My mother’s father was a gardener at the City of London Cemetery. His father was a grave-digger and came from a long line of farm labourers. My mother’s mother was the daughter of a manual labourer, who was himself the son and grandson of shoemakers, while her mother worked in a jute factory from the age of seven and belonged to another family of agricultural workers.

So you can imagine my surprise on discovering recently that, a few generations further back, my mother’s family tree included wealthy merchants, landowners and high-ranking military officers. In researching my eighteenth-century ancestors, I’ve often stopped to ask myself the question that I suppose must strike all family historians from time to time: can these people really be my ancestors?

More specifically, I’ve found myself questioning whether Elizabeth Holdsworth nee Gibson, who was the daughter of a lieutenant and the granddaughter of a goldsmith, whose parents owned a country estate at Waltham Abbey, and whose first husband was an Epping landowner, is really identical with the Elizabeth Holdsworth whose son William, my 4 x great grandfather, worked as a Stepney cordwainer, and whose daughter, my 3 x great grandmother Eliza, married Daniel Roe, another shoemaker?

In this post, I want to summarise the evidence that these two are indeed the same person – my 5 x great grandmother. My starting-point is the Holdsworth family tree drawn up towards the end of the nineteenth century by Joseph Cook and James Joseph   Holdsworth, which informs us that John or Joseph Holdsworth, who was originally from Yorkshire and ‘took a farm in Essex near Brentwood’, was married to Elizabeth, and that they had six children who survived to adulthood, named John, Henry, Sarah, Joseph, William and Godfrey. Evidence from the local parish registers confirms that children with these names were born to Joseph and Elizabeth Holdsworth in South Weald, not far from Brentwood, between the years 1764 and 1773.

Sarah, Joseph, William and Godfrey Holdsworth all turn up in London marriage records between 1786 and 1793. Moreover, Sarah, Joseph and William are named in the 1809 will of Elizabeth Holdsworth, which also mentions her ‘five sons’. In the will, Elizabeth expresses her ‘desire to be laid in a vault in the church yard of St Dunstan Stepney built by my grandfather and where my brothers and sisters lay’. Elizabeth’s will was signed and sealed on 11 February 1809. The parish register of St Dunstan’s records the burial of Elizabeth Holdsworth of Mile End Old Town on 8 March 1809.

James Joseph Holdsworth made a copy of the inscription on a tomb in Stepney churchyard which includes the following statement: ‘Here lieth the remains of Mrs Elizabeth Holdsworth late of this parish who departed this life March 1st 1809 aged 77 years’. There seems little doubt that this is the same Elizabeth Holdsworth who wrote the above-mentioned will. However, if this is indeed the last resting-place of my 5 x great grandmother, then the remainder of the inscription provides a clear link between her and the Greene and Gibson families. Also buried in the tomb are Stepney mariner Captain William Greene and his son Joseph, ‘Citizen and Goldsmith’, as well as various other members of their family. (The only remaining doubt about this tomb is Elizabeth’s use of the phrase ‘where my brothers and sisters lay’. To my knowledge, she only had one brother, Bowes John Gibson, who outlived her.)

My distant relative Ron Roe has convincingly demonstrated that Elizabeth Holdsworth was born Elizabeth Gibson, and that she was the daughter of Lieutenant John Gibson and his wife Mary, daughter of Joseph Greene. Elizabeth Holdsworth’s age at the time of her death fits with the birth date (1733) for Elizabeth Gibson. In 1753 Elizabeth Gibson married Epping landowner John Collins and, on his death, married Joseph Holdsworth. The parish register of St Mary Magdalene, Bermondsey, records that on 20 May 1763, Elizabeth Collins, a widow, married Joseph Holdsworth, a bachelor. Their first child, Elizabeth, was baptised in South Weald in the following March.

Two other pieces of evidence linking ‘our’ Elizabeth Holdsworth with Elizabeth Gibson, daughter of John Gibson and granddaughter of Joseph Greene, are the wills of Mary Gibson née Greene, Joseph’s daughter and the widow of John Gibson, and that of her youngest, unmarried daughter, Sarah Gibson. Mary’s will, drawn up in 1788, clearly establishes that its author is the mother of (among others) Bowes John Gibson, who we know to have been an East India Company broker, and of Jane Gibson, who married Essex landowner William Coates. But she also mentions her daughter Elizabeth Holdsworth several times, proving that the latter was born a Gibson. If there were any doubts remaining that this is ‘our’ Elizabeth, then the will of Sarah Gibson, signed and sealed in the following year, should lay those to rest. Sarah specifically mentions ‘my sister Elizabeth Holdsworth wife of Joseph Holdsworth’ (my emphasis).

While not conclusive, this accumulation of evidence proves beyond reasonable doubt that my 5 x great grandmother Elizabeth Holdsworth was the daughter of John and Mary Gibson of Tower Hill, Aldgate, and Woodredon House, Waltham Abbey. Why she and her immediate descendants did not enjoy the wealth and status of their forebears is a question for another time.