We continue our re-examination of the story of Ellen Sadler from the village of Turville, who in the 1870s became famous throughout the country having fallen asleep on March 17, 1871, remaining so for nine years.

Having read the first part of the story on September 8 I expect your reaction has been one of considerable scepticism, with many questions coming to mind. That certainly was my first reaction, but the more I have read about the case, the less sceptical I have become - perhaps there is more than a grain of truth in the story. Eminent physicians visited her home time after time, devoting much care and study to the case, but were unable to come to a definitive conclusion.

As one journalist concluded: ‘I have no medical knowledge and am unqualified to give an opinion beyond what is justified by close observation of the ordinary kind. I went to Turville prepared to find an imposter. I have returned - puzzled’!

What may be said is that Ellen’s mother Ann exhibited extraordinary care and devotion to keep her daughter alive, not knowing whether or not she would eventually wake up. It would seem to be very doubtful that she received much, if any, support from her husband Thomas Frewen, Ellen’s stepfather.

Medical intervention

The local doctor was Dr Henry Hayman FRCS (Fellow of the Royal Society of Surgeons), who lived in Stokenchurch, some five miles from Turville. He had visited Ellen when she had first fallen into her long sleep and seems to have continued to do so at regular, although not short, intervals.

In June 1880, shortly after Ellen reached the age of 21 (on May 13) he wrote to the medical journal The Lancet summarising her case. In the letter he said that: “The mother assured me that she has never (of herself) changed her from that position [that is ‘on her side, with her hand underneath her face], and I am bound to say that I have frequently gone upstairs without a moment’s warning and never found her otherwise.”

In the letter he also stated that “At an early stage of her illness I wanted to apply galvanism, but this was strongly opposed by the parents.”

Galvanism was an 18th/19th century scientific theory that held that the human body could be reanimated by electric shocks, produced by a chemical reaction. It was often used both to treat mental illness and to try revive people after drowning or lightning strikes. It is perhaps not surprising that her parents were not in favour of this technique being tried on Ellen!

The authorities take an interest

The Government became aware of ‘Ellen, the sleeping girl of Turville’, in 1875, when she had been asleep for over four years and had shown no sign of awakening. According to press reports the Home Secretary had recently ‘forwarded an authoritative document to the effect that, failing to provide suitable nourishment and proper medical attendance, should the girl die her parents will be held responsible.’ The same report also stated that ‘the girl is now sixteen years of age and it is said that her lower limbs have recently assumed the appearance of those of a corpse, although her face has still a natural blush upon it.’

In his letter to The Lancet of June 1880 Dr Hayman also stated that communications had been made by the ‘late Home Secretary’ with the senior magistrate of the district, that ‘as the girl was not represented as a “fasting girl”, and the parents never asked for any donation when showing her, there is no room for interference by the law’.

Ellen’s mother dies

Ann Frewen passed away on May 29,1880, succumbing to ‘oedema of the heart’, from which she had been suffering for many years. She was 55 years old. An inquest was held on June 4 into her death at the Bull and Butcher pub, presided over by the County Coroner. A major part of the proceedings was to consider how Ellen would now be cared for. As the questioning was conducted after the witnesses had taken the oath, it might be concluded that the statements made by them would be close to the truth. It is therefore worth considering those proceedings in some detail.

After the formalities the officials and the jury proceeded to walk the few yards to Sleepy Cottage. Thomas Frewen was the first to make a statement, which to begin with was only about the circumstances of his wife’s death. He was then cross-examined by the Coroner about Ellen, being somewhat evasive in his answers, at one point saying that she was not his daughter, Dr Hayman having to point out that he was Ann’s second husband. He confirmed that as far as he knew (he said he was out at work all day) Ellen had never been moved, until that morning when he and her sister Lizzie Stacey (Ann’s daughter) moved her to another room. He also said that Lizzie was looking after Ellen at present, and he ‘supposed’ that she would continue to do so as she lived opposite. When he answered a question about Ann feeding Ellen, it was clear that Ellen’s bed was in the same room as he and Ann slept. He said that he had seen (he was usually asleep!) her feeding Ellen twice in the night.

The next witness was Phoebe Sadler, the wife of Ann’s son, who was a carter. She was present when Ann died at 11.30pm and said that she did not know much about the ‘sleeping girl’, having only seen her twice.

She was followed by Lizzie Stacey, whose husband was a bricklayer. They had lived near Ann for about 18 months, having previously lived in Marlow. She said that she was ‘in the habit of going in and out (of her mother’s cottage] every day’. About two months ago she had stayed with her mother for a few nights, sleeping in the same room, in the bed with the ‘sleeping girl’ (Ellen). When she was staying there she said that ‘her sister did not have any food, only drink - port wine, tea and milk, giving it to her every hour’. Normally her mother did that. She gave four teaspoonfuls each time, not using a teapot as ‘mother had broke it’, raising Ellen’s head up a little. Elizabeth also confirmed that she had never turned Ellen over onto her other side, nor seen her mother do it’, neither had she heard Ellen speak..

Dr Hayman confirmed that Ellen was always lying in the same position, he believed that Ellen’s spine was paralysed and she was unconscious..

The Rev. Studholme disagreed and thought that Ellen was conscious. He had made several unannounced visits and she was always laying in the same position, even when he called suddenly. He had sometimes fed her in the manner described by the other witnesses and the liquid passed down her throat as though it was a funnel - ie she did not swallow it as such.

The Coroner in summing up said that as Thomas Frewen was not Ellen’s father he had no legal responsibility towards her. He continued ‘The parish officers should look after the case and see that someone is attending to it - I suppose the sisters are looking after it now’.

The family after Ann’s death

Most of the family appear to have gone their separate ways after Ann’s death. It would seem that Ellen was indeed cared for by those of her sisters who were closest to her in age, but probably mostly by Grace.

In the national census taken on April 3,1881, less than a year after Ann’s death, her husband Thomas was living with his elder brother Daniel, who was a shepherd. They were residing in a cottage in Turville, but it is not known if this was the same cottage where Thomas had lived with Ann and her younger children including Ellen. In 1891 Thomas was still living in Turville, but with a lodger, James Jewell: both men were working as agricultural labourers. Thomas died on May 16, 1899, in the workhouse at Saunderton aged 74. It therefore appears that no-one in his inherited family was prepared to offer him a home in his last days.

To be continued, the final part of the story will reveal Ellen’s fate.