Shelleys In England


The name “Shelley” appears to be locational in origin.  The word is said to have derived from the Old English word scyf or “shelf,” a ledge or plateau, and “ley”, a field or clearing, and describes someone who lives at such a place.

The name is thought to have originated in Essex.  There is in fact a small hamlet called Shelley near Chipping Ongar in the county.  A manor of that name has existed on the edge of Epping Forest since pre-Domesday times. But other early sightings of the name can be found elsewhere, in Suffolk and West Yorkshire.  Those who have studied the origin of surnames believe that the current cluster and distribution of a particular name gives us a lot of clues as to where the name originated. People do move around.  But not so much or so far as you may think over generations.


Shelleys In England per thousand
Essex 0.45
Kent 0.15
Sussex 0.17
Hampshire 0.21
Staffordshire 0.43
West Midlands 0.29
England (average) 0.11

Essex is one concentration.  Richard Shelley, born in 1611 in the village of Bulmer on the Essex/Suffolk border, was the forebear to successive generations of blacksmiths in the area.  A line from there may have gone to Uriah Shelley who married in 1754 in the village of Rivenhall southeast of Braintree.  Today Rivenhall has the largest concentration of Shelleys in the county. 

The South East would be another concentration, where the name is equally distributed around Kent, Sussex, and Hampshire. 

Staffordshire is a third, from Stoke to Wolverhampton.  Shelley Potteries, in business from the 1750's until recently, has been a well-known name in Stoke.  Of more local interest was the Shelley beer in Hilderstone.  John Shelley was gamekeeper to Sir Richard Arkwright of Cromford in the late 18th century and James Shelley a charcoal dealer in Trysull near Wolverhampton in the mid 19th. 

Does the Shelley name in Staffordshire come from the same source?  Or does it have a slightly different origin?

And Ireland.  There are Irish Shelleys as well, but from very different roots.  Sealbhach (pronounced "shallvig" or "shallvee") was an ancient local chieftain in the Cork area.  His kinsmen were known as O'Sealbhach. 

When the English invaded Ireland, they could not pronounce or spell the Irish surnames and consequently many got corrupted.  Names such as Shelvey and Shelley appeared.  And the Shelley name has continued in and around Cork since that time.

Shelleys in the South East

Shelleys here had the luck or the opportunity to become landed gentry.

Kent.  A Shelley name in Kent can be traced to the 1380's and the Shottys manor house in Knockholt near Sevenoaks.  They must have been a family of some substance.  Richard Shelley, the rector of the village,  left a substantial will on his death in 1413.  And you can still find a Shelley's Lane there today.  Later on, the family moved to Hall Place in Bexley where they lived until early Elizabethan times.

There were ties by marriage to Sir Francis Walsingham, a poiltical force at the time, at Chislehurst nearby.  Henry Shelley from here set sail in 1609 on the Sea Venture in a mission to rescue the New World colonists at Jamestown.  The party didn't succeed in their venture as the vessel got shipwrecked off Bermuda.  But Henry Shelley did leave his name to one of the beautiful beaches there.

Sussex.  Shelleys in Sussex were recorded in Rye in East Sussex in the early 14th century.  Thomas Shelley was knighted for his services to King Richard II, but then lost his head (literally) when the King was deposed. From his brother William came:

For three centuries thereafter, the Shelleys were landed gentry in Sussex, with various branches in West and East Sussex. The branch in East Sussex, which later moved to Avington in Hampshire, included the black sheep of the family, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. As befits a family of this stature, the Shelleys had a coat of arms. Their shield is black with a gold horizontal band and with three gold seashells placed around this band (a somewhat bogus touch as the name “Shelley” had no connection with seashells).

The Michelgrove Shelleys were buried in Clapham Church in Sussex.  In 1772, Sir John Shelley composed the following loving epitaph to his wife which is enscribed there.

"Here Lyeth the Body of Wilhelmina Shelley
Who departed this Life the 21st of March 1772
Aged Twenty three years.

She was a pattern for the World to follow:
Such a being both in form and mind perhaps never existed before.
A more dutiful, affectionate, and Virtuous Wife,
A more tender and Anxious parent,
A more sincere and constant Friend,
A more amiable and elegant companion;
Universally Benevolent, generous, and humane;
The Pride of her own Sex,
The admiration of ours.

She lived universally beloved, and admired;
She died as generally revered, and regretted,
A loss felt by all who had the happiness of knowing Her,
By none to be compared to that of her disconsolate, affectionate, Loving,
And in this World everlastingly Miserable Husband,
Who has caused this inscription to be engraved."

The Shelleys were in general old-fashioned Catholics and paid for their allegiance at times.

By the turn of the 19th century, they appeared to have frittered their inheritance away (Sir John was described by his wife Lady Frances as "a gamester and a horse-racing nobleman of not too obvious a reputation").  Most of their estates in Sussex were sold. 

Even so, three centuries of landowning did leave a lot of Shelley names around the county.