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.
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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.

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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.

Marrying your uncle, and other brow-raisers

As difficult as it was to select the few threads that would become the focus of The Cowkeeper’s Wish, in the interest of brevity we cut our great grandfather’s twice married but never divorced sister Kate, and the brother-in-law who claimed to be the son of an Indian Commissioner and knight, but who worked as a porter. To ensure the book did not end up as a massive tome we erased a several times great uncle – a publican whose son threatened to burn down his hotel — and we did not share the tangent we traveled to learn about George Duckworth, the aristocrat who worked unpaid for a decade to help Charles Booth with his extensive study of London’s poor. Duckworth’s detailed notes were invaluable to us in recreating the streets and places in The Cowkeeper’s Wish, but, horribly, he was accused of molesting his half-sisters, writer Virginia Woolf and painter Vanessa Bell.

Brow-raisers aplenty we’ve stumbled across while writing and researching, and it seems there’s no single branch of our gnarled tree that does not contain a knot or two. Even the family ensconced in what Duckworth called “happy Plumstead,” with its grassy heaths and heady woodlands and the scent of flowers in the air, had its surprises.

Plumstead, Kent, around 1905…where “bluebells carpet the woods.” (Postcard courtesy of

Let me begin with Edwin Curtis, our great grandmother Emily’s forebear, and a cowkeeper like the Benjamin Jones in our book title, although in rather different circumstances. Edwin came to the dairy trade in a roundabout way. The second son of a butcher and grocer, he’d grown up in Salperton, Gloucestershire, in the heart of southwest England’s Cotswold Hills. He spent his unmarried years working as an agriculture labourer, but by the time he wed his wife Elizabeth Bryant in 1859, he and his father had swapped occupations – Edwin was the butcher and his father a farmer. But like Benjamin Jones and so many others before him, Edwin saw his future elsewhere. Instead of choosing the life of a city dweller for himself and his cows as Benjamin had done, Edwin’s path took him to High Grove Farm in Plumstead, where his cattle, eating sweet grass and drinking clean water, presumably enjoyed an existence more pleasant than Benjamin’s cows, housed in the muck and foul air of the Borough. Though just twelve miles from London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, George Duckworth noted, here “nightingales still sing, pheasants are still preserved, and bluebells carpet the woods.”

In this seemingly idyllic setting Edwin and Elizabeth raised a family of six children. When they died within a few years of each other soon after the turn of the century, the farm was passed down to two of their sons who, at age 48 and 37, had remained unmarried. While the elder of the brothers had a job at one of the many factories that had sprung up on the flats down by the Thames, and in his off hours tended the farm’s horses, the younger worked full time on the farm, following in his father’s footsteps as a cowkeeper. But there are no tales of filthy, diluted milk here, as there was with Benjamin Jones. Instead, the surprise that surfaced in this story was the teenage niece, Bea, who lived with them, helping out as a housekeeper, although it seems more was going on than the sweeping of floors and the washing of dishes.

Can you marry your uncle? According to the Table of Kindred and Affinity found at the back of the Anglican Book of Prayer “Wherein, Whosoever are related, are forbidden in Scripture, and our laws, to Marry together,” the answer is no, and has been since at least 1560, when the table was first established.
The Church of England’s Table of Kindred and Affinity: “A Man may not Marry his Sister’s Daughter”

But in “happy Plumstead,” amongst the blooms of June 1913, Bea and her uncle did just that at the Woolwich Registry Office, where a Notice of Intention to Marry would have been posted for three weeks prior to the event. Presumably no one stepped forward to object, but it’s hard not to suppose there would have been whispers behind hands, elbows nudged, and glances exchanged, for surely within that relatively small community people knew of the close relationship, and that it was illegal, and, most would judge, immoral. And yet it occurred, and the official record remains to prove it, duly signed by the registrar and the deputy superintendent who performed the ceremony. Signing as witnesses to the ceremony were the older brother of the groom (another uncle to the bride), and someone with the same last name and first initial as the bride’s mother, although almost ten years earlier that same woman had disowned another daughter, our great grandmother Emily, for reasons that can only be speculation a century and more gone. And yet what can have been Emily’s crime, if the mother approved of such a match for her sister Bea?

Family historians are innately curious, as are writers, and when a tidbit such as the estrangement of a mother and her daughter is dangled before us, how can we help but try to figure out why such a thing might have happened? In this case, the obvious reason for the parting of ways seemed to be Emily’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, established by the date of her marriage and the birth date of her first child. But if this was the reason for the mother’s harsh treatment, it was sadly hypocritical, for records show the mother herself had been a pregnant bride. Perhaps the mother had simply disliked George, her daughter’s chosen husband. But this too seemed unlikely. George was by all accounts an amiable, capable, dependable fellow who loved Emily, and had been friendly with her family for years before he and Emily married.

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Emily’s mother, who disowned her for unknown reasons, and Emily’s much younger sister Alice, circa 1907

Some things are simply unknowable, and it appeared we would never find out what had occurred to cause the rift between mother and daughter. Then, soon after The Cowkeeper’s Wish went to print, we came across an item in The Kentish Independent newspaper, dating from 1906. “Robbing Uncle,” was the headline, and there, in black and white, was a story that had not been passed down through the generations. Our great grandmother, employed to do housework at her uncle’s dairy farm, had stolen money from him – twice – and been caught. The uncle was the same man who would later marry her sister.

The article tells us that the uncle had noticed money missing from the locked box in his bedroom, and went to the police. They set a trap for the thief, placing twenty marked sovereigns in the box, and leaving the key in its usual location, the pocket of the uncle’s coat. When several of the marked coins immediately went missing, the police arrested Emily, hauling her off a tram and bringing her back to the scene of the crime. A dramatic encounter followed, with Emily pulling the coins from her stocking and pleading for leniency.

“Please don’t prosecute me, Steve,” the newspaper quoted, “I will give [the money] back. …  I have only had the two lots. I took [it] because I was going to have a little one, and had not money.”

Detective Sergeant Webber, testifying at the hearing, told the magistrate that Emily “was a perfectly respectable woman, and her husband, who was in court, was willing to repay the [money] if he was given a few days.” In the end, though, the magistrate felt it best to continue with prosecution, and sent her for trial at the South London Sessions. No record has been found to give us details of that awful experience, but the judge must have decided to be lenient, perhaps at her uncle’s request, or maybe because Emily and her husband revealed plans to emigrate to Canada, which they did the following year.

But even this sorry tale does not tell the whole story of the estrangement. If the theft was the reason for the rift, why did the mother (according to family lore) refuse to attend Emily’s wedding, which had taken place before the incident? Sadly, the dispute between them remained unresolved, and they never again spoke or even wrote to one another.

Years later, after both women had died, one of Emily’s sons visited the town she’d left all that time ago, and found not only long lost aunts, uncles and cousins, but a warm welcome besides.


  • “Robbing Uncle”, The Kentish Independent, August 31, 1906