When we moved to Hitchin twenty years ago I had no idea that there was an ancestral connection to the area. It was a revelation to discover that a branch of my mother’s family that I’d always associated with the East End of London – the Roes – had once lived in places like Biggleswade and Barkway, a dozen or so miles from here. Now, new information provided by Keith Roe, a fellow researcher and distant relative, has uncovered evidence that some of my forebears may have lived even closer to where I’m writing this – in Hitchin itself.

First, a reminder of my what we already know about the Roe family. My maternal grandmother – my ‘Nan’ – was born Minnie Louisa Roe in East Ham, London, in 1902. She was the daughter of labourer Joseph Priestley Roe and his wife Eliza Bailey. Joseph had been born in Great Windmill Street, Soho, in 1862, the son of shoemaker Daniel Roe,  and Mary Ann Blanch. Daniel was born in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, in 1829. His father was another Daniel Roe, also a shoemaker, and his mother was Eliza Holdsworth: they were married in nearby Blunham in 1825.


Nineteenth-century map of Hertfordshire (click on image to enlarge)

Born in 1801, Eliza Holdsworth was the daughter of Whitechapel shoemaker William Holdsworth. We know a good deal about the Holdsworths and their origins: William was the son of Yorkshire-born farmer Joseph Holdsworth and his wife Elizabeth Gibson, who was descended from the Greene family of Stepney and the Bynes of Sussex, all of whom I’ve written about extensively on this and other blogs. But until now we’ve known very little about the origins of Eliza’s husband, Daniel Roe senior. We knew that he was a Baptist, like Eliza’s parents, and that there was a possible connection with Martha and Elizabeth Roe who lived in the village of Barkway, in the northeastern corner of Hertfordshire. But as to when and where Daniel was born, or who his parents were: until now, we’ve only been able to speculate.

Daniel Roe and Eliza Holdsworth had five children together, before Daniel’s death in 1838. Their daughter Anna Maria died young, and Eliza and her other children all left Biggleswade in the early 1840s. One son, Richard, was apprenticed as a carpenter in Layston, not far from Barkway; he married a local girl and they eventually emigrated to Australia. The other three Roe children – Daniel junior, Caleb and Eliza junior – would all eventually move to the East End of London, where their mother had been born. Eliza also returned to London, but only briefly. In 1845 she married for a second time, to John Sharp, a carpenter from Barkway, where she returned with him.

The Roes of Barkway

Like Eliza, John Sharp had recently been widowed. His first wife was Martha Roe, whom he had married in Barkway in 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 Barkway High Street. The records state that Martha died of consumption on 24th May 1845.


Old photograph of Barkway, Hertfordshire

It seems likely that Martha was a close relative of Eliza’s late husband, Daniel – perhaps his sister, or maybe a cousin?  Perhaps the marriage between John and Eliza was simply a way of John providing social and economic security for his widowed sister-in-law. Eliza would spend the remainder of her life working as a domestic servant for various families in villages along the borders of Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire.

It would seem logical that if the Martha Roe who married John Sharp was related to Daniel Roe senior, then so was the Elizabeth Roe who in 1815 had married James King, also in Barkway, particularly as James was a witness to Martha’s marriage to John Sharp in 1821. Perhaps she was Martha’s sister? James and Elizabeth King would have three children together – Richard in 1816, Henry John in 1824 and Elizabeth Kimpton in 1826 – before James’ early death in the same year. In 1837 Elizabeth King, née Roe, married for a second time, also in Barkway, to farm labourer Lot Watson, who had also been married before.

The Luton connection

The record of Elizabeth’s marriage to Lot Watson gives her father’s name as John Roe. Previously, it was thought that this was the man who married Hannah Role in Layston in 1795, but the new evidence uncovered by Keith Roe has opened up other possibilities. Keith has followed Elizabeth Kimpton King –  Elizabeth Watson née Roe’s daughter from her first marriage – through the records, and found that she married a man named George Hale, at St Mary’s church, Luton, in 1846. The 1851 census finds them living at 26 Park Lane, Luton, with their three-year-old daughter Martha and three-month-old son Henry. George, who was born in St Albans, worked as a shoemaker and Elizabeth as a straw bonnet sewer. The record clearly states that Elizabeth was born in Barkway, Hertfordshire, in 1827 or thereabouts.

st mary's luton 1805

St Mary’s church, Luton in 1805

Further confirmation that this is the right person is provided by the fact that 33 Park Lane, just a few doors away from the Hales’ home, is occupied by one Elizabeth King, a widow of 61, also a straw bonnet sewer, who is almost certainly Elizabeth’s mother. In 1861 both the Hales and Elizabeth King are still living in the same street. By 1871, Elizabeth Hale is a widow and living with her children in Elizabeth Street, Luton. Elizabeth’s mother, now using her later married name of Watson, is living with them. She seems to have died in 1875; her daughter Elizabeth Hale, née King, would live until 1899.

Interestingly, the census records for Elizabeth Watson, formerly King, née Roe, describe her as having been born in Luton. This led Keith Roe, in his quest for Elizabeth and Martha Roe’s origins, to search for a John Roe who either had been born or had lived in Luton. As I’ve found before, there were a number of Roe families in Luton and the surrounding villages at this time, but Keith has come across a likely candidate in a John Roe who was active in the town between 1819 and 1832, when land tax records show him to have been a tenant of one James Rushmore, who is listed as a master cordwainer in the Luton Apprentice Indentures.


St Mary’s church, Hitchin (via Wikipedia)

This is where, for me, the story gets really interesting. Keith has found a shoemaker named John Row (sic) apprenticed to John Morgan, a cordwainer of Hitchin, as at 8th November 1785. He is almost certainly the John Roe, cordwainer, who would marry Mary Morrell at St Mary’s church, Hitchin, on 28th August 1788. Mary died only a year later, perhaps in childbirth – she was only 18 at the time – and was buried at Back Street Independent Chapel in Hitchin. On 1st November 1792 John Roe, a widower, married Elizabeth Rosendale or Rossindale, also at St. Mary’s in Hitchin. Elizabeth was from Royston and seems to have been the daughter of James Rosendale and his wife Elizabeth Wheatley. Confirmation that this is the same John Roe who would live and work in Luton in the 1820s can be found in the name of one of the witnesses to this second marriage: James Rushmore, who would be John’s landlord – and perhaps his employer? – in Luton.

Back Street Independent Chapel Hitchin

Back Street Independent Chapel, Hitchin

Keith has found possible burial records for John and Elizabeth Roe in Luton. Elizabeth, who was said to have been born in 1770, died in 1833. John, born in 1763, died in 1836. Unfortunately, it has not yet proved possible to find birth or baptismal records for any children born to John and Elizabeth. However, given that they were married in 1792, it seems plausible that they could be the parents of the Elizabeth Roe who married first James King and then Lot Watson in Barkway – given that we know she was born in Luton, probably in 1793. Might she have been named after her mother?

As for the Martha Roe who married John Sharp, also in Barkway, might she also be a daughter of John and Elizabeth Roe of Luton, who perhaps went to Barkway with her sister Elizabeth in search of work, and like her ended up marrying a local man? And could Martha’s name provide some kind of confirmation of the next link in the chain – the identity of John Roe’s parents?

The Roe family of Pirton and the Biggleswade connection

Keith Roe has discovered a Roe family living in and around Pirton, a village a few miles to the north of Hitchin, at around this time. Not only is there a good chance that they are related to the Roes of Luton, but they have a definite connection with Biggleswade and the Baptist community there. Thanks to the excellent Pirton local history website, we know a good deal about the family of William and Martha Roe who lived in the village in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Piecing together information from wills and parish records, we can determine that William Roe was probably born in the 1720s. He was married twice, firstly in 1747 to Ann Hanscombe in Ickleford, Hitchin, and secondly, following Ann’s death in 1766, to Martha Moss, in Arlesey, just across the county border in Bedfordshire.

According to Keith’s research, Martha was the daughter of Peter Moss and his wife Mary Ingoldsby. They had another daughter, Mary, born in Sutton, Bedfordshire, in 1732, and this is where the connection to the Baptists of Biggleswade comes in. On 15thOctober 1751, in Potton, Mary Moss married Reverend David Evans. Born in Mydffai, Camarthenshire, David had previously been a Baptist minister in Hook Norton, Oxfordshire, and took up his post in Biggleswade in the same year that he married Mary. After his death in 1786, it would seem that his widow Mary went to live with her sister Martha in Pirton: that was where she made her will in 1806.

Biggleswade Old Town Hall

William and Martha Roe had three children that we know of from Martha’s will of 1817, from which we also know that William had predeceased her. There were two sons, John and Daniel, and a daughter Ruth. She had married George Odell in 1792, had two daughters – Mary in 1800 and Martha in 1804 – and then died, probably in the process of giving birth to the latter. Unfortunately we don’t have birth records for John, Daniel and Ruth – perhaps because the family were Dissenters. Both Martha’s will and that of her sister Mary Evans mention John Geard, minister of Tilehouse Street Baptist Church in Hitchin, whose extensive memoir (which can be accessed online) makes repeated reference to Rev. David Evans.

Why is the connection to David Evans and the Biggleswade Baptists important? Because it may help to explain how my 3rdgreat grandmother Eliza Holdsworth found her way from Whitechapel to Bedfordshire, and how she came to marry Daniel Roe. We know that Eliza’s mother’s surname was Evans – her father William Holdsworth married Lydia Evans in London in 1792 – and that she was the daughter of Francis and Elizabeth Evans. We also know that, when Eliza married Daniel Roe in Blunham in 1825, the witnesses were Mary Evans and William Bowtell. Mary may have been one of the daughters of Caleb Evans, a Biggleswade malt-maker who was also a part-time Baptist preacher. His other daughter Martha (you can see a certain naming pattern emerging here) married a James Bowtell in 1826. In 1841, the widowed Eliza Roe, née Holdsworth, and her children would be living just a few streets away from the Evans and Bowtell families.

Caleb Evans’ wife Ann was a Marsom by birth, born in Potton in 1771, and from a long-established Bedfordshire Baptist family, one of whose members, Thomas Marsom, had founded the first Baptist church in Luton, and who had been imprisoned with John Bunyan, at which time he is said to have persuaded the latter to publish the book that would become Pilgrim’s Progress. To date, I haven’t been able to establish any definite connection either between Caleb Evans and Rev. David Evans (might he have been his son?), or between either of them and the Francis Evans whose daughter Lydia married William Holdsworth. However, it seems likely that Eliza initially came to Bedfordshire to stay with her father’s Evans relations, and that through them she met Daniel Roe, whose family was linked to Rev. David Evans through his marriage to Mary Moss.

This makes it likely that there is some kind of connection between my ancestor Daniel Roe and the Roes of Pirton. We know that William and Martha Roe of Pirton had sons named John and Daniel. Might their son John have been the Luton shoemaker who married Elizabeth Rosendale and had daughters Elizabeth and Martha (named after her Pirton grandmother?) who moved to Barkway? And might their other son Daniel be the Biggleswade shoemaker who married Eliza Holdsworth? Or is it more likely, as Keith Roe speculates, that ‘our’ Daniel was actually the grandson, rather than the son of William and Martha Roe of Pirton – which would mean that either John Roe of Luton or his brother Daniel could be my 4thgreat grandfather?

Is it also possible that the Roe families that I previously found living in Luton later in the 19th century were related to the Roes of Pirton? William and Peter Roe were both shoemakers. William’s children included sons named John, Daniel and William, while Peter also had a son named Daniel. William was said to be born in about 1811 and Peter in 1801. Could they be sons of the John or Daniel Roe, who were the sons of William and Martha of Pirton? The coincidence of Christian names, and of occupations, would certainly seem to point in that direction.

Keith Roe’s diligent research has certainly opened up some exciting new lines of enquiry, and I’m grateful to him for sharing his findings with me. Incidentally, Keith is the son of Ron Roe, to whose pioneering research those of us working on the history of these families all owe a huge debt.