The Rossendale Rambler

Ellen Strange - Fact and Fiction

by Walter Waide

But ere we bid the "Hill" a fond farewell,
List, and I will a painful story tell,
While Love and Murder and Remorse exchange
Sad places in the tale of Ellen Strange:
A country maid whose heart was full of truth,
At "Ashfarm" passing guileless days of youth.
Spotless as winter's snow her woman's fame,
Her daily actions free from worldly blame;
And, till the light of love shone in her eyes,
No blither lassie liv'd beneath the skies ...
A man in form, but devil from the womb,
A fiend on this side, and beyond the tomb!
Such was the "packman" who, by Satan's aid,
Won the fair love of this misguided maid.
Tho' Ellen had been brought her love to own,
Ne'er had she met her lover all alone,
Her guardian angel bade her answer, "No",
When oft and o'er again he wish'd it so,
Feeling instinctively a kind of dread
Of some misfortune hanging o'er her head.
A manly friend mistrustful of the Scot,
Always saw Ellen to the trysting-spot,
Then kept aloof, yet watch'd the wooing pair,
T'was Ellen's wish, so all was right and fair.
At length, through love's reproach or cruel threat
Alas! she came alone, - and so they met!
And so they met! but how shall I proceed?
My muse is loth to tell so dark a deed;
And so they met! in their embrace of blood,
And murder'd Ellen fac'd a frowning God!
The villain fled across the ghostly heath,
O'er Flaxmoss, and the Red Brook stretch'd beneath,
And red and reeking truly was its wave
To him who hurried to a murderer's grave!
Yon, where the chisell'd pavement lengthy lies,
O'er which the woman-killer, panting, hies,
Tradition says (and seldom she's a liar),
At every step his foot struck 'venging fire!
No further will we track the man of blood,
But leave him to his conscience - and to God!
A heap of stones still marks the fatal spot,
To tempt aside the curious stranger's foot;
Not pick'd and carted there in careless loads
From off the heather and the mountain-roads,
But one by one by trembling fingers laid
Down to the memory of this hapless maid;
And to this present, wandering lovers, dear,
Still drop a stony tribute, and a tear.

Having been fascinated with the story of Ellen Strange since I first came across the sad little cairn on Holcombe Moor, I was stimulated by Brian Weeds’ article in the last issue of the Rambler to delve further. I determined that I should get hold of the book, by John Simpson, he referred to which has, indeed, enlightened me as to what might actually have happened to the unfortunate woman who was so brutally murdered in the mid-18th century. The version of events which was related to me when I first became interested, was probably the standard one that people had been fed by word-of-mouth over the last two hundred years. This was that a young woman, making her way back from Haslingden Fair to her home near Bolton, was attacked, raped and killed at the spot where the cairn now stands.

The poem at the head of this item was written in 1872 by John Fawcett Skelton, a Bolton man, and appears to be the first published record of the events which occurred almost a hundred years before. It describes a romantic version of events where Ellen Strange became hopelessly involved with a ‘packman’ or ‘Scotchman’ as peddlers were known as at the time. The poem goes onto say that normally she would have a male friend accompany her when she went to meet her sweetheart, who would keep a watchful eye on the courting couple. On the fateful day however, this gentleman appears not to have been available and they met in an ‘embrace of blood’.

What followed then was subsequently developed, I suspect from the reference to the ‘devil’ at the beginning of the poem, to the murderer making a pact with Satan to make good his escape. This apparently gave him the ability to move so fast from the scene of the crime that a Mr. Henry Stephenson, a headmaster of a local church school, wrote in his diary in 1878 that so rapid was his speed that "his clogs struck fire every step he took, as he came up Flaxmoss".

John Simpson’s book goes on to mention a variety of accounts mentioning Ellen’s sad demise, right up to a national publication by the Automobile Association, ‘Secret Britain’, published in 1986. All the accounts seemed variations on a theme but all were quite sure that the miscreant confessed his sins, was tried and hanged at Lancaster Assizes and subsequently gibbetted on Bull Hill, by which passed the main road between Haslingden and Bolton at the time.

In 1978 a bizarre ceremony was performed at the cairn by a Mr Bob Frith, an artist and sculptor who claimed that he had single-handedly saved both the cairn and the story from oblivion. It involved a theatre company performing a sort of exorcism of the horror of what was supposed to have taken place and also the placing of the little stone column, carved with the representation of Ellen Strange, which is still there today. This event was criticised by a number of local people and led to members of the Helmshore Local History Society setting out to discover the facts about what happened. This was to take some ten years and a lot of work but eventually a more plausible and almost totally different series of events were revealed:

Painstaking research of old records suggested that Ellen Strange was murdered between midnight and one o’clock on the 26th January 1761. Records of an inquest some 2 days later described her death in some detail. She was however called Ellen Broadley and had been married to John Broadley, a labourer from Clayton-le-Moors, for some ten years and it was he who had been accused of the murder. Both she and John had been described as paupers almost ten years earlier and had been moved on by the Poor Laws of the day. Their relationship may well have been a fairly violent one and the couple may have moved around looking for work. There is also some evidence to suggest that they regularly visited local hostelries and during the evening before the murder, there may well have been a quarrel between Ellen and John, after which she might have tried to make her way to the Strange family home at Ash Farm, near Hawkshaw. The moon was full on the night in question and for Ellen to make her way across the moor, it must also have been a clear night. It was assumed that John Broadley, probably drunk, pursued her and overtook her on the moor and there killed her.

Broadley was tried at Lancaster Assizes but was acquitted of the murder, largely because there appeared no witnesses to the deed; this was not unusual at the time and it may even have been that John himself raised the alarm to try and divert suspicion from himself. He went on to live another seven years, his death being recorded at Church Kirk on the 24th December 1768.

Not at all the romantic but bloody story that has for so long been passed from one generation to another but certainly one that is a little more believable. I for one will be more willing to "drop a stony tribute" and maybe even a tear when I pass the cairn in the future.

I am grateful to John Simpson for letting me use excerpts from his book and for discussing the book with me at some length over the telephone.

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Content Copyright © 1998. Walter Waide