Wednesday, 30 March 2016

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.

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