Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Old Woman of Delamere Forest

Vale Royal:* November 1832.—Since I have been here I have been collecting all the particulars respecting ' The old "Woman of the Forest.' Giving her credit for an inventive imagination, there is enough in the facts to interest one. In July 1815 a report had reached this house that a strange woman was come to live in the forest; many fables, reporting her a heroine in disguise, were already afloat among the servants, when, on the 17th of July, the woman came to this house bringing the following letter :—
My Lady Thumley,
' As I have heard that I am at the present at your property, namely the Oakmere; we are latly comen out of Germany ware I lost my husband; as I cam into England I vind rents so high that I do not know to do for myself without charity, as the same way as most of the people live abroad, so I am gone about to seek some waste ground, for there I can live and provide for myself, for I have a little to make a small beginning, but halas I find that all the commons are forbid now I am at hand this place I am able to live if I may be there but I do not mean to make myself a Paris, for I never intend to submit to Paris ceping, for I belong to a faring chappel in London, but I may yet do for myself if I am permitted, therefore I humbly beg my noble Lady you would not deny my this favour to stop here for a few weeks till I write up to London, for I cannot pay for lorging. I humbly beg that your honor may send some of your trusty servants to enquire and to see ware. We can we shall not trouble anybody for anything nor hurt nor destroy anything, rather protect the remanes of the Trees.
' Most Noble Lady, I humbly beg deny my not a little rest at this peaceable place.
' I your most obliging and humble stranger,
'maria hollingswobth.
' Oakmere, July 17,1816.'

The poor woman stated that she was the daughter of a Lutheran clergyman, born at Leuwardin, in West Friesland, in 1765; her appearance bespoke great poverty; but her rags did not conceal the faded remains of beauty, and her manners and language appeared very superior to her situation. She told her little tale with intelligence and simplicity. She said that she had married a British soldier: that she had followed his fate and shared his hardships through many campaigns, till he was killed at Bergen-op-zoom, leaving her with two infant children, a son and a daughter. She came over to England, and through some Hanoverian friends obtained a small pension from Queen Charlotte, and some inferior situation for her son in the Royal kitchen at St. James's. The motives to which she alludes in her letter
were more fully developed to account for her wild scheme of settling on the forest.

She told us how she had procured a small cart, which afforded shelter to herself and her daughter; a donkey to draw it, and two goats, from whose milk they derived a chief part of their nourishment. In many places they had attempted to make some stay, but had always been driven away as vagabonds by parish officers. Beginning to despair of obtaining in England the object of her desire, a solitary abode rent free, she had determined to go to Liverpool, and get a passage to America. Delamere Forest lay on her road; it was at that time quite unenclosed; a dreary waste without any habitation for miles.

Here her hopes revived: she found a sheltered spot near the large pool called Oakmere, where she determined to stop to wash her clothes. Making some enquiries, she found the land adjoining to be extra-parochial, the property of Lord Delamere. Here the dreaded parish officer, dressed up in brief authority, could have no power if she once obtained the sanction of the proprietor. Lord Delamere allowed her to live there, and she soon set to work to make for herself a permanent abode. Upon a rising bank above the mere, sheltered by a few Scotch firs, stood two ribs of whales, which had been placed there by Philip Egerton, Esq., of Oulton, who had rented the land from the Cholmondeley family. Between these ribs Mrs. H. formed a rude kind of dwelling, by turning up her cart and making a wall of sods and a roof of boughs. Though barely sheltered from the storm, in a hut about eight feet by ten and little more than five feet high, did this poor woman and her daughter live many years.

She became an object of great curiosity in the neighbourhood. The most absurd fables were told: it was even said that Napoleon was living in this strange disguise. Visitors began to be attracted by curiosity, and charity induced them all to contribute in some shape or other towards relieving the wants of the poor recluse. As her means increased, she gradually improved her little dwelling. She added to her walls, put in a door and a small casement; and to make her roof a little more weather-proof, she extended over it the skin of her donkey, who had died, probably from starvation. She hired a labourer for a few days, made a fence, which enclosed her dwelling and a little bit of ground, in which she made a potato ground and a little garden, and a small shed to shelter her goats.

From the produce of that bit of garden, cultivated by herself, and from that of a few fowls, which in course of time she procured, she and her daughter contrived to live; the latter going occasionally to Tarporley market to sell eggs and vegetables. She added to her live- stock a dog, and provided further for her protection by the purchase of a pair of pistols.

One of her professed objects in wishing for a solitary abode was the leisure it would afford her to devote herself to the education of her daughter, without the dread of bad society and example to counteract her precepts. The girl was taught to read and write English, French, and German.

Thus passed some eventless years, during which the numbers of her visitors increased, and her means gradually improved; occasional supplies came from those who had formerly known her. The first winter was cheered by a welcome present of warm clothing from Lady Bulkeley. In process of time, Delainere Forest was enclosed; some two or three small cottages sprang up in the neighbourhood of Oakmere, at a distance from anv town or village. Mrs. Hollingsworth finding that the children of these cottagers had neither the means nor the opportunity of learning anything, offered to teach them to read gratuitously. Unfortunately differences arose, and at the end of three or four years she had quarrelled with all her neighbours.

In the year 18— she received a letter from her son, who had been bound as apprentice to a cabinet-maker at Hanover, informing her that he was on the point of embarking for Buenos Ayres. He added, that as the vessel by which he was going was to touch at Liverpool, he hoped to be able to see his mother before he left Europe. The mother was of course delighted with the thoughts of seeing her long-absent son, and continually watched from a neighbouring eminence every person who strayed towards her lonely dwelling.

After many disappointments, one summer evening she saw a man with a satchel of carpenter's tools on his back coming across the forest, evidently seeking some dwelling, and as he drew nearer both mother and daughter felt convinced that they saw him whose arrival they had so anxiously expected. They saw the man stop at a
neighbouring cottage, apparently to enquire the way, and dared not go there to meet him.

The owner of the cottage into which the traveller had entered was unfortunately one with whom Mrs. Hollingsworth was at variance, one of whom she had a very bad opinion she had, therefore, the misery of thinking that her son was in the house of one who was her enemy, of one capable of any atrocious action.

Night came on, the traveller did not appear again, and the poor woman returned to her hut, hoping she had been disappointed, and had again mistaken a stranger for her son. Anxiety prevented her from sleeping: in the dead of the night her watchful ear caught the sound of distant footsteps, which induced her to get up.

Creeping along, concealed by the low fence of her little garden, she saw her neighbour and his son coming towards the mere, bearing between them a heavy sack; the moon was shining bright. She saw them walk into the water, which was very shallow in this part: she heard a heavy splash. Still the men did not return: they seemed to consult, and fearing that there was not depth of water sufficient to conceal their dreadful burthen, they took it up again, and returned with it to their house. The mother, still more wretched, continued to watch; she saw the two men bearing the sack as before, and having provided themselves with spades, come out and walk across the forest. She followed them at a distance, but her strength would not allow her to keep up with them, and she soon lost sight of them. Still she watched, and in about half an hour saw the father and son return to their cottage, carrying the sack empty.

Now, firmly convinced that her murdered son had been buried, she returned to her hut to brood in silence over her misery; she felt that her suspicions rested solely on what she alone bad seen, and dreaded to make them known to anyone. However, she very soon saw that a cart was added to the stock of her neighbour, that he appeared in a good new suit of clothes, and thought these evident signs of wealth, which were not in any way accounted for, a strong confirmation of her suspicions.

She went by night and dug about that part of the forest where she had lost sight of the supposed murderers, but was always interrupted and prevented by other neighbours. She then went to Mr. Wilbraham,** who had before relieved her wants, and implored his assistance, as a magistrate, in her search for the body.

Editor's notes
* The seat of Lord Delamere in Cheshire.
** George Wilbraham, Esq, of Delamere House



Blogger explora said...

An interesting blog - we'll come back and visit often. Keep up the good work!

3:36 PM  
Blogger Anna Hofman said...

How very interesting to read this, because i live in Leeuwarden in Friesland but it is not in Germany but in the Netherlands. I wil try to get some information of her here in my hometown.

11:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you. This tale is still in circulation. I tell it at storytelling sessions at folk festivals. I first heard it over 30 years ago when a group from a local history evening class had an outing to Oakmere - a magical evening sitting by the lake listening to the landowner Captain Fergusson telling us all about his patch.
I'm glad to find the source (via
Isn't the internet great!

12:01 PM  

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