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.


  1. What a truly awful end to the story. But I have enjoyed reading it!

    1. Thanks, Cathy. Yes, it's been quite a journey. I think I empathised even more with poor Bessie last week when I managed to splash scalding water on my hand. It must have been a horribly painful end for her. Thanks for dropping in and adding a comment. 😊