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  • Writer's pictureWendy Percival

Secret Sibling

A lot can happen between censuses, as I found out while researching my great grandfather, George Shelley. I began investigating George right at the start of my family history journey and he was my very first “out of wedlock” ancestor, but it was many years later that I found out that during the 10 years between 1871 and 1881, something significant had happened in his life, which I only came across by accident.

George Shelley 1870 - 1955

George was born in 1870 in the village of Claverley, Shropshire. Back in the days before the likes of Ancestry arrived on our computer screens, I’d visited the Shropshire Records Office in Shrewsbury to check out the parish records and local census returns. George had been baptised in the village church. His mother was recorded as Emma Shelley and his father as "unknown".

The 1871 census listed Emma as living with her parents Thomas and Bessey Shelley, at Sutton Mill, Claverley along with George then aged 1, who was recorded as being Thomas's grandson.

Left behind

By 1881, however, although George, now aged 11, was still living with his grandfather (Bessey had died earlier that year) his relationship to the head of the household was now cited as son. There was no mention of Emma and it would be a long time (once online genealogy databases were commonplace) before I finally established that she'd married a widower, George Wenlock, in 1876 and went on to have more children. Clearly, Mr Wenlock had not been prepared to take on Emma's illegitimate son. So poor George had been left behind with his grandparents.

But that wasn’t the significant “something” that happened between censuses which I mentioned earlier. This was a shock discovery I stumbled upon while browsing

Quite by chance, I came across another family tree showing my 2x great grandmother Emma, her parents Thomas and Bessey, her marriage to George Wenlock and the Wenlock children. However my great-grandfather, George Shelley, was missing.

To compound my confusion, a different illegitimate child of Emma's was listed, called Charles. But it wasn't a case of there being a muddle over names. Charles was another child, born to Emma in 1873, again at Sutton Mill, where George had been born a few years previously, 3 years before Emma married George Wenlock.

Did they ever know?

Correspondence between myself and my 'counterpart' ensued, via Ancestry’s messenger service! Neither family had been aware of the other half-brother and we shared information about each, swapping photographs and documents.

Could it be that neither boy had been aware of one other’s existence? George would have been barely three years old when Charles was born, possibly too young to recall the event and being as Charles had not remained in the family household, George might never have known him as a brother.

Sutton Mill & Farm, taken in 2003

A family living in one of the labourers' cottages at Sutton Mill at the time of Charles’ birth, adopted the little boy, possibly soon after he was born, giving rise to speculation that the father of that family (also called Charles, incidentally) was responsible for Emma’s pregnancy.

By the time the 1881 census was taken, the family had moved away, taking Charles with them. So Charles may never have been told that George was his brother and visa versa. Did Charles even know the identity of his birth mother?

Charles returned to Claverley to get married to a local girl in 1902 but by then George had himself married and moved to Wolverhampton. I wonder if their paths ever crossed again?


If you're a regular reader of the blog, you'll be aware that posts aren't coming as often as in the past. That's because I'm deep in the middle of writing the 5th Esme Quentin Mystery (as yet untitled) and my time is a bit squeezed!

Normal service will be resumed once the new book is finished and published. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy browsing the blog and catching up on posts you may have missed in the past.


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