Part 5: Ellen Shelley, George Smith and the Great War

This is the fifth instalment in a series of posts about looking beyond the obvious records in order to bring a genealogical story to life. Part 1 of the search to find out more about the randomly chosen Ellen Shelley revealed basic facts through birth, marriage, and census; Part 2 delved into the world of undertakers, since Ellen’s father and her brothers held this job; Part 3 explored the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth, where Ellen gave birth in 1906 as a single mother; and Part 4 explored the lives of women in the early 1900s.

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This modern map shows the area where Ellen Shelley and her husband George Smith lived. It would take about an hour to wander past most of the addresses I’ve encountered while researching the families’ whereabouts from the 1870s to the 1930s.
ellen shelley areas booth
Charles Booth’s poverty map, showing approximately the same area. For a detailed view, visit LSE’s Charles Booth’s London.

Ten years after she gave birth at the Lying-In Hospital, Ellen married a man named George Henry Smith. I’m curious about the connection between the Smith and Shelley families, since Ellen’s four-year-old daughter, Priscilla, was listed as a visitor with the Smiths when the 1911 census was taken. I would like to find out more about George as a way of finding out more about Ellen.

lambeth palace
This 1860s photograph of Lambeth Palace Yard shows St Mary at Lambeth church in the background. (William Strudwick, courtesy V&A Museum.) Now home to the Garden Museum, the church where Ellen and George were married has a long history in Lambeth. According to the museum’s timeline, bombing during WW2 damaged the church, and broke up the altar donated by Sir Henry Doulton, of nearby Doulton’s pottery, where our own relative, Fred Roff, was employed.

They married at St Mary at Lambeth parish church on Christmas Eve, 1916, when the Great War was more than two years old. It was one of five weddings that took place there that day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day being popular choices among the working classes. George, 30, was an electrician whose deceased father had been a stoker, and Ellen, 34, was a cook whose deceased father had been an undertaker. Two of Ellen’s brothers, both undertaker’s assistants, served as witnesses. There is no sign that George the husband had enlisted in the army at this point — often marriage records note rank and regiment, and this one does not. It does give us enough clues, though, to trace George from birth on, and to see that he lived his life in the same small impoverished area that Ellen did.

He was born in Lambeth in 1887, and baptized in the same church where he and Ellen would be married. By 1891 he and his parents and a younger brother named Ernest appear on Walnut Tree Walk, an address that comes up in a particularly dramatic aspect of our own family research around the same time — our great great aunt Ellen Roff lived here with her husband Fred, a potter at nearby Doulton’s, and their children, contemporaries of George Smith and Ellen Shelley, attended Walnut Tree Walk board school. Fred and Ellen Roff had serious domestic troubles and moved frequently, but for the most part stayed in the same general area as the Shelley and Smith families. I can’t help wondering if they knew each other.

By 1901, the Smiths have moved further south to Goding Street, near the Albert Embankment. In walking the streets of the city to investigate poverty levels, Charles Booth’s man George Duckworth described Goding this way:

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From George Duckworth’s notebook, 1899, BOOTH/B/365. Courtesy Charles Booth’s London.

George’s father is employed as a stoker for a stationary printer, and George himself, just 14, is working as an office boy, perhaps at the same establishment. He has three more siblings now, in addition to Ernest, so there are three sons and two daughters that we know of thus far in the Smith family.

Living just a couple of doors away is a widow named Sarah Rachel Woodman, who works as a military tailoress and has a young son named Charles Vere Woodman. The woman’s name rang a bell as one I’d come across when researching the Shelley family, and since Ellen Shelley’s aunt Elizabeth Muckell was also a military tailoress, I dug a little further and discovered that Sarah Rachel was also a Muckell: the other sister of Ellen’s mother. So now we know that Ellen’s future husband George and Ellen’s aunt Sarah were neighbours on Goding Street.

All this time, Ellen Shelley and her family have lived to the north of the Smith family addresses, on Westminster Bridge Road. In 1911, though, Ellen’s family appears at 13 Canterbury Place, a small crescent south of the longtime address, and just above Walnut Tree Walk, where George spent some of his childhood. The Shelleys’ neighbours at Canterbury Place include the two aunts, Sarah and Elizabeth Muckell, their brother Arthur George Muckell, a music hall waiter, and Sarah’s teenage son Charles Vere Woodman. The Bethlehem Lunatic Asylum is a little to their east, and further on from there is Temple Street, the Smith family residence. George’s father has died, and this time George is listed as a stationary engineer, so perhaps he’s moved into his father’s job. He’s living with his mother and siblings, the youngest just six years old, so that’s a clue as to when the father died. Little Priscilla Shelley is a “visitor,” but we know from skipping ahead in time that this address — 20 Temple Street — later becomes Pastor Street, where George, Ellen and Priscilla can all be found together in 1939.

When I track these census records through the years, I notice several boys who will be of fighting age when war comes. Though no record has turned up for George, there is little doubt that the war effected these families deeply. And with their years of experience as military seamstresses, Ellen’s aunts were likely in high demand. So far I have found:

A recruiting poster for the Royal Naval Division. George’s brother served with the Hood Battalion and survived the war.

Ernest Francis Smith, George’s brother, enlisted in June 1913, and on his September 1915 marriage record to a milliner named Daisy, he is a rifleman with the Queen’s Westminster Rifles. After the war was over, he complained of bronchitis, heart trouble, and defective vision. But he fared better than his brother Walter Alfred, who served with the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division — essentially sailors who fought on land — and died in France in April 1917. If I were writing Ellen Shelley’s story, I would order Walter’s service record to see what else it might tell me, especially given the fact that Ellen and George marry just a few months before Walter’s death.

Ellen, too, lost a brother. Arthur Charles Shelley, a private in the 7th Battalion Rifle Brigade, was “killed accidentally” in July 1916, according the Army Registers of Soldiers’ Effects. The record neatly lists each of his siblings as receiving a portion of the small amount of money he left behind. So far I have not found Arthur’s service record or a newspaper article, which might tell us more about how he died, or whether there was an inquest into the accident. There might also be a clue in the battalion’s war diary.

A 1915 British recruiting poster. Was this the sort of message that inspired Ellen’s cousin, Charles Woodman, who’d apparently been a casualty in an air raid in London before enlisting?

Ellen’s cousin, Charles Vere Woodman, son of one of her military-tailoress aunts, also served as a soldier. He survived the war, but his service record implies a horrific experience. Married, and the father of a baby boy, he was working as a hotel porter when he enlisted in June 1916, just a month before his cousin Arthur died. Early in 1917 he was sent to France, and by February of 1918, he was admitted to the 3rd Canadian Stationary Hospital in Doullens, and diagnosed with neurasthenia. His record gives some excellent detail: “On 10-2-18 there was a bombing raid … he was not physically affected by any explosion but lost control of himself and shook all over.”

Another entry states:

“On the night of the 16th-17th Feb there was an enemy air raid of some hours duration. … This man was in a very nervous condition and finally had a sort of fit & had to be held down. I understand he was a casualty in an air raid in London and was in Charing X Hospital for some time previous to joining the Labour Corps.”

From Ellen’s perspective, the story is especially interesting not just because Charles was her cousin and lived very close to her, but also because it reminds us that London suffered air raids during the war. How did Ellen and her wider family fare, and how did the raids impact her own neighbourhood? This map shows a number of bombs falling around the area where Ellen lived.

Elephant and Castle tube station
This 1918 image by Walter Bayes shows civilians sheltering in Elephant & Castle tube station.  ©IWM (Art.IWM ART 935)

While researching The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we read that hundreds of thousands regularly sought shelter in the underground tube stations. At Liverpool Street Station, a woman was trampled to death in a stampede. Fights and arguments broke out; it was often crowded and smelly, with makeshift toilets. Anyone trying to use the trains found the platforms frequently impassable, every space having been taken up by people bedded down for the night. The Daily Mail reported on what it called “tube camps,” claiming that those who took refuge in the tunnels were “the happiest people in London.” There was some “crowding and crushing,” the writer admitted, but “the men calmed the fears of the women, and after a time stolid British silence was the prevailing note among the people.” Whole families gathered, the paper claimed, bringing rugs to sit on, and before long they were passing the time singing songs until “the stations were echoing to rollicking choruses,” oblivious to what might be going on above ground.

Elephant & Castle station, depicted above, was steps from Temple Street, where George Smith’s family lived, and where Ellen and her daughter Priscilla would eventually join George. It was also very near Brook Street, the address given on the service record for Ellen’s cousin Charles Vere Woodman. According to the Imperial War Museum, “Between May 1917 and May 1918 more than 300,000 people used the tube to shelter from German aeroplane attacks. That was double the amount of people that were regularly sheltering in the tube during the height of the London Blitz in September 1940.” A sad reminder that just a year after we find Ellen, George and Priscilla on the 1939 census, war was underway once more, and the stage of Ellen’s life story was heavily bombed.

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