Some time between March 1851 and April 1861 my great great great grandmother, Eliza Sharp, formerly Roe, left her employment with the Walbey family of Bury Farm, Nuthampstead, Hertfordshire (see my last post) and joined the household of Rev. Robert Merry, vicar of Guilden Morden, Cambridgeshire, about 15 miles away. (Of course, Eliza might have had other jobs between her time with the Walbeys and her new position with the Merrys, but we only know about those captured by the census records.)

The 1861 census finds 59 year old Eliza Sharp, born in Bow parish, Middlesex, working as a nurse for the Merrys, whose address is given as ‘near Church Street’, Guilden Morden. The entry for Eliza contains two corrections. Firstly, the word ‘maid’ after ‘nurse’ has been crossed out (appropriately, given Eliza’s age), this description being applied instead to another servant, 17 year old Elizabeth Hoye from Royston. Secondly, in the column describing ‘condition’, the abbreviation ‘M’ for married has been entered, then scored through, and a small, tentative ‘u’ , presumably for unmarried, has been entered alongside it.

This only adds to the confusion over Eliza’s marital status in these later years of her life. In my last post, I noted that Eliza and her second husband John Sharp were living apart at the time of the 1851 census (she was working for the Walbeys in Nuthampstead, he was living in Barkway and working as a master carpenter). In 1861 the separation appears to have continued, and it’s complicated by the fact that no record of John’s whereabouts at this time has yet come to light. By 1871, as we shall see, Eliza will have reverted to her earlier surname, despite the fact that John Sharp still seems to be alive. The 1861 Guilden Morden record appears to show that Eliza was already having doubts at this stage about how to describe her marital position.

Besides Eliza and Elizabeth, the Merrys employed two other servants in 1861: Sarah Greary (?), 22, from Royston, as a cook, and Emma Staten, 19, from Sandon, as a housemaid.The Merry family itself consisted of Robert, 45, his wife Mary Ann, 43, and their children Robert, 15, John, 13, Mary, 11, Isabella Sarah, 9, Emily Flora, 5, and Theodore Arthur, 7 months. All the children were born in Guilden Morden, where Robert Merry had been vicar since 1844.

Guilden Morden post office

Robert Merry was born in the town of New Biggin by Appleby, Westmoreland (now Cumbria) in 1815, the second of three sons of John and Elizabeth Merry (the other two were Daniel, born in 1814, and Samuel, 1817). Apart from this, we know nothing about Robert’s life before he married Mary Ann, which must have been by 1845 at the latest. Mary Ann Rees was born in 1818 in Clifton, Gloucestershire (presumably the Clifton that is now part of Bristol?), the daughter of Edward Bourke Rees and Mary Ann Kingston (the latter born in Somerset in 1782), who were married at Westbury on Trym, Gloucestershire in 1800. Mary Ann had three brothers: William, born in 1813, John, 1821, and Arthur, 1826.

Edward Bourke Rees appears to have died before 1841, at which date 23 year old Mary Ann, her mother and brothers can be found living in the village of Tor Moham, Devon (now absorbed into the town of Torquay). The recent discovery of this record provides a clue as to why the Merry family would move from Guilden Morden to Tor Moham after Robert Merry’s death. The name of their residence is unclear in the 1841 census record: it could be Myrtle Grove or Hythe Grove, but it’s certainly not the house that the widowed Mary Ann Merry would occupy thirty years later. Both William, at 28 the oldest male and therefore nominally the head of the household, and his mother Mary, 59, are described as ‘independent’. In later records they would be described as annuitants, implying in both cases that Edward Rees was a man of some wealth who left his family well provided for, saving his sons from the need to seek paid employment. Certainly the family could afford to employ two family servants – Charlotte Carrington and Caroline Batt. Like all the members of the Rees family, these two were born outside the county, suggesting that they might have moved to Tor Moham with their employers.

I’m not sure what became of Mary Ann Rees’ youngest brother Arthur, but William and John, together with their mother Mary, appear to have moved in with Mary Ann after her marriage to Rev. Robert Merry. The 1851 census shows the older Mary Ann, a widow of 69 and a ‘lady’, William, 37, described as married though no wife is in evidence, and John 30, living in Guilden Morden with Rev. Robert, Mary Ann Merry and their children Robert, 5, John, 3 and Mary, 1. At this time the Merrys employed a nurse, Maria Best, 33, originally from the parish of St. Anne’s, Soho, as well as Martha Pointer, 25, a housemaid from Milton Ernest, Bedfordshire, Sarah Banas (?), 17, an under nurse, also from Bedfordshire, and Mary Clark, 19, a kitchen maid from the village.  I haven’t yet been able to find out what happened to Mary Ann, William and John Rees after 1851, but they are certainly no longer living with the Merrys by 1861: perhaps Mary Ann Rees died, perhaps her two sons got married, or perhaps the rapid expansion of the Merry family meant there was just no longer room for all of them in the Guilden Morden vicarage.

St. Mary's church, Guilden Morden

I’ve only been able to find two records online relating to Robert Merry’s time as vicar of Guilden Morden. One is the 1848 trust deed for the village school, signed by the Earl of Hardwicke, owner of nearby Wimpole Hall, and witnessed by the vicar, as well as by the MP for Buckinghamshire, who happened to be one Benjamin Disraeli. The second document refers to the ‘largish greybrick Morden House across the road to the west’ from Morden Hall, which ‘was built, probably in the 1860s, for the family of Robert Merry, vicar to 1868.’ The same document compares Merry favourably with some of his less diligent absentee predecessors: ‘Robert Merry (1844–67), resident by 1851, claimed an afternoon attendance of 170, besides 76 Sunday-school children.’ I haven’t been able to find out where Robert Merry was before he came to Guilden Morden, or whether this was in fact his only incumbency.

Robert Merry died in 1867, at the age of 51. Within four years, his widow Mary Ann had moved, with her children Isabella, 19, Emily, 18, and Theodore 10, to Braganza cottage in Tor Moham, the former home of Lady Elizabeth Dashwood, widow of Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Dashwood, who had died in 1865. Mary Ann is described as an annuitant: either Robert left her a substantial amount in his will, or she was still living on her Rees inheritance. Also at Braganza was Mary Ann’s 20 year old niece, Elizabeth Merry, who was born in Australia, and must have been the daughter of one of Robert Merry’s brothers. Their next door neighbour was the dowager countess, Louisa Kimioul.

Mary Ann Merry obviously valued the service of Eliza Roe, now 69, sufficiently to promote her from nurse to housekeeper (though perhaps this transition had taken place while still at Guilden Morden, as the children grew older), and to take her with her to Tor Moham. By this time Eliza has reverted to her first married name – Roe – but still describes herself as married. It may seem curious that she takes a position in Devon, while her husband John Sharp is not only still living, 250 miles away, but (as the 1871 census makes clear) is confined as a pauper in Bassingbourn workhouse, a mere five miles from Guilden Morden. It’s possible that John was already in the workhouse while Eliza was still working at Morden House (it’s difficult to tell, as the 1861 census record lists the inmates by their initials only, which preserves their dignity but is a huge frustration for the family historian). If so, was she aware of this and was working as a servant to redeem him from poverty (but why stop using his surname, and why the earlier uncertainty about whether or not she was married)?

Besides Eliza, the Merrys also employed a governess, Rosa Elliott, 26, from London; a cook, Caroline Cummins, 25, from Devon; a kitchen maid, the wonderfully-named Bertha Tickel, 17, from London; a parlour maid, Martha Osborne, 25, and a coachman, Thomas Brockett, both from Cambridgeshire.  As will be seen, the latter had something in common with Eliza in that he followed the Merrys from Guilden Morden, and he was also a married man (so perhaps these marital separations for work reasons were not uncommon among the servant class?).

Torquay in the 1890s

Mary Ann’s older sons Robert, 25 and John 24, stayed behind at Morden House, where under employment the 1871 declares that they have ‘none’, though they had sufficient income not only to maintain the house but to employ a housekeeper (perhaps taking Eliza’s place), 46 year old Mary Harradine from Biggleswade (another married woman), as well as 15 year old H.Plumb, a page, from Six Mile Bottom, Cambridgeshire. I don’t know what became of the young Mary Merry, who (if she survived) would have been about 20 by this time.

The Merry family’s stay in Devon may not have lasted very long. Mary Ann Merry died in 1874 at the age of 55, her death occurring in the Royston district, so she probably moved back to be with her sons. In 1877, three years after her mother’s death, Isabella Merry married Charles Lambert Coughlin, again in the Royston area and possibly at Guilden Morden church. Charles was the son of another clergyman, the Irish-born Rev. John Coughlin. Although born in the nearby village of Wendy (he and Isabella probably knew each other as children), Charles spent his childhood and youth in the Channel Islands, Sussex and London. By 1871, when he was 26, he was already an ordained clergyman himself. In 1881 he and Isabella can be found living in Eling, Hampshire, in the New Forest, where Charles is now vicar of Marchwood. Living with them is Isabella’s 20 year old brother Theodore Merry, now an Oxford undergraduate.

In 1881 Robert Merry junior is still living at Morden House, where his status is given simply as ‘Esq’ and he can afford to employ a housekeeper, housemaid and groom. Ten years later, he too is married, to Isabella from Lavenham, Suffolk, and is living on his own means in Parkstone, near Poole in Dorset, where he employs a cook and parlourmaid, as well as his mother’s former coachman Thomas Brockett and 16 year old parlourmaid Louise Brockett, who is probably his daughter,

As for Eliza Roe, it would appear that the Merrys’ return to Guilden Morden, together with Mary Ann’s death, brought her employment with the family to an end. Certainly by 1881, when she is 80, Eliza is living with her daughter Eliza Parker and her family in Albany Road, Camberwell. Eliza now describes herself as a widow, so John Sharp must have died some time between 1871 and 1881 – perhaps in the workhouse?


I’m grateful to my distant relative, Julie Campbell, in Australia – a descendant of Eliza Roe’s son Richard – for sending me further information about Elizabeth Merry, the niece of Mary Ann’s who was living with her in Tormonham at the time of the 1871 census. It seems Elizabeth was the daughter of Rev. William Merry and his wife Isabel or Isabella, and that she was born in Geelong, Victoria. Apparently William Merry was one of the first clergymen in the Port Philip district.

William Merry was born in 1819, and must have been another son of John and Elizabeth Merry. He married Isabella Lucas Phipps of Leamington in Olney, Buckinghamshire, in 1848, and probably emigrated to Australia soon afterwards. However, the Merrys’ stay seems to have been a brief one, since their two other children after Elizabeth – John William and Hannah Mary – were both born in Warwickshire, in 1854 and 1855 respectively. William Merry died in 1859 at the age of 40 and in 1861 Isabella was living with her three children in Clifton, Bristol. She was still there in 1871, when her daughter Elizabeth was with her aunt in Tormonham.

A few years later, Elizabeth Merry married James West – another clergyman. They would live mainly in Buckinghamshire and have at least three children – John James, Ernest and Reginald. Elizabeth’s younger brother, John William, would also become a clergyman and, with his wife Anna and children, would live in Hertfordshire and Derbyshire.