Sad tale of a death at Highmoor

Words by John Kirkbride

THE tragic death of a servant girl at Highmoor in Scouthead more than 100 years ago has been touched on previously by the Saddleworth Independent.

But the story has a special resonance for me personally, as for many years now I have lived in the house where the fatality occurred.

New Inn Farm at Highmoor was occupied by Leigh Thomas and his family at the time of the incident in 1906, and 19-year-old Eliza Jane Mackay, who lived and worked there as a general servant to the family, was the niece of Mr Thomas’ daughter-in-law Margaret.

This seemingly convenient situation was apparently not without tension, however, and according to Margaret she was forced to caution Eliza Jane – presumably on more than one occasion – about her conduct, as she had apparently acquired “a slight taste for drink”.

Leigh Thomas spoke of Eliza often having a “drop” and getting smacked by her aunt as a punishment, adding that he had seen her “sprung” many times.

Nevertheless, Margaret must have been appalled to realise that when Eliza left the house that year on the morning of Saturday July 14 to go to Oldham, it would be the last time she saw her alive.

Maggie Thomas was Margaret’s daughter and slept in the same room as Eliza and, according to a report on the death and subsequent inquest published in the Oldham Chronicle at the time, Maggie said Eliza had gone to bed at 9.45pm that Saturday evening.

She described the servant girl as not very cheerful at the time, and said she had been to the “Original” (Old Original) for a neighbour. Maggie apparently suggested she had been for herself and threatened to tell “mother”, after which a brief altercation took place and Eliza went downstairs.

According to Leigh Thomas, Eliza was in some distress and said Maggie had been bullying her and that she wouldn’t stand for it. At around 10pm she left the house in tears, turning around at the door and saying: “If I don’t see you again, goodbye.”Mr Thomas told the inquest – which ironically was held at the Old Original – that soon after she left they went out to look for her, and though they were “up all night searching” there was no sign of Eliza.

Sadly, she was discovered in the well at the side of the house at about 10am on the Sunday, when Mr Thomas’ son let down a light and grappling irons, which caught on the body.

The circular, stone-built well drops 50ft to the water line, and men had to be lowered down to recover the unfortunate girl.

Dr Ramsden of Dobcross, who examined the body, found several shallow cuts to the throat, which although pointing to suicide were not deep enough to have been the cause of death.

He added that after the wounds had been inflicted the deceased would still have been able to “walk about and throw herself down the well”.

There was also a contused wound on the back of the head, no doubt sustained during the horrific fall, which in Dr Ramsden’s opinion would probably have caused concussion and prevented the girl from “calling out”.

With regard to the wounds on Eliza’s throat, it was reported that Mr Thomas’ son had subsequently missed his razor, “which on the Saturday morning had been left lying on the organ”.

At the end of the inquest a verdict was returned of “suicide while of unsound mind”.

Suicide or Murder?

Suspicions have been voiced over the years that this may not have been a simple case of suicide as decided by the inquest, and the idea that someone else may have been involved has been put forward on more than one occasion.

Throwing oneself down a 50ft well certainly appears to be a drastic measure to take over something so seemingly trivial, and some have suggested that Eliza Jane may have been “with child”, and either killed herself in shame or was murdered to guarantee her silence.

I suppose we’ll never know – but although Eliza and those members of the Thomas family are now long gone, it would seem that the spiritual reverberations of the episode are destined to live on.

According to Saddleworth Independent’s previous story on the incident in 2013, former landlady of the Old Original, Mrs Marner, used to see a “floating mist in the vague form of a person” emerge from what used to be an outside door at the back of the pub.

Current landlord Tom Harrop is among those who believe there is more to Eliza’s tale than meets the eye, and he is quite convinced that her spirit is still present there.

He says a number of customers over the years have claimed to have seen a young woman ‘floating’ through the bar area to the same door, which now leads to the Gents.

A rumour has persisted for some time that Eliza’s body is buried in a small, walled ‘orchard’ in the corner of the field next to our house, and some years ago my uncle and a friend of his spent several days digging and methodically searching the area.

The plan was either to erect a headstone to mark Eliza’s final resting place or apply to have the remains exhumed and reburied in a proper church graveyard. Sadly, they found no evidence that she was there.

Wherever Eliza is buried, however, I have a feeling she will always be with us. On a summer’s day when our eldest son was four or five years old, we found him sitting on the wall at the side of the house, waving and smiling, although there was no-one around at the time.

When we asked him who he was waving at, he told us: “The nice lady near the well.”

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