Part 1: Ellen Shelley, a genealogical case study

Chapter 4 - Mary Anne Evans Deverill seated, with Jennie Evans Vanson
Jennie Evans Vanson, standing, with her sister Mary Anne Evans Deverill, probably taken in the early 1900s.

I had a great time visiting with the Toronto branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society earlier this week. I spoke about the various resources Tracy and I used to build up our story, and how it’s essential to look beyond the obvious birth, marriage, death and census records to really breathe life into one’s characters. It occurred to me afterwards that it might be fun to do a series of posts showing this method in action, by choosing a person my co-author and I have never researched, but who has a tangential connection to our story, and just seeing what can be found. So I had a hunt through some of our old research notes, and came upon a photo of a page from a ledger for the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth, where our great-great aunt, Jennie Vanson, gave birth to her daughter Ada in 1906. She was the first in our family, that we know of, to give birth in a hospital.

Obtained from the London Metropolitan Archives on our England research trip many years ago now, the page lists 22 married women and just one single one — Ellen Shelley — so she  stood out as the right person to choose for what will hopefully be an illuminating genealogical journey. Today I will focus mostly on gathering facts through the more obvious sources, and in subsequent posts I’ll build on these, snooping in other places, to add colour and richness to her story. I’d be happy to hear questions and suggestions as I go, so please feel free to comment.

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The Lying-In Hospital shows up on Charles Booth’s poverty map, a little below the green marker. To see the map in greater detail, visit Charles Booth’s London. Courtesy London School of Economics & Political Science.
general lying-in nurses, wellcome 1908
Nurses weigh a newborn at the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth, 1908. Courtesy Wellcome Collection. Later I’ll explore the history of the hospital to put Ellen Shelley’s story in context.

Ellen’s hospital record is dated June 6, 1906, and her address is recorded as 13 Canterbury Place, Lambeth; another beneath that is stroked out, and reads 62 Westminster Bridge Road, which, turning to Ancestry, is where I find her with her family on the 1891 census.

This census record is a great starting point for finding out who Ellen Shelley was: it lists her as Ellen P., an eight-year-old Lambeth-born scholar, living in three rooms with her parents, John E. and Ellen J., and five siblings (John W., William B., Ernest, Sarah and Elizabeth). Her father John, 34, is an undertaker’s assistant. So far I don’t see a baptism record for Ellen, though there is one for her older brother, so it’s possible her name has been mistranscribed and she will turn up on further hunting. Baptism records are nice to see because they often offer the father’s occupation and also the family’s address. Sometimes they also show the birth date, and other siblings who were baptized at the same time. Though it hasn’t appeared, I did find a Lambeth birth record that shows an Ellen Priscilla S. Shelley was born in the fourth quarter of 1882.

In 1901, the census lists Ellen’s father as a widower, with two more children (Florence L. and Arthur C.) born to the family in the intervening years. They are still living at 62 Westminster Bridge Road, and John is still an undertaker. Though the word “assistant” doesn’t appear this time, he is listed as “worker” rather than “employer” or “own account.” So this suggests he works for someone else. Two of the older boys are undertakers too, and another is a hair dresser. Eighteen-year-old Ellen and her 13-year-old sister Sarah M. are simply workers “at home.” Last listed are tailoress Elizabeth Muckel and postman Arthur G. Muckel, sister- and brother-in-law to the head of the family, John.

It’s interesting what comes together when you start weaving the facts you’ve collected. Elizabeth and Arthur, for instance, are listed as single, so may well be John’s widow’s siblings. And indeed, when I search for a John E. Shelley marrying a woman named Ellen J., I find corroboration, and more detail still: John Edward Shelley, an undertaker and bachelor residing in Waterloo Road, and the son of Charles Bird Shelley, marine store dealer, married Ellen Jane Muckell, a spinster also residing in Waterloo Road, and the daughter of William Thomas Muckell, a farmer. The date of the wedding was June 9, 1878, and it took place at St. John’s Church in Waterloo Road, witnessed by Charles Shelley and Sarah Rachel Muckell.

So now we have a leafy tree developing for our Ellen Shelley. We know that she was the daughter of an undertaker, with at least seven siblings, and that her mother died some time between 1891 and 1901. A quick search of the England & Wales death index offers an Ellen Jane Shelley, born 1857, dying in the third quarter of 1899. So Ellen lost her mother when she was about 17 years old. She would have been about 24 when she had her baby in 1906.

The 1911 census finds undertaker John and his family occupying five rooms at 13 Canterbury Place (elsewhere recorded as Little Canterbury Place), the amended address on Ellen’s Lying-In record. Ellen and her four younger siblings are there with him, ranging in age from 16 to 28. Ellen (with the middle name Priscilla, corroborating the birth record) is single, and there is no sign of the baby born in 1906. She is a waitress at a coffee shop, and two of her sisters work for a confectioner.

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Little Canterbury Place appears beneath St Mary Lambeth on the left side of the map. To the right, you can see the Bethlehem Lunatic Asylum, known as Bedlam, and now the site of the Imperial War Museum. For a larger view, visit Charles Booth’s London. Courtesy London School of Economics & Political Science.

In 1916, Ellen marries, and more pieces of the puzzle fall into place — but I’ll leave that for my next post. What I’m most curious about so far is:

  • Who was Ellen’s baby, and what happened to him/her?
  • Who was the baby’s father, and what became of him?
  • What was the General Lying-In Hospital?
  • What was it like to go there as a single pregnant woman among so many married women?
  • What was it like to be an undertaker’s daughter?
  • How did Ellen’s mother die?
  • Who did Ellen eventually marry, and did he know about the child?
  • How did the Great War play into Ellen’s story?

 

Sources

London Metropolitan Archives: General Lying-In Hospital

Ancestry: birth, death, marriage, baptism and census records

Charles Booth’s London: poverty maps

Lost Hospitals of London

 

Ontario Genealogical Society, Toronto branch

I’m happy to be visiting the Toronto branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society next week, and speaking about some of the resources we used for The Cowkeeper’s Wish. Here’s a description of the event from the group’s website. The event is free and open to the public. I hope you’ll join us!
May 27, 2019 @ 7:30 pm – 9:30 pm
Lansing United Church
Beecroft Rd & Poyntz Ave
Toronto, ON M2N 1K4
Free. Visitors welcome.
The Cowkeeper's Wish @ Lansing United Church | Toronto | Ontario | Canada

Speaker: Kristen den Hartog
Our speaker will be exploring the fascinating resources she and her sister/co-author used to create The Cowkeeper’s Wish: A Genealogical Journey. Part family memoir, part social history, the book follows the authors’ working-class family from the slums of Victorian London to 1930s Canada. Kristen will give specific examples of where they found ancestors “wandering insane,” charged with crimes, dying in workhouses and asylums, and fighting in the First World War. She’ll also discuss the family archive, and the thrill of weaving intimate family lore with the bigger events of history.

Kristen den Hartog is the author of four novels, including And Me Among Them, shortlisted for the Trillium Award, and The Perpetual Ending, shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award. She and her sister, Tracy Kasaboski, have collaborated on two family memoirs: The Occupied Garden, about their father’s family in WW2 Holland, and most recently The Cowkeeper’s Wish. They blog about eclectic offshoots from their genealogical journey at https://thecowkeeperswish.com/. Kristen lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.

NOTEThe Toronto Branch Annual General Meeting will precede this presentation.

Out from the shadows: Alice Ayres and the Union Street Fire

Tracy and I visited Gananoque this past weekend, and participated in the 1000 Islands Writers Festival. If you ever have a chance to go to this beautiful part of Ontario, do! And even better if you can manage to make next year’s festival. The organizers go above and beyond to ensure it’s a wonderful event for readers and listeners alike, rich with music and literary delights. On Friday evening, each of the authors did a short reading. We were asked to choose passages that had to do with the festival’s theme of Life in the Shadows — focusing on the unknown, the unrecognized, the underappreciated. Since much of The Cowkeeper’s Wish is set in the slums of Victorian London, it wasn’t hard to follow the theme. I chose a passage about a woman named Alice Ayres, who stepped out of the shadows under the most tragic circumstances. Here’s an excerpt from the story:

Alice Ayres
Alice Ayres, Illustrated London News, May 1885

In 1885, one April Friday at two in the morning, a fire broke out at an oil and colourman’s shop on Union Street. Such shops specialized in mixing paints, and when the gunpowder and casks of oil kept onsite quickly ignited, the fire spread rapidly. The shopman and his family, sleeping in the rooms above, were soon woken and trapped by the flames. Neighbours gathered in the street, blankets wrapped around their nightclothes. If Mary and her daughters were there, they’d have seen the horse-drawn fire engine arrive in short order, carrying firefighters with their Spartan helmets, axes holstered at their waists. But it was already too late to lean the ladders against the bricks – flames lashed out of the windows, and heat from the burning oil emanated from the building.

When a woman appeared in a third-storey window, neighbours called to her to jump, but she disappeared from view. The smoke curled in the crisp spring air, and the crowd grew thicker, faces lighted by the glow of the fire. And then the woman reappeared. She pushed a feather mattress through the window to the ground, and the crowd called again to her to jump, but instead she lifted a small, startled girl, about five years old, up to the window ledge and dropped her to the mattress below. She slipped away and returned to the window with another girl, this one smaller than the last, crying and clinging to her, refusing to be dropped. But the woman threw the child out and someone held up their arms and caught her. Once more she returned, with the smallest girl yet, and dropped her to the mattress.

The voices in the crowd were ragged now, screaming to the woman to save herself. They could see that she was losing strength and having trouble breathing. She tried to push herself from the window, but fell from the frame, and on the way down she struck her head on the shop sign below. She landed head-down, cracking her spine, and though she was rushed to hospital and did regain consciousness, she died soon after.

The woman’s name was Alice Ayres. She was sister-in-law to the oil and colourman who owned the shop, and nursemaid to the little girls she had released through the window one by one. Once the blaze was put out, the remains of Alice’s sister, the girls’ mother, were found inside, along with a son and the oil and colourman himself, holding a locked box of cash, terrified of losing everything he owned. The obvious horror of the family’s last moments affected the neighbourhood deeply, and captured the imagination of the larger population as well, fuelling a rumour that as Alice had lain in hospital, Queen Victoria had sent a lady-in-waiting to inquire about her worsening condition.

Union_Street_Fire,_1885
The 1885 Union Street Fire as depicted by Walter Crane, English Illustrated Magazine, June 1893

The event was a tragedy, but also appealed to the Victorian love of melodrama and sentiment. Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper called Alice Ayres “a humble heroine,” and asserted that “Such a woman, although only a poor domestic, deserves to be placed among the small but noble army of martyrs to duty.” Mourners flocked to the memorial service at St. Saviour’s, so many that there was not even standing room left in the church. Those in the back strained to hear the words of the minister, who preached a sermon about heroism. Nearly a thousand coins were raised, and it was said that the money would go toward a memorial window for Alice Ayres when the church was restored to its original splendour. Overnight, she had gone from anonymity to working-class heroine, and in the years to come, White Cross Street, running parallel to Red Cross Street, would be renamed Ayres in her honour. She’d undergone a near canonization, with gilded poems and stories written about her selfless duty and devotion. To the growing number of social reformers, Alice Ayres was an irresistible example of what every woman of the lower class should strive to be: hard-working, loyal and self-sacrificing.

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