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Digital Subscriptions > Family Tree > Family Tree December 2017 > The disgrace of Thomas Shelley

The disgrace of Thomas Shelley

Unearthing disreputable ancestors and upsetting stories is fairly typical family history fodder, but Wendy Percival’s discoveries in the British newspaper archives revealed an unexpectedly shocking turn of events in the lives of her 3x great-grandparents


Uncovering cruelty & abuse

As family historians we’re thrilled to find our ancestors mentioned in the press as it adds ‘flesh’ to the bones of names and dates. But sometimes what we stumble across can take our breath away, as I discovered while researching my 3x great-grandfather, Thomas Shelley. I had an inkling of his character after finding a newspaper report of his being fined for selling flour adulterated with alum. Aware of the financial precariousness of these times, I might have forgiven him, until a deeper search revealed something shocking. And this time Thomas couldn’t cite pecuniary pressure as an excuse.

The headline in the Staffordshire Advertiser on 8 November 1856 read, ‘UNNATURAL AND CRUEL TREATMENT OF A FARMER’S WIFE’. Thomas, I discovered, had been charged with ‘assault and cruelty’ to his wife Elizabeth (known as Bessie, née Holland). And, it transpired, he had an accomplice in the form of his housekeeper, Martha Cotterill.

A disturbing picture

Newspaper accounts of the hearing before magistrates in Eccleshall, Staffordshire, on 31 October 1856, paint a disturbing picture. Bessie was described as being ‘feeble minded’ and it seemed Martha bullied her unmercifully. It was alleged that on one occasion, Martha had taken a knife to Bessie and drawn blood, another that she’d dragged Bessie into the house by her hair. Further accusations included kicking, threatening with a stick, 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’.

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About Family Tree

Come on, it's time to roll up your sleeves, leave the pleasant pastures of the 19th century, the birth, marriage and death records, and the census - and trace your family lines further back in into the past. This is your chance to explore new records, stretch your research and revel in the lives and times of your Georgian, Stuart and even Tudor ancestors.