I HAVE been reading a new book by prolific local author Eddie Brazil entitled Paranormal Buckinghamshire (see a review elsewhere on this page) which includes a section about the Mystery of Sleepy Cottage. This is the story about a girl called Ellen Sadler, who lived with her family in a cottage in Turville. In 1871 Ellen was said to have fallen asleep and did not wake for nine years.

Over the 150 years since much has been written about this strange case, there is even an article on Wikipedia. I wrote a Nostalgia article many years ago and have been fascinated by it ever since. So I decided to see if I could uncover any new information about it, using sources which have only become widely available in the last few years. This article is the result of that research.

The village of Turville

Turville is the quintessential Chiltern parish. It is of considerable extent but very scattered; as is often the case it was formed by the amalgamation of hamlets, those of the Heath, North End and South End, into one administrative unit. These hamlets are between two and four miles from the parish church St Mary the Virgin. The church faces you as you enter the village, which consists of about a couple of dozen houses, one of which is now called Sleepy Cottage, which is near to the church. At the time of this story the Vicar was the Rev Studholme, and the parish was in the Poor Law Union of Wycombe.

Ellen’s family

Ellen was the eleventh child of William Sadler, her mother Ann née Parker being the second wife of William. He had been born in Turville in 1806 and for much of his early life was dependant on parish-relief for his well-being. This ‘relief’ usually consisted just of being given some bread.

His first wife Ann Allum bore him three children, Mary, Roseanna and Thomas, but died in c.1842. At that time the family were living in Stokenchurch, which was then in the county of Oxfordshire, where William initially worked for a farmer, Mr Page. He soon formed another relationship, with Ann Parker who was some 16 years younger. According to his testimony in a court case about the Law of Settlement, Ann was ‘living in a barn after leaving the Wycombe (Poor Law) Union’.

She bore him five children before they were married at Stokenchurch on July 23, 1853. Although by then the family were living in Lt Marlow, William said during the court case that the Banns were called at Stokenchurch. This was so that their Overseers of the Poor would give him ‘a dinner, 7s. 6d, and pay the marriage fees, because I wanted to get as much as possible out of the people of Stokenchurch’. That statement caused laughter in the court!

William also told the court that ‘I served Mr Styles at Stokenchurch for two years, I received 5s a week. The Overseer settled the terms of my wages with Mr Styles, I learnt the art of making chairs during the time I was in his service’. So William had elevated himself to a chair-maker, and this was his occupation as stated in the census of 1851. That census also shows that the family included children Mary, Roseanna and Thomas, whose mother had been Ann Allum, as well Eli, Georgina, Elizabeth, John and James, the five children whose mother was Ann née Parker. They were all living at Beacons Bottom, Stokenchurch. Eli, who was born in 1843, had a twin brother James, who died as an infant, the name being then taken by another brother born in 1851.

After their marriage, William and Ann (née Parker) had four more children, Charles born 1854, Grace 1856, Ellen, who was born on May 15, 1859, and Eli, 1863. In the 1861 census the family were living in Turville village, William’s occupation was as a Road Man (ie responsible for the care and upkeep of the roads in and around the village) and Ann was working as a lacemaker.

William died in 1863 leaving Ann with a young family of at least three children to care for, so understandably she was anxious to remarry. She did so on July 15, 1865 to Thomas Fruin (also spelt Frewen or Frewin) at the parish church of St Mary in Turville.

Thomas does not seem to have been a good choice by Ann. Some 39 years old, a labourer and a bachelor, he would have had no experience of looking after young children (the girls Grace and Ellen would have been nine and six in 1865, and Eli only two). Furthermore, he had a criminal record. By the age of 31 he had been jailed for two months for poaching (1845), with his brother Daniel jailed for two months for ‘trespass’ (1849), and initially been fined £1 plus costs for assaulting Jabez Webb (1858), but then jailed for one month for non-payment of the fine.

Ellen becomes the Sleeping Girl

It is possible therefore that Grace, Ellen and Eli spent some of their most formative years in a not entirely harmonious environment at home.

Ellen in particular, and we know more about her than we do about Grace because of her fame as the sleeping girl, was said to be a quiet, sedate and thoughtful child. She had a dreamy, listless manner and a deep melancholy, distant expression. She would sit for hours, thinking and apparently oblivious to all that which was going on around her. She regularly attended Sunday School and was keen to learn. It was said that the only thing which seemed to rouse her was her stepfather’s ‘intemperate habits’, which included a fondness for alcohol.

In 1870 Ellen, aged 11, began work as a nursemaid to a family in Marlow. This did not last long, as Ellen was prone to falling asleep and her employment was terminated. Back home she began to suffer from ‘glandular swellings’, which might have been an abscess on the back of her head, and was attended by local doctor Henry Hayman F.R.C.S from Stokenchurch. He thought it necessary for Ellen to be admitted to hospital, something which the family could not afford, so the Rev Studholme asked Hayman if he could arrange her admission to Reading Hospital. There her condition worsened, and after some18 weeks she was discharged as being incurable. So by the time of the census on April 2, 1871, she was back home in Turville, although in the census return she was said to be a scholar and not an invalid.

The journey home to Turville from Reading, a distance of some 16 miles, was said by her mother Ann to be on a ‘rickety cart’, As soon as Ellen arrived home she began to feel drowsy and had several seizures. On March 17, 1871 Ann told Ellen to pray and they prayed together, with Ellen rocking herself to and from with her hands clasped. She gradually lost control over herself, becoming more and more convulsed, her eyes rolling wildly and her limbs twitching.

Dr Hayman was sent for and found ‘the child fixen down, that is to say she had sunk into a state of insensibility, in which she now remains’. She was ‘on her left side, with her hand under her head, and the lower extremities drawn upwards’. It was in this position that her mother said that Ellen remained for the duration of her nine-year sleep. Dr Hayman visited her many times over the next few years and he later said that ‘he never found her otherwise’.

Ellen then became something of a tourist attraction. She was visited by medical professionals, religious men, journalists and the ‘plain curious’ from throughout the country. Until her mother got ‘wise’ to this, some of the visitors stuck sharp objects like pins into her to see if she would respond, always to no effect. Although the family never asked for money, many of these visitors donated money to them. Some even requested if they could take cuts of Ellen’s hair, which her mother allowed at first but soon had to stop for obvious reasons! It was said that these donations could amount to £2 a week, equivalent to about £200 today!

To be continued, find out what happened next to Ellen.