Monday, 8 May 2017

The Mystery of Mary Checkley

Time to don the deerstalker, press your lips to your pipe (a bubble one, of course) and fish out your magnifying glass, as we have a new mystery for you from The Balfour Blogger.

This is a short piece about a letter from the Balfour Papers. It’s short because we have a fascinating letter about which we know very little and we’re hoping that by throwing that little out to all of you, someone’s going to come back with some or all the missing pieces of the jigsaw.

In Box 22, bundle 10, item 15, of the Balfour papers, there is a letter from Mary Checkley at the Malt Shovel, Solihull, near Birmingham, to Colonel Belford, Cork, Ireland.
Orkney Archive Reference: D2/22/10 Item 15 (Click on photo to enlarge)
The letter is dated 16 February 1796 and it says


I have a Husband in your Regiment if living but have sent several letters but can get no answer from him so must conclude he is dead – which if so, please to give me a line and your petitioner will ever pray,

I am Sir Your most Hble [humble] Serv, [servant]

Mary Checkley

I’ve rooted about in Google and have found lots of references to the Malt Shovel at Solihull and it’s clearly an inn  dating back perhaps to the 17th Century but have not yet found a history of the Inn and who might have owned it in 1796, and what Mary Checkley’s connection to it is.

Similarly I’ve looked for Mary herself but other than finding lots of Checkleys around the Midlands, both as a place name and a surname, I’ve not found Mary herself or her husband, alive or dead.

I’ve not found Mr Checkley yet in the records of the North Lowland Fencibles Regiment. He may be in future boxes, still to yield up their many secrets, but he’s not obviously in boxes 1 to 21.

So …….. who is Mary? Who is her husband? Was he dead? Where and when and under what circumstances? Or was he just a bad correspondent? The Regiment was safe enough in Ireland, albeit illness might easily consume a man in the late 18th Century British Army.

And how much concerned was Mary that he might be dead? Did she mind? Was she bereft? Did she have another plan and her Checkley husband was surplus to requirements? Did she have children needing their father home again? What were her financial circumstances? Why had he taken the King’s shilling and left?

She has an elegant and strong hand, if Mary herself wrote the letter, and she expresses herself well, if baldly. She writes with some maturity, but did she write the letter? She doesn’t quite get the surname Balfour right, but even addressed to Colonel Belford, the letter gets to the Thomas Balfour, and she knows she has to write to him at Cork.

These are the bare bones of it all. Can anyone help add to the story? We would very much like to hear from you.
Posted on behalf of the Balfour Blogger.


  1. I may have a lead.
    I don't know where to find the rolls for the regiment online (if they are even available online). These two seem to fit the timeline and lived in the area. They had children after 1796 (James born 1797), if they are the right couple, he came home.

    Mary Cheesewright 1762 -1827 (Warwickshire) buried Foleshill
    William Checkley - 1765 -1823 (Nottingham) (Warwickshire) buried Foleshill

  2. I found an alternative lead to Wendy’s. Mine is a Mary Martin who married a John Checkley in Solihull on 1st June 1781. Both were noted as being “of this parish”. I also found baptism records for five children at the same church, born to a John Checkley and his wife Mary, who may reasonably be accepted as the same couple. The baptisms are as follows: Anne (26 Dec 1781), Mary (13 Jul 1783), Sarah (9 Jan 1785), Thomas (8 Apr 1787) and William (3 Jan 1790). As was fairly common, Mary was already pregnant when she married. There is a burial for a Mary Checkley, wife of John Checkley, in Birmingham St Mary on 19th June 1833 which could be our Mary, the burial record states “Cheapside” in Birmingham as the place of death and her age as 70. If this is our Mary, she moved from Solihull to Birmingham, possibly to live with one of her children. I will follow up on the children to see whether I can shed any light on their further lives. One last point of note is that both John and Mary sign the marriage registry entry with an “X”, so if this is the right Mary, she must have had help with the letters. This is not to say that Wendy’s lead is incorrect; she may well have been passing through Solihull when she wrote and not resident there at all. I’ll report back if I find any developments.

  3. Thank you Wendy and thank you edsmum! I love it when we get comments beginning 'I may have a lead' or ending 'I'll report back...'

    The best bit if working in an archive is pretending that you are a detective.

    (The worst bit is the absolute havoc the humidity-controlled atmosphere plays with our hair and skin. We are martyrs to split ends...)

    1. I love this sort of stuff. Just wonderful and so interesting.

  4. We love it too Flora! Thanks for reading.


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