Date:January 06, 2013

Nellie Shellaker


Life at the Nursery

The pressure of looking after this old gentleman, together with the strains of being a newly married wife, led Nellie to have what would now be described as a ‘nervous breakdown’ or ‘depression’. This continued to trouble her for many years. She was usually a very easygoing person but she would often become very worried & upset sometimes over very trivial things. However these mood swings did not last very long.

Sarah, Nellie & Emma ShellakerSix months after Nellie returned to Billesdon, on 7th July 1913, her mother  MARY SHELLAKER (née Grocock) died. Her funeral service was held at the Baptist chapel in the village and afterwards she was buried in the local cemetery in the same grave in which her husband had been buried nine years before.

Nellie’s mother had reached her seventy-fifth year, at this time Nellie was thirty-four years old. At the time of her death Mary Shellaker not living at the Lodge Farm but was living in Front Street in the village of Billesdon.

It is reported that upon her death that Mary Shellaker asked her oldest daughter, Sarah, “to look after Nellie.” Subsequently Sarah came to live with the family, primarily to help Nellie look after John Brown’s Grandfather. Sarah who was around fifty-two, was to stay with the family for the rest of her life until her death in 1953 at the age of 90 years. The picture on the left shows Sarah (on the left) and Nellie (centre) several years earlier when Sarah and Nellie lived at Billesdon Lodge Farm. On the right is another sister – Emma Shellaker.

Nellie Shellaker's home - The Nursery, Back Street, BillesdonThe family’s new home was the Nursery in Back Street, Billesdon. The house, on the right in the centre of the photograph, was thatched and was reportedly over five hundred years old. The house was located at the end of the drive that lead to ‘The Academy’, where the young John Brown originally lived with his grandparents. The northern boundary of the house is on the edge of the Billesdon Brook, which in turn is adjoined to land owned by the Baptist chapel.

Three cottages had previously occupied the chapel land affronting the road but they had been demolished several years before.

An interesting story may have been attached to this house before the Nellie and John came to live there….

Nonconformity in Billesdon
It is believed that one of the previous owners of this house were the Underwood family and, like the families of both Nellie and John, they held strong nonconformists beliefs. Following the Reformation it was illegal for five or more people to assemble for worship in a manner other than in accordance with the Church of England. However changes in the law allowed such meeting provided permission was sought from the relevant authorities. List of meeting houses were listed under ‘Rolls of Dissenters’.

Such historical records relating to nonconformists activity in Billesdon have survived –  In Billesdon several nonconformist meeting houses were recorded; records show that in 1719 a Protestant conventicle, (which was a secret or unlawful religious meeting, especially held by ‘dissenters) was held in Thomas Neale’s house and in 1779 there was another in the house of Samuel Ireland. Registrations of meeting houses in Billesdon were also made in 1811, by Robert Pearson (of Friar Lane church) and by John Lewis for a house called the Red House, and again in 1813. The location of these houses has not been identified, although the registration of the meeting house by Robert Pearson in 1811, mentioned above, was actually for the Baptist chapel in Back Street at which the first service was held on Easter Monday 1813.

In the history of the Billesdon Baptist chapel is an account written by a Charles Harry Underwood (1852-1931) who was a grandson of Henry Underwood (1766/7-1839), who is known to have lived at the house later occupied by Nellie and John Brown. It is therefore possible that the story below relates to this house.

… there lived in the village of Billesdon . . . in the middle of the eighteenth century, one Henry Underwood, who was engaged in a fair way of business which covered the district for miles round…. Cottage services were commenced in this good man’s house to which neighbours and friends were invited. These services were deemed irregular by the State Church folk of the village and much bitter persecution followed.

One dark Sunday night some “lewd fellows of the baser sort” were determined to end these unauthorised efforts. They fastened with ropes all the windows and doors during the singing of the hymns, then ascending the low thatched roof placed a bag over the top of the chimney, arresting the escape of the smoke, and causing the room where the service was being held to be filled to suffocation. Being well secure, neither doors nor windows could be opened to allow the smoke an exit. Then, when the confusion and disorder was most apparent, the bag was removed from the top of the chimney and a large black retriever dog was pushed down the wide chimney into the midst of the excited villagers. The screams of the women and the angry loud voices of the men were heard for a long distance.

Soon after this, owing mainly to the efforts of Henry Underwood, the General Baptist Chapel was built, and the Church unanimously elected him Deacon. A tablet in the Chapel records his death in 1839 & also that “for 30 years he served the office of Deacon well.”

Some years ago I asked Nellie’s daughter Olive if the width of the chimney at the old Nursery was of a size which would have accommodated a ‘large black retriever dog’. Her answer…..‘No’. Make of this story what you will.

ohn Brown at The Nursery in Back Street, BillesdonJohn Brown continued his business as a nurseryman. He was a very good wreath maker who would supply around twenty to thirty wreaths when a local person died. These were made on a wire foundation with grass and wired flowers fixed into it. The method was to insert the wire and then bend it underneath making it secure.

Various people would assist John in this task throughout the years. One such person was Annie Geary, the daughter of Nellie’s sister Emma, another was Mary Curtis, Emma’s illegitimate daughter. The picture on the right is Mary, with John Brown, working at the Nursery.

Besides making wreaths & bouquets bedding plants were grown. Spring was a very busy time. Firstly the seeds would be sown in boxes, a few weeks later the little plants would be ‘pricked out’ into another box with a layer of manure at the bottom with a covering of sieved soil.

Cuttings of various plants were grown in the same way. In the summer tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers were grown.

Autumn was the time for bringing in the late flowering chrysanthemums; One of the men would dig up the plants and then pass it to another one of the workers, male or female, who again passed it on until it reached John Brown who would be on his knees in the biggest of the greenhouses where the plant was carefully replanted close together. As they came into flower the blooms were cut. At Christmas Holly wreaths were made by the same method as for the funeral wreaths but with Holly berries wired in. A number of houseplants were also grown in pots, mainly cyclamen, primula and cineraria.

For those of you who know the village of Billesdon, but cannot place the above picture, let me explain where this picture was taken. You  can maybe relate to the other picture of this house shown earlier. The photographer would have been standing a few yards along the drive to the Academy with their back to that building but facing towards Back Street (now known as Brook Lane). If you were to walk through the double gates on the left of this picture you would step into Back Street. The Nursery was located between The Academy driveway and the brook adjoining the Baptist Chapel Garden, which would be on the photographer’s right.

John Brown at this time was teaching at the Sunday School at the Baptist chapel. Nellie was also playing an active roll as it is recorded in the Chapel records that ‘Mrs Brown undertook a duty of entertaining of the Preacher on Sundays, a task which she so willingly and ably performed’.

Nellie’s ‘grandfather-in-law’ died on Sunday 25th April 1915. The entry in the Baptist Union Handbook for the following year records that – “…he was called home to rest, at the advanced age of ninety-three years, and thus ended a long and useful career, a life of unblemished character, and of quiet, unobtrusive work for the Master whom he loved.”


Next Page: John & Nellie start a Family