The Liversedge Mystery: The story of Hannah Haigh

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 found 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 found.

The inquest held on 2 October concluded that the body was not, as had been reported, that of Marion Lake (who probably was a woman called Marion Lake who moved to Ashton-under-Lyne where she did her best to disappear). The jury could not determine a cause of death, but suspected foul play. The woman’s remains, apparently further than ever from being identified, were buried at Christ Church, Liversedge.

The Bradford Daily Telegraph for Wednesday 3 October, in a report on the inquest, remarked: “It must be hoped that police will exert themselves to unravel the mystery, although in the circumstances and from the lapse of time the task which they have set them is one of excessive difficulty. If the body is that of anyone who was resident in the district there is some chance of success; if it was merely that some wanderer passing through it, it may feared that the case will added the number of unsolved mysterious murders which contradict the popular belief that murder will out.” But that same day, the mystery of the woman’s identity was solved.

Benjamin Thewlis, who worked at Taylor’s Mill in Batley, had read the story of the unidentified body in the newspapers. He was reminded of his neighbour Joseph Woodhead, whose 37-year-old daughter had vanished around a year before, and showed him the report. Woodhead was certain that the clothing as described matched that worn by his daughter when she was last seen. That same Wednesday, he travelled to Liversedge with a friend and asked for directions to the mill where the body was found. He was directed to a member of the inquest jury, who in turn referred him to Sergeant Sykes. The latter showed him the clothing, boots, hair and other items found at the mill.

Woodhead confirmed that these belonged to his daughter but was uncertain about the earrings found in the purse. He knew she had some but could not say if she was carrying them when she disappeared. He believed that, at the time, she had a sovereign (one pound) with her that she had saved from her wages; if she had bought a railway ticket, which he suspected she had, that would have left her with around 19 shillings – the amount found in the purse. The Dewsbury Reporter said that Woodhead, unsurprisingly, “seemed deeply affected”. His daughter was called Hannah Haigh, a married woman with two daughters; it was reported that she and her daughters had been living with Woodhead in Batley. One of Hannah’s two sisters also lived there. Her husband, Samuel Haigh – sometimes known as Sam Pell – lived in Skelmanthorpe, a village close to Huddersfield.

That evening, the clothing and purse were taken to Batley for the rest of her family to inspect. Whichever policeman accompanied Woodhead to Batley questioned Haigh’s sister and daughters about her clothing and possessions before revealing them; their description tallied with what had been found in the old boiler. When they saw the clothing, they immediately identified it as belonging to Haigh. Regarding the earrings, her sister said that she had bought them, and a matching pair for herself, as a gift. She was able to show the policeman her own pair, which were identical to the ones from the purse. To remove all doubt, the policeman asked a neighbour to look at the items; a Mrs Taylor corroborated what Woodhead and his family had said. According to a report in the Leeds Times, the identity of the clothing was also verified (presumably in Skelmanthorpe) by Hannah’s husband and his mother, and by her other sister.

With the identity of the body seemingly established beyond question, the story of Hannah Haigh emerged in the press over the following days. Newspapers printed the details of how Woodhead came to Liversedge and identified the body, then told the unfortunate story of his daughter’s life. Slightly differing reports were published on Thursday 4 October and Saturday 6 October, both seemingly based on what Woodhead had said to the police. Some slight discrepancies, which Woodhead corrected in an interview printed in the Dewsbury Reporter on Saturday, suggest that the source was either Sergeant Sykes himself, or a very well-informed local who had been told the full story.

Several details can be added using census returns and birth, marriage and death records. But a crucial point, revealed in the press was that Hannah Haigh had spent time at the West Riding Paupers Lunatic Asylum, known as Wakefield Asylum, suffering from an “affection of the mind”. Patient records for that institution still exist, including those for Hannah Haigh: four handwritten pages in a log book telling her story. These various sources – the newspaper reports, the census and registration documents and her medical records from Wakefield Asylum allow a fairly full biography to be constructed of the woman found in the Clough Lane boiler up until shortly before she disappeared.

Skelmanthorpe in 1891; Gib Lane is the road on the left leading from Elm Street towards Elm Mills and Mount Pleasant (Image: Ordinance Survey 25 inch map for 1893, reproduced by the National Library of Scotland under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence)

Hannah Lawton Woodhead was born in 1845 in Skelmanthorpe and baptised at Emley church on 18 May 1845. She was the eldest of the three daughters of Joseph Woodhead and Elizabeth Lawton; her younger sisters were called Ann and Elizabeth. Her father was a “fancy weaver”, someone who could create complicated patterns on cloth. According to the 1861 census, he was also a Methodist preacher – Hannah was listed as a “Primitive Methodist” when she was admitted to Wakefield Asylum

On 7 October 1867, Hannah married Samuel Haigh, a man from Skelmanthorpe who was roughly her age and whose family, like hers, were weavers. He seems to have had various jobs. At the time Hannah’s body was discovered, Haigh was reported to be an “engine tenter” or a “fireman” (not to be confused with a modern fireman but someone who worked with a steam engine), and the 1881 census recorded him as a stoker at a factory. But in the 1871 and 1891 census, he is described as a “hawker”, a fairly disreputable occupation which involved selling various small items. And when he remarried in 1883 (which we will return to shortly), he gave his profession as a hawker once more.

Samuel and Hannah had two children: Mary, born in 1869 and Phoebe, in 1872. The 1871 census records the family living at 174 Gib Lane, Skelmanthorpe. Hannah was surrounded by family: her father, mother and sister Elizabeth lived at number 170 on the same road, while her other sister Ann and her husband Albert Wadsworth – a local man whom she had married earlier in 1871 – were at number 167.

Gib Lane today has several houses which may well date back to the time that the Haighs, Woodheads and Wadsworths lived so close together; numbers 167, 170 and 174 apparently no longer exist, although it is equally possible that the numbering has changed.

But the marriage between Hannah and Samuel Haigh was not a happy one. In his 1883 interview with the Dewsbury Reporter, Joseph Woodhead claimed that “in consequence of her husband having formed intemperate habits they did not live comfortably together.” Also, the notes made on Hannah’s admission to Wakefield Asylum, probably following a discussion with Woodhead or one of his other daughters, state: “Her husband turned out to be a most dissipated, drunken fellow, ill-used her, turned her out of doors, struck her frequently, and co-habited with other women.” The same notes say that after five years of marriage, she left him. Press reports based on her father’s account dated the separation to 1871 or 1872. The most likely date may have been soon after the birth of Phoebe. She took her two daughters and moved back in with her parents. As this would have been on the same road, she would not have been far from Samuel which may have led to some awkwardness, although it is not known how long he stayed there after they separated: later, he lived with his mother at a nearby address in the village.

Part of the problem may have been Haigh’s occupation as a hawker. An 1865 book by Henry Mayhew looked at the lives of the poor in London and describes the lives of hawkers there. With the qualification that he describes it as a way of life and something of a family occupation (and Haigh’s family were weavers, not hawkers), he does say some interesting things which are summarised in this article on hawking by Amanda Wilkinson. That article also suggests that hawking was a last resort to avoid having to go the workhouse; that hawkers often co-habited rather than married; that many female hawkers were presumed also to work as prostitutes; and that violence against women and children in hawker families was common. There is no evidence whatsoever that any of these things applied to Samuel Haigh, but it does raise the question of whether he expected his wife to hawk with him, and whether his behaviour was influenced by his way of life. And the poor reputation of hawkers may explain Joseph Woodhead’s misgivings. For context, in 1881, there were over 200 hawkers living in Huddersfield, not including nearby areas like Skelmanthorpe (where only two were listed).

While it is impossible to verify what Samuel Haigh did, some circumstantial evidence supports the view that he “co-habited” with other women. He may have had a long-lasting relationship with Elizabeth Pell, a woman from nearby Cumberworth who was six years older than him. She lived close to Skelmanthorpe in 1871 at a place known as Kitchenroyd, a row of workers terraces on the road between Denby Dale and Scissett; she and her parents were still there in 1881. Although Kitchenroyd is not quite within Skelmanthrope, the village was only a mile away via a path through the nearby woods and over fields. Elizabeth also had at least two illegitimate children, one of whom, Fred – who was born shortly before Haigh married Hannah Woodhead – was an executor of Samuel’s will when he died in 1900. Fred also married someone from the Wadsworth family, suggesting another connection. Most importantly, on 22 September 1883 – before the body of Hannah was discovered – Samuel Haigh married Elizabeth Pell in Huddersfield (and described himself as a hawker again). When next recorded on the census in 1891, the couple are living back at Gib Lane, next door to the Wadsworths. This marriage was not driven by pregnancy: Elizabeth does not appear to have had more children. Joseph Woodhead told police in 1883 that his former son-in-law was also known as Sam Pell which suggests he had been with Elizabeth for some time before their marriage. All these things suggest that their relationship had lasted for many years and Haigh may have been the father of Fred Pell. But we cannot be certain.

Although Hannah left Samuel Haigh around 1872, this was not quite the end of the marriage. Given what is known of her final months, she may have periodically returned to him at this time. In 1876, Samuel Woodhead moved with his family to Batley where he worked as a power-loom weaver, a less skilled job than his previous work as a “fancy weaver”. When interviewed in the Dewsbury Reporter, Woodhead did not say why he took his family so far from Skelmanthorpe; the reasons may have been financial if his former occupation was not bringing enough money to support his wife, two daughters and two granddaughters. But there were other mills closer to Skelmanthorpe; it is not unreasonable to wonder if part of the reason he moved so far from his home and his other daughter was to get Hannah away from her husband. Once in Batley, Joseph and Hannah worked at Blakeridge Mill; Hannah’s daughters would work there alongside their grandfather after their mother’s disappearance.

Blakeridge Mill, Batley, where Hannah Haigh, her two daughters and Joseph Woodhead worked (Image: From Yorkshire Industrial Heritage website)

Another factor affecting the family at this time was recorded in the notes made at Wakefield Asylum. Since leaving her husband in 1872, she had suffered from anxiety. A further change came in 1879 when Hannah’s mother died at the age of 61. Although she died in Batley, she was buried in Skelmanthorpe, which once again raises the question of why the family moved so far from a home which was obviously important to them.

On the night of 3 April 1881, the census recorded that Joseph Woodhead, his daughters Hannah and Elizabeth, and his granddaughters Mary and Phoebe lived on Suffolk Street in Purlwell, Batley. Her husband – then living with his mother – and sister Ann still lived in Skelmanthorpe. But according to her medical notes from Wakefield, by this date Hannah was behaving increasingly erratically. Eleven days later, on 14 April 1881 (her father mistakenly recalled the date as 18 April when talking to the press), she was admitted to Wakefield Asylum as patient number 8458.

Wakefield Asylum, more accurately known as the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, was at the cutting edge of treating mental illness in this period. It was also unusual in that it admitted the poor. Even so, the treatment offered in 1881 would have been largely ineffective and was a long way short of modern standards.

West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, Wakefield, date unknown (Image: From ‘Twixt Aire and Calder, courtesy Wakefield Libraries)

Hannah Haigh’s referral seems to have been made by RD Keighley of Hanover Street, Batley; he is listed on the 1881 census as a Justice of the Peace and a General Practitioner. His observations were recorded on her admission notes: she was suffering from “despondency, lack of sleep. [She] considers that she has done some crime for which she will have to suffer and that she will, she says, go to the bad place.” Further notes were made, giving her history as the people at the asylum recorded how she came to be there. This information did not come from Doctor Keighley, but must have come from a family member.

Five weeks before her admission, Hannah “became distressed and agitated – lost sleep and developed the delusion that she had committed some crime for which she is doomed to suffer and go to the ‘bad place.‘” She believed that she was being “gradually consumed by fire, that men are trying to injur her and her children” and she talked constantly about religion. She was not sleeping and occasionally refused food. One particular incident was recorded, when she “went out of doors quietly in the night when the family were asleep, threw away all her clothing from her and returned entirely naked.” On one other occasion, she had torn her bed clothes and “exhibited dirty habits” (the same notes recorded that she was “not always attentive to calls of nature”).  It seemed that she had “a disposition to wander so that she is constantly to watch.” Whoever was making the notes judged that she was not  “epileptic, suicidal or dangerous to others,” and a head injury was explicitly ruled out. She had previously been of good character.  But the notes also record that “according to the medical officer’s statement, she had for several years exhibited mental aberration.”

These same notes went extensively into her personal history, again presumably as told by her father or sister and most of which is mentioned above. Her troubled marriage was recorded and someone at the asylum deduced that this was the cause of her problems. The initial “supposed cause” of her “insanity” was given as “religion and family difficulties” and the first treatment given was “bromide tonics with change of air” (bromide was a common treatment for epilepsy).

A corridor in the old asylum building which later became Stanley Royd Hospital; this photograph was taken in 1999, five years after the hospital closed (Image: From ‘Twixt Aire and Calder, courtesy Wakefield Libraries)

In the following days, Hannah Haigh was observed closely and a follow-up report was written on 19 April, after five days in the asylum. This stated that she had been depressed, “full of fears” and restless at night since her admission, but had been eating. She understood what was said to her and answered without hesitation but at times became extremely agitated, “sway[ing] backwards and forwards during conversation.” She tried to “supress her painful emotions” but had “a vacant air and looks at times quite distracted by her thoughts.” Her memory had been affected by “recent events” and she was unaware of how long she had been in the asylum and even of which day of the week it was. She seemed to be giving confusing accounts of what had been happening to her but knew that “all her trouble is due to thinking about her husband and her separation from him.” The author wrote she “says that for a long time she used to pray night and day, and evidently she has been the subject of distracting thoughts and mental pain.” She believed that she was “eternally lost” and that her children had been taken away. At times, she appeared to be speaking to imaginary voices and told the asylum workers that she had both heard voices and seen visions, but seemed unable to give any details. She also believed that she was pregnant.

Her physical details were listed (although not her height, which would have been a useful comparison with the autopsy report): she had brown hair and grey eyes, but her pupils were unequal and she had “slight lateral oscillations of both eyeballs when she looks to one side.” Otherwise she was physically fine. The final diagnosis was “melancholia with slight dementia” and the cause “domestic worry and anxiety”. Her prognosis was judged “favourable” and the treatment “extra diet, with stimulants and cod liver oil”, some medicine which is illegible in the book, and a sedative at night if required.

A photo from the 1890s showing West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum nursing staff in the grounds of the asylum (Image: From ‘Twixt Aire and Calder, courtesy Wakefield Libraries)

Joseph Woodhead had a slightly different view of what happened. The Dewsbury Reporter article based on his interview in 1883, stated: “[Hannah Haigh] suffered from mental derangement, which her father appears to believe was caused by a fright she received from a foolish act of her husband; and had to be sent to the asylum at Wakefield.” Can this explain how she came to be in the asylum? She was convinced she had committed a crime; very likely connected in some way, especially as she probably had a strict Methodist upbringing, she believed she was going to go to hell. Perhaps her husband did or said something that pushed her over the edge – a “foolish act” – that was either in reality or perceived by her to be a serious crime. Interestingly, the symptoms of psychosis on the NHS website are hallucinations – including hearing voices – and delusions – “where a person has strong beliefs that aren’t shared by others; a common delusion is someone believing there is a conspiracy to harm them”. The causes can include severe depression, stress and a “traumatic experience”. Did something happen in March 1881 involving Hannah and her husband that triggered what would have a modern diagnosis of a psychotic episode?

Over the following year, Hannah’s records were periodically updated but with increasingly long intervals between each entry. A flurry of updates in the week following 19 April 1881 suggested she had improved slightly, was sleeping and eating well but remained depressed. She seemed to enjoy performing household duties to keep herself occupied. By 24 April, she seemed much brighter and wished to write home to ask about her children. On 5 May, an update stated that she was “progressing altogether favourably” and her medicine had been stopped. Overnight on 27 May she had a “relapse of depression accompanied by all her former depressing fancies” but was better the next day. But an update on 28 June said that she was “still peculiar in manners and subject to the same depressing feelings.” A month later, she was unchanged and “still full of absurd ideas of a religious character and believes herself guilty of various crimes.” Nothing was written in August. On 2 September, it was written (in different handwriting to the other entries) that “a decided change for the better has occurred” regarding her delusions and “she allows that she has said too much.” The next update, on 7 November, indicated that she was unchanged and still obsessed with religion, and on 25 November she was reported to be confused and incoherent.

The central kitchen in the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, Wakefield, 1900-1904 (Image: From ‘Twixt Aire and Calder, courtesy Wakefield Libraries)

Just under a fortnight later, it obviously became too much. On the evening of 7 December 1881, Hannah had been working in the laundry; as dusk fell and work finished for the day, she escaped. When staff realised she was not in the grounds of the asylum, they sent messages to her friends and the police were informed. The next morning, staff received news that she had reached home safely and by the evening of 8 December, when these events were written up in her notes, she had been returned to the asylum. The following day she was “somewhat agitated and distressed at being brought away from home” and spoke of wanting to be with her children; the author of the entry remarks on her “childish” state. The notes at this point are a little hard to read and confusing but record that she said “her husband was not known to her, and she would prefer to go to her sister’s, who she states, is ready to take her.” Obviously seeing home again (although it is not clear if she fled to Skelmanthorpe or Batley) made her want to leave the asylum for good. Perhaps the entry raises a few questions: why did she say that her husband was “not known to her”? Perhaps she had seen him, and also perhaps her sister, leading her to say with confidence that her sister would take her? Also, it is interesting that she talks about her sister rather than her father at this point. But her comments do not really indicate whether or not she had seen her children when she escaped.

On December 10, Hannah was recorded as sleeping and eating well, although she thought she was going to die. Matters were no better in her next update, on 11 February 1882: “Still subject to numerous delusions. Does not appreciate her position [does not know where she is]. Is most querulous and troublesome.” Her final entry was on 10 May, when she was “acutely depressed, prostrating herself on the floor and turning a deaf ear to all remonstrances. Had to be fed with tube.”

Although this sounds like someone who was not at all well, and actually deteriorating, just over a month later, on 15 June 1882, it was written that she was “Discharged: relieved”. She had spent fourteen months and a day in the asylum. Her notes end here, but over a year later, someone obviously remembered her. Pasted at the bottom of the final page is a newspaper cutting which identified the body at Liversedge as that of Hannah Haigh.

Six months after her release, she was almost certainly dead. The official records are no further help, and the events leading up to her death can only be examined through what her father discovered afterwards. How did Hannah Haigh come to Liversedge and what events led to her lying dead in the abandoned boiler? As we shall see next time, there are no easy answers to either of these questions, and few possible explanations make any sense at all.

Notes: Thanks to Wakefield Libraries for permission to re-use their images. All other sources will be listed at the end of the final article.

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