Sunday, 11 January 2015

Mystery children and missing siblings

The headstone of Thomas Shelley (d.1881) and
his wife Bessey (d.1877) in Claverley churchyard.

This week I've been tracking the wayward offspring of my 3x great-grandparents Thomas and Bessey Shelley, who lived in Staffordshire and Shropshire.

Thomas and Bessey (nee Holland) married in 1840 and in the 1841 census, were living in Cheswadine, Shropshire along with Thomas's widowed mother, Phoebe.

By 1851, they're residing in Adbaston in Staffordshire and have a sizable family -

Emma, aged 9 (my great-great grandmother)
William, aged 7
Mary Ann, aged 6
Eliza, aged 5
Martha, aged 3
and Joanna, aged 1


Move on 10 years and the family is scattered. Emma is servant at a farm near Market Drayton, Thomas appears to be working away from home (on census night, at least) as a farm bailiff and Bessey is on her own with Eliza in Church Aston, Shropshire. I'm uncertain about William's whereabouts - it's possible he could be working as an apprentice. But I could find no census record for Martha, Joanna or Mary Ann.

It's common knowledge that childhood in Victorian England was a precarious existence so I checked the death registers and sadly, found both Joanna, who died aged 6 in 1858 and Mary Ann who died in 1860, aged 15. There's also the death of a William Shelley listed in 1859 but as there are several William Shelleys, without further information, I don't know yet if he's Thomas and Bessey's son.

But at least, Martha is alive and well, as she pops up again on the 1871 census back home with her parents in Claverley, Shropshire. Although she gives her surname as Shelley, she'd actually married Charles Dawber in 1868 and has her daughter with her (10 month old Rosa Vida Dawber) who is listed as grand-daughter to Thomas, head of the family.

Also back in the fold is Emma, along with her illegitimate son, my great-grandfather George, aged 1, and there are two new additions to the family, Mary J C, aged 9, and grand-daughter, Agnes, aged 5. But who are Agnes's parents? There's no sign of Eliza, though she may be working away from home. (An Eliza Shelley of the correct age is listed as a servant in a village called Moseley near Brewood, Staffordshire but no place of birth is recorded for her to cross reference.)

By 1881, Emma has left home to marry George Wenlock, leaving little George behind with her parents, presumably because Mr Wenlock is not prepared to take on a son who is not his own. But by 1881 Thomas is now a widower, as Bessey died in 1877, the year after Emma got married.

George, aged 11, and Agnes, now 15 are listed, not as grandchildren though, but as son and daughter to Thomas. And another daughter is now back in residence - Eliza - presumably returned to help look after the family following her mother's death. Mary J C, who would now be 19, does not appear. Perhaps she married, though I haven't located her yet.

As I discovered a few months ago (see blog post Out of the woodwork and on to the tree), Emma had another illegitimate son called Charles, born in 1873, who was adopted by a local family. And it transpires that she was not the only sister to have a child out of wedlock, as Agnes's birth certificate shows that her mother was the unmarried Martha Shelley. No father is recorded.

Like George Wenlock, it seems Charles Dawber was not prepared to take on another man's daughter and Martha has no option but to leave Agnes in the care of her parents when she married.

If the William listed in the death records was Thomas and Bessey's son, it would mean that Thomas and Bessey lost a child on three consecutive years. Even if it wasn't, losing Joanna and then Mary Ann, would be traumatic enough. Did their loss influence their decision to take on the illegitimate offspring of their daughters? Or did they do so simply out of a sense of duty?

I'm not yet clear as to the parentage of Mary "J C". Although she's recorded as a daughter in the 1881 census, Bessey would have been 46 when she was born. While that's perfectly feasible, I do wonder, given that the 1881 census records George and Agnes as son and daughter when we know they weren't, whether Mary J C's mother wasn't Bessey at all. And if not, who was she?

I can see I've got more digging to do before this muddle is unravelled!