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  • Writer's pictureWendy Percival

A shocking scandal

Updated: Mar 18, 2022

The secrets revealed during our family history research are often fascinating, sometimes surprising and occasionally tragic. However the newspaper story I came across and wrote about a few years ago can only be described as shocking.

We tend to regard our ancestors with a degree of benevolence, even those we discover on the criminal lists. We might try and justify their actions, that they stole the loaf of bread to feed their hungry family, for instance. But there aren’t any excuses for the behaviour of my 3x Great-grandfather Thomas Shelley!

In 1851 Thomas was living with his wife, Bessey (nee Holland) and their six children - Emma, my 2x great-great grandmother, aged 9, William 7, Mary Ann 6, Martha 5, Eliza 3 and Joannah 1 - along with Thomas's mother, 54 year old Phoebe in the small hamlet of Doley, Adbaston, Staffordshire. The census return lists Thomas as a farmer with 45 acres and one live-in servant, John Lee.

Dirty Linen

But 5 years later the family's dirty linen would be washed in public as Thomas Shelley, then living in Shebdon, was brought before magistrates at a hearing held in The Royal Oak, Eccleshall, on 31st October 1856, accused of "Cruelty and Assault" to his wife Elizabeth Shelley, along with co-defendant, Martha Cotterill, his housekeeper.

The details of the case were reported in weekly several local papers, under headlines such as, UNNATURAL AND CRUEL TREATMENT and CRUELTY TO A WIFE.

Report in Birmingham Gazette November 1856 (courtesy of British Newspaper Archives)

A Younger Woman

According to the evidence put before the magistrates, Martha Cotterill had been employed as a housekeeper about 4 years previously. Ten years younger than Bessey, and in her early thirties, it seems that Thomas became smitten with the younger woman.

Whether he'd engaged her and then fallen for her charms afterwards, or whether he'd known her beforehand, is hard to be certain, though certain evidence suggests the latter. It transpires that not only did Martha Cotterill assume the role of mistress of the house, rather than servant, but she subjected Mrs Shelley to "the most disgusting treatment and on one occasion Cotterill had struck her on the head with a knife, causing the blood to flow profusely."

Further accusations included kicking, thrusting a mop soaked with horse manure into Mrs Shelley's face, threatening her with a stick, pulling her into the house by her hair, 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."


A former servant at the farm, James Turner, corroborated Mrs Shelley's statement, saying he had brought the cruelty to the attention of Mr Shelley who had merely laughed and told him if he didn't like it, he could leave. Another servant, Thomas Davis, had heard Cotterill threaten to "knock the complainant's brains out" and that he'd seen Mrs Shelley locked up several times and was never allowed to eat her meals with the family. He also said that Mr Shelley had told him that Cotterill was mistress of the house.

The case, it seems, had so appalled the local community that on the day of the hearing, both defendants had been followed up and down the street by an angry crowd of between 200 and 300 people, shouting and pelting them with rubbish.

After the evidence had been given, the court was cleared for the magistrates to consider their decision. They declared that no case of assault had been proved against Thomas Shelley but that Martha Cotterill was guilty of common assault and fined £5.

Angry Crowd

The waiting crowd were outraged at the verdict, considering it to be a far too lenient. I suspect they were even more incensed when Thomas paid Cotterill's fine to prevent her being sent to the house of correction. It's probably not surprising therefore, that the newspaper reported the crowd had "followed the defendants two miles out of the town, sainting them with no very complimentary epithets." One newspaper noted that the defendants had had to be escorted back to Shebdon by a "strong body of police."

No Remorse

You might have imagined that after such a public condemnation Thomas Shelley would have been shamed into treating his wife with a little more respect. But sadly, the evidence suggests otherwise, for five years later the 1861 census return shows that Martha Cotterill was still employed as a "housekeeper" in the family home. One can only hope at the very least, that Martha's experience in front of the magistrates, the reaction of the community and her guilty verdict might have gone some way to curb her bad behaviour towards my unfortunate 3x great-grandmother.


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