Tag Archives: Batley Carr

Fantastical Legends, Fables and Mythology from the Batley and Dewsbury Areas: Featuring the Countess of Sussex and the Killer Lion

As the nights draw in, and Halloween approaches, there are some intriguing folklore tales – indeed some very reminiscent of traditional childhood fairy tales – from the Batley and Dewsbury areas. Some are well-known; others less so. Here are a selection.


A well-known local legend is that of the ghost of Captain Batt at Oakwell Hall. No lesser person than Elizabeth Gaskell wrote about it in The Life of Charlotte Brontë.

She said of the Hall:

It stands in a rough-looking pasture-field, about a quarter of a mile from the high road. It is but that distance from the busy whirr of the steam-engines employed in the woollen mills of Birstall; and if you walk to it from Birstall Station about meal-time, you encounter strings of mill-hands, blue with woollen dye and cranching in hungry haste over the cinder-paths bordering the high road. Turning off from this to the right, you ascend through an old pasture-field, and enter a short by-road, called the “Bloody Lane” – a walk haunted by the ghost of a certain Captain Batt, the reprobate proprietor of an old hall close by, in the days of the Stuarts. From the “Bloody Lane,” overshadowed by trees, you come into the rough-looking field in which Oakwell Hall is situated. It is known in the neighbourhood to be the place described as “Field Head,” Shirley’s residence. The enclosure in front, half court, half garden; the panelled hall, with the gallery opening into the bed-chambers running round; the barbarous peach-coloured drawing-room; the bright look-out through the garden-door upon the grassy lawns and terraces behind, where the soft-hued pigeons still love to coo and strut in the sun, — are all described in “Shirley.”

Gaskell’s book goes on to describe the appearance of a bloody footprint in a bedchamber of Oakwell Hall. She reveals the story behind it, and its connection with the lane by which the Hall is approached.

Captain Batt was believed to be far away; his family was at Oakwell; when in the dusk, one winter evening, he came stalking along the lane, and through the hall, and up the stairs, into his own room, where he vanished. He had been killed in a duel in London that very same afternoon of December 9th, 1684.1

Oakwell Hall, with the original Warrens (or Bloody) Lane to the left as you look. The lane was re-routed with the building of a railway line, in 1900. It was also re-named Warren Lane – Photo by Jane Roberts

William Batt’s burial is recorded in the parish register of Birstall St Peter’s on 30 December 1684.2

Birstall St Peter’s Churchyard – Photo by Jane Roberts

A local roving non-conformist minister and gossipy diarist, the Rev. Oliver Heywood, gives more snippets of information about William Batt’s death. In his vellum book, which contained a register of various baptism, marriage and burial events, he noted in the burials section:

398 Mr Bat: in sport. 16843

Another publication of the Rev. Heywood’s varied documents has a further notation of the burial containing more details. No year is indicated but the entry is clearly referring to the death of William Batt:

Mr. Bat of Okewell a young man slain by Mr. Gream at Barne(t) near London buried at Burstall Dec. 304

Other sources indicate the duel was the result of a debt, possibly related to gambling.

And, although William Batt’s ghost has associations with ‘Bloody Lane,’ this footpath does not owe its name to him. ‘Bloody Lane,’ or Warrens Lane (now Warren Lane) to give it its proper name, earned its gruesome nickname as a result of the English Civil War Battle of Adwalton Moor of 30 June 1643. This was the likely route the defeated, fleeing Parliamentarian troops took to leave the battlefield.

Who knows whether the tale of William Batt’s spirit returning home is true? But it is as tale which has been passed down through the generations, and it is one still told today to Oakwell Hall visitors.


The 1662 publication Mirabilis Annus Secondus; or, the Second Year of Prodigies describes signs and apparitions seen in the Heavens (sky), Earth (land) and Waters in the months from April 1661 to June 1662. The section dealing with strange land-based sensations includes the following phenomenon from Batley from May 1662:

…at a Town called Batley in Yorkshire, about four miles from Wakefield, in the Ground of one Michael Dawson, about the Carr belonging to that Town, a man climbing up into an Oak-tree to cut boughs, perceived his clothes to be very much stained with Blood; and upon search, he found the under-side of the Oak-leaves to be all bloody, not only in that Tree, but in another also not far from it. Several of the Leaves of the said Trees were afterwards sent abroad to divers persons in the Country, who had a desire to see them, and the Blood was dried upon them, and they seemed as if they had been coloured and dyed therewith. This is a very certain truth, and attested by many eye-witnesses.5

The blood-like substance was possibly to be the result of a disease to the tree. But it caused a sensation back in 1662.


The next peculiar mythology centres around Batley Parish Church. It is described as follows:

On the eastern end of the outside of Batley Church, under the shade of the great eastern window, there is a not common tombstone; insomuch as on its centre there is a small brass plate, in size about eight inches by six, which once had upon it an inscription but can now only boast of a few unintelligible letters. The centre of this brass plate is worn hollow by a strange process. A tradition is current that any one who will put his hands upon this plate, and at the same time look up at the great coloured window – dedicated people say to the memory of a drunken woman – for five minutes he will not be able to take his hands off again. The appearance of the plate testifies to the popularity as well as the untruthfulness of this popular fit.6

Batley Parish Church – Photo by Jane Roberts

Unfortunately these old tombstones were cleared from the churchyard, and it is therefore no longer possible to identify the one attracting the attention of adventurous 19th century Batley townsfolk. I wonder if anyone knows who it belonged to?


Mystical stories would not be complete without a haunted house. And, according to turn of the twentieth century accounts, one existed at Dewsbury. Located on Wakefield Road, some of the building dated to the time of Cromwell. It was part of the estate of a Manor House, the gardens and grounds of which stretched towards the Old Bank. It was an area thick with vegetation, with beauty spots in the Hollin[g]royd and Caulms Woods areas. A subterranean passage connected the two houses. Sections of this tunnel were in existence as late as the latter part of the nineteenth century.

The Haunted House, Thornhill

According to legend, after the death of one particularly wicked (and unnamed) Lord of the Manor, he was unable to rest in peace. His midnight rambles terrified the local inhabitants, who were driven in fear to consult a local priest. This brave priest managed to communicate with the Lord’s troubled and troublesome spirit. The spirit agreed to retire and never return while Hollin[g]royd Wood grew green.7 I wonder if he is back now the wood is no more?

Ordnance Survey Map showing Hollin[g]royd Wood and Wakefield Road – Six-inch England and Wales, 1842-1952, Yorkshire Sheet 247, Surveyed: 1850 to 1851, Published: 1855 – National Library of Scotland, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC-BY-NC-SA) licence

Purlwell Hall, which stood in the Mount Pleasant area of Batley, was also the subject of a romantic legend. The events, which are vaguely referred to as taking part in the mid-eighteenth century, centred around a young lady. Some versions say she was an orphan noted for her beauty, goodness and intellect, who lived with her aunt and uncle at the Hall.8 Others say she was the fairest and sweetest of three daughters of the household.9

Purlwell Hall in Olden Times

Two men vied for her hand in marriage. One was honest but poor. The other a rich, handsome Captain. Unsurprisingly for those who follow fairy tales, the young lady fell in love with the poor suitor. But, as happens in these stories, her family rejected her choice. As a result they kept her locked away in the library – a small, square room in the hall. Here she was to stay until she changed her mind. But her love for the poor, honest man did not waver. He was ever in her thoughts as she gazed longingly out of the window, towards the hills to the south, clearly visible in the smokeless sky – this was obviously before Batley became famous as a mill town, full of chimneys belching out smoke!

Ordnance Survey Map showing Purlwell Hall – Six-inch England and Wales, 1842-1952, Yorkshire Sheet 232, Surveyed: 1847 to 1851, Published: 1854 – National Library of Scotland, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC-BY-NC-SA) licence

The heart-broken girl whiled away the time in her prison etching a verse in the pane of one of the windows, with the diamond from a ring. Some say the ring belonged to her mother. Other more romantic accounts say it was from a ring given to her by her forbidden love. If so, he was not quite as poor as the tale makes out.

There are a number versions of this verse, one of which read:

Come, gentle Muse, wont to divert
Corroding cares from anxious heart;
Adjust me now to bear the smart
Of a relenting angry heart.
What though no being I have on earth,
Though near the place that gave me birth,
And kindred less regard to pay
Than thy acquaintance of to-day;
Know what the best of men declare,
That they on earth but strangers are,
No matter it a few years hence
How fortunate did to thee dispense,
If – in a palace though hast dwelt
Or – in a cell of penury felt –
Ruled as a Prince – served as a slave,
Six feet of earth is all thou’lt have.
Hence give my thoughts a nobler theme
Since all the world is but a dream
Of short endurance.10

Although there are no clues as to the period of time this lovesick damsel was incarcerated, given the length of the verse she etched it was clearly not a mere matter of days.

But, as in all good fairy tales, there was a happy ending. The captain tired of his hopeless pursuit of a fair lady who would never love him. Her parents (or adopted parents depending on the version), realising how much in love she was with the humble and honest suitor, relented; and Miss Taylor (as one version calls her) finally became the wife of her true love.

Is this based on true events? Who knows. However, what does seem beyond doubt, is the engraving on the window pane. This is as testified to by independent witnesses in the latter part of the 19th century when the Hall underwent renovations.


The next legend concerns Dewsbury Minster’s famous Christmas Eve Devil’s Knell. The tenor bell rings out in funereal manner once for every year since the birth of Christ to the present year, with the last toll falling on the stroke of midnight. The tolling is said to keep the parish safe from devilish pranks for the coming year.

Dewsbury Minster Church of All Saints – Photo by Jane Roberts

There are various dates given for the commencement of this custom. Some say the 13th century, others the 14th or 16th. It appears, if these earlier dates were the case, the custom did lapse, for the ringing is recorded as definitely taking place from 1828.

One folk-lore journal, published in 1888, mentions this Christmas Eve bell-ringing at Dewsbury.11 It outlines the custom to toll the bells that night, stating this was an acknowledgment that the devil died when Jesus was born.

Elsewhere in the journal a curious tradition from Soothill is mentioned. It says that an unnamed master of an iron-foundry, in a fit of passion, threw a boy into one of his furnaces. The sentence passed on him was that he should build a yard all round an unspecified local church, and provide a bell for the steeple. The writer, who asks for more information about this incident, does not connect it, or bell, with Dewsbury Minster’s Devil’s Knell. Perhaps the omission is deliberate, in an attempt to tease out the truth. Because questions were being raised by some of the origins attributed to the Christmas Eve bell ringing.

These other stories linked with the origins of Dewsbury’s Devil’s Knell stated the tenor bell at Dewsbury Minster, Black Tom, was an expiatory gift from Sir Thomas de Soothill for the murder of a boy, whom he threw into the forge dam. Thomas de Soothill, who died in 1535, was a member of the Saville family and known locally as Black Tom, hence the name of the bell.12 There is therefore a clear similarity with the Soothill iron-foundry incident mentioned in the 1888 journal.

Christmas 1986 Folklore Stamp

Yet another version states the tradition began in 1434. A local knight, or Lord of the Manor depending on this version, flew into a rage after hearing a servant boy had failed to attend Church and threw him into a pond, where he drowned. As his deathbed penance, the knight donated the bell to Dewsbury Minster Church of All Saints, requesting it be tolled every Christmas Eve.13

An 1880 edition of the Dewsbury Reporter cast doubt on the Black Tom origins story.14 Essentially, they say there were no mention of any bells currently in the church, which were recast in 1875, existing in the Minster prior to 1725. They also asked for evidence of this murder incident, along with the timeline for Thomas de Soothill’s life, and the location of the supposed forge.

Whatever its beginnings, the Christmas Eve Devil’s Knell is tolled to this day. Here’s a link to a video by the bell-ringers at the Minster tolling the Christmas Eve Devil’s Knell, with their version of its origins


The final fantastical tale also involves a branch of the Savile family. This time the ones whose residences included Howley Hall. It is supposedly (though not conclusively) centred around Anne Villiers, daughter of the Earl of Anglesey, or Anne Sussex as she was subsequently known. She became the second wife of Sir Thomas Savile (1590-1659), whose titles, at this stage, included Viscount of Castlebar and Baron Savile of Pomfret. Anne and Thomas married at St Mary’s, Sunbury on Thames on 20 January 1641[2].15 He was made the 1st Earl of Sussex (in the third creation of this title) on 25 May 1644.

Howley Hall, as it was in its heyday, and the 19th century ruins

Lady Anne’s Well, which is reputedly named after the aforementioned Countess of Sussex, lay on the south-east side of Howley ruins, near to Soothill Wood where several springs flowed to furnish the well.

Ordnance Survey Map showing Howley Hall and Lady Ann[e]’s Well – Six-inch England and Wales, 1842-1952, Yorkshire Sheet 232, Surveyed: 1847 to 1851, Published: 1854 – National Library of Scotland, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC-BY-NC-SA) licence

Lady Anne, so rumour has it, liked to bathe in the waters of the well. The legend is that one day, whilst in the process of immersing herself in these cleansing waters, she was caught and devoured by a wild animal or animals – some go as far as to say it was a lion.16

The spot where her mangled remains were discovered became holy ground. The pure waters of the well were subsequently said to possess supernatural properties, and changed colours, with this miracle occurring annually at 6 o’clock on Palm Sunday morning. Hundreds of people converged on this site at the specified day and hour, brandishing twigs and switches to represent palms. By the mid-19th century the well bore an obliterated inscription, and had an iron basin, or ladle, attached to the stonework with a chain.

Even Elizabeth Gaskell in The Life of Charlotte Brontë covered the legend, but in her version it was another type of wild creature responsible for the killing. In her book, published in 1857, writing about Howley Hall, which now belonged to Lord Cardigan, she said:

Near to it is Lady Anne’s well; “Lady Anne,” according to tradition, having been worried and eaten by wolves as she sat at the well, to which the indigo-dyed factory people from Birstall and Batley woollen mills yet repair on Palm Sunday, when the waters possess remarkable medicinal efficacy; and it is still believed that they assume a strange variety of colours at six o’clock in the morning on that day.17

The supposed incident was even the subject of verses in later years, including:

‘Twas such a place, sequestered glade,
Where Lady Anne was lifeless laid;
While bathing there, as people say,
A lion seized her for his prey:
Her cor[p]se was made the wild beast’s food,
He ate her flesh, and drank her blood;
And now the spot is holy ground,
Where Lady Anne’s remains were found,
Hard by a well which bears her name,
A lasting tribute to her fame;
There youths and maidens often go
Their sympathetic love to show,
And mourn her fate, unhappy maid,
Who perished in the Sylvan shade.
Palm Sunday is the annual day
When lads and lasses wend their way
To this sad spot, there gather palms,
As employs of the fair one’s charms;
Homeward again they do return,
And water take in can or urn,
Which they suppose contains a charm
That will preserve them from all harm.18

In the late 1880s the area around the well was destroyed when the wood was bisected by the Great Northern Railway Line covering Dewsbury, Batley and onto Leeds via Beeston. This Beeston and Batley branch of the line opened in August 1890, and included a 732-yard long tunnel located near to the well, though the spring still existed for the use of residents living in nearby cottages. Yet the legend lived on.

Ordnance Survey Map showing Howley Hall Ruins and the Beeston/Batley Branch of the Great Northern Railway now running through Soothill Wood destroying Lady Anne’s Well – 25-inch England and Wales, 1841-1952, Yorkshire CCXXXII.12, Surveyed: 1889 to 1892, Published: 1894 – National Library of Scotland, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC-BY-NC-SA) licence

If true, you would expect this extraordinary event to be widely publicised, especially given it involved a member of the aristocracy. It is not. And, as with many other of these tales, it is decidedly vague with facts.

More than that, there are other fatal flaws to this lion-eating (or should that be a pack of wolves) tale. Not least is the one concerning the reputed victim of these voracious beasts. According to Cockayne’s Complete Peerage, Anne Villiers outlived her husband, Sir Thomas Savile. He died in circa 1659 (his will was proved on 8 October 1659). By the time Anne died in around 1670, she was the wife of Richard Pelson. Their daughter, Anne, went on to become the wife of James Tuchet, 5th Earl of Castlehaven. Furthermore, according to Cockayne, the former Anne Villiers died at St Giles’ in the Fields, London – some 200 miles away from any wild animals at the well.19 He certainly makes no reference to her being killed in a tragic accident involving wild animals.

There is also the issue around the type of creature responsible for the supposed mauling. Although there were reports of wolves living wild in Scotland up until the 18th century, it is generally accepted that wolves were extinct in England by the 15th century. As for wild lions, well the wealthy were known to keep them as part of menageries, including at nearby Nostell Priory. But as for an escaped killer lion prowling Soothill Woods in the 17th century, that seems the stuff of fantasy.

However, suppose it is not the 1st Earl of Sussex’s wife being referred to? The reports I’ve read either refer to Lady Anne or Lady Anne Sussex. Could it possibly therefore be the subsequent Countess of Sussex? James Savile, the son of Thomas Savile by Anne Villiers (the 1st Countess Sussex), who succeeded his father to the earldom, married Anne Wake. According to Cockayne’s Complete Peerage, after his death in 1671, when the earldom became extinct, she went on to marry Fairfax Overton. Looking at Marriage Bonds and Allegations, this marriage took place in around April 1674.20 According to Cockayne she died in 1680 – and again there is no mention of a dramatic death associated with her. There is also the same issue with the existence of wild animals.

There are other theories too about the well’s miraculous powers. These include rumours that the waters of the well had reputed holy properties even before this supposed incident, with inhabitants of the area visiting it from possibly as far back as pre-Norman times. Some sources point out that it was quite common for wells of pure water in solitary locations throughout the country in the early years of Christianity to be attributed with these holy and healing properties. As a result they became places of pilgrimage, visited and decorated on Holy Days like Ascension Day or, in this instance, Palm Sunday.

Due to the holy nature of the area, it is theorised that in the immediate neighbourhood a small chapel (Fieldkirk) existed in pre-Norman times, before the church in Batley was erected. There is even speculation about an annual Fair, Fieldkirk Fair, taking place either in the churchyard of this small chapel, or adjoining it. Norrison Scatcherd in his 1870s history of Morley mentions villagers returning from the annual Palm Sunday assemblage as saying they had been to Fieldcock Fair – which he quite reasonably suggests is a corruption of this old Fieldkirk Fair.21

This early Christian link, then, may have been the origins of the miraculous colour-changing well, not any killer animals devouring a bathing countess – the latter probably being invented to add spice to attract the Victorian generation. Nevertheless it is an interesting local legend.


As I said in the introduction, this is only a selection of folklore tales and mysterious happenings associated with the area. Many have a common thread: unspecified, or uncertain, dates; discrepancies about the names of central characters, most of whom are local gentry or aristocracy; there is even confused information, for example lions or wolves, orphan or daughter, iron foundry master or knight, ponds or forge furnaces.

But all these tales are part of the area’s history and would have been familiar to our ancestors living here, which is why they are worth preserving.

If you have any similar strange local anecdotes and legends associated with the Batley and Dewsbury areas do let me know.


With thanks to fellow AGRA Associate Joe Saunders who tipped me off about the mystery of the bloody oak leaves tale.


Footnotes:
1. Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn. The Life of CHARLOTTE Bronte, Author Of “Jane Eyre”, “Shirley”, “Villette”, Etc. Smith, Elder & Co, 1857;
2. Birstall St Peter’s parish Register, West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference: WDP5/1/1/1;
3. Heywood, Oliver, and J. Horsfall Turner. The Rev. Oliver Heywood, B.A., 1630-1702, His AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Diaries, Anecdote and Event Books: Illustrating the General and Family History of Yorkshire and Lancashire. 2. Vol. 2. Brighouse England: A.B. Bayes, 1882;
4. Heywood, Oliver, Thomas Dickenson, and J. Horsfall Turner. The Nonconformist REGISTER, Of Baptisms, Marriages, and Deaths: 1644-1702, 1702-1752, Generally Known as the Northowram Or Coley Register, but Comprehending Numerous Notices of Puritans And Anti-Puritans in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire, London, &c., with Lists OF Popish RECUSANTS, QUAKERS, & C. Brighouse: J.S. Jowett, printer ‘News Office’, 1881;
5. Mirabilis Annus SECUNDUS, Or, the Second Year of Prodigies: Being a True and Impartial Collection of Many Strange Signes AND Apparitions, Which Have This Last Year Been Seen in the Heavens, and in the Earth, and in the Waters: Together with Many Remarkable Accidents and Judgements BEFALLING Divers Persons, According to the Most Exact Information That Could Be Procured from the Best Hands, and Now Published as a Warning to All MEN Speedily to Repent, and to Prepare to Meet the Lord, Who Gives Us These Signs of His Coming, 1662;
6.Yorkshire Folk-Lore Journal: With Notes Comical and Dialetic .. Bingley: Printed for the editor by T. Harrison, 1888;
7. Batley News, 24 May 1902;
8. Yorkshire Folk-Lore Journal: With Notes Comical and Dialetic .. Bingley: Printed for the editor by T. Harrison, 1888;
9. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 29 March 1901;
10. Ibid;
11. Yorkshire Folk-Lore Journal: With Notes Comical and Dialetic .. Bingley: Printed for the editor by T. Harrison, 1888;
12. Greenwood’s History, as quoted in the Dewsbury Reporter, 31 January 1880;
13. Yorkshire Post, 23 December 2015;
14. Dewsbury Reporter, 31 January 1880;
15. Parish Register, St Mary’s, Sunbury on Thames, London Metropolitan Archives, Ref: DRO/007/A/01/001;
16. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 3 July 1880;
17. Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn. The Life of CHARLOTTE Bronte, Author Of “Jane Eyre”, “Shirley”, “Villette”, Etc. Smith, Elder & Co, 1857;
18. Dewsbury Chronicle and West Riding Advertiser, 9 July 1887
19. Cokayne, George E., ed. The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom: EXTANT, Extinct or Dormant. By G.E.C. 7. Vol. 7. London: George Bell & Sons, 1896;
20. Fairfax Overton and Ann Conntesse Marriage Allegation, Parish – St Giles in the Field, London Metropolitan Archives, Ref: Ms 10091/28
21. Scatcherd, Norrison Cavendish. The History OF MORLEY, in the West Riding Of Yorkshire: Including a Particular Account of Its Old Chapel. Morley: S. Stead, 1874.

Other Sources:
• Baker, Margaret. Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore: A Guide to Seasonal Rites. Princes Risborough, Bucks, UK: Shire Publications, 1992;
The Batley News and Birstall Guardian, 22 August 1885;
Batley Reporter and Guardian, 2 August 1890;
Dewsbury Chronicle and West Riding Advertiser, 10 July 1886;
• Green, Martin, and Martin Green. Curious Customs And Festivals: A Guide to Local Customs and Festivals throughout England and Wales. Newbury: Countryside Books, 2001;
The History of Wolves in the UK, https://wolves.live/the-history-of-wolves-in-the-uk/;

A Rifleman’s Crime of Passion

Murder! Murder! He’s murdering our Hannah in the house!’ The terrified screams of an old lady tore through the night silence of Batley’s Hume Street and New Street area. It was around 11pm on Saturday 19 August 1865.

Joseph Pease, a labourer living near to the Brook household, heard the cries for help, and rushed into the two-roomed cottage, home of 60-year-old widow Sarah Brook (also known as Sally). A horrific tableau met his eyes. The compact downstairs area, comprising a kitchen with stone stairs leading to the upper chamber, a fireplace directly facing the entrance door and to the right a cupboard bed, was blood splattered, from floor to furniture and walls. A young boy, the grandson of the old lady, cowered screaming on the far side of the bed, trying to evade danger. Plunging a bayonet repeatedly into his neck stood a youth, dressed in Rifle Corps uniform. Facing the youth, at the far side of the kitchen, was 18-year-old Hannah Brook, daughter of Sarah. Dressed in a black frock, blood was pouring from her neck and mouth. Another witness described how blood was ‘sponging from a hole in her side.’ [1]

Pease rushed at the man, 19-year-old Eli Sykes, and seized him, though he was stabbed in the thigh and slightly injured in the struggle. William Fawcett, a cabinet maker, who had been visiting his father-in-law in Hume Street, followed up and managed to wrench the bayonet, dripping with blood from assailant and victims, from Sykes. He removed it from the scene for safety.

Others swiftly appeared, alerted by the commotion. Someone carried Sarah Brook, her white nightdress now blood-soaked, to the bed where she died. Others gave Hannah water. She attempted to speak, but could not. Within minutes she too was dead. Both women had received multiple stab wounds (Sarah nine and Hannah seven), including fatal punctures to their hearts.

Meanwhile, the police arrived at the house, now surrounded by hundreds of people despite it being nearly midnight. Sykes was restrained in a chair. His rifle was on a table, the stock broken in two. Police Sergeant English, of the West Riding Constabulary, charged the silent Sykes with murder. At this point he finally opened his eyes and looked towards the bed where the two women lay.

Dr William Bayldon, amongst those officials summoned to the house, examined Sykes’ wounds and found them not to be serious. He declared hind sufficiently fit to be transferred to the Dewsbury lock-up. Here Dr W.H. Thornton re-examined the prisoner and agreed that, although the wounds were deep, they were not fatal.

On Tuesday 22 August 1865 the double funeral of Sarah and Hannah Brook took place at Batley Parish Church. People arrived at Batley railway station by the trainload. Many viewed the corpses, laid out in the very room where they met their brutal fate less than three days before. The faces of the deceased were bare, heads covered by skull-caps, countenances placid and at peace.

People from across the West Riding, including Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, Halifax and Heckmondwike, lined the funeral route. Estimates put the numbers of spectators in the region of at least 20,000. The church was packed with people in their working clothes. Amongst those paying their final respects was a young man from Wakefield – James Henry Ashton.

Female acquaintances carried the coffins of the women to their burial place: older women carried the coffin of Sarah, whilst young mill girls carried Hannah’s. They were interred in a grave around 20 yards away from the church yard entrance gates, on the south east side of the church.

Batley Parish Church – Photo by Jane Roberts

The murders horrified not only those living in the growing, industrial mill town of Batley, but sent shockwaves across the country. The recurring question was why? What had caused a seemingly law-abiding young man to commit such a brutal crime?

Initial details began to appear through official channels in days after the murder. Two inquest hearings took place before the Coroner at the White Hart Hotel in Batley, a local pub which is now a residential property. A wilful murder verdict resulted .

© Copyright Betty Longbottom and licensed for reuse under creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0

Eli also appeared before the local magistrates. In his initial appearance, a seated Eli looked weak with a scarf round his neck, but with scarcely any evidence of his self-inflicted throat wounds. The main hearing took place at Dewsbury court house.

As a result of this magistrates hearing, Eli was committed to trial at the next Leeds Assizes on a murder charge. Here, at Leeds Town Hall on 19 December 1865, the full case was heard. It provided even more information and drama to an eager audience.

Hannah Brook was born in Batley in 1847, the daughter of weaver Mark Brook and his wife Sarah (née Darnbrook). Sarah was previously married to Robert Fearnley, who died in 1837, so Hannah had a number of half-siblings. By 1861 the family had moved from the Havercroft area of Batley to Hume Street, and in July 1864 Mark died. Thereafter Sarah lived upon the income derived from a small property near Batley [2]. Hannah, described as a cheerful girl, worked as a mill hand [3] at Alexandra Mill in Batley.

Eli Sykes was a cloth-finisher. Born in Ossett in 1846 he was the son of cordwainer John Sykes and his wife Sarah Ellis. The family moved to Dewsbury in around 1850/51, and by 1865 they lived at Batley Carr, almost opposite Holy Trinity Church. Although described as holding a humble position in society, they were a very respectable family.

After the events that fateful August night, a few isolated newspapers described Eli as a shady young man, with a wild, roving disposition who had caused much trouble for his parents since leaving Sunday School. But these are outliers. The overwhelming number of accounts testify to his good character. They paint a picture of a well-behaved, quiet, industrious young man. One work colleague, William Bentley Walton described him as straightforward and peaceable. He had worked with Sykes for three years and never had a quarrel with him. Robert Jones, a neighbour of the Brooks family, said he always appeared a quiet, well-conducted lad and his manner towards Hannah was invariably kind and affectionate. Hannah Hirst, a friend of Hannah Brook who had known Eli for three years, said they ‘always appeared to be very affectionate when together. He was very kind to Hannah…’ and she ‘…never heard any quarrel between them.’ [4]

For about two years prior to that August night, like many other young men Eli spent his free time with the local military unit. It was a social activity, away from the confines of home and work. In Eli’s case he was a Private in the No3 (Batley Carr) Company of the 29th (Dewsbury) West York Volunteer Corps. His fellow members there vouched for his steady nature, general civility and good behaviour.

Eli and Hannah met on 10 March 1863 during celebrations which took place countrywide marking the marriage of Queen Victoria’s eldest son Prince Albert Edward of Wales to Princess Alexandra of Denmark. Their friendship developed to full-blown courtship, with Eli a frequent visitor to the Brook house. Despite a short break up in the early days of their relationship which they quickly patched up, the general assumption by all was the logical next step for the pair was marriage. They seemed well-suited. Eli had a reliable mill job to provide for a wife and, eventually, family. And by all accounts he was a steady young man. But they were young, possibly too young to commit for life. And emotions could quickly change.

And this proved the case for Hannah. For some reason in July 1865 her feelings towards Eli cooled. The indication was she had met someone else – a man from Wakefield named James Henry Ashton: the man mentioned amongst the mourners at her funeral the following month. Their meetings included a picnic at Howley Hall, where she was seen dancing with him. But whether he was the cause of the change in Hannah is unclear. Some sources suggest she took up with James whilst still seeing Eli. Others claim the relationship with Eli was already over by the time she became involved with James.

1881 Illustration of Howley Hall Ruins – published in 1881 (out of copyright)

Despite Hannah repeatedly telling Eli that their relationship was over, he would not accept it. As far as he was concerned she was the love of his life. He doggedly followed her trying to persuade her to change her mind, often turning up unannounced at her Hume Street home. Friends advised Eli to let it drop. One who cautioned thus was power loom weaver George Fearnley, who happened to be Hannah’s brother. Eli told George how grieved he was at Hannah’s refusal to see him, and he did not know what to do. George told Eli he was being a foolish lad, and that there were plenty other girls.

Hannah Hirst was another one who witnessed Eli’s continued pursuit of his former sweetheart. On 13 July Miss Brook took tea at Miss Hirst’s Batley Carr home, an occurrence noticed by Eli. Later that night, after Hannah Brook returned home, Eli called at the Hirst home. He told Miss Hirst that Hannah’s new love would be coming over the following week. Then, striking his hat violently against a chair, he declared ‘If I don’t have her, no one else shall.’ Hannah Hirst stated ‘Eli, I think you are going out of your mind.’ His ominous response was ‘You’ll see.

The day of the murder coincided with a large agricultural and flower show in neighbouring Drighlington. Three companies of the West Yorks Volunteer Corps, amongst them Eli, caught the train to Drighlington to join up with the Birstall contingent for drill. At 8pm they marched back to the railway station were they were served either a half pint of ale, or ginger beer, prior to catching the 9.30pm train back to Batley. Despite three carriages being reserved for the men, not all could entrain due to the vast numbers returning from the show. Eli, though, did have a place and, with about 90 comrades, arrived in Batley at 9.40pm. Some lingered at the station chatting, or waiting for the 10pm train to Dewsbury. Others set off to walk home, including Eli. When he and a friend reached Hick Lane, Eli suggested detouring into Batley. Due to the late hour the friend declined, leaving Eli to carry on alone.

William Bentley Walton was in The Commercial Inn at around 10.30pm, when he saw Eli dressed in his volunteer uniform, rifle in hand and bayonet sheathed at his side. Friends and workmates, Eli told him he was going to Hannah’s. William advised him against it, knowing from earlier conversations with Eli that she had told him to stay away. It was advice Eli chose to ignore. Perhaps it did not help that William told Eli he had seen Hannah go by about 15 minutes earlier. Instead of passing through Batley Eli made the fateful decision to turn off for the Brook’s cottage. All accounts agreed Eli was sober, so drink did not influence what happened next.

Extract of Six-inch OS Map: Yorkshire 232. Surveyed 1847 to 1851; Published 1854 – Shows Batley with some key locations marked up

Robert Jones, who lived next door but one to Sarah and Hannah, made his way to nearby New Street between 11-12pm. He noticed Eli and Hannah talking outside her Hume Street home. Robert politely asked the couple if they had been to the show. Both said no. He left them still talking, no indication of anything more serious going on. However, the situation rapidly deteriorated in the short time it took for Robert to quickly visit New Street and return to his Hume Street home.

Despite the seeming civility of the conversation witnessed by Robert, Eli’s visit was once more an unwelcome one. By now he was inside the house, again asking Hannah to go back out with him. Once more Hannah said no. Hannah’s mother became involved telling Eli to go away, they did not want him there. Meanwhile, according to Eli’s testimony, a now seated Hannah began singing a popular ballad ‘The Gay Cavalier’ about a man disappointed by the lady he loved. It contained the lyrics ‘She may go to Hong Kong for me’, with Hannah replacing the ‘She’ for ‘You’. Driven to a fury by the perceived taunts and rejection by his former love, he raised his rifle and struck Hannah across her head with the butt, a blow so hard it cracked the stock. The force knocked Hannah out of the chair. Eli then drew out his bayonet, and the stabbing frenzy on both Hannah and her mother commenced. And it was at this point Sarah raised the alarm call, drawing first Joseph Pease and William Fawcett, followed by a host of other neighbours and the police.

Once in custody, according to police statements, Eli reportedly said ‘I feel easier in my mind, and better satisfied now than before I did it.’ He also allegedly said ‘Although I murdered her I loved her – I have told her many a time I’d have my revenge, and I’ve got it now.[5] The police also reported his apparent indifference whilst in custody, Eli laughing and whistling as if nothing had happened. It was as if he failed to recognise the magnitude of his crime. His only display of real emotion appeared to be when his family visited him.

The trial at the Leeds Assizes on 19 December 1865 would bring home the enormity soon enough. Prior to the trial, on 8 December, he was transferred to the imposing Victorian edifice of Armley Gaol. Opened under 20 years earlier as Leeds Borough Gaol, it had only recently taken over from York Castle as the place where West Riding executions were carried out. The first two had taken place as recently as September 1864.

Leeds Town Hall – Published in 1862, out of copyright

From early morning of the trial at the court in Leeds Town Hall, the corridors teamed with people. Many came from the Batley and Dewsbury area, a high proportion of them gaily-dressed women, their frocks incongruous to a court setting. Perhaps the fact this magnificent building had been opened only in 1858 by Queen Victoria, as much as the trial, enticed the good folk of Batley and Dewsbury. It was a day out.

Those lucky enough to gain entry to the crowded courtroom listened intently to the parade of witnesses. Eli’s defence argued that jealousy drove him to commit the crime. In the heat of the moment he lost all sense of reason. His temporary insanity meant it was manslaughter not murder. Justice Shee, in his summing up, would have none of this. Within 30 minutes the jury announced its guilty verdict.

In a show of emotion which reduced many in the courtroom to tears, Eli made his impassioned address. Sobbing, tears almost blinding him and choking his every word, he stated:

My Lord, and gentlemen of the jury, – I never had it in my mind to do it before it was done. If these were my dying words, I could say in the presence of God that I never meant to kill Hannah. I never struck her with the rifle. God only knows what happened in that house that night. He only knows what she said to me – how she began singing, and said words that I never thought could have come out of a woman’s mouth. And yet I loved her; in my heart I loved her as never woman was loved before, if my doom is death, I hope I shall meet her in heaven. But I don’t think I shall be hanged; the Queen will be merciful to me. I never thought it would come to this. Many a time have I gone with her to Wakefield, but little did I think she was deceiving me and went to meet another sweetheart. If she had not jeered at me, I would not have hurt her for my life. I hope I shall meet her in heaven, and I can only pray that if my doom is to be death that God will take my sufferings from me. I hope that my prayers shall be answered, and that we shall meet in that glorious land where we shall never be parted. She has gone to that land, and I will die to get to her….. [6]

Although the statement deeply affected the Judge, it did not change the sentence. Eli was to be executed by hanging. With the Judge’s final words of ‘And may God, in his infinite mercy, have mercy on your soul’ ringing in his ears, Eli was removed to Armley Gaol to await his fate.

Eli’s trial address had a wider impact. Public opinion was divided as to the correctness of the sentence. Petitions sprang up requesting a commutation of it. George Armitage, one of the magistrates who committed Eli to trial at the Assizes, similarly expressed himself in favour of a reduced sentence. A piece in the Leeds Mercury on 21 December praised Eli’s character, spoke of his pure, honourable and ardent love for Hannah, pointedly saying little was known about her character. They also seemed to support Eli’s belief, expressed at the Assizes, that Hannah was deceiving him saying ‘we do not see that the correctness of his belief is called into question’. The conclusion they hinted at was Eli deserved a more lenient punishment than the death sentence. On the scale of murder, perhaps this was one which was not cold-blooded and calculated. It perhaps held some element of justification. How many times since has some apportionment of blame been attached to women victims of crime?

For Hannah and Sarah’s grieving family, this Leeds Mercury piece proved too much. George Fearnley felt compelled to write to the paper to set the record straight about the piece which ‘reflects in a most unjust and unwarrantable manner upon the conduct and character of my lamented sister…’. His letter, dated 28 December, featured in the Leeds Mercury on 30 December. In it he refuted allegations that Hannah deceived Eli by going with him to Wakefield to meet another lover. The only occasions they went to Wakefield together was to see friends there. In a lengthy missive he also asserted that Sykes:

…knew well … that before her feelings towards him had so far changed as to induce her to prefer another, my sister had insisted upon breaking off her connection with him and told him to stay away; and so far from her having encouraged his addresses after this time, she uniformly refused to see him, and did all she could to compel him to discontinue his visits…I presume, Gentlemen, that neither you nor any one else will deny that my sister had a perfect right, if she so wished it, to break off her connection with Sykes; and having done so, she had also a right to keep company with another if she chose, and that, too, without subjecting herself to annoyance, to threats, or to murder…I conclude by asking from the public a verdict that shall acquit her of all blame… [7]

Even as this letter was being read and digested by the public to which George appealed, the case had undergone a new, dramatic, and unexpected, twist.

Eli returned to Armley Gaol after his conviction and was placed under the day care of warder Charles Hampshire, a man with 17 years experience. Charles Jacups took over responsibility at night. The men were ordered to keep the prisoner under constant watch.

The Gaol had two cells for condemned prisoners. Initially Eli was placed in the cell on the ground floor, but subsequently was moved to the cell on the floor above due to concerns about the suicide risk posed by the other condemned man, Patrick Welsh. No such concerns were held for Eli, who spoke a good deal about religion and still appeared to entertain the hope that the Queen would commute his sentence to penal servitude. The prison chaplain, Rev Middleton, who visited Eli daily, also entertained no concerns about his state of mind.

On Saturday 23 December the chaplain visited Eli at 5.15pm and left at around 6pm. He failed to lock the door. Charles Hampshire also failed to check Eli was secure in his cell after the chaplain’s visit. Thomas Hampshire, brother of Charles, another experienced warder compounded the error. A trusted employee, he had worked at Armley Gaol since its opening, and prior to that he served five years at Wakefield prison. That evening it was his duty to call the roll and check the cell doors were double locked. He commenced the check at 5.45pm and finished at 6.20pm. Eli’s door appeared to be secure…but it was not. The mistake had huge consequences, including the suspension of Charles Hampshire and the dismissal of Thomas.

At about 6.40pm a large crash, like the firing of guns, echoed in the confines of the prison. Eli had escaped from his cell. Unhindered, he managed to get to the floor above, where he climbed on the balustrade and threw himself on to the flags around 20-25 feet below [8]. He landed on his feet, before falling over and banging his head, rendering himself unconscious for about half an hour. He did suffer convulsions in the initial aftermath, but his leg injuries were the main concern, in particular the compound fracture to his left ankle which haemorrhaged. William Nicholson Price, the prison surgeon, along with the Leeds Infirmary surgeon Mr Wheelhouse, stabilised him and he seemed to progress favourably. However, Eli did try to hinder his recovery throughout, attempting to remove his bandages and doing his utmost to prevent routine medical checks.

The opinion was Eli had attempted suicide to spare his mother, believing his hanging would be the death of her. But all in authority remained hopeful that hanging would be his just fate. In fact stringent attempts were made to ensure he remained alive for his appointed date with the hangman’s noose on 15 January 1866.

In the afternoon and evening of 3 January 1866 Eli suffered a couple of secondary haemorrhages. Both were staunched and, once again, although weakened he seemingly rallied. It proved a temporary recovery. On the evening of 6 January a further bleed occurred. Once again the flow was stemmed, and reduced to an ooze. Eli’s condition continued to deteriorate though, despite best efforts of those charged with his care. Conscious throughout this period, he died in his prison cell at about 9.20pm that night.

Old Gate Armley Gaol (edited Black & White) – Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons License 3.0 (Share Alike)

The inquest took place on 9 January. That day a letter appeared in the Leeds Mercury. Dated 8 January 1866, it was from Eli’s father. With remarkable restraint, John Sykes wrote to highlight the lack of compassion shown to both himself and his wife. They arrived at Armley Gaol that morning to view their son’s body and say a final goodbye. The Governor refused permission without a magistrate’s order. John left his wife at the prison whilst he went into Leeds to obtain the necessary documentation. Yet even with signed authority the Governor would not allow John and Sarah entry to see their son one last time.

John Sykes was present at the inquest though. Here the jury reached a verdict of Felo de Se (suicide). Eli’s burial was ordered to take place at midnight in the precincts of Armley Gaol, without any religious ceremony.

The sensational events captured public imagination to such an extent that enterprising publishers sold fly-sheets containing lurid (and often inaccurate) details about the case. The events in Batley were even immortalised in verse. It seems only fitting to end this post with one such example.

Miss Hannah Brooks [sic] was a factory maiden,
By every one she was well liked;
And long poor Hannah had been courted,
By the young cloth-worker, Eli Sykes,
Hannah Brook forsook her lover
Which caused him the maid to kill,
And her aged tender mother
By his hands their blood was spilled.

In Yorkshire, such a dreadful murder
Before we’re sure was never seen;
Committed was by Eli Sykes –
A youth, whose age is but nineteen.
He lov’d the maiden to distraction –
From drill he went straightway;
Hannah harshly with her mother
Ordered Eli Sykes away.

As he stood in his regimentals,
So frantically he gazed around;
And with the butt-end of his rifle,
Quickly knocked his true-love down.
Her mother strove to save her daughter –
He did in frenzy swear an oath,
And plunged his bayonet in each body
Many times and killed them both.

He strove then to commit self-murder,
But was prevented as we see;
The factory maiden and her mother,
Who was aged sixty-three, [9]
There in death’s cold arms was sleeping,
Weltering in their crimson gore;
Friends and neighbours round them weeping,
For them they’d see in life no more.

Notes:
[1] Leeds Mercury – 22 August 1865;
[2] Yorkshire Gazette – 26 August 1865;
[3] Some reports indicate she was a power loom weaver;
[4] Leeds Mercury – 20 December 1865;
[5] Leeds Mercury – 22 August 1865;
[6] Yorkshire Gazette – 23 December 1865;
[7] Leeds Mercury – 30 December 1865;
[8] A letter from Prison Surgeon William Nicholson Price which featured in the Leeds Mercury of 26 December 1865 said the drop was around 25-26 feet;
[9] Other records put Sarah’s age as 60, and her baptism at Birstall St Peter’s on 20 January 1805 (Sarah Darnbrough) suggests this is likely to be her correct age.

Sources (in addition to those mentioned in the notes):

  • 1841-1861 Censuses, England and Wales;
  • Annals of Yorkshire, 1862 and 1866;
  • Barnsley Chronicle – 2 September 1865;
  • Bradford Observer – 4 January 1866;
  • GRO Birth and Death registrations;
  • Home Office Correspondence and Warrants, HO13/108/236, 23 December 1865, accessed via Findmypast;
  • Home Office Correspondence and Warrants, HO13/108/245, 13 January 1866, accessed via Findmypast;
  • Home Office Criminal Registers, HO27 Piece 142, 13 December 1865, accessed via Findmypast;
  • Home Office and Prison Commission Prison Records, PCOM2/417/74, accessed via Findmypast
  • Illustrated Police News – 27 September 1934;
  • Leeds Mercury – 23 and 28 August 1865, 21 December 1865, 9 and 10 January 1866;
  • Leeds Times – 23 and 30 December 1865;
  • Old Yorkshire, 1881;
  • Parish registers – Batley, Birstall and St Paul’s Hanging Heaton, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk;
  • The OS Map is reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a Creative Commons licence. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html
  • Yorkshire Gazette – 28 August 1865

Newspapers accessed via The British Newspaper Archive and Findmypast