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 9 years.

In the second part of the story (Nostalgia September 22) we reached the point where Ellen’s mother Ann, who had shown so much care and attention for her daughter since she fell asleep, had died on May 29 1880.

Most of the family appear to have gone their separate ways after Ann’s death. Her husband Thomas Frewen, her children’s stepfather, having been advised by the Coroner during the Inquest that he had no legal responsibility towards Ellen, seems to have left the family. He eventually died in Saunderton workhouse at the age of 74.

Ellen awakes

Ellen, who was now aged 21, was cared for by those of her sisters who were closest to her in age, mostly by Grace Blackall. Ellen was living with Grace and her family when the national census was taken on April 3,1881, as was her younger brother Eli aged 18.

Although Grace was only three years older than Ellen, she had married Rueben Blackall in 1877 and already given birth to two children.

It seems likely therefore that Grace and Reuben took responsibility for both Ellen and Eli immediately after their mother died. The family were living in the adjacent village of Ibstone.

Late in the year 1880 Ellen awoke. In the census return of April 3 the following year, Ellen was described as an ‘invalid’.

We can be grateful to Dr Hayman for learning more about the nature of Ellen’s situation at that time because on January 16, 1881, the local press reported that he had written to the medical journal The Lancet:

‘It may be interesting to know that a change has taken place in the girl. I was called to see her about three weeks ago [that would have been around Christmastime in 1880] and on the occasion of my visit I took her hand in mine and said to her “Ellen, if you know me, and all around me, and everything that is said, squeeze my hand”.

"This she did firmly. I repeated the same words, and she again squeezed my hand.

Today [which would have been about Jan 13] I have visited her again and have had a conversation with her. She has opened her eyes and answers every question I have put to her.

"She takes plentiful nourishment many times a day, and she hopes soon to be able to sit up. Her general health in every respect is quite regular’.

Ellen leads a normal life

Ellen must have recovered to live a near-normal life because late in the year 1886 she married Mark Blackall, who was a few years younger than her.

Over the next 12 years the couple had five surviving children, four daughters Ann (born 1887), Elizabeth (who was also called Mabel, born 1889), Gladys (1891), Gertrude (1897), and just one son Sydney born in 1896.

They moved several times, living in Barkham nr Wokingham in 1891, and different addresses in Caversham nr Reading in 1901,1911, and 1921, when only Gertrude was still living with them, together with a lodger Harry Gunter.

Over the same period Mark’s job varied from an agricultural labourer, brickmaker, labourer; and a ‘carman’ working for coal merchants Talbot and Sons in 1921, then for The Thames Conservancy Board.

He has a claim to fame, being the first carter to cross over the (then) new Reading bridge. This was opened exactly 100 years ago, on October 3, 1923.

Mark Blackall died aged 70 in August 1936 when the family were living at 40 Star Rd in Caversham. Ellen was still living at that address in 1939, when she gave her date of birth as May 17 1855. Living with her as a companion was another widowed lady, who was 15 years younger.

The Cannon family

Ellen then moved to Swindon to live with the family of her daughter Gladys, at 27 Gordon Rd. Gladys had married Sidney Harold Cannon in 1918, who was a railwayman, initially employed as a ‘fireman’ (a stoker on a steam locomotive) in London, before they moved to Swindon, where he was a locomotive driver.

Ellen died there in 1946, her age being stated on the death certificate as 94, indicating that she had been born in 1852; in fact she would have been a few years younger, c.86.

Her body was then taken to Caversham for burial in the Henley Road cemetery on October 30, 1946.

A descendant of Gladys and Sidney Cannon remembered that: “Our maternal grandparents [that is Ellen and Mark Blackall] lived in quite a nice large, terraced house in Star Lane, Lower Caversham... Grandad Blackall, our mother’s father, was rather a daunting man, as big as our grandmother was small, and he had a big carbuncle over his right eye... He used to be a carter for the Thames Conservancy Board and was, in fact, the first carter to go over the new Reading Bridge.”

Was Ellen’s ‘sleep’ fact or fiction - what do you think?

Having read the story (Nostalgia September 8 and 22) I expect your reaction has been one of considerable scepticism, with several 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.

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’ !

Let us consider some of those questions:

Starvation - at first Ellen subsisted mainly on port, tea and milk, given to her three times a day. After about 15 months, while her mother was attempting to give her arrowroot, a widely recognised health food supplement, Ellen’s jaw locked closed.

Subsequently according to Dr Hayman, she was fed ‘wine, gruel and other things’ using the ‘spout of a toy teapot inserted between two broken teeth’. and this was administered more frequently than previously.

Bodily functions - how this was dealt with by the family is unclear, but in 1880 her mother told Dr Hayman that no bowel movements had occurred for five years, and that about every four days ‘a somewhat large amount would pass from the bladder’.

Bed sores - as Ellen was effectively lying motionless, the continued pressure on the same parts of the body in contact with the bed would be thought to cause bed sores. I have seen no reference to this in press reports about the case, which are the main source of detailed information about Ellen.

What facts support the ‘sleep’:

Eminent physicians visited her home in Turville time after time, devoting much care and study to the case, but were unable to come to a definitive conclusion.

The doctor regularly (but probably not frequently) attending Ellen was Dr Henry Hayman, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Surgeons, who informed by letter the eminent medical journal The Lancet about the case.

During the Inquest into the death of her mother Ann, several witnesses were questioned by the Coroner about Ellen. They were under oath when they gave their evidence, so would be expected to be stating the truth, as they understood the facts of the case.

Could it be true?

The medical profession was still in its infancy in the late 19th century, meaning that even basic illnesses were little understood. Sleeping disorders like narcolepsy were unheard of in those days, and in fact were not diagnosed until the second half of the 20th century.

[Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to control sleep-wake cycles. According to the NHS website narcolepsy can prevent a person from choosing when to wake or sleep and in an attempt to avoid attacks, some people may become emotionally withdrawn and socially isolated ]

I have experience of narcolepsy as my wife suffers from it, which in her case was not diagnosed until she was in her late 30’s, since when it has been controlled by medication.

A possible explanation

Could it be that Ellen suffered from an extreme form of narcolepsy, which was compounded by severe emotional stress arising in her family after her mother remarried to Thomas Frewen. The little evidence that we have does point to:

Ellen having a ‘drowsy’ disposition, often falling asleep even before her nine-year sleep.

Thomas Frewen was ill-suited to being parachuted into a family containing young children like Grace, Ellen and Eli, with particularly Ellen having a fraught relationship with him.

Did Ellen’s brain react to this by effectively ‘switching-off’ from conscious activity until the source of the emotional turmoil was removed, which happened when after her mother’s death Ellen was moved to be cared for in the household of her elder sister Grace?

The photographs have been kindly provided by the Cannon family, who are direct descendants of Ellen and Mark Blackall.