My Sussex Shelley Family History


There were Shelleys at Michelgrove near Clapham, firm Catholics through the Civil War and beyond, and Shelleys also at Warminghurst, both in what is now West Sussex; the Shelleys of Patcham and Lewes; and then of course the poet, Percy Bysshe, son of a baronet and born at Field Place, Warnham near Horsham in 1792. Various Shelleys also crop up in Hearth Tax assessments and the Catholic register of names in Sussex.

But none of these Shelleys can I connect in any way to my Shelleys.

Earliest Records

I can trace my family back to Thomas Shelley, resident of West Firle, a small village tucked into the South Downs east of Lewes. The village had for centuries been a Catholic sanctuary under the Gage family.  Thomas Shelley was born there around 1690, but there is no record.

The recording of any Catholic baptism around 1690 would probably have been kept concealed. Sussex in the years immediately after the “Glorious Revolution” was a dangerous place for Catholics.

Sir John Gage, a practising Catholic, had entered Parliament during James II’s reign and served as Sheriff of Sussex; in 1690, his daughter, Mary, had married Sir John Shelley of Michelgrove. But later that year he found himself in prison; while the vicar of his parish church in West Firle, the Rev. Lewis Roberts, who refused to accept the Anglican oath, was deprived of his living and replaced.

Thomas and Magdalene Shelley.  Thomas Shelley – possibly the son or brother of Nicholas Shelley of West Firle – married Magdalene Pont or, as she was later called Margaret, around 1715. Thomas may have died early. But she remained a Catholic throughout her life. She was recorded in the Anglican parish register at her death in 1762 as “a widow and papist.”

Thomas and Magdalene had two sons, John (born in 1716) and Thomas (born in 1718), and lived in West Firle in what was described as “a messuage or tenement with a garden adjoining a containing road near a small bridge.”  They were recorded as living in West Firle (although possibly being sent to Chiddlingly) in 1723.

Magdalene was also recorded as having a daughter Ann, born illegitimately in 1722, although taking the Shelley name.  And this Ann had an illegitimate daughter Mary, born in 1758.  Perhaps they were so recorded by the established church because they were Catholics.

John Shelley

The first son, John Shelley, was in his early life secretary to Sir John Gage’s son, Sir William, who succeeded as the seventh baronet in 1713. Sir William never married but became fully accepted as a respectable member of the landed gentry when he converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism in 1730. Undoubtedly, John Shelley converted as well.

Firle Place.  John was probably involved in Sir William’s extensive remodelling of his family home Firle Place, begun in 1720, and in the management of the various estates that the Gage family owned in Sussex.

And also probably in cricket which was Sir William’s passion. Sir William put together teams to play against the Duke of Richmond, based in Goodwood House, and other local landed gentry. John must have been witness to the revelry, the gambling and the wager-mongering that went on throughout the game and long into the night. As a gentleman visitor at the time wrote:

“I have spent the whole day at a cricket match at Lewes between the Gentlemen of Sussex and Kent. Sir William Gage and Lord John Sackville are the rivals of the bat. We have been at supper with them all and have left them at one o’clock in the morning, laying bets about the next match.”

Sir William died in 1744. The estate documents reveal that he left £20 to his good servant, John Shelley, and owed him £124 for wages and funds laid out. Some of this money was not received as the records show that, two years later, John had to sue to recover the balance.

A Riding Officer.  After Sir William’s death, John moved to Denton and then to East Dean by the coast near Beachy Head where in 1752, at the age of 36, he secured the position of Riding Officer for HM Customs.  He was paid £25 a year plus an allowance for his horse and his job was to travel around, listen to rumors, keep a low profile, and write a daily record of what he saw.

His main objective was to try to stem the flow of contraband spirits, tea, and other untaxed produce that was coming into England. This was big business at the time. Canny entrepreneurs had invested capital in ships to transport this contraband.  Their financiers had agents abroad and organized shipments out of French, Belgian and Dutch ports.

Many local villagers were sympathetic to the trade and secretly helped it. Farm workers would assemble at night-time in a sheltered spot near the landing point. When the lantern flashed, they would move slowly to the shore and each seize a pair of tubs. They returned in columns, sometimes to nearby horses or wagons and sometimes to hiding places in barns, haystacks, dewponds, and even local churchyards. By daybreak, there was nothing to be seen.

For a time, the local customs officers were hopelessly outnumbered. During the 1730’s, they were beaten, abused and sometimes even murdered. Two officers were captured at Seaford and tied to the beach at the low water mark and left to drown as the tide turned. By 1752, however, the Hawkhurst smuggling gang had been smashed and a Riding Officer was less physically at risk.

Still, the smugglers appeared to have kept the upper hand. A newspaper account of 1783 described the situation of the day.

“There is a most convenient port, about a mile from Seaford, for smugglers to land their goods. And so daring have they become that a dozen or more cutters may frequently be seen laying to on an open day.

On Tuesday evening, between two and three hundred smugglers on horseback came to Cuckmere and received various kinds of goods from the boats until at last the whole number were laden. Then, in defiance of the King’s men, they went their way in triumph.

About a week before this, upwards of three hundred attended at the same place. And though the sea ran mountains high, the daring men in their cutters made good the landing, to the surprise of everybody, and the men on horseback took all away.”

We did have, until recently, what I believe was John Shelley’s sword, serrated to break open hidden packages; but we don’t have any record of his diligence as a Riding Officer.

A generation later, in 1824, two Riding Officers at East Dean were publicly reprimanded for their “lack of enthusiasm.” Disliked by the community, outnumbered by smugglers, and often facing potential violence, Riding Officers usually had to tread a narrow line between discretion and valor. They were not cowards. But few sought to be heroes.

John had married Ann Wilbar from Lewes in 1740 and they had six children, John, Thomas, Mary, Ann, Charles, and Charity.  John died young (aged 30), Thomas married and became a farmer in nearby Friston, the daughters also married.

His Son Charles.  Of my next forebear, Charles Shelley, I know little. He stayed in East Dean, doing what I know not. Being the fifth-born, he may not have inherited much of his father’s estate. I can imagine a decline in circumstances.

Around 1785, he married Sarah, a twin daughter of Henry and Elizabeth Shelley from West Firle.  Perhaps they were cousins.  A West Firle record of 1743 showed Henry Shelley, then a child, as the son of Thomas Shelley from West Firle.

Charles and Sarah had nine children. Sarah survived her husband by fifteen years before succumbing to cholera in her eightieth year in Hellingley. The two eldest sons, Charles and Thomas, moved in their 20’s away to Alfriston, Charles to become a village tailor and Thomas a farm laborer. And Alfriston is where our story takes us next.


Alfriston today is a downland village of a type that tourists love, picturesque and rich in local stories. I stayed there on my birthday in 1996 at the George Inn where the graffiti was 16th century.

In the late 18th century, Alfriston was, as it had been for much of its life, a rather isolated farming community, mainly engaged in sheep raising, with a few tradesmen and a little smuggling on the side. Its 107 occupied houses and resident population of 650 made it somewhat bigger than West Firle or East Dean, but not by much.

Troops and Loose Living.  However, by the turn of the century, with the fears of invasion from France during the Napoleonic Wars, the population was boosted by troops from the Middlesex and Hampshire Militias. They were billeted in cottages around the market square and in outlying farms. The village thrived during this period. Still, the troops’ presence did encourage some loose living.

“There was a considerable brewery with its vans and drags, sleek horses and burly-faced draymen. There were the tanners, the tawers, the tallow-melters, the candle-makers and the soap-boilers, master builders too, doing a good trade; maltsters and the Excisemen, coopers and shoemakers by the dozen. The butcher did a large business and made money. The two inns were always full of company. Volunteers and militiamen filled the place. Drinking, cursing and swearing went hand in hand. Barges floated down the Cuckmere and round to Newhaven, returning with merchandise of all sorts.”

The departure of the troops in 1815 impoverished the village but left a taste for lawlessness. Alfriston was ruled for a while by a gang headed by Stanton Collins, a much glamorized figure who has endowed the village with its smuggler’s image today.

Collins and his cronies made their base at the Market Cross Inn and, over a period of ten years, were active in smuggling and general thievery. Finally in 1831, the forces of law prevailed. The Alfriston gang was broken up after Collins was caught for sheep stealing and sentenced to seven years’ transportation.

Two Churches.  St. Andrew’s, across the common or Tye from the village, was the parish church and, although supported by the well-to-do, fell into bad shape after the war. Tradesmen and shopkeepers began to switch their allegience to the nonconformist Ebenezer Congregationalist Church, built in 1801, beside the twitten.

This church, under the Rev. George Betts, became noted for its music. However, in 1822, trouble arose between Betts and Charles Brooker, a trustee. Charles Brooker wished to marry his deceased wife’s sister but Betts refused to perform the ceremony. This so angered Brooker that he decided to get rid of Betts; and, one Sunday morning, without warning the minister, he engaged another to take the service.

The congregation was divided in its loyalties. Eventually, and ironically with the support of Stanton Collins, Betts regained his position and he continued to serve as minister until the mid-1850’s. By that time, the attendance at his church had reached 300, as against a meagre 185 at St. Andrew’s.

Charles Shelley

Charles Shelley established his tailor’s shop on the High Street in Alfriston and in 1818 married Charlotte Blackman from Catsfield at the Ebenezer Church.

Charlotte’s story can be found in lawcourt records.  She had been born illegitimately; and her mother Mary Blackman, who subsequently married John Gladman, died in 1827.  Her son by John then claimed in court that Charlotte was not entitled to any share of her mother’s estate.

Like Charles’s parents, Charles and Charlotte had nine children, all but one of them baptized in the Ebenezer Church. He must have been a life-long supporter of this church as there is an exquisite plaque, in pristine condition today inside the church, of him and his family.

A Tailor’s Lot.  This is what a local historian has to say about Charles Shelley as a tailor. The time is around 1840, well before the introduction of machines. Tailoring was then still very much a traditional occupation, requiring the measuring, cutting out and altering of cloth by hand.

“Charles Shelly (sic), the tailor, stocked ready-made clothing to answer the needs of most levels of Alfriston’s society. He also made clothes to measure.

Working in the shop with their father were Shelly’s sons, Walter and Charles, as well as young Reuben Cox, an apprentice from Longbridge. It is more than probable that Shelly’s daughters, Mary Ann and Elizabeth, were called upon to work there too, either at the tailoring or behind the counter. Perhaps they did minor repairs. No doubt, Mrs Shelly’s hands were full enough with 9 year old Francis, Owen aged 6 and Edgar the baby, to allow her much time to work in the shop. The precise location of Shelly’s house is unknown but there is a tentative reference to his living in one of the High Street cottages (Steamer Cottages).

Was there really enough tailoring to maintain such a large family? Presumably so. Shelly would keep some stock of heavy shirts and corduroy clothing for his laborers, although they often purchased from travelling packmen. Perhaps for Alfriston’s aristocracy – the Brookers, the Pagdens – there was a small range of frock coats, dark trousers, frilled shirts, fancy waistcoats, cravats and overcoats, as well as decently thick underpants and vests to keep out the valley’s damp winter chill. And hats, of course, for all occasions.

The clergy – Scutt and Bohun Smith over at Litlington, Ellman at Berwick – might not have patronized the village tailor. They would more probably plump for the wider and more substantial selections at Lewes where so many absentee clergymen lived and where good class shops existed to satisfy their needs.

It would be surprising if Charles Shelly did not keep some stock of work dresses, shawls and blouses. There would be aprons, too, worn every day, and without which the Victorian working woman felt incomplete. Older women doubtless still adopted the old-fashioned caps which tied under the chin and all, irrespective of age, would need protective bonnets, for who would wish her sunburnt face to announce her base origins? It is presumed that Charles Shelly took care of such demands.

Perhaps he might even keep other garments more suitable for the Pagden ladies and vicars’ wives, something appropriate for morning or evening wear or afternoon visiting.”

Picturesque it might have been, but in the depressed economic environment of the 1840’s there was probably not enough business to go around for all the Shelleys. The eldest son, Charles Shelley, left to seek his fortune in Brighton.

Brighton and Hard Times

Charles Shelley arrived in Brighton in 1843. What kind of town did he find?

The Town.  It was a fashionable town and a booming one. Sea air and salt water had been recommended by doctors as a health tonic; and once the Prince Regent had started coming there in the 1780’s, Brighton became a gathering place for London’s high society.

The Prince built his Royal Pavilion in the town to the design of the Taj Mahal. White stucco buildings in the Regency style soon sprung up on the Old Steine and stretched along Marine Parade and the King’s Road as far as Hove. The Chain Pier was completed in 1823 and became a great attraction. By 1841, the small fishing village of Brighthelmstone with a population of 3,500 in 1781 had blossomed to the thriving town of Brighton with 45,000 inhabitants.

And in 1841 the railway had arrived. Brighton could now be reached from London in less than two hours. This brought artisans, tradesmen and others seeking work, and the first day-trippers. Brighton’s population was to double to 90,000 by the year 1871.

But there was an underside to this growth. Behind the fashionable facade, the town’s backstreets, hemmed in on two sides by sharply rising hills, became more and more crowded. Here the houses were for the most part ill-ventilated, badly drained, and often so damp that the walls were covered in lichens. By the mid-1850’s, Brighton had some of the worst slums in England.

The Hard Times.  It was in these backstreets that Charles came to look for a place to stay. He moved from one tenement to another, seeking to ply his trade as a tailor. We find him at 26 William Street off Edward Street and then at 4 North Lane Cottages, nearby what is the present junction of North Road and Queen’s Road.

He had by then met Amelia Bartlett, the 22 year old daughter of a shoemaker on Montpelier Road, and on June 17, 1845 they married. The marriage ceremony was performed at St Nicholas’s Church, high up on the hill overlooking the old town. Amelia’s younger brother, Edward, and a friend witnessed the marriage. What is astounding to the present-day mind is that neither Amelia nor Edward could write and both had to affix an X, their mark, to the marriage document.

Charles’s married life was characterized by poverty, children, and ultimately tragedy. Their first son, Charles Robert Bartlett (CRB), was born in April 1846, followed by John Bartlett, Kathleen Ellen Bartlett, Mary Ann Bartlett, and Walter Bartlett between 1848 and 1852.

But the unsanitary conditions in which they were living took its toll. The cholera epidemic claimed the children one by one, except the first-born, and then Amelia herself in 1854. By that time, they had moved from North Lane Cottages, which had been condemned and were soon to be pulled down, to tenements nearby, first in Kensington Gardens and then in Richmond Buildings across from Grand Parade.

Better Times

A year later, Charles’s fortunes took a turn for the better. He had met a widow, Emily Ditch, who lived nearby, and they married in 1855. It would appear, although there is no evidence to support this, that she had a little money. By 1856, they were settled in a small grocer’s shop at 5 Richmond Street, which he ran for the rest of his life.

The 1871 Census shows him living there with his wife Emily, his son Charles (CRB) 24 and working as a compositor, her son Doren training to be a dentist, and their own daughter Kate who did odd work as a dressmaker. Charles died in 1881 but Emily, until her death in 1885, and then Kate kept up the shop for another nine years.

Charles’s settled circumstances in the late 1850’s encouraged his younger brother Owen to move to Brighton from Alfriston. He met there a woman six years older than him, Hannah Turk, whom he married in 1861. They too set up a grocer’s shop, first at 57 Lavender Street and then at 83 Edward Street.

Owen survived both his wife and his two children, who both died young, and lived on into retirement at 33 Redcross Street. He himself died in 1917, the last link with the rural origins in Alfriston. His nephew, CRB, witnessed the death. Interestingly, my father kept in a tin box with his financial statements Owen’s death certificate, which I discovered after his own death.

My Great Grandfather and His Business

My great grandfather CRB had, by this time, become a successful businessman. What he had latched onto was the building boom going on in Brighton. New houses were being built on the hillsides overlooking the town.  He became a house agent. And evidently a very good one.  By 1880, at the age of 34, he could afford an imposing new three-storey house on Bentham Road in this new development area.

It was my great grandfather who started the family coal merchant business (known as C.R.B Shelley & Sons).  In 1919, its assets were still rather meagre, “eight railway trucks, three horses, and all sacks and scales and other necessary utensils appertaining and used in the business,” as the inventory then showed.  But the business grew and was handed down to my grandfather and then to my father and consequently was part of my own childhood as I was growing up.

My Sussex Shelley Family Tree

  • Thomas Shelley of West Firle m. Magdalene Pont in 1715.  She died a papist in West Firle in 1762
  • – John (1716-1789)
  • – Thomas (1718-1755)
  • – Ann (b. 1722)
  • John Shelley of West Firle and East Dean m. Ann Wilbar (1720-1781) in Herstmonceux in 1740
  • – John (1743-1773)
  • – Thomas (1746-1778) m. Charity Dumbrell
  • – Mary (b. 1748)
  • – Charles (1758-1824)
  • Charles Shelley of West Firle m. Sarah Shelley (1765-1839) in West Firle in 1787
  • – Elizabeth (b. 1787)
  • – Charles (1792-1870)
  • – Mary (b. 1795)
  • – Thomas (1798-1883) m. Ann Pierce
  • – Ann (b. 1799)
  • – Mahala (b. 1804)
  • – William (b. 1805)
  • – John (1808-1833)
  • Charles Shelley of West Firle and Alfriston m. Charlotte Blackman (1796-1855) from Catsfield in the Ebenezer Chapel, Alfriston in 1817
  • – Charles (1818-1881)
  • – Mary Ann (1820-1841)
  • – James Gladman (1822-1876) m. Sarah Geer
  • – Charlotte Dorcas (1824-1864) m. Frederick Petite
  • – Elizabeth (1826-1847)
  • – Walter Collis (1827-1895)
  • – Frances Sarah (1832-1860)
  • – Owen Howard (1834-1917) m. Hannah Turk in Brighton
  • – Algernon (b. 1838)
  • – Amelia (b. 1841)
  • Charles Shelley of Alfriston and Brighton m. Amelia Bartlett (1821-1854) from Seaford/Brighton in St. Nicholas Church, Brighton in 1845
  • – Charles Robert Bartlett (1846-1924)
  • – John William Bartlett (1848-1849)
  • – Kathleen Ellen (1849-1851)
  • – Mary Ann (1850-1851)
  • – Walter Bartlett (1852-1853)
  • remarried Emily Ditch nee Carter (1819-1885) from Lewes
  • – Kathleen (b. 1856) m. William Crossley
  • Charles Robert Bartlett Shelley of Brighton m. Alice Boast (1855-1914) from Suffolk (Stradbroke) in Brighton in 1880
  • – Rose (1880-1905)
  • – Charles William Bartlett (1882-1963) m. Florence Chisholm (1884-1973)
  • remarried Bessie Meers nee Peters (1872-1958) from Brighton



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Written by Colin Shelley

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