My 3 x great grandmother Eliza Holdsworth was born in Stepney in 1801. She married Daniel Roe, born in 1800, in Blunham, Bedfordshire in 1825. They had five children: Anna Maria, Daniel (my 2 x great grandfather, father of Joseph Priestley Roe), Richard, Eliza and Caleb, all born in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire.

Daniel Roe senior died in Blunham around 1836, leaving Eliza a widow at the age of 35. The 1841 census has Eliza living in Biggleswade with her five children. We know that Anna Maria died in 1844, aged 22, and that Daniel junior moved to London before 1848, when he married Mary Ann Blanch. But what happened to Eliza after her husband died and her children left home?

Searching for Eliza Roe in the 1851 census doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. In fact, the next date for which I can find an Eliza Roe who meets the criteria is 1871, when we find a 69 year old Eliza Roe, born in London, working as a housekeeper at ‘Braganza’, a house in the village of Tormonham, Devon, and the home of 53 year old widow Mary Ann Merry and her son, daughter and niece, as well as six other servants besides Eliza.

At first it seems far-fetched that ‘our’ Eliza Roe would end up so far from home. However, on closer inspection it becomes clear that, although Mrs. Merry was originally from Gloucestershire, her two children were born in Guilden Morden in Cambridgeshire. And if we search for the Merry family in the 1861 census, we find them living in that very village, where Mary Ann’s husband Robert, then 45, was the local vicar. Not only that, but among their servants was one Eliza Sharp, age 59, a nurse or nurse maid, born in ‘Bow parish, Middlesex’.

Now, according to Adrian Holdsworth’s family tree at Ancestry, Eliza Roe remarried in 1845: to John Sharp, who was born in Dover, Kent in 1801. Apparently the wedding took place at St. George in the East, London, indicating that Eliza might have moved to London for a while after Daniel’s death. However, the couple appear to have moved to the south Cambridgeshire/north Hertfordshire area, not far from the corner of Bedfordshire where Eliza had spent much of her adult life (and perhaps where some of her children were still living?).

The pieces seem to fit, indicating that Eliza initially took her second husband’s surname, but later reverted to that of her first husband, Daniel Roe; and that she moved with the Merry family from Cambridgeshire to Devon after the death (some time between 1861 and 1871) of Rev. Robert Merry.

But why were John and Eliza not living together in 1861, and what happened to them between their marriage in 1845 and Eliza turning up in Devon in 1871?  The 1851 census has a John Sharp, age 50, a master carpenter born in Dover, Kent, living in High Street, Barkway, near Buntingford in Hertfordshire. John is described as the ‘head’ of the household and as married, suggesting that he has a wife, but she is not living at home. And there’s an Eliza Sharp, whose year of birth is given as 1805 (did she falsify her age to secure the job?), living with the Walbeys, a wealthy faming family, in the nearby village of Nuthampstead, and working as a nurse or nurse maid.

Where was John Sharp in 1861, when Eliza had moved a few miles north-westward to the Merry household in Guilden Morden? Confusingly, there’s another carpenter named John Sharp living in Barkway, but the age and birthplace don’t match. But it does raise the possibility that John and Eliza came to the area through a family connection of John’s. However, so far I haven’t found an 1861 census record that matches John Sharp exactly.

In 1871, when Eliza has moved to Devon with the Merrys and reverted to her former name of Roe, we find John Sharp, 70, a carpenter, born in Dover, living at the Baldock Road Union House in Bassingbourn, not far from Guilden Morden. The Union House appears to have been the workhouse for the area, overseen by a master and matron. John Sharp is listed, along with many others, as a ‘pauper’.

However, John is still described as married. The Holdsworth family tree squares this circle by suggesting that John died in 1871, but after the census was taken. But, as I understand it, the whole country was surveyed on the same day, meaning that Eliza was in Devon and using the surname Roe while John was still alive in the Bassingbourn workhouse. 

How they came to be separated is something we can only speculate about. It’s likely that John died in 1880: there’s a record of a John Sharp dying in the Royston area at this date. By 1881, Eliza appears to have moved back from Devon and is living with her daughter, also Eliza, her husband Thomas Parker and their daughter Hannah at 158 Albany Road in Camberwell. Adrian Holdsworth gives the date of her death as 1885, when she would have been about 84 years old.

One of the reasons I find all of this fascinating is that I know many of the places that feature in Eliza’s story. We live in Hitchin, not far from Buntingford and Royston, and we often drive through Bassingbourn and past Guilden Morden on our way to Cambridge or to Wimpole Hall.


One reason for Eliza’s move, with her new husband John Sharp, to this area may have been her son Richard Roe’s marriage to Fanny Debney of Layston, Buntingford, only a few miles from Barkway and Nuthampstead. In 1851 Richard, 21, a carpenter (journeyman) and Fanny, 23, a dress maker, are living at 94 High Street, Layston, with Fanny’s widowed father William, 54, Fanny’s three younger brothers, and Richard and Fanny’s 10 month old daughter Emily. I understand that Richard  and Fanny later emigrated to Australia, where Richard died in 1915 at the age of 93.