The Liversedge Mystery: The final hours 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 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 but the jury could not determine a cause of death. The woman’s remains were buried at Christ Church, Liversedge, but then Joseph Woodhead, a weaver from Skelmanthorpe living in Batley, came forward to say the woman was his missing daughter, Hannah Haigh. She was married to a Skelmanthorpe man called Samuel Haigh, from whom she had separated, and had spent time at the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, from which she was discharged in June 1882.

There were three main accounts in various newspapers detailing Hannah Haigh’s life after leaving Wakefield Asylum, published between 4 October and 6 October 1883. The stories are essentially the same. The first two are obviously based on what Joseph Woodhead told police; these versions are most likely sourced from the police themselves or a well-informed local in Liversedge or Batley. The third version is the interview that Woodhead gave to the Dewsbury Reporter, already quoted at length. However, one reporter in the Leeds Times may have had a source in Skelmanthorpe.

Hannah Haigh was “discharged relieved” from West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum on 15 June 1882, even though the final entry in her medical log just over a month earlier had stated: “acutely depressed, prostrating herself on the floor and turning a deaf ear to all remonstrances. Had to be fed with tube.” It may be that she was released on the condition that Samuel Haigh looked after her. According to Joseph Woodhead in the Dewsbury Reporter, her husband promised to look after her at the time, “but he failed to keep his promise.” There may be a surprising verification of this from Haigh himself.

Two articles were published in the Leeds Times on 6 October 1883. The first is simply a reprint of a story from other newspapers, covering the inquest and how Samuel Woodhead eventually identified the body. The second, much shorter, article reports that the clothing from the mill had been confirmed as hers by “the sister of the deceased, Mrs Woodward [possibly a misunderstanding of her actual name Wadsworth, or confusion with the name Woodhead] of Skelmanthorpe; by the husband, Samuel Haigh; by his mother, Hannah Haigh; and by two other persons.” This is the only report to mention her husband and mother-in-law being involved in the identification but is clearly well-informed: Samuel Haigh’s mother, with whom he lived in 1881, was also named Hannah, and Ann Wadsworth lived nearby. It is not a huge stretch that one of those mentioned in the report was its source.

Crucially, the article also says: “[The] deceased, it is averred, threatened, in the presence of her husband, that she would take her life, and he was charged to look carefully after her.” This makes it even more likely that Hannah was released into the care of her husband and suggests that the information came from him. But wherever the story in the Leeds Times came from, it is the only source which suggests that she was suicidal – her medical notes from the asylum explicitly ruled this out when she was admitted, although they later state that she thought she was going to die. This is a point we shall return to.

After Hannah Haigh had been released, her father said in his interview that she initially stayed with her husband but when this did not work out, she went to live with her sister Ann in Skelmanthorpe. For whatever reason, Haigh persuaded her to return and they lived together for another six weeks before she left him once more. This time she fled to her father and sister Elizabeth in Batley, where she stayed until mid-October 1882. At this point, her father sent her back to Skelmanthorpe. One newspaper report said this was to stay with her sister because he thought the change of scene would help her as she was in “a low state of mind”; while there, she encountered her husband and moved back in with him once more.

Woodhead’s version of events is different: he told the Dewsbury Reporter that as he was “unable to support her [presumably for financial reasons but perhaps she was behaving erratically again] they sent for her husband” who took her back to Skelmanthorpe. Woodhead’s version is probably the accurate one, and other versions seem to conflate and confuse the details he supplied in his interview; in this case, harsh as it may seem, it is more likely he sent her back to her husband, despite his professed low opinion of Haigh and everything he knew to have happened before. One possible reason is that while Haigh was listed as a hawker – a disreputable profession – on the census in 1871, he was working as a stoker in 1881. Did this better-paying and better-respected job convince Woodhead that life would now be different? In any case, Hannah’s daughters remained with their grandfather and, by the end of October, she was living with Haigh again.

Clayton West Station in May 1955 (Image : From John Mann Collection via disused-stations.org.uk)

On Sunday 12 November 1882, around five or six weeks after her final reunion with her husband, Hannah disappeared from home. Joseph Woodhead must have travelled to Skelmanthorpe in the aftermath to piece together what happened and he found witnesses who accounted for some of her movements. She left her husband’s house on the Sunday morning; she was next seen on the afternoon of Monday 13 November at Clayton West railway station – roughly two miles from Skelmanthorpe. Woodhead supposed she had “wandered about in solitary places in the district”. This does not quite make sense. Her intention seems to have been to take a train to Batley; however, trains did not run from Clayton West or Skelmanthorpe on a Sunday. If she had merely “wandered about”, she would presumably have got a train as early as she could on Monday as the weather was cold. It is perhaps more likely she knew someone in, or near to, Clayton West with whom she stayed overnight.

Woodhead discovered from the station master at Clayton West that she had arrived there “about five o’clock in the evening” on Monday, requesting a ticket to Batley. The accounts diverge a little here: one states that she was refused a ticket to Batley “on account of her strange demeanour”; her father said that they “would not book her through” without saying why. But there was no train from Clayton West or Skelmanthorpe (or Brockholes, where one account had her trying to buy the ticket – a suggestion her father refuted in his interview) that travelled directly to Batley; she would have had to change at Huddersfield. It is possible this is the simple reason she was not given a ticket to Batley; otherwise it seems absurd that the station master would refuse to give her a ticket to Batley because of her “strange demeanour” but quite happily give her one to Huddersfield.

Some of this can be checked: the Huddersfield Chronicle regularly printed train timetables, and did so in November 1882. That month, a train was scheduled to leave Clayton West for Huddersfield every weekday at 4:40pm, arriving at 5:25pm. By this stage, it would have already been dark as sunset that day was around 4:15pm.

Skelmanthorpe station around 1908 (Image: From John Alsop collection via disused-stations.org.uk)

Once Hannah was on the train, some passengers recognised her; they tried to persuade her to disembark at Skelmanthorpe and said that the police at Huddersfield would take her back to the asylum if she travelled there. This may have been because she was behaving oddly; or it could mean that the police were looking for her following her disappearance. However, she refused to leave the train and it was assumed she travelled on to Huddersfield. But there were no sightings of Hannah that her father could trace after the train left Skelmanthorpe. He guessed that she had set off walking from Huddersfield towards Batley and “wandered” to Liversedge.

According to the newspapers, two days after her disappearance, her husband came to Batley looking for her, and the family made a search without success. Although the reports do not say if the police were informed, they presumably were. Her father asked everywhere for information, travelling as far as Wakefield and Halifax over the next twelve months, and even looking at the body of a woman found in Wakefield to see if it was his missing daughter. Only after reading of the Liversedge Mystery could his search end.

There were no follow-up reports in the newspapers, but there was no happy ending for Hannah Haigh’s family. Her father died suddenly, necessitating a brief investigation by the coroner, in 1887. Samuel Haigh married Elizabeth Pell and lived until 1900. Her daughters do not seemed to have lived long either. Although it is hard to be certain, they are absent from later census returns, and do not appear to have married. From the death index, it appears that Mary died in 1889 and Phoebe in early 1891. Ann, her sister in Skelmanthorpe, died in 1906. Her other sister Elizabeth lived longest, until 1924. She never married, but in 1891 one of Ann’s children was living with her in Batley and in 1901 she had taken a lodger. By 1911, the roles had switched and she was now a boarder of her former lodger.

Clayton West Railway Station pictured in 1979 (Image: © Peter Whatley [cc-by-sa/2.0])

From this point, there are no facts and there can only be speculation. To even attempt to make sense of what happened, we must make a few reasonable assumptions such as that Joseph Woodhead was telling the truth to the newspapers and that the body at Clough Mills was indeed Hannah Haigh and not someone dressed like her. But from here, whichever way the story is twisted, it does not make much sense.

The key question is: how and why did she travel to Liversedge from Huddersfield? Some newspapers claimed that Clough Mill was on the walking route between Huddersfield and Batley. But this is not true. From Huddersfield, it was roughly a nine mile walk to Suffolk Street, her father’s house in Batley. If she left Huddersfield around 5:30pm and travelled directly, she could have been there between 8:30 and 9:30pm. The shortest route to Batley was towards Cooper Bridge and then towards Heckmondwike, along the route of the modern A62. This passes close to Hightown, but to reach Clough Lane would require an unnecessary and convoluted detour at least a mile-and-a-half from the main road.

There was also a fact of which the newspapers were unaware but which is relevant. On the night she escaped from Wakefield Asylum, Hannah had disappeared by “dusk” (sunset was at 3:47pm that day at Wakefield) and had reached “home” by the following morning. The asylum’s notes do not make it clear where she went, but whether she fled to Batley (eight miles away) or Skelmanthorpe (eleven miles away), the distances are similar to those from Huddersfield to Batley. That day, she presumably had no money and travelled on an unfamiliar route. Whatever her mental state in November 1882, it cannot really have been worse than it was in December 1881. If she could reach home in these circumstances, what stopped her on 13 November 1882?

It may be argued that she got lost. The main route from Huddersfield to Batley follows the road to Leeds, a major route and one with which she may well have been familiar. Assuming she followed this route (and there is no reason she would not have done), she is extremely unlikely to have wandered accidentally from the main road and even less likely to take the multiple diversions required to reach Clough Lane. Perhaps she needed shelter for the night? By the time she reached anywhere near Clough Lane, she would have not been far from home and to head there would require turning in the wrong direction. Darkness could not have been a factor as it would have been dark even before she took the train; the weather may have played a part as although it was dry, according to newspaper reports the following day; the temperature fell to around freezing that night. Also, unless she was delayed or stopped several times along the way, she could easily have reached Batley before midnight; if she did somehow wander to Clough Lane, it should have been considerably earlier – potentially as early as 7:30pm – when she reached Hightown.

Unless someone waylaid her, it is hard to explain how she any method of travelling on foot to Batley would result in her reaching Clough Lane from Huddersfield.

But why did Hannah not simply take the train to Batley? She certainly was carrying more than enough money. Such a train left Huddersfield at 5:40 on the day of her disappearance, arriving in Batley, close to her father’s house, at 6:06. But as she never reached her father, it is almost certain that she did not get that or any other train to Batley. Furthermore, it is quite likely that she had not bought another train ticket.

She had told her father, before leaving Batley to live in Skelmanthorpe, that she had “little more than a sovereign [one pound] with her;” it was when he discovered how much money was in the purse at Clough Lane that Woodhead thought it must be Hannah – the sovereign less the price of a train ticket. The Leeds Times report which can be tentatively sourced to Joseph Haigh gives the price of a ticket from Clayton West to Huddersfield as eleven pence; this would have left eleven shillings and a penny change from one pound, the exact amount found on the body. Additionally, the standard fare for third class travel by train was one penny per mile; it is roughly ten-and-a-half miles from Skelmanthorpe to Huddersfield. This evidence suggests that Hannah only bought a single train ticket to Huddersfield and this was the assumption made at the time. Perhaps she was refused a ticket for whatever reason and had no choice but to walk.

Do any alternative scenarios place her closer to Clough Lane? Perhaps she missed the 5:40 Batley train. What then? The next train to Batley was at 6:50pm, which would have been a long wait. In which case, would she have got a different train in the direction of Batley? Or in her confused state, taken the wrong train altogether? There were trains to Bradford at 5:23 and 6:25 which passed through Liversedge and Cleckheaton: if she either accidentally or deliberately took that train, and disembarked at Liversedge, she would not have been far from home but nowhere near Clough Lane; if she got off at Cleckheaton – perhaps realising she was on the wrong train or having missed her stop – it is not entirely implausible (although not the best route) that she may have followed the road and found herself at Clough Lane. There was also a train at 5:47 to Brighouse; if she found herself on this train, alighted at Brighouse and walked towards Batley, that would take her through Hightown and very near Clough Lane.

There is no actual evidence that she did get another train, and the amount of money in her purse suggests that she did not. Yet she could have been carrying more than her father knew about; or she may have met someone on the way and been travelling with them. But we are already stretching the facts and altering the story to explain what we cannot know. The only certainty is that her journey – most likely on foot – concluded near Hightown: in 1882 there was no way to transport a body any distance without being seen and her death, whatever the cause, must have been at or close to Clough Mill. Perhaps, as her father seemed to think, she simply reached it through confused and aimless wandering after leaving the train. But this does not really seem the behaviour of someone who could escape from Wakefield Asylum, or who was able to buy a train ticket at Clayton West with the intention of travelling to Batley, or who had doubtless made the same journey many times before. Is the most likely explanation therefore that she was waylaid by someone?

We must finally ask, however Hannah Haigh came to be in Hightown, how did she die there? Her father believed she had “crept into the boiler tapping place where she was found. She would know all about the removal of the plates, through having seen her husband work as a firer. He does not appear to think that any foul play had been used.” The newspapers assumed, like her father, that a woman with known mental health issues, a former inmate of Wakefield Asylum, had either killed herself or simply died. There was no follow-up. Only the Leeds Times article on how her husband identified her clothes reminds the readers that “The Liversedge Mystery has not been solved so as to show how the body got into the receptacle at Clough Mills.” What can we find by looking a final time at the boiler room at Clough Mill?

First, the jury and those newspaper reporters who inspected the site at Clough Mill were almost certain that this could not have been suicide. The only dissenting voice was that of the Coroner at the inquest who ruminated that “people who commit suicide do at times extraordinary things in perpetrating the deed”. Unlike the jury and the journalists, we are unable to view the scene, nor can we even be certain of the layout of the boiler. From what was reported, she seems to have been in a pan at the front of the boiler, used for collecting ashes from the fire. The pan was not large: 4½ feet long, 2 feet wide and 3 feet deep. This length and width is roughly equal to and the depth roughly twice that of a modern bath. The top may have been covered by a grate, based on the descriptions given, and access was restricted by a pipe across the opening. When the body was found, it was in eight inches of water (which had slowed down the decomposition of some of the remains and so had presumably been there as long as the body). Could someone accidentally or deliberately drown in that amount of water in such a restricted space? It would require the person to be face down, which seems highly unlikely. As a method of suicide, it would be extremely unlikely and perhaps impossible. Maybe as her father believed, Hannah Haigh simply “crept into” the space; perhaps she died from some injury or illness, or from exposure to the elements and just happened to be in the boiler at the time. But she was found kneeling in the pan with her head down, turned away from the boiler. How could she naturally have ended up in this position? On the other hand, such a position would make sense if she had been lifted over the side and lowered in.

A boiler room in a Huddersfield mill c. 1910. The room in Clough Mill would likely have once looked like this. (Image: Unknown photographer, from Kirklees Image Archive)

The plates that covered the opening were heavy – two feet square and two inches thick – and possibly tricky to handle. They may have been resting against the wall where Jacob Blacker, the engineman at the former mill, had left them after the 1880 fire. Or someone may have legitimately replaced them afterwards (although it is hard to imagine why); he did not check. Furthermore, anyone could have accessed the boiler room at any time as it was only sealed by planks of wood, which Blacker admitted having to periodically replace.

If the plates remained off when Hannah Haigh came, it seems unlikely that she would have replaced them herself and then got into the space and sealed it. If she was placed inside by someone else, it would make more sense to cover the pan to conceal her. If the plates had been replaced earlier, it is difficult to imagine why she would have removed them to climb inside, even if she had known they could be taken off (her father believed she would have known). But someone who knew how boilers worked may have thought this was a good place to conceal a body. (In either case, it is interesting that one plate was slightly out of position; perhaps someone had found the body before Sowden and Mellor did, but was reluctant to tell anyone?)

There were no marks indicating violence on the bones, and the only unusual point was that she had so many teeth missing. The records of Wakefield Asylum do not mention this. The doctor who performed the autopsy was of the opinion, as the bone had not closed up, that many of them could have come out shortly before or shortly after she died; he did not think a blow could have caused the tooth loss as the jaw was not broken. Could a blow have removed teeth without breaking her jaw? Or maybe something happened in her final weeks that caused her to lose teeth. Or more prosaically, they may have simply fallen out after she died. Overall, what we know after so long, and with so little evidence, cannot tell us much.

It may be important that part of her scalp had become detached; was this from a blow? Also, hair was present on the pipe across the entrance to the pan. But given the dark, chaotic conditions in which the body was removed from its position, it is quite likely that either the policemen or the two men who found her in the first place were responsible for this. Is it important that most of the hair found at the scene was within the shawl? It led Constable Semper to suggest that she had been wearing the shawl when the body “was placed in the tank”. Does this make it more or less likely she got in voluntarily or was put in there after she died? There are simply too many unknowns here. It is also not impossible that the body had been disturbed more than Sowden and Mellor admitted.

Where does this leave us? There are no definite answers. Even if we assume that Hannah Haigh was extremely mentally ill when she reached Huddersfield, and behaved completely irrationally from that point forward, suicide seems highly unlikely: the difficulties with the plates and the position of the body make this such a convoluted proposition that it would have been far more difficult than using an alternative method that could have presented itself earlier on her route. For similar reasons, it is hard to see how she could have died naturally in there because of how she was found (her father, who believed this, did not see the position of the body and perhaps, focussed as he was on the clothing and purse found on the body, paid little attention to that part of the inquest reports). This leaves us, like the jury, to consider foul play.

If she was killed, who did it? It may have been a random passer-by. An unknown murderer roaming the streets of Hightown and Liversedge seems faintly ridiculous. Perhaps she acted strangely and made someone think she was dangerous; maybe she did or said the wrong thing; possibly she was attacked by someone. Maybe it was an accident: someone panicked and hid the body. This scenario would fit if she met someone on the road to Batley who either persuaded or forced her off her route.

As Clough Lane and Hightown were so far from the areas she normally lived, it seems highly unlikely she was killed by anyone she knew, unless she somehow had acquaintances in the area unknown to her family. Given how much the people of Hightown would have known the business of others (such as the Lake family) in such a small area, someone surely would have remembered her. If her killer was an acquaintance from Skelmanthorpe or Batley, why murder her at Hightown, assuming that they would have been unable to transport her body? Someone could have followed her, but again, why?

But for this matter of geography, her husband would be an obvious suspect. One report said that he came to Batley two days after she disappeared to search for her. Maybe he was making an effort; after all, he had reconciled with her when she came to Skelmanthorpe and had said he would look after her (even if he failed to).  Maybe he even felt guilty when she disappeared after the trouble he had caused her. Or maybe he was hiding something. And was it two days after she left home (which would be Tuesday, less than 24 hours after her last sighting) or two days after she was last seen (which would be Wednesday)? Furthermore, if he was behind the information in the Leeds Times story, he was the only source claiming that she was suicidal when other indications are that she was not. Was this an attempt to muddy the waters?

One other possibly incriminating fact is that, in 1883, before the body of his wife was found, he married Elizabeth Pell. This wedding did not take place at a church but at Huddersfield Register Office on 22 September 1883. He describes himself as a “widower”. But there are three interesting questions about the marriage. First, although Joseph Woodhead believed Haigh was working as a stoker, he described himself as a hawker on his marriage certificate. The 1881 census lists him as a stoker, which doubtless paid more than he could earn hawking. Had he lost his job? Second, even though he was claiming to be a widower, and Elizabeth Pell had never married before, they chose not to marry in a church which suggests that he went further afield to marry knowing that doing so locally would have attracted notice or disapproval. Finally (though unlikely to be relevant), when Haigh married Hannah Woodhead in 1867, he signed the marriage register. But in 1883, he simply put a cross next to his name, usually a sign of illiteracy. Why had this changed?

Haigh’s claim to be a widower does seem suspicious as his wife was missing and not confirmed dead. Obviously, he would only know this for certain if he was in some way connected to her death. But as she had been missing for ten months, it was not an unreasonable assumption that she was dead. Her father obviously believed she was dead by then as well. And if Haigh thought she had run away, never to return, the only way could marry again would be to say she was dead and hope that no-one investigated too closely. So maybe too much should not be read into his remarriage.

Another possible motive, other than wanting to marry again, could have been worries about what his wife knew. What if her fears expressed at the asylum, of having committed a crime, of being pursued by men, of having sinned and of going to hell, were based on some action of her husband? Was this the “fright she received from a foolish act of her husband” that her father talked about? Did someone think she knew too much?

But… unless Haigh followed Hannah or went with her, he would have had no reason to be at Hightown. And if the plates were off the boiler, anyone could have found that hiding spot. So while he may have been a suspect if the case had been investigated further, it is hard to see how he could have murdered his wife in the location that she was found. And his wife’s fears in the asylum most likely were what the doctors believed – the delusions of a woman who was unwell because her husband had treated her badly. But maybe not badly enough that he would murder her. If she was murdered, it was most likely someone unknown to her.

Not much of the story makes sense, even when all the details are known. We cannot know how she died or how she came to be where she was. There was no follow-up investigation and Hannah Haigh was simply forgotten. After 6 October, stories ceased to appear in the newspapers. Dismissed as someone who was deranged, the real reasons for her death were not looked into after she was identified, and so the truth will never be found out. All we can do is speculate.

Main Sources:

  • Leeds Mercury, 1 October 1883 (Initial report)
  • Bradford Daily Telegraph, 1 October 1883 (Initial report and details on Marion Lake)
  • York Herald, 2 October 1883 (Information on Marion Lake and her uncle)
  • Leeds Mercury, 3 October 1883 (A report on the inquest)
  • Bradford Daily Telegraph, 3 October 1883 (A report on the inquest)
  • Lancaster Gazette, 3 October 1883 (General report)
  • Leeds Mercury, 4 October 1883 (Joseph Woodhead identifies clothing)
  • Bradford Daily Telegraph, 4 October 1883 (Information on Harriet Haigh)
  • Leeds Times, 6 October 1883 (Identification of the body by Samuel Haigh and claims Hannah Haigh was suicidal)
  • Manchester Times, 6 October 1883 (Information on Harriet Haigh)
  • Dewsbury Reporter, 6 October 1883 (Summary of the whole story, interview with Joseph Woodhead)
  • Via Ancestry.com: West Yorkshire, England, Wakefield Charities Coroners Notebooks, 1852-1909; Census returns for 1841-1911; Birth, Marriage and Death records
  • “Medical Case Notes for Hannah Haigh” from West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, Wakefield (formerly online at the History to Herstory website provided by University of Huddersfield and West Yorkshire Archive Service; the site is no longer available)

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