Cultural Capital Gallery Contributors:
The Shelleys
Family of Literary Figures
- Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), William Godwin (1756-1836), Mary Shelley née Godwin (1797-1851), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), Sir Percy Florence Shelley (1819-89), Lady Jane Shelley (1820-1899).

Three early notable literary figures who did not live locally but were later buried here, in the family tomb in Bournemouth, were the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and her partner the political freethinker and author William Godwin, and their daughter Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and wife of the poet Percy Shelley. The poet Shelley’s heart is also reportedly buried in the same family tomb, in the centre of Bournemouth.

Mary Shelley as the author of Frankenstein is the best-known of the family today, but her parents were both famous figures of their time, with not just literary but political reputations. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is best-known as the author of the 1793 feminist treatise A Vindication of the Rights Of Women. Her partner William Godwin (1756-1836) is best-known as the author of Political Justice (1793) and the pioneering social-issue suspense-novel Caleb Williams (1794),

Her parents' fame meant that Mary grew up among literary figures of the day, and this is how she came to write her most famous work, Frankenstein. It was the result of a getogether with Byron, her future husband Percy Shelley, and two other leading figures in the Gothic movement. One rainy weekend, Byron suggested each of the group think up a supernatural story, and this inspired Mary to draft the beginnings of what became Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus, which was first published in 1818.

Frankenstein was adapted for the stage, cinema and tv countless times, and became the foundation of the science-fiction story featuring mad or misguided scientists who create monstrous life forms which escape their control. There are also biopic behind-the-scenes versions, where Mary herself appears, as in this 2003 BBC production, starring Lucy Davenport, Mary Shelley: The Birth Of Frankenstein.

Above: stills from the 1986 Ken Russell film Gothic, which attempted to recreate that June 1816 getogether on the shores of Lake Geneva.

Mary's parents only married belatedly after many years of acquaintance. Similarly, their daughter Mary did not marry her husband until the poet was widowed by the suicide of his first wife. He drowned in a storm off Italy in 1822, and only one of their children survived that date: the youngest, Percy Florence Shelley, whose middle name derived from the Italian city he was born in. He would later settle in Bournemouth and be responsible for the family tomb being relocated down here, in 1851.
Mary had her mother and later her father buried at Old St Pancras churchyard in London as she did some of her teenage courting here in Gothic style (she met the poet Shelley when she was only 15). The bodies of both parents were moved down from Old St Pancras in London in 1851, when the graveyard was being dug up to make way for the new railway.


 Sir Percy Florence Shelley and Lady Jane Shelley

Sir Percy Florence Shelley (1819-89); no image survives of his wife Lady Jane Shelley (1820-1899).

The poet's one surviving son, Sir Percy Florence Shelley, and his wife Lady Jane Shelley took up residence in 1851 at the Boscombe lodge they had planned as a final retirement home for Mary Shelley. Together they turned it into a local cultural centre, hosting local entertainments at private parties. These often featured amateur theatricals, which Sir Percy sometimes wrote or acted in himself. An annex was constructed on the side of the building, now known as Shelley Manor, for a 200-seat theatre; later this was relocated inside, to a purpose-made hall, which has recently been restored. Lady Jane was more interested in literary executor work, and edited various family letters to and from her parental in-laws into the first biographical works of the Godwin-Shelley clan.


One feature of this literary homage activity was the construction of an alcove, lit by a red lantern, with a casket supposedly containing the heart of the poet. When his drowned corpse was burnt in a bonfire on an Italian beach in 1822, a friend of Shelley's plucked the heart from the corpse, wrapped it up and conveyed it back to England, where the family kept it (or its ashes) in a casket until the death of Sir Percy (in a variant, of Lady Jane), when it was buried with her in the family tomb.
Sites Of Interest:  

St Peter’s Bournemouth

The Shelley tomb at St Peter’s Bournemouth, once called ‘the tomb of the talents’. The tomb is on a knoll on the right-hand side of the church, which stands in the centre of town, east of the Square.

Shelley Tomb & St Peters


To read inscription, click on photo for larger version.

Shelley Manor, Boscombe

In 1849, the poet's Florence-born son Percy Florence Shelley* bought a hall built in 1801 and known as Boscombe Alcove, Hall or Lodge. It was meant as a final retirement for his ailing mother Mary Shelley, but she died before it was ready.

*(There was a Sir Percy Florence Shelley pub in Boscombe, part of the Wetherspoon chain, commemorating the poet's Florence-born son, who became one of Bournemouth's leading cultural figures, establishing Boscombe's Shelley Manor nearby. The pub opened in 1998, and closed down in 2017.)

Later, Shelley Manor was sold and fell into disrepair after a lengthy legal dispute, and was only saved from demolition by a local campaign. From 1979, there was a small museum here, which for a time was the world's only Shelley Museum, but it closed down in the 1990s. The building was sold and redeveloped as private flats and a medical centre, but as a result of the long-running local campaign the Shelley Theatre was recently restored as a community theatre space. It re-opened in 2010 with a performance of ... Frankenstein.

The Mary Shelley pub-restaurant
This is sited opposite St Peter’s Bournemouth, where the family tomb is.

The Shelley Memorial, Christchurch Priory

The family also commissioned a marble memorial to the drowned poet and his wife, which was placed in Christchurch Priory after St Peter’s Bournemouth refused it, as they did not want the church becoming a shrine to a notorious atheist. (Shelley had been expelled from Oxford University in 1811 for publishing a pamphlet titled The Necessity Of Atheism.)

The memorial stands inside to the right of the main doors.

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