Helena Jeffery was the tenth and last child of William and Elizabeth Jeffery. She was born on Friday 30 November 1855 at the Jeffery farm at Burrow Woods, near Wiggaton, on the southern outskirts of Ottery St Mary. Helena’s father was 52 years old when she was born, and successfully farmed 85 acres, extended to 103 acres by 1861. He was a well-to-do and respected farmer, and employed a number of labourers.
The family had a rural upbringing. William’s brother George was farming nearby. However, schooling and urban life were not very far away as the market town of Ottery St Mary was just 3 km to the north.
By the mid 1860s the Jeffery family moved to Ottery St Mary to own the Five Bells Inn located on Mill Street. So, at an early age, Helena was introduced to and exposed to inn-keeping life that remained with her throughout the rest of her life.
The Five Bells was a well-constructed inn, unlike many of the thatch-covered houses and shops nearby. It was perhaps this construction that enabled the family and inn to survive the biggest event in the town’s history: the great fire on Friday 25 May 1866. That was the day when a quarter of the town was burnt to the ground. The fire started in a cottage behind Jesu Street near the centre of the town, where, apparently, a householder lost control when burning some papers. The fire spread to Yonder Street then Mill Street, where the Five Bells Inn was located. The fire raged through the town and within four hours 111 houses were destroyed and 500 people were rendered homeless, but there was no loss of life.
There is no record that the Jeffery family suffered any loss. It is therefore likely that the inn would have been a temporary home and meeting place for those displaced by the fire. The Ottery St Mary fire would have undoubtedly been a life-enduring memory for Helena Jeffery who was just ten years old at the time. It was an experience she would directly face yet again later in her life.
Although the great fire was the biggest event in Ottery St Mary’s history, there was an even bigger event in Helena’s own personal life. At the age of 17 Helena found herself pregnant to James Selwood.
We do not know, and can only guess, how and where James and Helena met, but probably in Ottery St Mary, possibly working on the Burrow Wood farm. Helena, living in Ottery St Mary, Devonshire, was some 220 km away from where James’s family lived in Buscot, Berkshire. We can only surmise how they met up, but it was definitely not by way of an internet or even paper-based dating service! James was a gamekeeper and an agricultural labourer. Perhaps he had opportunity to work in Devon, or perhaps he was interested in the source of all the cheese arriving overland from Devonshire, Gloucestershire, and other western dairying counties, to the Cheese Wharf adjacent to his home on the upper Thames River before its 4-5 day shipment downstream to the city of London. We are only guessing, but we do know, through DNA analysis, that James Selwood was indeed the father of Helena’s firstborn.
Helena was pregnant and unmarried. At that time in England, and in most other parts of the western world, an unmarried pregnant woman, or a mother out of wedlock, was regarded as a “fallen woman”. Often the father of a child in this situation had moved on, unaware of the consequences of his relationship, or he may even have disavowed ownership. Moreover, the mother’s family may have seen it as a stigma on them and sought to isolate or hide their daughter, or even disown her. This may have happened to Helena as she gave birth to her baby not at the family home, the Five Bells Inn at Ottery St Mary, but rather at her parents’ farm in the country at Burrow Woods.
Helena gave birth to her first child, Henry, on 30 May 1874 at the Wiggaton farm. No father was recorded on the birth certificate. Helena herself registered the birth on 3 July 1874. One month later, Helena, at the age of 18, with her baby in her arms, had left her family and Devon and shifted to Buscot, Berkshire, and to the Selwood family. There is no information to indicate Helena had a close association with her Devon family after that.
The Helena and James story continues in the Buscot section, but first a little more information about the Ottery St Mary district.