The history of Mr Jelley
Mr Jelley was a mercurial medic who befriended and attended to the Butler family in the 1880s and 90s. It turns out this was the same Henry Percy Jelley who later found fame – not to mention notoriety – as the ‘Threepenny Doctor of Hackney’.
Jelley became a folk hero in the late Edwardian era for providing cheap, if unconventional, medical care to working class people in the Homerton district of East London. He boasted of treating 100 patients an hour and running the ‘greatest practice in the world’. Erratic and eccentric, he was known to ride a tricycle around the local area. Whether this was a Butler Omnicycle we can only speculate.
In 1916, after numerous brushes with the law, he was charged with the murder of a woman on whom he had allegedly performed an illegal abortion and who had subsequently died of sepsis in Hackney Infirmary. At his trial he told the judge he had been practising medicine since 1872 (i.e. since the age of six!) despite not having officially qualified until 1910. He was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude for manslaughter.
Edwin’s diaries fill some of the gaps in the historical record of Jelley’s earlier life, long before he set up his Homerton practice. He first appears in 1888, when he would have been just 22 years old. At the time he was living in London and working as a pharmacist. In July of that year, he sent over a ‘potent draught’ – some sort of sleep medication – for Edwin’s brother Henry, a chronic insomniac. That autumn, he spent quite a lot of time with the Butlers, even helping Edwin with his delivery rounds.
Jelley visited Wokingham regularly in the years that followed, either for pleasure or to attend to members of the family in a professional capacity, often staying overnight. It seems he acted as carer (at least for a while) for Edwin’s youngest brother James, who had epilepsy. Edwin’s wife Bertha also occasionally went up to London to consult him. In 1890, 1892 and 1893 he even spent two-week summer holidays with the family in Wokingham and surrounds. Edwin always refers to him simply as ‘Mr Jelley’.
The first hint at Jelley’s volatile nature comes in July 1889, when, according to Edwin, ‘going home, he was thrown out of the railway carriage at Feltham, and somewhat hurt’.
In 1893, Jelley bought a farm on Rowly Common some 30 miles south-east of Wokingham. That autumn, Bertha’s parents James and Lucy Sale, who were perennially in financial difficulty, moved in there together with their youngest daughter Eva Nellie, who was about 24 years old at the time. At some point during this period, Jelley became romantically involved with Eva.
Early in 1895, a conflict erupted between the Sale family and Jelley, who threatened ‘to sever the connecting of himself with this house’. Whether this was over Jelley’s relationship with Eva we can only speculate. Bertha visited him twice at his London residence to reason with him, but to no avail.
A month later, Jelley had a serious run-in with the tenants at his Rowly farm (which the Sales had evidently vacated by that time). This led to what may have been the first of his many appearances before a judge.
DAMAGES FOR EVICTION
Mr. Henry Jelley, a dispenser at Highgate, is the owner of a pleasure farm near Guildford, into the possession of which he placed Mr. James Hunt and his wife. Being displeased with something that occurred, Mr. Jelley wrote to the Hunts to leave the farm, and on going there and finding them still in possession, he, it is said, resorted to measures which substantially amounted to eviction. Mrs. Hunt brought an action against Mr. Jelley for assault; this was tried on Wednesday by Mr. Justice Grantham and a jury, who awarded the plaintiff a hundred pounds damages.The Standard, Thursday, 28 March 1895
Apart from a brief visit to Wokingham in 1896, Jelley does not appear in the diaries again for several years. However, we do know that he and Eva married at some point and had a son called Harold (born on 25 February 1896, a year after the rift arose). Eva and the baby visited the Butlers from Kettering in August 1897, but otherwise Eva is scarcely mentioned in this period either.
Then, in March 1899, ‘Mr Jelley, Mrs J and Harold’ paid Edwin a surprise visit. By then they had left Kettering and were relocating to Newbury. In June, Edwin cycled over to Newbury to see them.
Jelley was indeed keeping five cows on a nearby farm. Edwin visited the couple twice more that summer. Relations between the two sides had clearly thawed – at least to some extent.
This flirtation with farming soon fizzled out. In September 1900, Jelley departed from Liverpool for Africa to serve as Assistant Surgeon to the Ashanti expedition, leaving Eva and Harold in the Butlers’ care. ‘His father gave him his outfit, and he came over here a great swell,’ Edwin wrote.
How the flamboyant Mr Jelley and the staid Edwin came to be friends is never explained. Just how close they remained, though, is clear from the fact that Jelley was near the front of the procession of mourners at Bertha’s funeral in 1901, the last year in which Jelley features in the diaries.
Henry Jelley eventually qualified formally as a doctor in 1910 at the age of 44. On his examination application forms, he claimed to have arrived in Glasgow from America with his family in 1904. In the 1911 census of England and Wales, he is listed as single and as cohabiting with Harold Sale, a ‘servant’ aged 15, born in New York, USA. This oblique reference to his son is presumably Jelley just being his usual recalcitrant self.
Jelley died in Glasgow in December 1944 at the age of 79. His death certificate, signed by Harold, gives ‘Eva Nellie Sale’ as his first wife. Despite extensive searches, we have not been able to establish when and where they were wed. What became of Eva is likewise elusive; we can find no official record of her at all after the 1891 census.
Jelley’s later life, including his marriage to his second wife, 17-year-old Florrie Glenham, in August 1911 and his 1916 trial for murder, is described in detail in Andrea Tanner’s fascinating 2002 article for the Journal of Medical Biography, The Threepenny Doctor: Henry Percy Jelley of Hackney. In 1974, the Centreprise project in Hackney, led by social historian Ken Worpole, published a highly entertaining booklet of local recollections about Dr Jelley and his wild eccentricities: The Threepenny Doctor: Dr Jelley of Hackney. More information is available in Dr Worpole’s March 2023 blog article on Dr Jelley.
We thank both Dr Tanner and Dr Worpole for their help with the research for this piece. Any errors or omissions are those of the author (Simon Vollam).