A family mystery (nearly) solved…

It’s very frustrating when you come up against a ‘dead-end’ or ‘brick-wall’ in your family history. These are often the result of an illegitimate birth. One such occurrence in my father’s family was playing on my mind. The man in question, my grandfather’s half-brother, John Shea, was born on 11th January 1887 at Tewkesbury Workhouse. His mother was Honora Shea but there was no father named on his birth certificate.

John was the eldest of Honora’s six children. Her three eldest daughters, Ellen, Norah and Lavinia, were all the children of Fred Phillips, and the youngest two, George Alfred and Margaret, were the children of George Davies.

John had a few run-ins with the authorities during his teenage years, for petty theft and rowdy behaviour. This led to him joining the Royal Navy training ship, HMS Impregnable at Devonport in August 1902. He was transferred to HMS Lion in September 1902, where he remained until the following March.

HMS Impregnable, formerly HMS Howe, was ordered in 1854, built in Pembroke Dockyard in 1856, launched in 1860, but never served at sea under her original name. She was renamed HMS Bulwark in 1885, then HMS Impregnable in 1886. She reverted to HMS Bulwark in 1919 and finally sold in 1921 to be broken up. The timbers were used to refurbish, in the Tudor revivalist style, the interior and fascia of the Liberty Store in London. I am including this information in my recount, as those who know me personally will know that I worked at Liberty in London through the 1990’s, and I also have family connections to Pembroke Dock, so this small snippet of information became very personal to me!

Back to John Shea… By 1911 John Shea was working as a general dealer and living at 28 Dolday in Worcester with Margaret Stockton. They legally married in 1915 and together they had seven children: Caroline, John (1), Peter, Paul, John (2), Clara and George. John (1), Paul and George all died young, but Caroline, Peter, John (2), known as Johnny, and Clara all grew up, married and had children and grandchildren.

Fast forward to the present day… A couple of months ago a very close DNA match appeared on Ancestry; a close cousin whose name I instantly recognised; a granddaughter of John Shea! I couldn’t believe my luck. Here was a real opportunity to try and identify John’s father. With permission, I was able to study her DNA results and I am now very pleased to be able to identify the family of John’s father. Right now, it is not possible to specify which son of this family was John’s father but hopefully, over time, more DNA results will appear that will help me determine this.

Now to reveal the family John Shea never knew.

I’ll start with the head of the family, Mark Taylor. Mark was a blacksmith born in Almondsbury, Gloucestershire in 1799 to parents John and Ann. At the age of sixteen, Mark was found guilty of stealing penny pieces and a halfpence to the value of four shillings and two pence. In today’s money this is about £10, but in the early 1800’s this was equivalent to a day’s wages. For this crime, Mark received a very heavy sentence; he was to be transported for seven years.

Mark was taken to Portsmouth and received on board Prison Hulk HMS Laurel on 6th February 1817. A month later he transferred to HMS York and remained on this vessel until 9th June 1821. This Prison Hulk remained in Portsmouth, so instead of a passage to Australia, Mark would have worked along the docks of Portsmouth to serve his sentence. You can read more about life on board a Prison Hulk here.

In June 1821, Mark was transferred to HMS Leviathan where he remained until he received his Free Pardon and was allowed to leave, unconditionally, on 23rd October 1821, having served five years of his sentence. Mark made his way back to Bristol and soon after, he married Charlotte Lewis, a local girl, daughter of Joseph Taylor, a cordwainer, and his wife Ann. During their marriage, Mark worked as a Blackmith and Charlotte worked as a Fish Dealer. They had 9 or 10 children (exact number still to be determined due to the family moving around) but my interest revolves around son James, born 1825 in London, and daughter, Emma, born 1832 in Bristol.

Emma Taylor married John Little in Bristol on 31 December 1853. John was a ‘Traveller’ living in Brick Street, Bristol, he was the son of James Little, a Cheese Dealer, and his wife Mary. In 1857, John, Emma and their young son, Henry, set off on board passenger ship Chesterholme bound for Melbourne, Australia. The couple had embarked upon an adventure across the oceans, during the Victorian Gold Rush era. This was a harsh environment, and the family’s health did not fare well in Australia. The couple had a second son, Edward, in 1858, but sadly lost first born Henry in 1860. Another son, James was born in 1862, followed by George, 1864, Mary, 1866, who died in infancy, and finally, Emma born in 1870.  I was sad to discover that John Little died in 1871. At the time of John’s death, he and Emma were living at 41 Little Lonsdale Street, known locally as Little Lon, Melbourne. John was a Dealer. He had written a will leaving Emma all of his estate. This amounted to the sum of £145 (around £18,000 today), so their days spent prospecting must have been successful. Emma left Melbourne, financially stable, and made her way back to Bristol on board passenger ship Shannon, with her four children, Edward, James, George and Emma.

In 1874, back in Bristol, Emma married Marine Store Dealer, William Sharp. William raised Emma’s children as his own, and they also had a daughter Elizabeth. All the children grew up, married, and had children of their own.

It is most likely that one of Emma’s sons was John Shea’s father. This is evaluated using information from DNA matches to John’s granddaughter. There are three strong 2nd cousin matches all descended from Emma’s daughter Emma, who married Thomas John Coles of Bristol. Using this information, and other DNA match information from more distant cousins, I was able to plot a speculative family tree, which places John most strongly as the son of one of Emma’s sons. It would be a more definite conclusion if descendants of Emma’s sons were to appear as DNA matches, so I can only keep checking back and keeping my fingers crossed!

I have managed to discover some information about all three sons, my main candidate is Edward Little, as he was a single man at the time of John Shea’s birth, whereas both his brothers had already married. The fact he was single does not make it a definite conclusion, just maybe a little more likely.

Edward Colson Little, born 7th September 1858 in Emerald, Victoria, Australia, returned to England with his mother Emma aged 14. He, and his brothers and sister were all baptised at St Phillip & Jacob in Bristol on 2nd March 1873, Edward was baptised as John Edward Colston Little. Edward became a China Dealer in Bideford, Devon. He married Mainy Smith, daughter of Job Smith (a Hawker), in 1905 and they had one daughter, Rosina, born before they were married, who sadly died in her twenties, leaving three young children.

James Little born 1 February 1862 in Melbourne, Australia, became a Licensed Victualler, running the Tradesmen’s Inn at 10 Cooper Street, Bideford, Devon. He married Emma Davis in 1882 and they had eight children.

George Henry Little born 27 April 1864 in Collingwood, Victoria, Australia, also became a China Dealer in Bideford. He married Angelina Saunders in 1884 and they had three children.

There is a small possibility that John Shea was the son or grandson of James Taylor, Emma’s eldest brother. Until I have closer DNA matches to study, I cannot be more certain, but I will tell you a little about him too as he was a very interesting character!

James Taylor was born 1st March 1825 in London, the eldest son of Mark and Charlotte. In 1841, he was travelling with his father and sister, Jane, lodging with the lockkeeper at Mill Street in St Woolos, Newport, Wales. His mother and siblings were in Bristol. His father, Mark, was a Blacksmith, but his occupation on this census was ‘Traveller’.

James was back in Bristol by 1842, where he and two friends, Stephen Hollister and William Cole, were arrested and charged with breaking into the property of local shopkeeper, Sarah Barton, and stealing a quantity of coins and a piece of cheese. A policeman named Bishop had seen the three young men running away from the premises at two-thirty the same morning, so they were found and taken into custody. When searched, 9½d was found on James, and other money and items were found in Hollister and Coles possession. The three were found guilty by Jury and sentenced to be transported for ten years.

James sailed out on the 14th August 1842 on board the convict ship Moffatt, to Van Diemen’s Land, a journey of 106 days. I have discovered James’s convict record from his time in Van Diemen’s Land. It is a catalogue of insubordination, absconding, abusive language, and theft. James was sent to trial twice in Hobart, for breaking into properties. The first time he was found not guilty, the second, in 1847, he was found guilty and sentenced to a further ten years. I am still looking for his ticket of leave, but he must have been granted a conditional pardon around 1854, based on information from other records.

James had returned to Bristol by 1857, bringing with him a son, Mark, who was born at Daisy Hill, Victoria, Australia on 24th July 1855. In Bristol, on 9th November 1957, James married Mary Ann Rolph (nee Donovan), a widow with five children. On the 1861 census in Tenbury, Worcestershire, all the children are named Taylor, suggesting James was raising them as his own, and there are two daughters from this marriage, Harriet and Emma. By 1871, James and Mary Ann are living apart. Mary Ann, still in Tenbury with three of her children, declares herself a widow, but James was still very much alive! James was Victualler of The Lamb Public House in Newland, Gloucestershire, with his ‘wife’ Jane Elizabeth, and they had four children, the eldest having been born in Devon in early 1865.

James’s first wife, Mary Ann, died in 1881, and soon after, James and Jane Elizabeth legally married. James and Jane Elizabeth had eleven children in total. They stayed together, ending their days in Newton Abbot, Devon.

I have really enjoyed discovering the similarities between the men in this family. The crimes committed by father and son, were not cruel or vicious, they were petty thieves. The sentences they received seem excessive, but Mark and James both emerged from their sentences and grew up to be caring fathers, working hard for their families.

I found a description of James from his convict record from 1842. He was only 4’11½”, with dark brown hair, grey eyes and a fresh complexion, a scattering of tattoos on his right arm featured a mermaid, J.T and an anchor. From John Shea’s Royal Navy record in 1902, he was a little taller at 5’2″, but had the same dark brown hair, grey eyes and fresh complexion. He also had similar tattoos on his left arm, J.O, a heart, and an anchor.

I am going to continue filling in the gaps in this family line as, although they are not my direct ancestors, they were my grandfather’s brother’s family, and I am in contact with many of John Shea’s descendants. It is wonderful to be able to share this information with them and maybe one day, the story will be complete.

Written in memory of

John Shea 1887- 1937

Mark Taylor 1799-1879

James Taylor 1825-1914

John Little 1835-1871

Emma Taylor/Little/Sharp 1832-1909