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  • Writer's pictureWendy Percival

Illegitimacy & Mystery

I’m currently listening to the audiobook version of In the Family Way, by Jane Robinson. It’s a fascinating account of illegitimacy and society’s attitude towards it from WWI to the 1960s.

Coincidentally, on Monday (23rd November) it’s the anniversary of the marriage between Emma Shelley, my 2x great-grandmother, and George Wenlock (not my 2x great-grandfather) in 1876.

I say “coincidentally” because Emma was part of the first illegitimacy story I came across when I began my family history research, being the mother of my illegitimate great-grandfather, George, born in Claverley, Shropshire in 1870.

Missing birth record

I had been going on to explain that Emma wasn’t illegitimate herself, that she was born in 1841, the eldest child of Thomas and Bessie Shelley (nee Holland) who married in Stoke-on-Trent in 1840. But while checking my dates, I realised that I don’t actually have a birth record for Emma – only a baptism… and when I went to look for it, I drew a blank. But more on that later.

The village of Claverley, Shropshire

What I’d intended to write about was Emma as an unmarried mother. The census of 1871 revealed that Emma had returned home to her parents in Claverley, having lived away from home in service, to have my great-grandfather, George.

A few years ago I discovered that 3 years after George’s birth, Emma had given birth to another son, Charles, in 1873. I learned this from a descendant of his who’d read one of my blog posts and got in touch. She went on to explain that Charles had been adopted by a family who’d worked on the farm where Emma’s family lived. The suspicion was that the father of the family might have been responsible for Emma’s second illegitimate child and after the adoption, the family moved away from the area.


By the 1881 census Emma disappeared. My great-grandfather George, now 11, was still living in his grandfather’s home but there was no sign of Emma. It wasn’t until a few years later that I tracked her down and discovered she’d married a local man, George Wenlock, 8 years her junior.

At this point the couple had 2 children living with them – a girl and a boy. But clearly, Emma’s new husband hadn’t been prepared to take on her illegitimate son and support “another man’s child”, which is why my great-grandfather had remained with his grandparents. This, as Jane Robinson’s book explains, was not an uncommon situation and children born out of wedlock were often treated as though they’d brought their "misfortune" upon themselves, and rejected accordingly. Some of the stories and secrets revealed in the book are heart-breaking – and I’m only on Chapter 3!

Sadly, Emma’s own story has a tragic ending. She died in 1886 aged 45 of gangrene and peritonitis following the premature birth, and death, of another son (you can read the full story in a previous post The Gruesome Truth).

A workhouse birth

But, back to the mystery of Emma’s own arrival in the world and her apparent lack of a birth record. According to the findings in Jane Robinson’s book, another common trait was illegitimacy running in families. So was Emma also illegitimate? Is that why I couldn’t find her name in the records?

However, there is a listing of an Emma Holland (Holland being her mother’s maiden name) born in 1839, in the Wolstanton and Burslem Union Workhouse, near Stoke-on-Trent, where her parents got married. Could this be my Emma?

In a conversation on Twitter’s #AncestryHour this week, several bloggers mentioned how drafting a post often opened up a new line of enquiry, when it came to light that key information was missing. Looks like this is one of those times. I’d better get investigating!



Wendy Percival
Wendy Percival
Nov 21, 2020

Thanks, Joanna. I hope so too. 🤞🏼I shall report back if anything comes to light!


Joanna Heath
Joanna Heath
Nov 20, 2020

Fascinating, hope this mystery will be solved one day.

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