Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Assault and Cruelty - the victim

The final instalment in the sad story of Martha Cotterill and Bessie Shelley reveals more tragic events in Bessie's life and her shocking death.

(If you have arrived here unaware of the previous posts in this tale, you can read them at A family secret - the shocking truth part 1, part 2 and Assault and cruelty - the perpetrator.)

Of feeble intellect

©Courtesy of British Newspaper Archive

Several times in newspaper reports of the magistrates' hearing, Bessie was referred to as being of "weak" or "feeble intellect". No mention is made of this on any of the census entries on which Bessie appears, though the actual term "feeble-minded" wasn't introduced until the 1901 census, over 20 years after her death. Could it have been Martha's treatment, firstly by the ignominious way in which she took over the household and then the physical abuse she inflicted upon Bessie afterwards, which caused Bessie to have a mental breakdown? Or was Bessie already suffering with a mental disability before Martha arrived?

Whichever it was, it could explain why Bessie seemed unable to defend herself against Martha's bullying, more so given Thomas's obvious acquiescence at Martha's mistreatment of his wife. What options did a woman have at that time, in such a situation?

Family despair

In one of the newspaper reports, it was suggested that it was Bessie's wider family who brought the abusive situation to the attention of the authorities. What did they make of the outcome? They must have despaired when Martha, despite having been found guilty, then returned to live in the household. Perhaps they hoped that Martha's behaviour towards Bessie would improve following the court action, aware that the family might instigate further action if she did not mend her ways.

Under the circumstances, it is perhaps significant and unsurprising, that the birth of Bessie's daughter, Joannah, in 1860, would prove to be her last pregnancy, at the age of 34. So, what impact did the arrival and subsequent adoption a year later of Martha's daughter, Mary Jane (who we can now be fairly certain was fathered by Thomas), have on Bessie, I wonder?

Further tragedy

Maybe, with the arrival of other babies in the household (daughters Emma and Martha Ann had 3 illegitimate children of their own, all of whom spent at least some of their early years under the Shelleys's roof) the impact was softened in some way.

But even if Bessie was able to come to terms with her feelings on the matter, it was unlikely to prepare her for further sadness ahead.

In 1858, two years after the court case, Joannah died of scarlet fever, aged only 7 years old. Then two years later, in 1860, another daughter, Mary Ann Holland, died of consumption, aged 16 years.

A shocking death

When Martha died in 1866, I wonder if Bessie felt any sense of release. If she did, she didn't have long to savour it. Barely six months after Martha's death, in January 1867, Bessie also died . 

But what I found particularly distressing was when the certificate arrived and I read the cause of death. Above the name of the certifying doctor was one word - "burning".

Hunt for the truth

But what did that mean? For a moment, I thought maybe Martha's maltreatment had escalated and I'd stumbled across a murder! Until I remembered that Martha was already dead.

I set off on a mission to discover the truth. At one point I feared I'd never find out, as the crucial years of the most likely newspaper to have published a report, were missing. Shropshire Archives made a search amongst their files of another newspaper, copies of which aren't yet available online, but found no mention of events. Neither did they find any record of an inquest. 

But just as I thought I'd tried every possible source, I was prompted by to use up some credits before they expired. I made a final half-hearted browse in the British Newspaper database, in which I'd supposedly already searched, and up popped a short paragraph in Eddowes's, Shrewsbury & Salopian Journal, entitled Sad death from burning at Claverley.

© British Newspaper Archive
Bessie's death appears to have been a tragic accident. According to the newspaper, Thomas was at church with his son, leaving Bessie at home with her daughter and "two children". Again the newspaper mentions Bessie being of "weak intellect".

It's believed that Bessie had fallen into the kitchen fire. Ablaze, she rushed into the passageway but by the time help arrived and the flames were extinguished, it was too late. She suffered severe burns and died soon after, attended by the village nurse, Ellen Braggen, who also registered the death. 

No inquest

The coroner was informed, but apparently took the view that as the cause of death was not in question, there was no need for an inquest. While that might be true, I found it a little puzzling given the report said the deceased "must have fallen in the fire", suggesting that the exact circumstances had not been established.

Thomas & Bessie Shelley's grave
in Claverley churchyard
Bessie is buried in Claverley churchyard along with her husband, Thomas. The headstone would have been erected after Thomas's death in 1881, perhaps paid for out of Thomas's considerable estate of £1,451 2s 2d, which, according to Stephen Morley's Historical UK Inflation calculator amounts to over £158,000 in today's money. 

The wording gives no clue as to Bessie's traumatic life and death (her name is spelled "Bessey" on the headstone), only that she departed this life January 7th 1877

May she rest in peace.

Assault and Cruelty - the perpetrator

On 31st October 1856, Martha Cotterill was found guilty of assault and cruelty towards my 3x great-grandmother, Bessie Shelley, at a magistrates's hearing in Eccleshall, Staffordshire.

© British Newspaper Archives
Martha was fined £5 which would have resulted in imprisonment if Bessie's husband, Thomas Shelley, jointly accused but acquitted on lack of evidence, paid her fine.

(If you've not read the story so far, you might like to read the previous posts on the incident,  A family secret - The Shocking Truth,  Part 1 and Part 2.)

Who was Martha Cotterill?

So who was Martha Cotterill and how did she come into Bessie's life?

Martha joined the Shelley household around 1852 as a housekeeper. According to Thomas Davis, a servant in Shelley's employ in 1856, he was told by Thomas that Martha should be considered mistress of the house.

It seems certain that the relationship between Thomas Shelley and Martha was more than just employer and employee.  What is more difficult to establish, is whether this relationship began before Martha moved in or after.

Adbaston Church
(courtesy of

A year before Martha's arrival, the 1851 census shows Thomas and Bessie (nee Holland) living in the small hamlet of Doley, near Adbaston, with their six children - Emma (my great-great gandmother) aged 9, William 7, Mary Ann 6, Martha 5, Eliza 3 and Joannah 1 - along with Thomas's mother, 54 year old Phoebe. Thomas is a farmer of 45 acres, with one live-in servant, John Lee.

A near neighbour

Less than 5 miles away, the same census lists Martha Cotrill (sic), unmarried, aged 25, living with her father, Thomas Cotrill and mother, Jane Cotrill.  Also listed are two grand-daughters - Mary, aged 1, born in Manchester and Elizabeth, aged 3 months, born in High Offley, Staffordshire. Are these girls both Martha's daughters?

Move on ten years and Elizabeth Cottrell, born in High Offley, appears on the 1861 census, now aged 11, but this time she is a boarder in - guess where - the Shelley household, alongside "housekeeper", Martha Cottrell.

A Manchester connection

I haven't found the other girl, Mary, but the eagle-eyed of you who read the previous posts may have noticed a connection. In the newspaper report of the assault on Bessie in 1856, it was stated that Martha had gone to Manchester some months previously to have a baby. The Mary mentioned in 1851 was also born in Manchester. What was Martha's link to Manchester? Perhaps she had family there.

Following her Manchester confinement, there's no evidence to suggest Martha returned with a child. Was it adopted? Or perhaps it didn't survive. In the December quarter of the 1855 birth index, an unnamed "male" child is listed, surname Cottrill, born in Manchester who subsequently died in the same quarter. Was this Martha's baby? And was Thomas Shelley the father?

The clue's in the name

One thing is certain, however. Nine year-old Mary J "C" Shelley, who appeared on the 1871 census as Thomas's daughter, was born Mary Jane Cotterill, on 12th July 1861, mother Martha Cotterill. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the name of the father is not recorded on the birth certificate.

Sadly, however, in April 1875, Mary Jane died aged only 13 and was buried in Claverley churchyard. Unfortunately, I can find no record of her death in the registration indexes under either Cotterill or Shelley, to obtain a certificate to discover the cause of death.

Bessie's tormentor dies

It would be one year after Mary Jane's death and 20 years after the court case that Bessie would be finally set free from the woman who had usurped her role as Thomas's wife. In 1876 Martha died from heart disease and congestion of the lungs. The death certificate recorded her age as 54, though according to previous records, she would actually have been only 50.

It would be comforting to think that Bessie would go on to enjoy many more years with her family, but sadly it was not to be. Bessie herself died six months later in the most horrendous circumstances.

Read the full story here, Assault and Cruelty - the victim.