top of page
  • Writer's pictureWendy Percival

Shocking Scandal - the victim

Several people asked, after reading my "most shocking family history story" A Shocking Scandal and The Scandal – the guilty party, what happened to the victim, my 3x great-grandmother Bessey Shelley, nee Holland, who was assaulted and treated cruelly by Martha Cotterill the family's housekeeper. As you’ll know if you’ve read the previous posts, Martha was found guilty, but escaped custody and returned to the family home.

Feeble Intellect

Several times in newspaper reports of the magistrates' hearing against Martha Cotterill and co-accused Thomas Shelley, my 3x great-grandfather (who paid Martha's fine), Bessey was referred to as being of weak or feeble intellect.

Following the case, Thomas’s solicitor, a Mr Smallwood, clearly felt aggrieved at the damage to his client’s reputation (not to mention his own wounded professional pride) and took it out on local newspaper, The Staffordshire Advertiser.

In letters to the editor he complained that their reports of the case had been biased. He also used the opportunity to call into question why Bessey had been allowed in the witness box, as he considered her not sufficiently competent. From his rant published in the paper in December of that year, it was obvious he’d been unable to cross examine Bessey because she’d only offered “incoherent mutterings” and wouldn’t answer his questions. His bid to have her declared not fit to give evidence had been overruled by the magistrates.

Courtesy of British Newspaper Archive

I often wonder if Martha's treatment of Bessey, firstly by the ignominious way in which she took over the household and then the physical abuse she inflicted upon the poor woman afterwards, caused Bessey to have a mental breakdown and this may have accounted for her state of mind. It’s possible, of course, that Bessey was already suffering with a mental disability which Martha then exploited.

It may also explain why Bessey appeared unable to defend herself against Martha's bullying, made even more difficult by Thomas's obvious acquiescence at Martha's mistreatment of his own wife. What options did a woman have at that time, in such a situation?

Family despair

One newspaper report implied it was Bessey's wider family who brought the abusive situation to the attention of the authorities. What would they have made of the outcome? They must have despaired when Martha returned to live in the household, despite the guilty verdict and the outcry in the community, both of Martha's behaviour and at Thomas paying her fine and thereby saving her from the house of correction.

Perhaps they hoped that Martha's treatment of Bessey would improve following the court action, constrained by the thought that the family might instigate further action if she did not mend her ways. That threat might not have been as effective, however, as Thomas moved his family out of Staffordshire, and across the border to Claverley in Shropshire shortly after the court case.

Further tragedy

With Thomas’s affections turning to another, it’s perhaps unsurprising, that the birth of their daughter, Joannah, in 1860, would prove to be Bessey's last pregnancy, at the age of 34. 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?

But even if Bessey did come to terms with the situation, 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.

Another shock

As I reported in the previous post, The Scandal – the guilty party, Martha died in 1866, noting that whatever sense of release Bessey may have felt, she didn't have long to savour it, as in January 1867, Bessey also died.

But Bessey’s tragic story still had one more shock to deliver. When the death certificate arrived and I read the cause of death, I could hardly believe what I saw. Above the name of the certifying doctor was one word – burning.

Hunt for the truth

For one confused moment, I imagined 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, scouring the newspapers, hunting for a report of the inquest I felt sure must have taken place. But the crucial years of the most likely newspaper to have published any report, were missing. Shropshire Archives made a search amongst their files, 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 already searched, and up popped a short paragraph in Eddowes's, Shrewsbury & Salopian Journal. The title read, SAD DEATH FROM BURNING AT CLAVERLEY.

Courtesy of Find My Past

Bessey’s death appears to have been a tragic accident. According to the newspaper, Thomas was at church with his son, leaving Bessey at home with her daughter and two other children. Again the newspaper mentions Bessey being of weak intellect.

It was believed that Bessey 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. I found that a little puzzling given the report said the deceased must have fallen in the fire, suggesting that the exact circumstances had not been established.

Bessey is buried in Claverley churchyard along with her husband, Thomas, by whom she was so cruelly belittled and disregarded. 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 the Bank of England's Inflation calculator, amounts to over £187,000 in today's money.

The wording gives no clue as to Bessey's traumatic time on this earth, only that she departed this life January 7th 1877.

May she rest in peace.


There won't be a post next week as I'm off for a little jolly! More family history stories coming soon!


For more information about the Esme books, click on the image below!


Heidi Beckley
Heidi Beckley
Apr 06, 2022

I'm slow in getting through my e-mails, but I'm glad to see the answer to the question about Martha's child. It all really makes you wonder if Bessey's state of mind came after prolonged ill treatment by Thomas, probably even before Martha came into their lives. If he treated Bessey decently before Martha's arrival, I find it hard to believe that he could become so incredibly cruel afterwards. It truly makes you wonder if he just wasn't a nice man all along.

As if her life hadn't been so traumatic before, to die by fire is just so horrific! And not to have an inquest? I bet that if it had been a man, there would have been some ki…

Wendy Percival
Wendy Percival
Apr 06, 2022
Replying to

Thanks, Heidi! You make a good point about Thomas’s likely behaviour before Martha came along. I’ve always wondered whether Bessey had been a normal, happy girl before she met him and, as you suggest, that his treatment wore her down to a shell of a woman over the years. Or whether she’d always been “of feeble mind” and he’d taken advantage of her, trapping himself in a “shotgun wedding”, and had taken out his frustration on her. The arrival of their eldest child (my 2x great-grandmother) doesn’t support that theory, but that’s hardly conclusive. She may have lost the baby and got pregnant again. It’s feasible, given the timeframe. As you can tell, my imagination does have a tendency t…


Carolyn Retallick
Carolyn Retallick
Mar 25, 2022

This sorry story has greatly saddened me. There are still questions about Bessey and her mental health. I do wonder how she would have been treated today, though? Was she “feeble-minded” from birth or did something happen to her growing up? She was obviously a delicate soul. One wonders at Thomas about what made him marry her? Are there other descendants you are in contact with, Wendy?

Enjoy your jolly! The weather here in Wales has been lovely!

Wendy Percival
Wendy Percival
Mar 25, 2022
Replying to

As you say, Carolyn - so many questions you’d love to know the answers to, and understand more of the circumstances. Yes, I have been in contact with some descendants, though they weren’t close enough to be aware of anything which could add to our understanding. One was through Bessey’s daughter Martha Ann who married and emigrated to Australia, and another descended from one of the illegitimate sons of my 2x great-grandmother Emma (my great-grandfather was the other illegitimate son). Neither knew of the story, which is perhaps not surprising. It probably wasn’t talked about! Yes, hoping the weather will hold! 🤞🏼

bottom of page