For the final instalment of this genealogical case study of a somewhat randomly chosen woman named Ellen Shelley, I must sheepishly reveal that I broke down and ordered her daughter’s birth certificate from the General Register Office. Within four days, I had received a pdf, and while it did confirm the girl’s name and birth date, the box for father’s name was unfortunately empty, with nothing but a line drawn through.
Disappointing, but not surprising. And when I look back to the first post, I realize I’ve found a fair bit of interesting information. In this last post in the series, I’d like to share a bit more detail about the resources used. They are just a sampling of what’s available out there, and all of them offer enormous possibilities for keen researchers, whether you are writing non-fiction, historical fiction, or doing genealogical work.
Those who have been following along from parts one through five in this case study will remember that I selected Ellen’s name from 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. At the beginning of this venture, all we knew was Ellen’s name and address, and the fact that she was single.
Birth, death, marriage, census, and WW1 records from Ancestry helped us fill in her family information. On the Midwives Roll, also at Ancestry, we found Margaret Ann Le Mercier, who was likely the midwife listed on the hospital’s ledger when Ellen’s baby was born.
Digitized maps and notebooks from Charles Booth’s London helped us learn more about the area where she spent her life.
Lost Hospitals of London gave us a bit of background about the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth, and the Wellcome Collection “for the incurably curious” offered some wonderful photographs from a doctor who was on staff there, as well as a clinical report of the hospital from 1912.
A London Metropolitan Archives catalogue search told us more about the records held regarding the Lying-In Hospital, and the British Newspaper Archive gave us clues about the hospital’s need for funds. We also found articles about undertakers (like Ellen’s father and brothers) and unwed mothers.
And just to take Ellen Shelley’s story through to its natural conclusion: I can’t be certain when her husband George died, but the records for Ellen and Priscilla are clear, since they include their birth dates, which match the birth dates given on the 1939 census. Ellen lived to be 89 years old, and died in Lambeth in 1972. Priscilla never married. She also died in Lambeth, age 81, not far from where she was born at the Lying-In Hospital, where our investigation began.
This is the third instalment in a series of posts that examine how to look beyond the obvious records to really breathe life into one’s characters. Part 1 of the search to find out more about our somewhat randomly chosen subject, Ellen Shelley, revealed the basic facts through birth, marriage, census documents, and so on; and Part 2 delved more deeply into the world of undertakers, since Ellen’s father and her brothers all held this job.
This time I’ll look more closely at the General Lying-In Hospital, in whose ledger Ellen is listed in 1906. I mentioned in my first post that we learned about the Lying-In Hospital while researching our great grandmother’s sister, Jennie Vanson, who gave birth to her last child there, and who — like all the others listed on the page except Ellen — was a married woman.
Established in the 1760s and situated near the Thames just off of Westminster Bridge Road, the General Lying-In Hospital was one of the first maternity hospitals in Britain. In the mid-1890s, it was described this way in Low’s Handbook to the Charities of London:
Years ago, when we first started working on The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we ordered birth and death certificates for a number of the people we were researching. This was how we discovered that Jennie’s daughter Ada was born at the Lying-In Hospital. We were intrigued by the name, and when we visited England to do more in-depth snooping about many of our characters, we found the hospital’s ledger at the London Metropolitan Archives and photographed the two pages where Jennie was mentioned. That’s all I have to go on now, when hunting for Ellen Shelley clues, since sadly I can’t hop back to the archive whenever I would like (though if I lived in London, I would be visiting obsessively!).
It’s interesting to note that single women “of previous good character” had to present “satisfactory testimonials” to a committee in order to receive care by the hospital. I wonder now if the archive’s holdings included such testimony, and who Ellen asked to recommend her? Being an undertaker, her father might have known people associated with the hospital: doctors, midwives, or the local coroner. A quick search of the LMA catalogue shows me that the records do indeed include “registers of recommendatory letters, 1892 – 1939,” as well as the casebooks of doctors and midwives, so there is possibly more that could be gleaned about Ellen’s particular story if a visit in person were feasible. Sometimes the actual record can be disappointing when you finally lay your hands on it — it might just be a list that says who the letters came from and when; but then again, it might include the letters as they were written, and offer more about Ellen’s character, who the father of her baby was, and why she hadn’t married him. If I were actually writing Ellen’s story, I would want to know all of this and more, and if I couldn’t visit in person, I would find someone who could. For The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we did our own legwork during that flurried research trip I mentioned, but we also hired someone with smarts and tenacity to go back for more once we’d returned home to Canada.
Notice in the hospital description above that single women like Ellen could be patients of the hospital “for first confinement only” — I guess they were no longer “of good character” if they’d entered a second or third confinement and still hadn’t married! The ledger shows that Ellen Shelley was admitted “by order of the board,” whereas our Jennie Vanson and the other married women were vouched for by individuals: someone named Mrs Carthew, in Jennie’s case, but a “Lady,” a reverend, and a vicar are also on the list. This same page also lists the date each baby was born, and a surname in the final column. For Jennie, the name is “Montgomeri,” and for Ellen, the name is “Le Mercier.” My guess is that these are the midwives who delivered the babies.
To check, I returned to Ancestry and entered the surname “Le Mercier” in a variety of ways, since a name like this is often misspelled or incorrectly transcribed. In the UK Midwives Roll 1904-1959, the name Margaret Ann Le Mercier shows up several times beginning in the early 1900s, usually associated with a Lambeth address. Cross-referencing with census records, I’d guess that this is the same woman, born in London in 1870, and living in St. Pancras in 1911, where she is listed as “nurse matron” and the employer of a number of other nurses at the same address. More snooping would be necessary to confirm this, but it seems an excellent fit.
When I am researching a topic that has anything to do with healthcare in this time and place, I always search the wonderful Wellcome Collection, which bills itself as “the free museum and library for the incurably curious,” and which is where I found the photographs placed throughout this post. They come from the album of one Dr. Basil Hood, and were taken at the General Lying-In Hospital around the time of Ellen Shelley’s stay. Some are straight-ahead portraits of the staff, but others are more candid, and even joyful. It surprised me to see these images, because I had imagined, after all I’ve read of this period, that the hospital would be an unpleasant place, if not quite as depressing as a workhouse, simply because it catered to poor women. These photographs make me all the more curious about the hospital and its staff. Perhaps one of the women shown below is Margaret Ann Le Mercier? And is Miss Woodyer, shown alone above, the same woman who appears below, smiling, third from left in the middle row? No, on closer inspection, I’m sure she’s standing to the left of the man, who I know is Dr. Basil Hood, since he is identified in other photos in the album. A little clip can be watched here that recounts his experiences during the WW1 flu epidemic.
If I were writing Ellen Shelley’s story, I would also search the Wellcome Collection’s Medical Officer of Health reports for mentions of the hospital in this time, and then do the same at the Internet Archive, which I see has a 1912 Clinical Report of the General Lying-In Hospital. Often you can turn up interesting details and statistics through such sources, even if they don’t mention your research subject by name. (And sometimes they do!) The same goes for the British Newspaper Archive. I found many mentions of the hospital over the years, and several articles to do with the hospital needing more funding. One from the Morning Post, dated two days before Ellen’s baby was born, referred to “an urgent appeal for funds” to help pay for an addition that gave the hospital 12 new beds and improved accommodation for nurses and servants. Perhaps the new beds were what enabled Ellen’s stay. The article goes on to say:
“It was felt that if the work of the hospital were more widely known and its present need brought home to a larger circle money must come in; so the matron, Miss B. F. Hancock, yesterday gave an At Home at the hospital, and during the afternoon Lady Victoria Lambton distributed prizes in the form of infants’ garments to patients of the hospital during the past six months whose infants were adjudged to have been best kept during that period. About 170 mothers with their babies were present, and many other visitors were shown over the new storey, and expressed their keen interest in the work done by the hospital.”
That paragraph alone offers a few leads that could be followed up. Who were Lady Lambton and B. F. Hancock, for instance? And what is meant by infants being “best kept”? Did the hospital do home visits to ensure the women were caring for their babies properly? What did the mothers make of such visits? Our Jennie Vanson had had five children before she entered the Lying-In Hospital to have her last baby, Ada. Did she welcome advice, by this time, or would she have found it insulting?
And that brings me to another rather basic question that I realized I’ve overlooked. Why did these women register with the hospital in the first place? Was there something particular about their situations that meant they needed extra care?
Again I turned to the British Newspaper Archive and found a 1902 article in the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette:
Queen Alexandra has taken a kindly interest in, and shown practical sympathy with, the family of ex-Trooper Benge, 2nd Life Guards, who met with an accident while in South Africa which affected his brain. The consequent lunacy, it is feared, may prove permanent. On June 26th he presented himself at Buckingham Palace and behaved in such a manner that he was placed under control, and admitted to the Hanwell Asylum, where he is now an inmate. He had a wife and two children, whose case was specially sad, in view of the fact that the mother was in delicate health, and the worry of her husband’s condition was more acutely felt in consequence. This was known to the Queen, who promptly gave Mrs. Benge a nomination for the Lying-in Hospital, Lambeth, and her child is now a month old. …
I do wonder if the LMA records for the Lying-In Hospital show the queen’s name among the recommenders! And I am fiercely resisting the urge to look into the Benge family, since there is still more about Ellen Shelley to be discovered.
In my next post, I’ll start with Maud Pember Reeves’ book, Round About a Pound a Week, which grew out of a study she conducted involving Lambeth mothers registered as out-patients with the Lying-In Hospital. And if all of this seems tangential, I’ll address that too a little later on!
This is the second instalment in a series of posts that will examine how to look beyond birth, marriage, death and census records to really breathe life into one’s characters. Part 1 of the search to find out more about our somewhat randomly chosen subject, Ellen Shelley, revealed the following:
she was an undertaker’s daughter, born in Lambeth in 1882
she had at least 7 siblings, and her mother died when she was 17
she had a child out of wedlock at the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth in 1906, when she was in her early twenties
she was working as a waitress in a coffee shop when the 1911 census was taken
she was still living with her father and four of her siblings at this time, but the record offers no detail about her child
The next record that turns up for Ellen Shelley confirms her Christmas Eve marriage in 1916 to a man named George Henry Smith, an electrician. Digitized records for London Church of England unions often give extra clues, and here we can see that 34-year-old Ellen, a “spinster” with middle names Priscilla Sarah, was working as a cook; that her father, by now, was deceased, and that she was living at 141 Lambeth Road at the time of her wedding. Her brothers, William Bird Shelley and Ernest Shelley, signed as witnesses, and the ceremony took place in St Mary’s parish church, Lambeth. Curiously, her 30-year-old groom was living at 13 Canterbury Place, the same address recorded as Ellen’s in the Lying-In ledger in 1906, and the address she lived at in 1911 with her father and siblings. So why, in 1916, is Ellen no longer there, and her groom George is?
Next I looked for George on the 1911 census, and despite the surname “Smith,” he was fairly easy to find, since the marriage record had given me his age, his occupation, and his father’s name. Cross-referencing a few different bits of information, I found him living at 20 Temple Street with his mother, four siblings, and a four-year-old girl named Priscilla Shelley, listed not as a member of the household, but as a “visitor.” Was this Ellen’s mystery child? And was she George’s daughter too? If so, why did they wait until 1916 — ten years after the baby’s birth — to marry?
I leaped ahead, then, to the 1939 census, and found George and Ellen, nearing 60 now, living with George’s mother Jane, and also Priscilla Shelley, an assistant in a glass and china shop. Their address is 20 Pastor Street, Southwark, and the overlay of Booth’s map shows me that this is the same location as 20 Temple Street, though the name has changed. (The names Pastor and Temple must come from the street’s proximity to the Metropolitan Tabernacle, but that’s a rabbit hole for another day.)
This particular census doesn’t state people’s relationships to the head of the household, so it still doesn’t tell us whose child Priscilla was. And it’s interesting that she goes by the name of Shelley. If George was her father, wouldn’t she have carried his name after her parents married? The census does tell us she was born on July 15, 1906, a date that matches the entry in the Lying-In ledger.
So with all this added up, we can be fairly certain that, in 1906, Ellen was an unwed mother who gave birth to a baby she named Priscilla, a name that turns up often in Ellen’s ancestry. It was Ellen’s middle name, but it was also her great grandmother’s name, her grandmother’s name, and her aunt’s.
Now that we have some of the facts in place regarding Ellen Shelley, I’ll go back to her early years to try to fill things in a bit, and see if we can get a better picture of who she was.
In 1891, she is living at 62 Westminster Bridge Road with her family. The Muckells — her maternal grandmother and some of her mother’s siblings — are here with them. Next door is an actress, and a few doors down are a couple of “theatre property makers,” so perhaps there is some connection with the nearby Surrey Theatre, which put on melodramas and pantomimes during this period. Ellen’s father John, the undertaker’s assistant, probably works nearby as well, assisting in coffin-making, or taking bodies to cemeteries, or to mortuaries for coroner’s inquests.
Undertakers had a bad name in Victorian times. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the undertaker’s assistant is an unsavoury creature who snatches some of Scrooge’s belongings after his death — “a seal or two, a pencil-case, a pair of sleeve-buttons, and a brooch of no great value” — and sells them to old Joe, who runs a scavenger shop in a London slum, where:
The ways were foul and narrow; the shops and houses wretched; the people half-naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth, and misery.
No employer is mentioned in the documents I’ve found for Ellen’s father John, but he may have worked for the parish undertaker, who would have handled so-called “pauper funerals,” the most basic variety for the poorest of the poor, and the kind everyone strove to avoid.
At great expense, people bought burial insurance to avoid the indignity of a pauper funeral paid for by the parish; many contributed weekly to “funeral clubs” in order to save enough for decent trappings: black garments for the family, the use of a hearse and coachman, and the coffin itself – black for an adult, white for a child. Displays in undertakers’ windows advertised myriad choices available to the bereaved: elaborate funeral cards to announce deaths, plumes of black ostrich feathers for the horses pulling the hearse, stone markers carved with doves or broken lilies.
In her 1913 work Round About a Pound a Week, Maud Pember Reeves wrote that paying burial insurance was a “calamitous blunder” on the part of poor families, but understood, too, that the alternative was to settle for a pauper’s funeral paid for by poor law funds. The women Reeves interviewed as part of her indepth poverty study were from the vicinity where the Shelleys lived, and they were adamant that “the pauper funeral carries with it the pauperization of the father of the child – a humiliation which adds disgrace to the natural grief of the parents.” One woman even said she’d prefer to have the dustcart call to collect her child’s body.
A search through the British Newspaper Archive for parish undertakers turns up several pathetic stories, including mention of an ongoing problem with cheap coffins that fell apart as they were being taken to the grave. There are also stories of undertakers fined for stuffing more than one body into a coffin, or charged with not burying the bodies at all, and pocketing the fees. In my very first post on this blog, I wrote about an undertaker who claimed to have been cheated by a deceased woman’s family: he’d picked up their dead mother from the workhouse, as requested, and had intended to take her to the cemetery for burial, but the family didn’t pay him, and he claimed he couldn’t afford to pay the cemetery’s fee himself. The body was discovered on his premises when neighbours complained of an “intolerable effluvium.”
No such gruesome stories have turned up about John Shelley, but we do know that he was an undertaker in a very poor part of London, and that he would have regularly encountered grief compounded by poverty. He started working in the industry some time between 1871, when he was a boy at home with his parents, and 1878, when his occupation is listed on his marriage record. He was still working as an undertaker in 1911, a year before his death, and two of Ellen’s brothers, William Bird Shelley and Ernest Shelley (the same ones who witnessed her marriage to George Smith) were also undertaker’s assistants in 1911. So death, so to speak, was very much a part of Ellen Shelley’s life.
Next up, I’ll move ahead to Ellen’s time at the Lying-In Hospital, and the birth of Priscilla.
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.
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.
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?