MYTHS, FABRICATION AND FALSEHOODS
Before I continue, it is clear Polly’s life during the time she lived in Grantham is shrouded in myth, mystery and family folklore. I have a methodical, forensic approach to family history research and would normally exclude anecdotal stories passed down through the family unless such stories can be substantiated as proven, or at the very least be supported by strong corroborative evidence.
However the appearance of Frank ‘Brown’ into the story of Polly Shellaker (or as he has since been revealed, ‘Frank Cable’), necessities a change of approach. Myths and fabrications appear to be intrinsic to the character of Frank Brown; evidently he is a man who by his very nature causes falsehood, fibs and pretence to be inseparable from the man himself. For many of the stories relating to Polly & Frank’s life together there is either no evidence or conversely there is conflicting alternative evidence. In regards to Frank Brown I was been told by those who knew him to take these stories with an accompaniment of a ‘large pinch of salt’ but with the knowledge it is exactly these fabrications which appear to make the man what he was, that being “a loveable rogue’. I will therefore include all the stories & comments but will prefix certain elements with phrases such as “it was said that…..” or “Frank said………but there is no evidence to support it”.
Many of the extremely dubious stories passed on to their family by Polly and Frank relate to Belton House, picture on the right, an impressive Grade I listed country house in Belton near Grantham in Lincolnshire in the English Midlands. The house is around three miles north of Grantham with a journey time, on foot, of approximately 45 minutes. For three hundred years, since the late 16th century, Belton House was the seat of the Brownlow and Cust family. In 1984 the family gave away the house and most of its contents to the National Trust.
Dubious Story #1 – Employment at Belton House
The genesis of these interlinked dubious stories is that Polly actually worked at Belton House as the Housekeeper.
However I have not found one shred of evidence whatsoever to support this story – actual records indicate an alternative story as I will shortly outline in the narrative below. If we clinically consider the possibility of Polly’s employment as the Housekeeper at Belton House, we should assess her suitability for that role…..
In Victorian times the housekeeper in one of Britain’s grand houses would hold considerable power in the household. She would be in charge of all the female staff with the possible exception of the kitchen staff, who would report to the cook. Viewing the size of Belton House I would expect the number of people reporting to the housekeeper to a considerable, I would speculate several dozen. The housekeeper would likely to have her room or rooms cleaned by junior staff, her meals prepared with someone also taking care of her laundry. So for the role of the Housekeeper at Belton House – prompts a simple question….What qualifications or experience did Polly Shellaker have to be suitable, or even be considered, for a role for such an important and prestigious position in this household?
To be Housekeeper at Belton House, a house that on occasions would received Royalty, would require a woman with exemplary references and recommendations and considerable experience in that type of role. Since leaving school the only role and experience Polly had, of which we are aware, is the early morning feeding of cows.
Transportation in Victorian England, together with expected duties, responsibilities and extensive working hours, would require the housekeeper at Belton House to live within Belton House itself. The Housekeeper would stay on the premises, full-time in the servant’s quarters – without question. She would certainly not live three miles away in the centre of Grantham as the records for Polly prove; firstly in Chapel Street and, after her marriage, in Brownlow Street and with the majority of the time at the house in Brownlow Street she was either pregnant and raising her first three newborn children.
POSTSCRIPT: In the summer of 2013 I visited Belton House for a ‘Below Stairs’ guided tour. During the tour I saw a list on the wall of former Housekeepers – Polly’s name was not on that list. Towards the end of the tour I asked our Guide a question relating to how the Housekeeper obtained that position. The Guide told me it would take years to achieve such a position. A girl would work up through the servant hierarchy, moving to big houses all around England to gain experience and promotion and during that time, gain the references and recommendations necessary for advancement to the next higher position. The position at Housekeeper at Belton House would be held by someone who has spent decades in service.
Dubious Story #2 – Frank originally meets Polly at Belton House
The story of their first meeting, as told by Frank, has been handed down within Polly’s family;
“Frank would tell the story that he was deciding either to go to watch the annual Boat Race on the Thames or whether to go to Belton House to seek work. He said that he tossed a coin to decide. The coin landed in favour of Belton House, which is where he went. Upon arriving at Belton House he said that the door was opened by Polly Shellaker.”
It is not known, and never will be, when, where, or under what circumstances, Polly actually meet Frank Brown for the first time. The truth of the first meeting and other details regarding Frank Brown will remain a mystery forever. In 1998 I visited ‘Cousin Betty’ – one of Polly and Frank’s grandchildren – Mary Ellen Russ (nee Joyce), and from our discussions it was obvious even the people close to him did not know the full truth concerning Frank Brown at the time when he was alive – so how can anyone find out the truth over one hundred and fifty years after his birth? ‘Cousin Betty’ told me that the validity of this alleged first meeting is suspect, but she thought it is still a good story.
However following recent collaborations, particularly with Colin Russ and Nic Frost, two of Polly & Frank’s great-grandchildren, I’m pretty certain we probably know more in 2013 about Frank Brown (Cable) and his family, than any of the members of the Shellaker family did over 100 hundred years ago.
“The Brownlow Manuscripts”
There are documents in the possession of Lincolnshire Archives relating to the history of Belton House. These papers, known as “The Brownlow Manuscripts”, and fill a large room in hundreds of boxes. These documents are going through the process of restoration and cataloguing. However most of the information relates to ‘State Business’ and the buildings and the furnishings, with very little information regarding staff at the house. In March 2013 an archivist searched through the information relating to the records of the Belton House staff and servants, specifically looking for ‘Mary Jane Shellaker also known as Polly Shellaker’ and/or ‘Francis or Frank Brown, also known as Francis or Frank Cable’.
The reply …
Thank you for your e-mail of 6 March 2013. Unfortunately, I can find no references in the Belton House records to either Mary Jane (Polly) Shellaker or Francis Brown/Cable. The staff records for the period in question are not very comprehensive, but I did undertake a thorough search of the volumes described below:
Annual Belton establishment accounts. 51 volumes. 1-51. 1873-1923.
Document ref: BNLW 2/6/1/31.
Collections Access Officer – Lincolnshire Archives
Dubious Story #3 – Stories of Illegitimate Children
Stories which I’m sure have no basis in reality, is one that not all of Polly’s children who were born in Grantham were fathered by Frank but were the result of illicit liaisons between Polly and ‘the master of the House’ (Belton House – the seat of the Brownlow). Family folklore claims a ‘family resemblance between Aunty May (Polly’s first child born in May 1893 and a portrait of a member of Brownlow family seen hanging on the walls within Belton House’. As I do not believe Polly nor Frank ever worked at Belton House, and the evidence points to the contrary, I do not consider these stories have any credibility. Following their marriage in October 1892, Polly & Frank’s first three children were born between May 1893 and February 1896 and all lived at 1, Brownlow Street in Grantham.
Dubious Story #4 – The parentage of Frank Cable
It was said, within the family, Frank Brown/Cable was illegitimate, “born on the wrong side of the blanket” – this probably true. BUT the story goes on to say his conception was “the result of a liaison between a lady from the house (Belton House) and one of the servants (said to be a groom)”. It was also said Frank was then “adopted and raised by a family in London and that he was a ‘true cockney’ – born within the sound of the Bow Bells” but his accent was “educated” and that some time in his life “he spent some time in India, having been sent there having ‘disgraced himself'”.
To ‘support’ this story it is also said “a strong family likeness exists between Frank Brown and some of the Brownlow family”.
Again there is no evidence to support this, to be honest, incredibly farfetched tale. With regards to ‘India’, Frank has been located as living in London for each Census since his birth to 1891 – the year prior to his marriage to Polly. I acknowledge he could have travelled to India during a time between the ten-yearly Censuses but personally I do not believe any element of the story.
As I mentioned earlier, records show when in Grantham, certainly at the time of his wedding, Frank lived at 24, Manthorpe Road. Above right is a photograph taken by myself in 1999 of Manthorpe Road, Grantham. House number 24 has since been demolished but still standing is the adjoining house – number 26, pictured on the far right. After reviewing the 1886 Ordinance Survey map together with this photograph it is clear number 24 was attached to this strip of narrow terraced house. Part of a Jet petrol station stands where 24, Manthorpe Road, Grantham once stood.
Next Page: Polly the Housekeeper – the probable truth