top of page
  • Writer's pictureWendy Percival

The Scandal - the guilty party

As you’ll know if you’ve read last week’s post, A Shocking Scandal, Martha Cotterill was found guilty of assault and cruelty towards my 3x great-grandmother, Bessey Shelley, at a magistrates' hearing in Eccleshall, Staffordshire on 31st October 1856.

Martha was fined £5 which would have resulted in imprisonment if Bessey’s husband, Thomas Shelley, jointly accused but acquitted on lack of evidence, paid her fine.

Who was Martha Cotterill?

So who was this woman, Martha Cotterill who subjected my 3x great-grandmother to such torment, and how did she come into Bessey’s life?

As we discovered in the last post, 5 years before the case against Martha and one year before she became the family housekeeper, the Shelleys were living in Doley, near Adbaston. The 1851 census shows Thomas, a famer of 45 acres with one live-in servant, living with Bessey his wife (nee Holland) and their six children - Emma (my 2x great-great grandmother) aged 9, William 7, Mary Ann 6, Martha 5, Eliza 3 and Joannah 1 - along with Thomas's mother, 54-year-old Phoebe.

Less than 5 miles away, the same census lists Martha Cotrill (sic), unmarried, aged 25, living with her father, Thomas Cotrill and mother, Jane Cotrill. Also listed are two grand-daughters - Mary, aged 1, born in Manchester and Elizabeth, aged 3 months, born in High Offley, Staffordshire. It seems feasible to conclude that these girls are both Martha's daughters.

I was never able to verify Mary’s whereabouts after 1851, but Elizabeth Cotterill turns up ten years later on the 1861 census, now aged 11. She’s recorded as a boarder in none other than the Shelley household, alongside the "housekeeper", Martha Cottrell.

A Manchester connection

The eagle-eyed amongst you who read the newspaper image in the previous post may have noticed a connection. In the report of the assault on Bessey in 1856, it was stated that Martha had gone to Manchester some months previously to have a baby. The word enciente was used (a new one on me), meaning pregnant. The young Mary mentioned on the 1851 census was born in Manchester. What was Martha's link to the city? Did she have family there?

Following her Manchester confinement in 1855, there's no evidence to suggest Martha returned with a child. Was it adopted? Or perhaps it didn't survive. In the December quarter of the 1855 birth index, an unnamed "male" child is listed, surname Cottrill, born in Manchester who subsequently died in the same quarter. Was this Martha's baby? And was Thomas Shelley the father?

Death and more mystery

One thing is certain, however. Nine year-old Mary J "C" Shelley, who appeared on the 1871 census as Thomas's daughter, was born Mary Jane Cotterill, on 12th July 1861, mother Martha Cotterill. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the name of the father is not recorded on the birth certificate.

However, in April 1875, Mary Jane died aged 13 and was buried in Claverley churchyard. It took me a long time to find a record of her death, and when I did and ordered the death certificate, it sent me on another investigative journey still to be concluded, so her story will have to wait for another time.

The end of Bessey’s persecution

One year after Mary Jane's death and a full 20 years after the court case, Bessey was finally set free from the woman who had usurped her role as Thomas's wife. In 1876 Martha died from heart disease and congestion of the lungs. The death certificate recorded her age as 54, though according to previous records, she would actually have been only 50.

It would be comforting to think that Bessey would go on to enjoy many more years with her family, but sadly it was not to be. Bessey herself died six months later in the most horrendous of circumstances.

All will be revealed in the next instalment of this shocking story....


bottom of page