb family ceased to be dwellers in Dickens’ London, and became East Enders.

My great grandfather Charles Edward Robb, born 1851 in Compton Street, Soho, died 1934 in Leytonstone.