The Liversedge Mystery: Who was Marion Lake?

When a woman’s body was recovered from the ruins of a boiler house at Clough Mill, Hightown on Sunday 30 September 1883, it was too decomposed to allow an easy identification. The only clues that police and locals had to go on were the hair and clothing on her remains. The inquest established the position of her body when it was found, but the general impression in the numerous press articles published that week was that there had been foul play, and suicide was highly unlikely given where and how she was discovered.

From the start, however, locals suspected they knew who she was and consequently thought they knew who had killed her. They were happy to share their theories and so a name immediately appeared in the press. The Bradford Daily Telegraph summarised the suspicions on Monday while reporting the story: “From inquiries in the neighbourhood it appears to be the belief that the remains are those of a young woman named Marion Lake, aged twenty, who resided in Clough Lane three years ago, when she disappeared, and was reported as being lost.” Marion Lake was mentioned in several newspapers that Monday, although some initially omitted her name.  Quite a lot was written in the following days, most of which seems to have been based on local gossip.

Women working in an unknown Yorkshire cotton mill in the early 1900s. It is likely that Marion Lake dressed like this when working in a local mill, and perhaps the body in the boiler was wearing similar clothes. (Image: Fred Hartley [1869-1948]; from Kirklees Image Archive)

The facts, as initially reported, were:

Marion Lake, aged around twenty, was originally from “a place in Suffolk” and lived in Clough Lane with family members variously described as her cousins, step-parents or uncle. Lake came to the area to work in the mills, and was last seen in October 1880, around a month after Clough Mill burned down. No one was sure if she had worked there; however, she had been seen after the fire. (There seems to have been some speculation that the woman, whoever she was, may have died in the 1880 fire; the inquest took pains to establish from Jacob Blacker that the body had not been there in the aftermath of the blaze.)

Lake’s family had reported her disappearance to Constable Semper, but there seems to have been gossip in the area. According to the Bradford Daily Telegraph: “at the time it was also stated that she was enceinte [pregnant]. Rumours of ill-usage on the part of those with whom she lived were also circulated without the least reserve, and on the finding of the body they are now being repeated by the neighbours.”

The report said that the police made a cursory investigation: “Inquiries were made by the police in all parts of the division, and the reports of her disappearance were forwarded to other police districts, but no trace of her could be found. The dam attached to the ruined mill was also dragged, but without result. It was stated also at the time that she had gone to Huddersfield, but this proved to be not the case. The matter was allowed then to be forgotten by the police, as, singular to state, no interest was taken in her disappearance by her relatives. The relatives with whom she lodged left the district some time after her disappearance, and are now said to be residing in Barnsley. The police have the matter in hand, and are making strict inquiries.” Some reports observed that, after Lake’s disappearance, the locals had suspected she had met a “violent death”.

A man who lived next door to the Lake family thought the boots and shawl found on the body were hers. Efforts were being made to trace Marion Lake’s family. These were the details in circulation on Sunday and Monday, and repeated freely in the local press; newspapers further afield carried a brief summary that Lake had mysteriously vanished three years before.

The fullest account came, surprisingly, from further afield. On Tuesday 2 October, the story was printed in the York Herald with updates received on Monday evening. Marion Lake, described as a 20-year-old orphan from the south of England, disappeared on 29 October 1880. Her uncle, named as William Lake, was a collier. Lake was described as “a mill hand, quiet and good-looking, but exceedingly poor. At home she appeared to have led an unhappy life, suffering much, it is alleged, from the ill-treatment of her uncle and aunt, who upbraided her with being enceinte [pregnant]. After losing his niece Lake remained in the district about eighteen months, working at various collieries, and at the end of that time went to Charlestown, near Barnsley, under an assumed name. Since his departure he and his niece had been almost forgotten. ” This was the only publication to name her family and give more details about them. To further muddy the waters, there is no Charlestown near Barnsley, but Google Maps give two locations of that name, one near Pontefract (the most likely as it is closest to Barnsley) and one near Shipley, between Bradford and Keighley. It is interesting that this very full account came after Sergeant Sykes had been to speak to Lake’s family: did he inform the press?

The press seemed satisfied that they had found the culprits: the people with whom she was living, who had ill-treated her, shown little interest in her disappearance, and mysteriously left the area afterwards. That this was based on rumour and gossip makes it somewhat questionable, not least because the press could not agree whether she was living with cousins, step-parents or uncles and aunts. It is not clear if this was because of uncertainty among those who may have spoken to the press or garbled reporting; but even the Bradford Daily Telegraph identified them in two ways.

The inquest, however, established beyond question that the body was certainly not that of Marion Lake. Although the Coroner did not feel the need to record anything in his notebook, the press reports filled in the details. Sergeant Sykes told the jury that he met the uncle and aunt of Marion Lake on Monday evening. They told him that in June, Lake’s father had written to inform them that she was married and living in Manchester. The relations were also shown part of the shawl found on the body and were able to say that it did not belong to Lake. The jury seemed unconvinced (and actually stated, according to the Leeds Mercury, that the statement of Sykes was “insufficient proof” that Lake was alive), and wanted to question Lake but the coroner refused on the grounds that she would be unable to assist in the identification of the body.

Sykes had also questioned a woman who showed him a dress and shawl similar to that worn by Lake before her disappearance – Sykes believed that they were not similar to that found with the body. Bizarrely, the woman was also able to describe Lake’s underclothing to Sykes, who informed the jury that the underclothing on the body was “superior in quality and make to Lake’s.” Additionally, Lake’s boots were almost worn through, unlike the almost-new boots on the remains. One of the jury, Mr Anderson, had noticed Lake’s “bad boots” when she lived on Clough Lane and was able to state that they were dissimilar to those on the body.

Having spoken to her uncle and aunt, Sykes was able to confirm the date of Lake’s disappearance: 29 October 1880, which closed the case. A coin found in the dead woman’s purse was dated 1881: the body could not be that of Lake. The jury queried the earlier identification of the shawl as belonging to Lake – one of those who made the link was the mother of Samuel Mellor, who found the body with his friend. As she was at the scene afterwards, it is not hard to imagine the excited discussion taking place. But Sykes had questioned her again and she now said that the shawl had not belonged to Lake. The inquest had also established from Doctor Musgrave that the dead woman had not been pregnant; if rumours of Lake’s pregnancy were true, this was more evidence that it could not be her.

If the jury had some doubts that her relatives were telling the truth, the body could not have been Marion Lake. But it does raise the question – and possibly did so with the jury – of why Lake mysteriously disappeared. That question can be tentatively answered, but presents a few problems of its own. Using details from census returns, as well as birth, marriage and death registrations, it is possible to double-check the details reported in the press. There are three realistic candidates for Marion Lake, two of whom had obviously complicated lives. However, it should be stressed: there is no direct, concrete evidence that any of these three Marions ever set foot in Liversedge, so there is a large element of guesswork involved.

According to the 1881 census, taken after the disappearance, there were two families named Lake living in the area. As it happens, both had a relative called Marion or Mary Ann. The first family was that of Isaac Lake, a 28-year-old stoker from Thompson, a small village in Norfolk. His wife Sarah was from Hereford and they lived in Marsh, an area that is now part of Cleckheaton and roughly a mile from Liversedge, which is stretching the definition of “living in Hightown”.

Thompson, where one of the Lake families living in Liversedge originally came from, pictured c. 1905 (Image: Thompson Village website)

Isaac and Sarah had married at Cullingworth, a village close to Keighley, in 1876. They had two daughters by 1881, one of whom lived with her grandparents at Keighley, the other with them in Liversedge but who had been born near Keighley in July 1880. For whatever reason, between 1880 and 1881, Isaac, Sarah and their younger daughter (who died later that year) moved to Marsh.

Interestingly, Isaac Lake, according to the 1861 census, had a sister called Mary Ann. She was born in 1858 (making her around the right age for our Marion Lake) in Thompson, where she lived in 1861 and 1871. On 3 April 1881 (the night of the census) Mary Ann was living in Bingley (again, very close to Keighley) at the house of her married sister. Also living there was Miriam Lake, aged one month: Miriam was the daughter of Mary Ann, born out of wedlock. Mary Ann was working as a housemaid at this point. Seven days later, she married a man called Walker Leach, a corn miller.

Could this be the missing Marion Lake? She meets several criteria: she would have become pregnant around June 1880; she was recently married, as the Lakes had told Sergeant Sykes; she had family in the Liversedge area; if she was the same person, she could have moved to Bingley around the time our Marion disappeared. Her parents (and the parents of Isaac Lake) had also moved from Norfolk to Keighley around this time, so she could have moved with them, fallen pregnant and either fled or been “sent away” to hide her pregnancy. And either the pregnancy, or worries over the health of their daughter who died, may explained any “ill-treatment”.

But…

There are a few too many problems. The press (and presumably locals) identified her as coming from Suffolk rather than Norfolk, although this was most likely a mistake; there were certainly no Suffolk-born Lakes in the Liversedge area in 1881, and this is a problem whichever Marion Lake we choose. Secondly, Isaac was Mary Ann’s brother, not uncle, and was relatively close to her in age which makes it unlikely to be our Marion and her supposed uncle. Thirdly, Marsh is not the same as Hightown, which means it is probably not this Lake family who enter our story.

And there are bigger issues. As with all three of our candidates, there is no direct evidence that Mary Ann ever set foot in Liversedge. But, if this outline is true she could only have lived there at the longest between July 1880 (the date that Isaac Lake’s daughter was born near Keighley) and October 1880 (when Marion Lake disappeared). Furthermore, Marion Lake supposedly fled to Manchester; it is hard to confuse Keighley and Manchester. While each of these individual problems could plausibly be explained away, to make all of them fit the story requires us to stretch and twist the facts. But the decisive proof that this is the wrong woman is that the York Herald, possibly using Sergeant Sykes as a source, identified her uncle as William Lake, a miner. Not a stoker called Isaac Lake.

Incidentally, this Mary Ann Lake had something of a happy ending. She and George Leach, after their slightly panicked wedding to cover their illegitimate child, had another five children together. She died in early 1939, aged 81, 11 years after her husband.

What about other candidates?

The second Lake family in Liversedge in 1881 was that of William Lake, a 37-year-old coalminer also from Norfolk. Immediately, the census matches the details reported in the York Herald. William lived with his wife Mary, who was from Holmfirth, and their three children, who had all been born in Barnsley or Hightown. It is difficult to trace this William Lake: he lived in Barnsley with his wife in 1871 but both here and in 1881, his birthplace is listed simply as “Norfolk”, with no town given. There is no obvious record of his marriage to give the name of his father. But living with him in 1871 was a “lodger” called Henry Lake. In 1861, both a William Lake and a Henry Lake, with ages matching those in the 1871 census, lived together in Norfolk.

Cottages on Hall Lane, Colkirk. William and Marion Lake lived in one of the “Hall Lane Cottages” according to the 1861 census. (Image: Cottage, Hall Lane, Colkirk, Norfolk
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Rodney Burton – geograph.org.uk/p/123722)

The two were brothers living in a cottage in a small village called Colkirk (around twenty miles from Thompson) with their widowed mother and another brother, John.  Also living with them was Marion Lake (sometimes known as Mary Ann), listed as his mother’s one-year-old granddaughter (and hence his niece). She was the daughter of John Lake and his wife Mary, who also lived in the cottage at Colkirk. To complicate matters, another Mary Ann Lake was born in Colkirk at almost the same time: she was the daughter of Matthew and Ann Lake, and lived quite close by. This woman cannot be our Marion as her family had no connection with Liversedge.

In 1871, both Marion/Mary Ann Lakes still lived in Colkirk with their families, enabling us to differentiate between them. However, it appears that both woman moved north before 1881. Their ages and birthplaces were the same, and with no indication of who their parents were, their entries on the census would have been identical. So we have two potential Marion Lakes living in the north of England, only one of whom can be the person we are looking for, but with no real way to tell them apart!

Of the two Marion or Mary Ann Lakes born around 1860 in Colkirk, one had moved to Ripon by 1881 and worked as a cook; she later did similar jobs in Cheshire and Kent. She never married and had no children that are recorded. And of course, there is no connection with Liversedge. She is easy to trace but seems a poor fit for our Marion Lake: no pregnancy, no move to Manchester, no marriage. This seems likely to have been the daughter of Matthew and Ann – but we can never be totally certain!

What about the second Marion Lake from Colkirk? There is no trace of her anywhere in the 1881 census, or on any subsequent census. There is no record of this Marion Lake marrying or having children. She simply vanishes from the official records. Perhaps she died? If so, that makes our missing Marion Lake either the cook living in Ripon in 1881 –which does not seem likely – or, somehow, the sister of Isaac Lake, making the York Herald wrong, even though it knew the name and occupation of William Lake in Liversedge. This does not seem likely either.

Some other facts make it just possible to trace Marion, daughter of John Lake and niece of William Lake. By 1891, her younger sister Hannah had moved to Ashton-under-Lyne near Manchester. Her father followed soon after. The widow of William Lake of Liversedge moved there after he died. Is there a connection for this Marion Lake with Ashton-under-Lyne? That would certainly fit with moving to Manchester.

But there is one other clue. In 1878, the register for Colkirk church records the baptism of Harry Lake, the son of the unmarried Marion Lake. In 1881, Harry is recorded in the census as the nephew of Marion’s father John and living at Colkirk, but Marion is not there. If we pursue Harry Lake through the census, ten years later he is living in Ashton-under-Lyne, recorded as the son of Isaac Hough and Ann Hough. According to the 1891 census, the latter was born in Colkirk around 1858. But if we look for a marriage record for Issac and Ann Hough, instead we find that Isaac Hough (a widower with at least six children) married a woman called Mary Ann Harsking on 28 January 1883 at a church in Miles Platting, an area close to the centre of Manchester. When she signed the register, Mary Ann recorded her father’s name as John Harsking – and Marion Lake’s father was called John. Can we trace this Mary Ann Harsking?

There was a workhouse at Ashton-under-Lyne. The 1881 census records a “Mary Ann Hasking” [sic] residing there, born somewhere in Norfolk around 1856. There is no trace of her before this. Are there any other clues who she might be? After her marriage to Isaac, Mary Ann Hasking/Harsking had at least five children. There is no doubt that they were hers: all shared the surname Hough, and of those for whom there are baptismal records on Ancestry.com, their parents are recorded as Isaac and Mary Ann Hough. It is possible to use the search facility of the General Registry Office to look up basic birth records for anyone in this period, including their mother’s maiden name. Of these later five children of Mary Ann Hasking/Harsking, all were born in Ashton-under-Lyne: Frank was born in 1884 and his mother’s maiden name is recorded as “Ashton”; the maiden name of William’s (born in 1886) mother was “Haskins”; that of Ernest (1890) was “Hasken”. The final two children – Agnes Louisa (1894) and George (1895) – had their mother’s maiden name recorded as Lake.

So Mary Ann Hough/Hasking/Ashton is almost certainly Marion Lake, who was the daughter of John Lake which makes her the niece of William Lake who lived in Liversedge. This is very likely our missing Marion Lake. That means that for some period around 1880, she lived in Hightown. For whatever reason, when she ran away, she went to Ashton-under-Lyne and changed her name; it may be relevant that the York Herald recorded that William Lake was also living under an assumed name in 1883. She already had an illegitimate son living in Coldkirk at the time; this may have been the source of her disgrace. Or maybe she was pregnant again, as the people of Liversedge suspected. They also recalled that she was very poor and dressed shabbily. That would make a workhouse the only place she could go; if she was pregnant, maybe she gave birth there but there is no record of it. Maybe she had to give up her child at the workhouse, but that would probably be untraceable. Why she changed her name cannot be known; she may have been hiding from someone. Nor can we know why she registered her final two children and gave her maiden name as Lake. Their birth certificates may reveal more.

Even more interesting is that, although Isaac certainly lived until 1906 and Marion was still alive at that date (she was the executor of his will, receiving £106), there is not a single trace of them or their younger children anywhere in the 1901 census. By 1911, there is still no trace of Marion; her youngest son, then aged just 14, was living with a family as their servant. Ernest and Agnes Louisa, both of an age where they might well still be living with their parents, were boarding separately with other families that year. Nor are there any couples or families with matching names, ages or birthplaces. Or anyone who could even have been recorded or transcribed mistakenly. Nor were they living at any of the addresses they can be traced to in the 1890s, nor in the one in which Isaac resided when he died. They were alive but are untraceable. Perhaps they had returned anonymously to a workhouse; maybe they were hiding again. Possibly Marion married again after the death of Isaac, using yet another pseudonym; she may even have herself died by that date. I doubt we will ever know for certain.

Incidentally, William Lake, the cruel uncle, was living at Darton, near Barnsley, in 1891, still using his own name and still a coal miner. He was, however, killed in a mining accident at Barnsley on 3 January 1894. Maybe it was a coincidence that it was with her first child born after this date that Marion returned to using “Lake” as her maiden name on Agnes Louisa Hough’s birth certificate.

Marion had a large family and some of her surviving relatives have traced her on Ancestry.com. One relative, Carole Adamczyk, uploaded a photograph which has written on the back “Grandma Marion Lake”; the photograph belonged to Carole’s grandmother, the granddaughter of the lady on the postcard. Could this be Marion Lake who was such a large part of the Liversedge Mystery, even though she was not the dead woman?

Marion Lake: Is this the woman who disappeared from Liversedge in 1881? (Image: Courtesy of Carole Adamczyk)

Even with this strange tale hinting at some kind of intrigue, we can still not be absolutely certain we have found Marion Lake. There is still no official record she came to Liversedge, or that the Marion Lake hiding her identity in Ashton-under-Lyne workhouse was pregnant. But we have a match for her uncle, her marriage and her escape to Manchester. That is as close as we will get.

However, none of this helps us too much. As the Coroner observed in 1883, finding Marion Lake did not – then or now – help up to identify the body in the boiler. After he had restrained the investigative impulses of the jury, he sent them to reach a verdict. After an hour’s discussion, they found that the woman had been dead when she was discovered and that, although no cause of death could be given, they believed that “foul play had been used” based on the position in which the body was found (although the Coroner, in commenting that “people who commit suicide do at times extraordinary things in perpetrating the deed”, seemed less convinced). Most reports agreed with the jury that suicide was unlikely and someone must have lowered the cover back onto the boiler.

Christ Church, Liversedge, where the body was buried after the inquest, pictured in 1910 (Image: John James Stead [1842-1919]; from Kirklees Image Archive)

With the inquest over, the remains were buried (presumably unmarked) in Christ Church, Liversedge on the same Tuesday. A considerable number of people attended and an anonymous local woman paid for a wreath to go on the coffin. At that point, it seemed that the woman’s identity would remain unknown. But the following day, a man came forward and solved the mystery of who she was: next time, we will have the tale of Hannah Haigh, the woman in the boiler.

Note: All sources will be listed at the end of the final article

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