Tuesday, 26 January 2016

A family secret - the shocking truth (Part 1)

The secrets revealed during our family history research are often fascinating, sometimes surprising and occasionally tragic. However what I stumbled upon while browsing the British Newspaper Archive recently can only be described as shocking.

We tend to regard our ancestors with a degree of benevolence, even those we discover on the criminal lists, we might try and justify their actions, that they stole the loaf of bread to feed their hungry family, for instance. But I'm not about to make any excuses for the behaviour of my 3x Great-grandfather Thomas Shelley!

The 1851 census finds Thomas living with his wife, Bessey (nee Holland) and their six children - Emma, my great-great grandmother, aged 9, William 7, Mary Ann 6, Martha 5, Eliza 3 and Joannah 1 - along with Thomas's mother, 54 year old Phoebe in the small hamlet of Doley, Adbaston, Staffordshire. Thomas is listed as a farmer with 45 acres and has one live-in servant, John Lee.

Dirty Linen

But 5 years later would see the family's dirty linen washed in public as Thomas Shelley, then living in Shebdon, was brought before magistrates at a
The Royal Oak , Eccleshall, where magistrates sat
(geograph.org.uk © David Weston)
hearing held in The Royal Oak, Eccleshall, on 31st October 1856, accused of "Cruelty and Assault" to his wife Elizabeth Shelley,  along with co-defendant, Martha Cotterill, his housekeeper.

The details of the case were reported in weekly newspaper The Staffordshire Advertiser on 8th November 1856 (and at least two other local papers) under the heading, UNNATURAL AND CRUEL TREATMENT.

A Younger Woman

According to the evidence put before the magistrates, Martha Cotterill had been engaged as a housekeeper about 4 years previously. Ten years younger than Bessey, and in her early thirties, it seems that Thomas became smitten with the younger woman.

Whether he'd engaged her and then fallen for her charms afterwards, or whether he'd known her beforehand, is hard to know for sure, though events might suggest the latter. It transpires that not only did Martha Cotterill move in assuming the role of mistress of the house, rather than servant, but she subjected Mrs Shelley to "the most disgusting treatment and on one occasion Cotterill had struck her on the head with a knife, causing the blood to flow profusely."

Further accusations included kicking, thrusting a mop soaked with horse manure into Mrs Shelley's face, threatening her with a stick, pulling her into the house by her hair, pushing excrement from a chamber pot into her mouth and "inflicting severe pain on some of the most sensitive parts of the body with a bunch of nettles."

Report of trial in Birmingham Gazette
(courtesy of British Newspaper Archive)


A former servant at the farm, James Turner, corroborated Mrs Shelley's statement, saying he had brought the cruelty to the attention of Mr Shelley who had merely laughed and told him if he didn't like it, he could leave. Another servant, Thomas Davis, had heard Cotterill threaten to "knock the complainant's brains out" and that he'd seen Mrs Shelley locked up several times and was never allowed to eat her meals with the family. He also said that Mr Shelley had told him that Cotterill was mistress of the house.

The case, it seems, had so appalled the local community that on the day of the hearing, both defendants had been followed up and down the street by an angry crowd of between 200 and 300 people, shouting and pelting them with rubbish.

After the evidence had been given, the court was cleared for the magistrates to consider their decision. They declared that no case of assault had been proved against Thomas Shelley but that Martha Cotterill was guilty of common assault and fined £5.

Angry Crowd

The waiting crowd were outraged at the verdict, considering it to be a far too lenient. I suspect they were even more incensed when Thomas paid Cotterill's fine to prevent her being sent to the house of correction. It's probably not surprising therefore, that the newspaper reported the crowd had "followed the defendants two miles out of the town, sainting them with no very complimentary epithets." I'll bet they did! One newspaper noted that the defendants had had to be escorted back to Shebdon by a "strong body of police."

No Remorse

It would be nice to report that following such a public condemnation of his behaviour, Thomas Shelley was shamed into treating his wife with a little more respect. But sadly, the evidence suggests otherwise. While I've uncovered no further clashes with the law (on this particular matter, anyway - the other is a different story altogether), it's obvious from what follows that Thomas, no doubt blinded by his infatuation for his housekeeper, considered he'd been treated unjustly.

And as for Martha Cotterill... you'll have read Part 2 to find out more.