The Bedfordshire Baptist connection

In the last post I wrote about my maternal great-great-great-great-grandfather William Holdsworth, a Baptist shoemaker in Stepney in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The Baptist theme continues in the life of his daughter Eliza, my great-great-great-grandmother, as my family’s story becomes intertwined with some of the major figures in Baptist history.

As I noted in the previous post, Eliza Holdsworth was born in 1801 in Mile End Road, her birth being registered with Dr Williams’ Nonconformist Library in 1805. She was the fourth of the six children born to William and Lydia Holdsworth: her older siblings were Isaac, Samuel and Phoebe, and she had a younger brother Edward and sister Sarah. Both Isaac and Edward appear to have died in infancy. By the time Sarah was born in 1806, the Holdsworths seem to have moved to Wilmot Street, in the new suburb of Bethnal Green.

In 1817, when Eliza was sixteen years old, her older brother Samuel married a a widow named Lucy Roberts at the church of St George-the-Martyr, across the river in Southwark. Three years later, in 1820, Eliza’s sister Phoebe married bricklayer Thomas Chamberlin at St John’s, Hackney. In 1821, Eliza’s younger sister Sarah married silk weaver Thomas Parker at the church of St George-in-the-East.

Blunham, Bedfordshire, circa 1906

Blunham, Bedfordshire, circa 1906

As for Eliza herself, the next we hear of her is on 25th April 1825 when, at the age of 24, she married Biggleswade shoemaker Daniel Roe in the parish church of Blunham, Bedfordshire. So how did my London-born 3 x great grandmother come to be living in Bedfordshire? One clue may lie in the names of the witnesses at her wedding. They were Mary Evans and William Bowtell, the latter being almost certainly the husband of Mary’s sister Martha. The biblically-named Mary and Martha were the daughters of Caleb Evans, a malt-maker and deacon of the Baptist meeting in nearby Biggleswade. It seem almost certain that Caleb was a relative of Eliza’s maternal grandfather Francis Evans, and that she went to live with her Bedfordshire cousins some time in her childhood or youth.

Another, not incompatible explanation, is that Eliza moved to Bedfordshire in pursuit of employment. In later years she would work as a domestic servant, often in the homes of members of the rural gentry, including vicars and gentlemen farmers. However, given that the Evans family lived in Biggleswade, which was also where her future husband Daniel had his shoemaker’s shop, why was Eliza married in Blunham? Is it possible that she was in service there, perhaps in a position found for her by her Bedfordshire relatives?

Old Baptist chapel, Blunham, Bedfordshire

Old Baptist chapel, Blunham, Bedfordshire

One theory that appeals to me is that Eliza might have been a servant in the household of Rev. Robert Porten Beachcroft, the rector of Blunham, who married Eliza and Daniel in 1825. He also christened their first child Anna Maria a year later, even though by then they were settled in Biggleswade. We know that in later years Eliza would be employed in another clerical household, that of Rev. Robert Merry of nearby Guilden Morden. We also know that Beachcroft was a prominent evangelical who was sympathetic to the Baptist congregation in Blunham. According to one account:

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.

If my great-great-great-grandmother Eliza lived in Blunham before her marriage, whether or not she worked for Rev Beachcroft, she would almost certainly have been a member of the Baptist Meeting there. Her Biggleswade relatives, if that was what the Evans family were, were connected to Bedfordshire Baptist ‘royalty’. Caleb Evans’ wife Ann, born in Potton in 1771, was a Marsom by birth, from a long-established Bedfordshire Baptist family. Ann’s cousin Samuel, a farmer and market gardener, ran the Crown Hotel in Biggleswade for thirty years. Her great grandfather Thomas Marsom was an ironmonger and Baptist preacher (a combination that recurs across the generations of Marsoms) whose son, also Thomas, was a hymn writer and poet. Ann’s great-great -grandfather, yet another Thomas Marsom, founded the first Baptist church in Luton and in about 1668 was 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.

John Bunyan

John Bunyan

As for Caleb Evans himself, I’ve been unable to find any record of him before his marriage to Ann in Biggleswade in 1798. He is mentioned briefly in a history of Biggleswade Baptist church, where it is noted that the vicar of nearby Harrold mentioned him in a disparaging remark about uneducated preachers. There are certainly plenty of men with the name Caleb Evans in the Baptist records, including some who achieved a degree of fame, but most of them were full-time, educated ministers, and as far as we know Eliza Holdsworth’s relative was merely a part-time deacon and preacher. Most of these other Caleb Evanses lived either in Wales or the Bristol area.

We know from census records that Caleb was born outside the county, so perhaps he or his family moved to Bedfordshire from elsewhere. According to a history of the Welsh Baptists, an assistant minister named David Evans, presumably originally from Wales, was baptised (as an adult) in 1734, began to preach in 1736, then served in Hook Norton, Ireland, Newport Pagnell – and finally Biggleswade. A history of the English Baptists states that David Evans settled in Biggleswade in 1751. Could he have been a relative of Caleb’s: perhaps even his father?

Daniel Roe’s shoemaker’s shop was in Stratton Street, in the centre of Biggleswade, which is where he and Eliza were living when their daughter Anna (or Hannah) Maria was born early in 1826. In the next few years, the couple would have three sons – Richard was born in 1828, Daniel junior (my great-great-grandfather) in 1829 and Caleb (perhaps named after Caleb Evans?) in 1833 – and a daughter, Eliza, born in 1833.

Daniel Roe senior seems to have died in about 1836, leaving Eliza a relatively young widow with five young children. Hannah or Anna Maria Roe died in 1844, at the age of 18, and was buried in the Baptist burial ground in Biggleswade. Shortly afterwards, Eliza and her surviving children began to leave the town. Eliza, Daniel junior and the younger Eliza moved back to Stepney shortly after Anna Maria’s death, while Caleb would stay behind in Biggleswade for a time, working as a servant in a solicitor’s household in Stratton Street, before also moving to Stepney. His brother Richard also remained in the area, being apprenticed and then married in the village of Barkway.

Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley

I’m not sure whether the Roe/Holdsworth family’s Baptist affiliation was handed down to the next generation. Daniel Roe junior was married on 3rd July 1848, at the church of St Anne, Limehouse, to his second cousin Mary Ann Blanch, the daughter of JKeziah Holdsworth, the cousin of Daniel’s mother Eliza, and her husband John Blanch. John was a shoemaker in Bethnal Green and may even have been Daniel’s apprentice master. The Blanch family were originally Quakers from Gloucestershire, and I plan to write about them in a future post. Whether or not he remained a Baptist, I have a theory that the younger Daniel Roe, who set up shop with his father-in-law, first in Bethnal Green and later in Soho, was certainly a Dissenter at heart, and probably a radical one. When his son, my great grandfather, was born in Great Windmill Street, in 1862, he was given the name Joseph Priestley Roe, surely a tribute to the great eighteenth-century radical Dissenting minister and natural philosopher.

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