Dr John Nichols Shelley

Army surgeon then local physician
(1783 - 1858)
a relative of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet.

The subject of this article was introduced as, 'my friend* Dr. Shelley, of Epsom, [who] kindly assisted me in the post-mortem', by Charles H. Butler Lane , M. D. in his paper 'Punctured wound of the neck of a new-born child', dated 24 July 1850, reproduced on this website under 'Infanticide in Ewell'.

Lehmann tells us, at 3C17 of The residential copyholds of Epsom, that in 1832, J. N. Shelley was Jarman Hope's tenant in the freehold property on New Inn Lane once owned by Mark Parsons. The house and garden appear on plot 482 of the 1843 Tithe Map.

Location of Captain Mark Dutton/Sir Mark Parsons' house
Location of Shelley's house
Extract from 1843 Tithe Map with plots 482, and 482a highlighted

As John Nichols Shelley, on 15 February 1841 at Ewell, he married Harriet, daughter of Walter Scott Stanhope of Ewell House. The family is subsequently listed in the 1841 Census on New Inn Lane as: -
John Shelley, 55, Surgeon, Harriet, wife, 30, Julia, 15, & Charles, 13.
A previous marriage, 31 August 1822, was to Julia Dorcas, only daughter of James Bell of Hooley Park. She died on 13 June 1829, aged only 28, leaving four young children, and was buried in St Martin's churchyard.

Going further back in time, John Nichols Shelley had been in partnership at Reigate with Thomas Martin, as medical practitioners, but this was dissolved on 30 April 1822. Earlier still, having become a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1805, Shelley served in the Army, entering as a Hospital Mate, 13 July 1805, and becoming Assistant Surgeon to 35th Sussex Regiment of Foot on 22 August in the same year. On 30 July 1811, he transferred as Surgeon to the Greek Light Infantry Corps (subsequently re-titled 1st Duke of York's Greek Light Infantry Regiment) in Sicily. The officer retired on half pay with effect from 25 May 1816.

Curiously, Shelley is named in Army records first, during his active service, as James, later, in 1817, James N. and, during 1821, James Nichols. Some commentators have assumed the forename to be a simple mistake by the authorities but an explanation for a pseudonym may lie in the circumstances of his birth.

Sir Bysshe Shelley (1731- 1815), 1st Baronet of Castle Goring, married twice and was borne two sons - Timothy (1753 -1844) by his first wife and John, later Sir John Shelley-Sidney, (1771 - 1849) by the second. Timothy fathered Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1792.

After the second wife of Sir Bysshe, Mary Catherine nee Perry, died on 17 May 1781, he took a mistress, Mrs Eleanor Nicholls who lived in Lambeth - at "Nelly's Hotel" in Canterbury Place. The latter, in turn gave him two more sons, the elder called John and younger Bysshe, as well as another two daughters. Eleanor and her children were acknowledged and provided for in Sir Bysshe's will proved 13 February 1815 [PROB 11/1565]. It is John Nichol(l)s/Shelley, born 9 November 1783, who became the doctor with whom we are concerned and he may have adopted the forename "James" simply to avoid embarrassing confusion with his legitimate half-brother John Shelley - although the latter had added Sidney to his surname, on reaching his majority, by Royal Licence of 6 March 1793 (before becoming Baronet of Penshurst Place on 12 December 1818).

Whatever the reason for using the name James, having withdrawn from active military service Dr Shelley became known consistently as John in his civilian life.

John Shelley acted a medical attendant for Dr Charles Mayo's school at Cheam. One of the boys there wrote of being taken to stay at his home in Epsom, about 1840, in order to be isolated from the other pupils. He was described as a kindly old gentleman who allowed the young patient to accompany him in a gig for the doctor's daily visits to "Mrs Howard of Ashstead, the great lady of the neighbourhood", where they were surrounded by deer in Ashtead Park.

Before 1851 he appears to have retired because in the census for that year he may be found living on Rose Hill, Dorking, aged 67, described as 'Surgeon HP Army Med. C. S.' born at Shiplake, Oxon. Harriet, his wife, had been born in Dover, Kent, and was then aged 49. The formal termination of a partnership between John Nichols Shelley and George Stillwell, Surgeons and Medical Practitioners in Epsom, by mutual consent, was announced on 30 July 1853.

Dr Shelley died at Streatham, aged 74, on 2 December 1858 [FreeBMD - reg. Wandsworth as Frederick Nichols] but his body was brought back to be laid to rest in St Martin's churchyard with the remains of his first wife, Julia Dorcas, a week later.

His widow moved to 7 Horley Place, Paddington, and eventually 72 Grove Road, Kingston, where her death was registered in the September Quarter of 1892 as Harriette Shelley. She too was interred at St Martin's, Epsom, on 16 August 1892.

Brian Bouchard © 2011


Amongst the evidence supplementing the 1849 enquiry into Epsom's sanitary conditions was a statement by Dr Hubert Shelley, MD, as follows: -
"I have attended a great many cases of low fever. They were all of a typhoid form, and obstinate. I had between forty and fifty cases in the union workhouse alone during the last autumn. The contents of a cesspool were removed, and there were no cases of fever afterwards. From my experience the prevalent diseases of Epsom are of a zymotic character [presumed to be due to some virus or organism which acts in the system like a ferment], and will be mitigated by improved sanitary arrangements."
Hubert was the first-born child and elder son of John Nichols and Julia Dorcas Shelley, baptised at St Mary Magdalene, Reigate, 31 August 1825, who followed his father into medicine. By 1841, aged 15, he had been apprenticed to John Forster, Surgeon, of Mount Street, Lambeth. He subsequently went on to train at Guy's Hospital, became a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries on 22 April 1847, graduated with a first class degree as Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery Prize in1848 and gained a scholarship for the further study of surgery over two years. Presumably he spent some time working in his father's practice but by 1854 he had become Surgeon Dentist to University College Hospital, lecturing and writing papers on dental surgery. His address became Savile Row. At a meeting 10 November 1856 he was named as a founder member of The Odontological Society's Council.

On 22 February 1857, he married Harriet G. Welch widow of the late W. G. Welch. [William Gilby Welch, Surgeon, of Southampton Street, Strand, formerly from Handsworth, Staffordshire, who had died as recently as 9 November 1856, 'after a few days illness'. William, son of James Welch, Surgeon, was already a widower when he had married Harriet, Spinster daughter of John Forster, Ship's Agent, from Brick Lane on 15 February 1845.]

Just over two years later, the following report appeared in The Dental Review for 1859:-
"On the 31st of March, at the Cape of Good Hope, Hubert Shelley, M.B., M.R.C.S., aged thirty-four. The subject of this brief obituary notice, Mr Hubert Shelley, was known in the Metropolis as Dentist to the University College Hospital Mr Shelley was evidently a young man of promise. He was the sometime Editor of the British Journal of Dental Science, at a period when an editorial pilot was required, who had experience, firmness, and conciliation as the ruling faculties. He, wanting in these, and possessing some fragment of the reckless vigour of his poetical namesake, was unhappy, to say the least of it, in his literary labours, inflicting personal sarcasm on men who had given him no cause of offence, except that they differed from him in political feeling, and creating divisions among his brethren, instead of unity. Lost to us now, before time gave him opportunity to bring into more useful action his sterling qualities, we would forget the indiscretions into which he was led, and retain only the remembrance of his scientific career."

Hubert's gravestone in the Strooidakkerk, church yard, Paarl, Western Cape
Hubert's gravestone in the Strooidakkerk, church yard, Paarl, Western Cape
Image by kind permission of Alta Griffiths and the eggsa website.

Shelley's widow, Harriet, unlucky in her choice of husbands, resumed the surname 'Gilby Welch' and became the subject of a bankruptcy petition during 1878.

*Evidence of the closeness of the two doctors and a novel approach to medication in their time can be seen in this extract from The Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal under the heading Materia Medica and Pharmacy:

Medicinal Wines. - Dr. Butler Lane [of Ewell] exhibited to the South-Eastern branch of the "Provincial Med. and Surg. Association," at the meeting in July last, various specimens of his Medicinal Wines, and made some observations respecting them. His proposition was to form fluid essences of most of the vegetable articles of the Materia Medica, by applying the process of fermentation. He recommended the method of preparation in question as characterized by simplicity and utility, and possessing the following advantages:-
1. The fermented preparations are more permanent than the infusions and decoctions, and at the same time more readily available.
2. In a great measure. the wines avoid the spirituous admixture of the tinctures, which is desirable, in as much as alcohol is ill adapted as a menstruum [solvent] of many of the vegetable medicinal principles, often interfering with their due therapeutic influence, and, moreover, the alcohol which does exist in the medicinal wines is in a condition of intimate combination, which renders it far less noxious than the comparatively raw state which it maintains in the tinctures.
3. The economy of the fermented preparations is obvious, since three pounds of sugar, on an average, will answer the purpose of half a gallon of spirits of wine.
4. The medicinal wines are more efficacious and agreeable than any other form of preparation.
Dr. Lane recommended the process to be tried, more especially with opium, gentian, and senna, and gave the following directions: Either of the medicines is to be repeatedly macerated in hot water, until the active medicinal matter is judged to be extracted, and a sufficient bulk of fluid is obtained to make an infusion in the same proportional strength as the respective tinctures; cold water only may be used to digest the senna if preferred, and will probably be equally efficient. The infusion is then to be strained off with sufficient pressure; but in respect of the opium, its entire bulk should be submitted to the fermenting process, with the exception of the coarse fibrous matter, which can readily be separated by filtering through fine canvass. In the next place, twelve ounces of white sugar are to be dissolved in each wine quart of the obtained watery extract, and the liquid being then placed in a wide-mouthed glass vessel, is to have a teaspoonful of good yeast added; it is then to be lightly covered over, and kept in a warm room, where the temperature is pretty equable (from 60° to 70°); a high shelf' in a kitchen is one of the best places which can be selected, as even at night more heat will be retained in the upper part of that apartment than elsewhere. Fermentations will progress more or less rapidly, and any supernatant scum may be removed from time to time. After three or four weeks, the intensity of the chemical action will be found to diminish materially; the sweetness will have gone off, and a considerable sediment will have been thrown down. The liquid will then have assumed the vinous character, and should be carefully decanted and strained from the dregs; then replaced, and suffered to undergo further slow fermentation, as far as it is readily susceptible thereof, being lightly closed as before. In two or three weeks, it will become still and clear, and a great part of the sugar will have become converted into alcohol; then, after remaining in a somewhat cooler temperature for a few days, the wine will be fit for bottling, care being taken that it be thoroughly fine, which must be effected artificially, if it have not taken place spontaneously. Dr. Lane then read a communication addressed to him by Mr. Allan, of Epsom, who writes as follows: "I have no hesitation in saying, that I consider the idea of vinous preparations as likely to lead to valuable results, for which the profession will be under great obligations to you. I have found no difficulty in making the wines of senna, ipecacuanha, and opium. As far as I have tried them in practice, I feel assured of their efficacy. The vinum sennæ [senna wine] is an elegant preparation, and in general use, must soon supersede the tincture. The liquor opii vinosus [Opium Wine] I consider as equivalent in power and effect to Battley's liquor opii sedatives [sedative opium]."

Dr. Shelley, of Epsom, in a note addressed to Dr. Lane, also writes thus: "I have now for a few months past used your new medicinal preparations, and can speak with certainty as to their manifold advantages. Their efficacy is indubitable, and in many instances they are superior to the preparations of the same drugs now in use. The preparation of opium you gave me is certainly a very valuable medicine, producing the usual narcotic effects of that drug with certainty, and apparently without stimulating." "The vinum gentian [gentian wine], which I have used most extensively, is by far the beat preparation of that drug which has yet been produced: as a stomachic tonic it stands unrivalled, producing its effects with astonishing certainty in a very short time after its first exhibition."

Of the vinum sennæ [senna wine], Dr. Shelley also speaks most highly, as being an efficacious and agreeable substitute for the ordinary black draught, and as an admirable aperient [laxative] for children. - Provincial Med. and Surg. Journal, Sept.5th, 1849.

Lady Berkeley
Lady Berkeley
Rooths House
Rooth's House
Singeing Beard
Singeing Beard
Chamiers of Epsom
Chamiers Epsom
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