Monday, 29 February 2016

A family secret - the shocking truth (Part 2)

©Courtesy of British Newspaper Archive

If you've read Part 1 of this distressing story you'll know that my 3x great-grandfather, Thomas Shelley, disgraced himself in 1856 by failing to protect his wife, Bessie, from the bullying and cruelty at the hands of their housekeeper, Martha Cotterill.

Martha Cotterill was found guilty as charged and fined £5, only avoiding a spell in the "house of correction" because Thomas paid her fine.

You would think that given the community outrage and the sheer embarrassment of being hauled up in front of the magistrates court, Thomas would have seen the error of his ways and dismissed Martha from his household forthwith.

But not a bit of it. Martha appears on both the 1861 and 1871 census still living with the Shelley family, no doubt because (as the evidence I've uncovered appears to confirm) Martha was more than a mere servant. As for poor Bessie, she was yet to suffer further trauma.

The immediate aftermath

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Firstly, there was the immediate aftermath of the court case.

Whether as a result of his clients' humiliation or through his own professional loss of face, the solicitor who'd represented Thomas and Martha wrote to the Staffordshire Advertiser, threatening to sue the journalist who'd written the report of the case for the newspaper, on the grounds it was a libellous misrepresentation of the facts.

The solicitor in question, Mr B. H. Smallwood, of Newport, Shropshire, alleged that the report was "grossly inaccurate" and that it contained serious omissions. The newspaper disputed this but Smallwood persisted in hounding the paper with letters of complaint.

Morally guilty

On 6th December 1856, the Staffordshire Advertiser decided to "go public" and published all the
correspondence between itself and Smallwood, followed by the newspaper's counter to the objections Smallwood had raised. It defended the so-called "omissions" on the grounds that including anything further would only have strengthened the case for the prosecution.

However, the editor did make the point that the magistrate who'd delivered the decision had said that, in the opinion of the bench, Thomas Shelley was morally guilty of participating in the offence and it was only because they had no legal proof of him having actually assaulted his wife, that they'd not convicted him as well as Martha Cotterill.

But Smallwood (clearly getting up a head of steam by now!) continued with his grievance.

Lost patience

Finally, on 20th December, the newspaper lost patience. It published a long ranting letter from Smallwood, dated 11th December, in which he nit-picked his way through both their comments in their own defence and on items of evidence presented at the hearing. He challenged the court on allowing Bessie to be called to give evidence, given the reporter had described her as having "rather feeble intellect". (If she was being bullied by Martha Cotterill to the extent alleged, I'm sure her state of mind could be explained by her terror at any repercussions she might suffer.) He also dismissed the reliability of one witness because he was a convicted felon (for poaching, apparently) and complained that the evidence of Bessie's daughter, Emma (my 2x great-grandmother) aged 15, stating her mother had "never complained" to her about Cotterill "ill-using" her, had been deliberately omitted from the newspaper report.

© courtesy of British Newspaper Archive
The newspaper followed this with an editorial, describing Smallwood's letter as being unreasonable in length and unjustifiable in manner. The editor also declared that he was no longer prepared to sacrifice any further column space on the subject. He admitted only to their original report being necessarily curtailed (as in, being a summary, as usual in such cases, rather than ad verbatim) but reiterating that any omissions were "quite as much against, as in favour of the defendants", despite Mr Smallwood "with all the cleverness of a shrewd member of his profession" endeavouring "to show the contrary."

Reading the detail, it's clear that Smallwood, as well as citing legal 'technicalities' (he states, for example that information presented was outside the allowed 6 month period from when the offence was committed), is peeved that a) his arguments presented at the hearing were disregarded by the magistrates, b) they over-ruled his legal objections and c) his closing speech was not published in the press. Perhaps he saw himself as a great orator with the skill to persuade all to his way of thinking, and that having presented himself as such to his clients and then promptly failing to deliver, he was desperate to redeem himself by calling "foul"!

Move away

I should imagine that life was somewhat uncomfortable for Thomas following the hearing and when Sutton Mill, Claverley, became vacant soon afterwards, in January 1857, he decided to move his family out of Shebdon and away from prying eyes (or possibly worse).

© courtesy of British Newspaper Archive

But sadly, as I mention above, Bessie was not able to put the past behind her and start afresh. Not only would Martha Cotterill move with them, remaining in the household for many years to come, but also life had yet further misery to inflict on poor Bessie.

To follow  - The truth about Martha and What became of Bessie