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  • 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!


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