This is the story about a girl called Ellen Sadler, who as a child lived with her family in a cottage in Turville, near High Wycombe.

In 1871 Ellen was said to have fallen asleep and did not wake for nine years.

She then went on to live a full life, including living near Wokingham, then in Caversham, for some 40 years.

The village of Turville

Turville is the quintessential Chiltern parish. It covers a wide area, but is very scattered, having been formed by the amalgamation of hamlets, those of the Heath, North End and South End, into one administrative unit. These hamlets are between 2 and 4 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 borders the churchyard. 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 nee Parker being the second wife of William. He died in 1863 leaving Ann with a young family of at least 3 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 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 youngest girls Grace and Ellen would have been 9 and 6 in 1865, and Eli only 2). 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 probable therefore that Ellen and her young siblings 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 her siblings 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. 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 or 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.

As soon as Ellen had 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-fro 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 he 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 9-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!

Her mother Ann exhibited extra-ordinary 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.

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.

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'.

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 mostly by Grace.

Her step-father Thomas seems to have had nothing to do with her or the other members of his inherited family and died on May 16, 1899, in the workhouse at Saunderton.

Ellen awakes

Late in the year 1880 Ellen awoke. She was then aged 21, and in the census return on April 3 of the following year she was described as an ‘invalid’. She was living with Grace and her family, as was her younger brother Eli aged 18. Although Grace was only 3 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.

We learn from Dr Hayman 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 in 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 that period Mark had a number of jobs, culminating as 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 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 fifteen years younger.

Ellen then moved to Swindon to live with the family of her daughter Gladys, at 27 Gordon Rd and died there in 1946. Her body was then taken back to Caversham for burial in the Henley Road cemetery on October 30, 1946.

A descendant of Gladys and her husband 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’.

Does any reader remember Ellen or any members of her family, if so I would love to hear from you, please contact Mike Dewey by email