Eliza Roe, Blunham and Rev. Beachcroft

I ended the last post with a hint that there might be other reasons, besides possible family ties, for my 3 x great grandmother Eliza Holdsworth’s move from Stepney to the village of Blunham in Bedfordshire. In this post, I want to speculate further about those reasons.

First, a quick recap of what we know about Eliza’s association with Blunham. There are two records that tie her to the village, and thanks to Ron Roe’s research, we have copies of both of them. On 25th April 1825, ‘Daniel Roe of the parish of Biggleswade and Eliza Holdsworth of  this parish’ (i.e. Blunham) were married in the parish church by the rector,  R. P. Beachcroft.  Then, just over a year later, on 2nd July 1826, Daniel and Eliza had their first child, Anna Maria (referred to as Hannah in some later records), who had been born on 21st February, christened in the same church by the same clergyman. Daniel’s occupation was given as ‘shoemaker’ and the family’s abode was said to be Biggleswade.

These records raise a number of questions. Even if we assume that it was a family connection that drew Eliza to Biggleswade and led to her meeting Daniel, how did she come to be living in Blunham? And if the couple lived in Biggleswade (where Daniel had his shoemaker’s shop, as we know from later records), why did they return to Blunham for the baptism of their daughter?

Blunham in about 1906

If we didn’t have grounds for thinking that Eliza was drawn to Bedfordshire by family ties, then the most likely reason for her move would be employment. Even if she had already moved to Biggleswade to stay with relatives, she might well have found work in nearby Blunham at a later date.  Any familiarity with the social history of the period, including the history of Eliza’s own family, reveals that by far the most common employment for young women of her background was domestic service. Not only that, but women often travelled many miles from home to take up positions in the homes of the relatively wealthy.

In an earlier post, I described how Eliza’s own cousin – another Eliza Holdsworth – followed the Fletcher family from Stepney to Regent’s Park and then to Hampshire, and elsewhere how Kezia Sarah Blanch, daughter of Eliza’s cousin Kezia, was working as a servant in St Pancras at the age of 17, and later worked in houses in Hanover Square and Ealing. And we know that at a later stage in her life, ‘our’ Eliza would work as a nurse and housekeeper for the Walbey and Merry families, travelling with  the latter from Cambridgeshire to Devon. So it’s quite likely that Eliza originally came to Blunham to take up work, probably as a live-in domestic servant – perhaps a nurse maid or house maid. This would certainly have enabled the clerk to describe her in the marriage record as ‘of this parish’.

So if Eliza was a servant in Blunham, who did she work for? Unfortunately, the lack of census records before 1841 creates something of a problem. At this stage, we can only speculate about possibilities, building on clues in the records that we have. The 1841 census was taken sixteen years after Eliza’s marriage, and therefore long after she left Blunham for Biggleswade, so it’s by no means an accurate guide to households in the village in the 1820s. However, the census records show a number of families in the village employing servants.

If we return for a moment to the records that we do have, we might want to ask ourselves, why did Eliza return to Blunham for the christening of her daughter Anna, when she and Daniel were now living in Biggleswade? Was it just sentimental reasons, or does it provide evidence of a closer tie? We might also want to note that, in the parish records in which Anna’s baptism is included, there are seven other christenings on the same page, taking place between mid- May and late July 1826, but Anna Maria’s is the only one performed by the rector, Rev Beachcroft – the same person who officiated at Daniel’s and Eliza’s wedding – all of the others being performed by the curate. Now, we know from other records that there was a change of curates in Blunham around this time. Eardley Childers who performed the first two baptisms listed on the same page, was curate at Blunham from 1824 to 1826, and Charles Pritchard, who officiated at the last five, served from 1826 to 1829. So the rector’s presence at Anna Maria’s christening on 2nd July might be explained by the temporary absence of a curate.

However, it’s also possible Eliza’s decision to return to Blunham for the christening was because she specifically wanted the ceremony performed by Rev. Beachcroft: not just because he officiated at her wedding, but because there was a closer tie between them. Is it possible that Eliza was a servant at Blunham rectory before she married Daniel? This theory is given some credence by what we know of Eliza’s later life, and particularly her service in the household of Rev. Robert Merry in Guilden Morden. Could it be that earlier experience of working for a clergyman in Blunham served as a recommendation when she applied for the post with the Merrys? As to the question of whether an Anglican clergyman would employ a Baptist as a servant, we know that Rev. Beachcroft had an excellent relationship with the Baptists of Blunham and if, like her parents, Eliza was a devout Baptist, this might actually have counted in her favour.

The Old Baptist Chapel in Blunham

Rev Robert Porten Beachcroft, Rector of Blunham, was born in 1781 and baptised at St. Michael’s, Queenhithe, in the City of London. He was the only child of another Robert Porten Beachcroft, and Sarah Dickinson, who had married the previous year at St. James, Clerkenwell. Robert Porten Beachcroft senior died in the first year of his son’s life, at the age o f 37. The Beachcrofts were a family of merchants and bankers.  Robert Porten Beachcroft senior was the son of Matthews Beachcroft (1700-1759) and Elizabeth Porten (died 1765). Matthews Beachcroft was Governor of the Bank of England from 1756 to 1758, as was his eldest son Samuel (older brother of Robert senior) from 1775 to 1777. The name ‘Matthews’ came from Matthews Beachcroft’s mother, Mary Matthews (died 1732) who married another Samuel Beachcroft (born in Lavenham in 1673, died in London in 1733).

Robert Porten Beachcroft senior was buried in the churchyard at Wanstead in 1781, so there was obviously an association with the area: perhaps a country home outside the city? One of Ron Roe’s correspondents has suggested that the Wanstead connection might explain the link with the Holdsworths, speculating that the two families might have known each other. But at the time Wanstead was an Essex village, some distance from the Holdsworths’ home in Stepney; and the two families belonged to distinctly different social classes. It’s possible, of course, that a Holdsworth had worked for a Beachcroft in London, but we don’t have any information confirming this at present.

According to a modern account (by Arthur Bennett) of Robert Porten Beachcroft junior’s life, he attended school first in Ormond Street, London, then from the age of 8 went to a private seminary at Greenford, before going up to Oriel College Oxford in 1798. On graduating in 1801, he was ordained in the Church of England. His first posting as curate was to a parish in Tottenham, where he met his wife Maria Devon, daughter of London solicitor William Devon, whom he married at the church of St. George the Martyr in 1803.  Sadly, Maria died four months later.

Three years later Rev. Beachcroft took up the post of Rector of Blunham, a position he would occupy for the rest of his life. The post seems to have been in the gift of Lady de Grey (Amabell, Baroness Lucas) of nearby Wrest Park. Two years after his arrival in Blunham, Beachcroft, until then seemingly a middle-of-the-road Anglican, experienced an evangelical conversion: ‘He developed into a moderate Reformed evangelical other than the hyper-Calvinists and preachers of the Countess of Huntingdon’s circle.’ Like other evangelical clergy at the time, he was dubbed a Methodist, and in fact he was on good terms with Nonconformists, especially those at Blunham. According to Bennett:

A Baptist congregation had met there from the 1600 Restoration of Charles II, at one time having had John Bunyan as its minister, who owed his relief from prison to the Sheriff of Bedfordshire, Thomas Bromshall of Blunham. In 1724 it separated from the Bedford Meeting and appointed its own minister. During Beachcroft’s time it had fifty members with Martyn Mayle as its pastor. When some of its people told Beachcroft that they desired to start a Sunday School and hoped he would not be offended, he was delighted and said, ‘It always gives me pleasure when good is done’, although he had his own Sunday School.

Was Eliza Holdsworth a member of the Blunham Baptist meeting? It seems likely, given her parents’ Baptist affiliation and her known association with the Biggleswade meeting. (N.B. The mention of Bunyan is interesting, given the Evans-Marsom connection discussed in my last post.)

Beachcroft seems to have been a dedicated and well-loved minister, as is demonstrated by the following story told by Bennett:

[H]e deeply felt the needy condition of his people and sought financial help from friends, including a branch of the Thornton banking family who lived in his parish. In the Jubilee of George III of 1809 he arranged a dinner for his parishioners and collected fifty pounds in church, using it to provide food and blankets for them at Christmas. At George IV’s coronation in 1820, he, and some local gentry, including the Thornton family, gave a quarter loaf and three pounds of meat to every household.

The Thorntons, who lived at nearby Moggerhanger hall, were another wealthy banking family, and it’s likely that Beachcroft knew them before he came to Blunham, through his own family connections.

The Old Rectory at Blunham

If Eliza Holdsworth worked for Rev. Beachcroft, then this is what her life might have been like:

He took special care of his household staff, holding for them morning and evening family worship in which he schooled them in spiritual truths by Bible readings with comments, and spontaneous prayers. He allowed no servant to attend Balls or card games leading to gambling and sensual delights. As a strict Sabbatarian he forbade all unnecessary Sunday work, such as cooking, and gave no orders to servants, so allowing them to rest, attend public worship, and engage in prayer, devotional reading, and spiritual conversation. Sunday newspapers were forbidden in the house as likely to lead to secularized thought. But he was no austere Christian, for those who knew him best testified to his joyous disposition and the cheerfulness and spirituality of his household.

Beachcroft suffered from poor health and had the first of three strokes in 1829. The next year, when he was 50, he retired and moved to Clifton, Bristol, where he died in November 1830. He was survived by his mother, who had followed him to Blunham:

At his mother’s wish, then aged eighty, who lived with him, his body was taken home by hearse and at Bedford Bridge was met by Lord Grantham, Bedfordshire County gentry, and many clergy before proceeding to his church. Some miles from Blunham a great crowd of parishioners, as well as two hundred men with black crêpe on their hats, and women in mourning attire, met the cortège and escorted it to his village past the cottages of his people who stood at their doors in sobs and tears. He was buried in his church, a grave slab near the north door describing him as ‘universally lamented’.

I wonder if Eliza and Daniel Roe were among the mourners?

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