When I started researching my family’s history a few years ago, I was under the impression that both sides of the family had been firmly rooted in the East Ham area for generations. Of course, I knew that the Robbs had migrated from Scotland in the dim and distant past. But if I thought about the other branches of my family coming from elsewhere, I imagined them moving in from the fields and lanes of neighbouring Essex villages, as the East End expanded. It came as something of a revelation to discover that both my mother’s and my father’s families lived for generations in the ‘old’ East End of Stepney and Bethnal Green, as well as in the Soho / Charing Cross area in West London.

Even more surprising has been the discovery that one branch of my mother’s family – the Roes – came to London from Bedfordshire, thanks to the marriage of Stepney-born Eliza Holdsworth and Biggleswade shoemaker Daniel Roe in 1825. When we moved to this corner of North Hertfordshire from the Midlands a dozen or so years ago, I had no idea there were any family ties to the area. But they seem to move closer to home – literally – by the day.

I’m still trying to discover how Eliza, my 3 x great grandmother, found her way to Bedfordshire from Mile End Old Town in the 1820s, and I hope to have some findings (or at least some well-founded speculations) to report on that score quite soon. In the meantime, new information (well, new to me, anyway) from my distant relative Ron Roe has switched the spotlight from Bedfordshire to Hertfordshire, suggesting the possibility that the Roes’ roots lay not in Biggleswade but in the Buntingford / Layston / Barkway area, in that northerly rural corner of Hertfordshire close to the borders with Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Essex (and only a short drive from where I’m writing this).


(Click on map to open in new window, then click again to enlarge. Places referred to in this post are all in northern – green – area)

I’d wondered for some time how Daniel’s and Eliza’s son Richard, born in about 1829, ended up living in Layston and marrying Fanny Debney, son of local currier William Debney. (Layston has now been absorbed into the market town of Buntingford, which lies along ancient Ermine Street and beside the modern A10.) You can find Richard and Fanny in the 1851 census, a year after their marriage, living in High Street, Buntingford, with William, 54, a widower, and his sons Alfred, 19, Arthur, 16, and Charles, 14, as well as Richard’s and Fanny’s 10 month old daughter Emily.

At the same date, Richard’s mother Eliza is to be found living about five miles away to the north-east, in the village of Nuthampstead, where she is working as a nursery servant in the home of farmer John Walbey. Eliza had married for a second time in 1845, to John Sharp, at the church of St. George in the East, Stepney. In an earlier post, I speculated about the movements of Eliza and her children after the death of her first husband Daniel Roe, which happened around 1836. We know that her sons Daniel and Caleb and daughter Eliza all found their way to London eventually, and obviously Eliza herself was there long enough to get married.

But when and why did Eliza move from Stepney to Nuthampstead, and did she follow or precede her son in moving to this part of the country? And why did both of them choose this corner of Hertfordshire, rather than returning to Biggleswade where the family had been based for at least twenty years? It’s just possible that Richard was enticed to move from Biggleswade to Layston simply to find work, and that his mother was motivated to travel to the area because he was already there. However, that raises the question of why she chose to move away from her other three children, all of whom would marry and settle in London.

A more likely explanation is that the Roes had an existing tie to the area, and it’s the nature of this connection that Ron has almost certainly uncovered. Nuthampstead is an outpost of the larger village of Barkway, in times past a major crossroads on the London-Cambridge trading route. By trawling the census records for Barkway, and spending time in the Hertfordshire archives, Ron has discovered a Roe presence in the village that long predates Eliza’s arrival.


A certain Martha Roe married a John Sharp in Barkway on 4th October 1821. They had a daughter, Elizabeth, who died at the age of two. John and Martha can be found in the 1841 census living in the High Street. The records state that Martha died of consumption on 24th May 1845. Now, there is more than one John Sharp living in Barkway at the time, so it’s difficult to be certain about this, but Ron’s theory is that Martha was related to Daniel Roe senior – perhaps she was his sister – and the John Sharp who married Eliza in September 1845 – five months after Martha’s death – had been her husband. Perhaps in marrying John, Eliza was marrying her brother-in-law?

One imagines that this might have been a marriage of economic convenience – a wage-earning husband offering a home and financial support to a widowed and impoverished sister-in-law. If it’s the same John Sharp, then it certainly happened very quickly. As Ron points out, some support is given to this theory by the fact that there is no record of John and Eliza actually living together after their marriage. In 1851, when Eliza is living and working in the Walbey household, John is by himself in Barkway. Ten years later, we find Eliza working as a servant for the Rev. Robert Merry and his family in Guilden Morden, a dozen or so miles north-west of Barkway, while John is nowhere (as yet) to be found. We know he’s still alive, since in 1871 the same John Sharp who was in Barkway in 1851 (identified by his birthplace in Dover, Kent) has ended up in the workhouse at Bassingbourn, near Royston. Eliza, meanwhile, has not only followed the Rev. Merry’s widow and family to their new home in Devon, but has also abandoned her new surname and reverted to Roe. None of this bespeaks a strong romantic tie between the couple, and there may be other mysteries about their relationship that we’ll never get to the bottom of.

Returning to Martha Roe. One of the witnesses at her marriage to John Sharp was a certain James King. This is almost certainly the James King who married Elizabeth Roe on 1st May 1815. Given their ages, it’s likely that Martha and Elizabeth were sisters, so James was probably witnessing the wedding of his sister-in-law.

Now, Elizabeth’s marriage record states that she was the daughter of a certain John Roe. Could this be the same John Roe or Rowe who married Hannah Role in Layston on 10th January 1795, i.e. just a few years before the births of Martha and Elizabeth? John Roe was a shoemaker, just like (his son?) Daniel; and remember that Daniel named his first daughter Hannah (after his mother?). Ron has also noticed that two of the witnesses at the wedding were John and Ann Mays; a Thomas Mays would be living at the same address as Eliza Roe and her children in Biggleswade in 1841.  It would appear that John and Hannah Roe ended their lives in poverty. Hannah died in the Butchery Green area of Hertford in 1821, while John spent his final days in the Hertford Union Workhouse, where he died in 1835.

Parish church, Layston

None of this is proof beyond doubt that John, Hannah, Elizabeth and Martha are related to ‘our’ Roes, but the evidence certainly points in that direction. It’s just possible that Daniel Roe was the son of John Roe, who passed on his shoemaking craft to his son, just as Daniel Roe junior would inherit it from his father (though in the latter case, his father would died while Daniel was still a child, and apparently he would learn the trade from his mother’s relative, John Blanch). Perhaps Daniel senior was born in Layston or Barkway and moved to Biggleswade to set up in business on his own when he was old enough.

James King died in 1833 and Elizabeth Roe married widower and farm labourer Lot Watson four years later. He already had three sons, two of whom can be found living with them in 1841. Elizabeth, who is working as a bonnet maker, appears to have a 14 year old daughter, also named Elizabeth, from her marriage to James. Some time between 1841 and 1851 Elizabeth seems to have died, and in 1869 Lot married for a third time, to Ellen Spicer nee Pegram, another widow, from nearby Great Hormead. For some reason, the wedding took place in Haverstock Hill, north London. Lot died in 1898 and Ellen in the following year.

Finally (for now) we return to Richard Roe and the question of how he came to be in Layston. Here we are indebted to another discovery made by Ron Roe. Apparently on 1st June 1847, Richard Roe ‘of the Age of Seventeen Years and Six Months’ was apprenticed as a carpenter and builder to Nathan Warren of Buntingford for a period of three years. The fee of £20 was paid by his ‘father-in-law’ – we would use the term stepfather – John Sharp, publican, of Barkway. We can’t know whether Richard arrived in Layston before or after his mother’s marriage to John Sharp, but the latter seems more likely: the support of Eliza’s new husband making it possible for her son to learn a trade.

John’s occupation is problematic, of course, given that the John Sharp we found in the 1851 census, and in the workhouse in 1871, was a carpenter. Perhaps we’ve been looking at the wrong John Sharp all this time, or perhaps he didn’t live long after his marriage to Eliza? There’s obviously a lot more work to be done before we can confirm the details, but it does look as though the Roe family had roots in the Barkway / Layston area and that this explains Eliza’s and Richard’s relocation there in the 1840s.