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Welcome to the latest edition of Branches, Twigs, and Roots!

Today's edition features John Shirley, a rather infamous but colorful character in Shouldham, Norfolk. I hope you enjoy reading about him!


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John Shirley

John Shirley first appears in the records on July 21, 1815, when he married Susanna Trundle, at St. Margaret’s Church in Little Dunham, Norfolk.

Susanna was born May 17, 1790 in Little Dunham, the daughter of Robert Trundle and Hester Askew. She was the second of four children born to this couple, the other three being boys. John and Susanna had seven children, born between 1815 and 1829: four boys and three girls.

The family moved from Little Dunham to Shouldham, a neighbouring town in Norfolk, at some point between December 12, 1819 (the date of son Henry John Shirley’s christening) and February 17, 1822 (the date of daughter Ann’s christening at All Saints Church, Shouldham). The first three children, Elizabeth, James, and Henry John, were christened at St. Mary’s in Little Dunham; the last four, starting with Ann, were christened at Shouldham All Saints church.



Shouldham parish church, from the village

In 1833, John, an agricultural laborer, ran afoul of the law. He, along with five other men, were tried in Norwich, Norfolk, for housebreaking, presumably in or around Shouldham. (I have not yet found a newspaper account of the trial, which would provide details of the surrounding circumstances.) All were convicted, and originally sentenced to death. That sentence later was reduced for all of them.

It appears that some were felt to be more involved in the crime than others. Two were sentenced to imprisonment in England, one for one year, and the other for 18 months. The other four were transported to Australia, with varying sentence lengths. One had a 7-year sentence; two had for 14-year sentences; and John Shirley, apparently considered the ring-leader, was sentenced to transportation for life.

However, it appears that transportation “for life” was not as bad as it seems, at least in this instance. John arrived in New South Wales, Australia on the ship Surry, on August 17, 1834, which left England on April 9, 1834.

In that same year, he was granted a Ticket of Leave, allowing him to seek employment with an employer, within a specified region. He could not leave the area without permission, but he could change employers within that region. (A Ticket of Leave is similar to a modern-day parole, in which a prisoner, having shown good behaviour and proven that he was worthy of a certain amount of trust, is given some freedoms).

In 1847, John was granted a Pardon.

I have not yet been able to determine whether he applied for permission to bring his wife and family to Australia. Clearly, if he was working and earning a living, it would have been possible for him to do so.

What I do know is that his wife, Susanna, was left with 7 children to feed and clothe, ranging in age (in 1834) from 18 to 4. The eldest, Elizabeth, later married Gregory Peckover, son of Francis Peckover (featured in last week's E-zine) in 1837; Henry John Shirley married Eliza Peckover, Gregory’s sister, in 1841.

Susanna is listed in the 1841 census, working as a female servant. She died in March of 1846, and was buried in the Shouldham All Saints churchyard.



One of the older houses in Shouldham. A man in the village told my mother-in-law that a family of Shurleys recently had lived in this house.


The Brick Wall

John’s birth and death dates are not clear. The names of his parents are unknown. There is a John Shirley who died in Liverpool, Paramatta, Australia, in 1856, who was noted to be age 66 at the time of his death. This would mean he was born in 1790.

However, the documentation relating to John Shirley’s transportation indicates that he was born in 1797. John and Susannah’s marriage, as recorded in the marriage register, indicates that they were married in 1715 “with consent of parents”.

We know that Susanna was born in 1790, so no consent would be required if she were 25 (i.e., over age 21) at the time. It therefore had to be John who was under-age at the time of the marriage. This would fit with a birth date of 1797, as indicated in the transportation records.

It is possible that whoever reported his death simply was not aware of his birth date, and an estimated age was provided. That would be one explanation.

I also attempted to find his birth record. Armed with the above information, I went looking for a John Shirley born anywhere in Norfolk from 1790 to 1799. The only one that I found was born in Wymondham, Norfolk, in 1794, to William Shirley and Elizabeth Perkins. It is not at all clear that this is the correct John Shirley.

It is possible that he was from another county; I will have to explore that possibility next.

Also, the Little Dunham parish registers, which are online and browsable at www.familysearch.org, show no trace of any Shirleys prior to the date of John and Susanna's marriage in 1815. They contain no indication of when he arrived in the parish, or what parish he came from.

I also note that, when my mother-in-law visited Shouldham in 2009, to take photographs and talk to people in the village with respect to my family history, she was told that a Mr. Shurley was the resident expert on the history of the village and its inhabitants.

Since his name sounded familiar, she looked him up on the family tree print-out which I had given her, and sure enough, he was on it! Nevertheless, it was pointed out that any Shurleys now living in the village spelled their name with a ‘u’, not an ‘i’, and that this was very much something upon which the family insisted.

I wonder if, in its origins, this was an attempt to distance themselves from the John Shirley who was transported!


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