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  • Writer's pictureWendy Percival

The gruesome truth

Shortly after 1871, my great-great grandmother, Emma Shelley, vanished. Not literally, obviously. But I couldn’t find her anywhere. She’d returned to her parents in 1870, after working away from home, to give birth to my great-grandfather, but she didn’t appear in the 1881 census and I couldn’t find any record of her death in the indexes. As is not uncommon in these situations, I put the research to one side and turned my attention to something else.


It wasn’t till a few years later that I returned to the mystery and this time I discovered that in 1876 Emma had married local ag lab, George Wenlock, 8 years her junior. Clearly, Mr Wenlock wasn’t interested in having another man’s son in his household, so my great-grandfather didn't join his mother but remained living with his grandparents, near Claverley, in Shropshire.

The church at Claverley, Shropshire

Over the next few years, Emma and George had three children – a girl and two boys. But in 1886, at the age of only 45, Emma died. The death of an unnamed Wenlock male, aged 0, was recorded in the same quarter and in the same registration district as Emma's, so I assumed she’d died in childbirth.

Horrible death

But when her death certificate arrived, it was obvious things were a little more complicated. Emma's cause of death was cited as Phlegmonous erysipelas - a particularly gruesome skin infection - of the leg and thigh, along with gangrene and peritonitis. Written in the column underneath was the word “miscarriage”.

Erysipelas is also known as St Anthony’s Fire, a reddening and blistering of the skin. The addition of the word, Phlegmonous implies Emma also suffered with an abscess. I read somewhere that although the skin can become infected after a cut, scratch or insect bite, the condition was often associated with childbirth. So had it been the miscarriage which had led to the infection?

Lived for one hour only

While reviewing my research recently, I decided to send for the death certificate of the unnamed Wenlock male baby. It confirmed that he was indeed Emma’s child and that he'd been born (and died) on 13th February 1886 – the same day as his mother had died. The poor little mite had lived for one hour only, and despite his birth being identified as a “miscarriage”, the fact that he "drew breath" required him to appear in the registers. His cause of death was recorded as, “probably premature birth“.

So, as the baby and my great-great-grandmother had died on the same day, it suggests that Emma had been suffering from the infection for some while, so hadn't been as a result of her giving birth. Perhaps it had actually triggered the premature birth of her baby? There’s no way of knowing how far advanced her pregnancy was, and so no way of determining how developed the baby was and whether he ever really had any chance of survival.

Emma’s husband George Wenlock remarried the following year and he and his new wife went on to have a further 7 children.



Wendy Percival
Wendy Percival
Jan 24, 2020

I know, it sounds horrible doesn’t it, Helen? I wonder how long she’d been suffering from the condition? I read that one treatment for erysipelas was to paint the skin with picric acid - something that was used as a high explosive in military shells in WWI! Doesn’t bear thinking about!


Helen Baggott
Helen Baggott
Jan 24, 2020

Oh, what a story, Wendy. It's so sad – you can't help but wonder at her agony.

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