When you chance upon the criminal activities of an ancestor in the records, don’t despair! These reports can offer a wonderful insight, not only into their personality and character but may also reveal more about their physical appearance, especially exciting if there are no surviving photos of this ancestor. I have been lucky recently to find information about my great-great grandparents in the British Newspaper Archives and also on Ancestry. The articles make fascinating reading! The information has helped to fill gaps in timelines and provide me with enough information to know what my ancestors looked like.

The couple in question were my paternal great-great grandparents, John Shea and Margaret Donovan. They were Irish immigrants who came to England around the time of the Great Famine. The Great Famine or Great Hunger is the name given to the famine in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. Outside Ireland, it is usually called the Irish Potato Famine. The famine was caused by the “potato blight”, a fungus-like organism which quickly destroyed the potato crops in Ireland, and throughout Europe. The effect was particularly severe in Ireland because potatoes were the main source of food at the time. It is thought that between 1 to 1.5 million people died in the three years from 1846 to 1849 because of hunger or disease. Many more moved away, migrating to England, Scotland, Wales, the USA, Canada and Australia.

The earliest record I can find for John Shea and Margaret Donovan, in England, is their marriage that took place at Bath, Somerset in 1857. John was widowed with two young children, Mary and William Patrick. Margaret was a spinster.

There are no known photographs available of John or Margaret but I do have wonderfully descriptive extracts from the Cheltenham Examiner and Gloucestershire prison records.

John and Margaret were convicted of the theft of a pair of boots. Their crime was reported in the Cheltenham Examiner on 13th June 1877. The previous Friday, 8th June, John and Margaret Shea visited a shop in Ambrose Street, Cheltenham, owned by Sarah Turner. They asked Sarah for a pair of boots for Margaret and were shown a suitable pair, but Margaret claimed they were odd. Sarah went to find another pair and, in her absence, John and Margaret left the shop without buying any boots. Sarah later noticed the ‘odd’ boots were missing and notified the police. Later that day, P.C. Small found the boots at the home of John and Margaret, 5 Stanhope Street in Cheltenham. The couple could not offer any reasonable explanation as to how the boots got there and so both were charged with theft. The following day, 9th June 1877, John and Margaret were given a sentence of 14 days hard labour by Alderman the Baron de Ferrieres.

Having found the newspaper report and knowing that John and Margaret were imprisoned, I conducted a search of the Gloucestershire prison records (available on Ancestry by subscription). I was so excited to find the record and discover that it contained an amazing wealth of information! Here I had their ages, place of origin and most thrilling of all, detailed physical descriptions!

From these records I know that John Shea was a labourer from Ireland. He was 60 years old, 5’5″ in height, with grey hair, grey eyes and an oval face with a fresh complexion. John had a scar on the end of his nose, which inclined to the left and had lost his 2 upper front teeth. Margaret was a 47 year old field hand, also from Ireland. She stood just under 5′ tall, had grey hair, blue eyes and a long face with a fair complexion. She had a cut mark near her left eye and the little finger on her left hand was crooked. The prison record also reveals they were Roman Catholic, married with 5 children, and had no other offences on record.

John and Margaret moved around a lot in their lifetime. John was born in Killarney, County Kerry, the son of Timothy Shea and Johanna Lynch. Margaret was born in County Waterford, the daughter of John Donovan and Julian Carrol. John and Margaret started married life in Bath and ended their days in Hereford around 1900, travelling between the towns for seasonal work, such as hop picking and farm labouring. I have found them on three of the census returns, 1871, 1881 and 1891 but I am still missing them on the 1861 census. A daughter, Catherine, was born in Ashperton in 1859 and a son, John, was born in Ledbury in 1863, so it’s likely they were in the Ledbury area during the time of the 1861 census. John and Margaret had both died by the time of the 1901 census.

In the prison records of 1877, they were reported to have five children. I have managed to find ten in total. One son, Daniel, born in 1866, died in infancy and of the remaining nine, I know that Honora, my great grandmother born at Bristol in 1868, survived into adulthood, as did Peter and Paul, the twins born at Bosbury in 1871. Then there was Ellen, the youngest, born at Malvern in 1875. The older children; Bridget, John, Catherine, James and Jeremiah, have appeared on census returns with the family but I cannot conclusively say what became of them. If I then include Mary and William Patrick, the children of John’s first marriage to Honora Sullivan, this would make a total of twelve children. Perhaps the five children referred to in the police report, were the only dependent children, or perhaps some of the information is incorrect. Some of the children, including Peter and Paul, do not appear to have been registered at birth. Maybe one day I will find baptism records, and some more of the puzzles surrounding this line of my family will be resolved.

I am pleased that my ancestors decided to do the wrong thing that day. If they hadn’t stolen that pair of boots from Sarah Turner in Cheltenham, I would never have known as much about them as I do today.

John Shea 1821-1896 and Margaret Donovan 1828-1900