In my recent post about the origins of the Roe family, I reported on new information shared by my distant relative Keith Roe about Elizabeth Roe of Barkway, Hertfordshire. It seems likely that Elizabeth, who was born in the early 1790s, was related in some way to my 3rdgreat grandfather, Daniel Roe of Biggleswade, who died in 1838.

Elizabeth Roe was married twice. In 1815 she married James King and they had three children – Richard, Henry and Elizabeth – before James’ death. This must have occurred before 1837, when Elizabeth married for a second time, to widower Lot Watson. At the time of the 1841 census Lot and Elizabeth Watson can be found living in Barkway High Street, with Lot’s two sons, Thomas and John, from his first marriage, and Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth from her first marriage.

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Lot and Elizabeth Watson in the 1841 census

After 1841, the story becomes rather more problematic. If we search for Lot Watson in the 1851 census, we find someone who matches his details, still living in Barkway High Street with his sons Thomas and John, and describing himself as a widower – suggesting that his wife Elizabeth had died at some point in the previous ten years. Ten years later, in 1861, now aged 50, Lot is still describing himself as a widower, and still living in Barkway with his son Thomas, now 27, and the latter’s wife, Maria (they had married in 1856).

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‘Widower’ Lot Watson and his sons in the 1851 census

However, Keith Roe has found convincing evidence that Elizabeth Watson, formerly King, née Roe, was actually still alive in 1851, and living in Luton, in the same street as her daughter Elizabeth King, who had married shoemaker George Hale in 1846, the record stating clearly that she was the daughter of James King and was born in Barkway. In the census records for 1851 and 1861, the older Elizabeth can be found living close to her daughter’s family, and in 1871 actually living with her daughter. Moreover, in all of these census records, Elizabeth describes herself as a widow.

There seems little doubt that this is the same person who married first James King and then Lot Watson. In 1861, she gave her name as Elizabeth King, a widow aged 61, and was living alone in Park Lane, Luton, a few houses away from George and Elizabeth Hale and their family. Ten years later, Elizabeth King was still living in Park Lane, even closer to the expanding Hale family (though that may simply be a result of the order in which households were entered in the records). By the time of the 1871 census, Elizabeth Hale, née King, was herself a widow. Now aged 44, she was living in Elizabeth Street, Luton, with five of her children. Living with her was her mother, Elizabeth, who now gave her surname as Watson, and her age as 80.

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‘Widow’ Elizabeth Watson in the 1871 census

In an effort to get to the heart of this mystery, I’ve been attempting to trace the history of the Watson family of Barkway, and the trajectory of Lot’s life. Another connection between the Watson and Roe families arises from the fact that, at the time of the 1851 census, my 3rdgreat grandmother Eliza Sharp, formerly Roe, née Holdsworth, was working as a nursery servant for the Walbey family, who were farmers in the village of Nuthampstead, a couple of miles to the east of Barkway. Working alongside her as domestic servants were 20-year-old Emma Watson and 16-year-old Mary Watson, both from Barkway. I believe that Emma and Mary were sisters, and that they were the daughters of farm labourer George Watson and his wife Mary. Ten years earlier, the 1841 census record finds George and Mary living in the village of Newsells, just to the north of Barkway, with their children Charles, Elizabeth, Emma, Mary, George and Mark. The 1841 census was notoriously inaccurate in recording ages, but cross-checking with later, more reliable census data confirms that Charles was born in about 1827, Emma in about 1831, Mary in about 1835, George in about 1838, and Mark in 1840.

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Parish church of St Mary Magdalene, Barkway (Robert Camp, via flickr.com)

George Watson senior was almost certainly the son of William and Eleanor Watson – and therefore the brother of Lot Watson who married Elizabeth King, née Roe, the record of their marriage stating that Lot was the son of William Watson. William Watson and Eleanor Taylor had married in Barkway on 19thDecember 1799. On 23rd June 1822 they had four children christened together: George, Mercy, Thomas and Lot.  From other records, we can work out the approximate birth years of these children as follows: George, 1803; Mercy, 1803; Lot, 1811; Thomas, 1811. Mercy’s and Lot’s names suggest that the family might have been Nonconformists and this might explain the children’s delayed Church of England baptisms.

George Watson must have married his wife Mary by about 1826. His sister Mercy married labourer William James in Royston on 1stNovember 1827. In 1841 they were living in Barkway Street, Royston, with their five children, and were still there ten years later. Mercy’s brother Thomas Watson is almost certainly the person of that name, said to be the son of William Watson, who married Elizabeth Phypers in Barkway on 12thOctober 1839.

As for Lot Watson, he married for the first time on Christmas Eve, 1829, to Mary Hart, in Barkway. Lot and Mary Watson had two sons: Thomas was born in 1832 and John in 1835. Mary Watson must have died shortly after, perhaps as a result of John’s birth, since on 9th November 1837 we know that Lot married Elizabeth King, née Roe.

The 1841 census claims that Lot was 30 and Elizabeth 40 at the time, which would mean they were born in 1811 and 1801 respectively. However, ages in that year’s census records were notoriously inaccurate, and later records suggests that Lot might have been born as early as 1809, and Elizabeth as early as 1793. Whatever their precise dates of birth, the difference of at least ten years between their ages, and the fact that they had both been widowed and would have no children together, suggest that their marriage might have been one of social and economic convenience, Elizabeth acting as a substitute mother for Lot’s two young sons.

So how are we to explain that, thirteen years after their marriage, Lot and Elizabeth were not only living apart – but each claiming that the other had died? Not only that, but in 1869, Lot Watson would marry again, despite the fact that Elizabeth was apparently still alive.

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The marriage of ‘widower’ Lot Watson and Ellen Spicer in 1869

On 26thDecember 1869, Lot Watson, a widower working as a bricklayer, married Ellen Spicer, a widow, at Holy Trinity church, Haverstock Hill, in London. The witnesses were Thomas and Maria Watson – presumably Lot’s son and daughter-in-law. One might be tempted to dismiss this record as relating to a different, London-born Lot Watson (even though he is said to be the son of William Watson), but the census taken two years later finds Lot and Ellen Watson living in the latter’s home village of Great Hormead, five miles to the south of Barkway, with a number of Ellen’s children. They were still there ten years later, at the time of the 1881 census.

By 1891, Lot Watson seems to have been widowed again, and, now aged 82 and a pauper, was living in the workhouse at Buntingford, five miles to the west of Great Hormead. He appears to have died seven years later in 1898.

Is there a possibility that the Lot Watson who married Elizabeth King, née Roe, and the widower who married Ellen Spicer were actually two different people? The 1841 census is our only record, after their marriage in 1837, of Lot and Elizabeth Watson being together. That record suggests Lot was born in about 1811 and worked as an agricultural labourer. He already had two sons – Thomas, 8 and John, 6 – which enables us to match him with the Lot Watson who was previously married to Mary Hart.

This information also enables us to match him to the Lot Watson to be found in Barkway High Street ten years later, in 1861, with his sons Thomas and John, now aged 18 and 16 respectively. There is  slight discrepancy in Lot’s age – he is said to be 42, which would mean he was born in 1809, whereas the 1841 census claimed he was born in 1811, but as already mentioned, we know that the 1841 census officials tended to round ages up or down. The record of Lot’s marriage to Ellen Spicer states that he was 51 in 1869, which would mean he was born in 1818. However, the fact that he was a bricklayer supports the argument that this was the same man. Not only that, but the 1871 census record for Lot and Ellen puts his age at 60, while the 1881 census has him as 72 and the 1891 record as 80. This suggests either that Lot himself was unsure of his own year of birth, or that he was rather economical with the truth when it came to revealing his age. (Something similar can be seen in the case of his erstwhile wife Elizabeth: in 1841 she was said to be 40, she was 61 in 1851, 68 in 1861, and 80 in 1871.)

Were there any other men named Lot Watson living in the Barkway area at this time? The only one I can find is the 70-year-old man who in 1841 was living in Barkway High Street with Elizabeth Watson, aged 20, and one-year-old Ann Watson. He is probably the same man who married Mary Webb in Barkway in 1800. They had a son named Charles, a blacksmith like his father, who married a woman named Ann Childs and died in 1856. This Lot Watson, who must have been born in about 1772, seems to have died in 1844, the burial record describing him as a Congregationalist.

Some family trees at Ancestry claim that it was the older Lot Watson who married Elizabeth King, née Roe, in 1837, that she is the Elizabeth Watson to be found living with him in 1841, and that Ann was their daughter. But this seems extremely unlikely, given the disparity in their ages – 70 and 20 – even allowing for census inaccuracies, and the fact that this Elizabeth would have been only 16 at the time of her marriage in 1837, when we know that she was already a widow. The other 1841, which includes 14-year-old Elizabeth King, her daughter from her first marriage, matches what we know of Elizabeth King, née Roe’s details much more closely.

Further research is needed to discover the origins of the older Lot Watson, and of the Elizabeth and Ann Watson living with him in 1841. My current theory is that he was a brother of the William Watson who was the father of ‘our’ Lot Watson, who may have been named after his uncle.

So if the Lot Watson who married Elizabeth King, née Roe, is the same man who later claimed to be a widower and then married Ellen Spicer, and if Elizabeth is the same woman who moved to Luton, all the time claiming to be a widow – how are we to explain this? We can only conclude that the couple separated after a few years of marriage, perhaps because they grew apart and divorce was not yet a legal possibility, or perhaps because, as already suggested, their marriage had only ever been one of convenience.

It’s not as if this story is unique in my family’s history. There are definite echoes of the story of Lot and Elizabeth Watson in the life of my 3rd great grandmother Eliza Sharp, formerly Roe, née Holdsworth. Following her second marriage to John Sharp in 1845, there is little evidence that the couple ever lived together. In 1851, John was living alone in Barkway High Street, while Eliza was living with and working for the Walbey family in Nuthampstead. I haven’t managed to find John Sharp in the 1861 census, but Eliza was again away from home, working for Rev. Robert Merry and his family in Guilden Morden, just across the county border in Cambridgeshire. She would still be with Rev. Merry’s widow and her family in Devon ten years later, though, she had now reverted to her previous married name of Roe (just as Elizabeth Watson reverted to her former surname of King in 1851 and 1861). This was despite the fact that her husband John Sharp was still alive and, in another echo of Lot Watson’s experience, was languishing in the workhouse in Bassingbourn.

As for Lot Watson’s apparent bigamy – marrying for a third time to Ellen Spicer while his wife Elizabeth was still alive – this is not unprecedented either. I’ve written elsewhere about my theory that my 3rd great aunt on my father’s side of the family, Elizabeth Robb, may have married a bigamist when she wed dentist Joseph Woolley Boden in 1841, and indeed that she may have later committed bigamy herself with piano teacher Edmund Vineer. Apparently these things were not uncommon at a time when divorce was next to impossible for those without means or social status. Perhaps the fact that Elizabeth had moved to Luton – thirty miles away in another county – made it easier for Lot to pass himself off as a widower (and she as a widow), while setting up home with his third wife Ellen in her home village of Great Hormead prevented them becoming the subject of gossip in his home town of Barkway.