Thursday, 26 November 2015

The Fairfield Tragedy

On 26th March 1951 two young ladies, Miss Betty Baker(23yrs) and Miss Peggy Johnson(21yrs), set off from Grasmere to walk to Ambleside. Betty was a nurse and Peggy a laboratory assistant and they were holidaying in the lakes over the Easter weekend, staying in youth hostels. They had stayed in Borrowdale, they were now at Grasmere and had booked into Ambleside before ultimately heading for Kendal. They set off for Ambleside on what started as a good morning, yet the weather deteriorated soon after and they never arrived. When this was realised searches commenced, but to no avail. The 26th had been the Easter Monday and the weather over the weekend had been some of the worst on record, football and rugby matches were cancelled or abandoned as were certain race meetings. The girls were dressed in military style capes with plenty of gloves and socks and seemed dressed for the conditions, with food and condensed milk to eat. Peggy Johnson herself had walked hundreds of miles with her brother-in-law in the lake district and the family later reported that she knew the area well. The brother-in-law would later be heavily involved with other family members in the search of the area.
Around the same time another search was being conducted on the Helvellyn range and the reports were again of a fine start to the morning but developing into a blizzard ranging over the fells on the Monday afternoon and conditions during the search were of snow drifts 10 to 20 feet in places. By 30th March no additional information had come to light of their last location yet the searchers were still standing by for a window in the weather to resume the search, although it was also being considered by Kendal Police whether the official search should be resumed through no knowledge of the route taken by the young ladies. 
  There was an assumption that it was not a valley bottom walk, this would be uncommon for young people to partake in as an activity, also, had someone been injured the other could easily report such an incident. It is reasonable to suppose that there was an intention to climb some fell, the weather on the Monday morning had looked favourable. Without route detail this gives a search area of various mountain ranges of the central fells over to Langdale, the smaller Loughrigg Fell and the Fairfield range, the Fairfield Horseshoe being one that many start near Grasmere and conclude at Ambleside. Through publicity a lady from Blackpool contacted the police stating that she believed she had seen two girls fitting that description in the Langdale valley drinking coffee at a hotel. The landlord was contacted and stated that the blizzard had started at around 10.30am and many hikers abandoned their walks, catching the 1.20pm bus to Ambleside. The two unnamed girls in question had not been able to take that bus as it was full. The search had originally concentrated on the Cumberland area but based on this information a search was organised for the next day largely covering the triangle of Grasmere, Langdales and Ambleside. Superintendent Ridley at Kendal Police Station admitted that they had no idea where to search but the aid of several hundred volunteers on the Sunday may turn up to comb the surrounding fells in the expected improving weather. This amount of searchers can in itself cause large safety and logistical concerns and there was a need to log all the volunteers going onto the fells to search and log their return, which thankfully all had done so by 7 pm. 
It was recognised by those with knowledge of the area that with the exception of the Fairfield route all other accepted routes to Ambleside were relatively safe. That same Monday another Leeds lady had been injured and rescued following a 150 feet fall on the Fairfield range. The hunt for the Todmorden Chemist Mr Barker who had set off from Patterdale Hostel that same day and had not returned, continued and they were also now searching for Miss Baker and Miss Johnston. Spare a thought for PC Barrass at Patterdale rural station; he was involved in the rescue of  the lady who was injured on Fairfield (Deepdale Hause), the search of Helvellyn and The Dodds for Mr Barker, and the search for the two girls. He came from the Sheffield area and was posted to Patterdale the previous August. This was his first experience of mountain walking/climbing and had been out on the Helvellyn range for eight hours one day, returned at dusk and was out again the next day. The three rescue missions in very adverse conditions were a baptism of fire for this six foot burly novice of the mountains, but he took it all as his days work, though his wife and young children were understandably concerned for his safety.
By 2nd April 500 volunteers and dogs were involved in the search, one of the biggest ever mounted in the British Isles. Despite every daylight hour being utilised it was still proving fruitless with no new information or indication of what route the girls had taken on their journey to Ambleside. Two separate pairs of ladies gloves were found, one on the west side of Grasmere and one in the foothills of Ambleside, they were sent to Yorkshire for viewing by family members to assist in any identification; it later transpired they were not the girls gloves. For the next search two main areas were chosen, the west side of Grasmere toward Ambleside and the east side of the valley, Fairfield. A local resident had reported seeing two young women who at around 11.00am on the Monday of the young ladies departure from Ambleside, had headed up Nab Scar and both the distance and the description of the slacks they wore meant this was now the best information available.

Fairfield's bland summit on a clear day.
  Fairfield range is high yet safe in good conditions, just a high walk, yet easy to get lost on in poor visibility and to stray off the path risks exposure to steep falls as the lady injured discovered that day. The families and friends were engaged in the search and had reached the realisation that the girls were probably dead, but needed closure, some certainty of their fate, to begin to move fully into a stage of grief, yet couldn't while some hope still existed, no matter how slight. Local Shepherds with their dogs acted as guides for the family members searching, waiting patiently as the city dwellers struggled in the conditions that the Shepherds took as their normal terrain and working environment, but understanding the need for the family to be involved, not idle in the unending expanse of time to fret within.
Mr Sydney Cross a distinguished mountaineer and licensee of the Dungeon Ghyll Hotel in Langdale searched the Langdales with others he viewed as experienced in the conditions which were two feet of compacted snow and at times zero visibility.
The girls were members of the Co-operative Holiday Association(CHA) Leeds branch and members of that branch  had travelled to assist in the search. The CHA had originally been begun by T. A. Leonard, for whom a plaque in recognition of his contribution on holidays and the betterment of the individual who was holidaying in the area, was placed on Catbells as a memorial. It was just such friendships he espoused, and it showed on this search; some were on the fell and searching at 5 am in the morning. 
It was by some small miracle that with such numbers and fell conditions that no one was killed in the course of the search. At the conclusion of the day Superintendent Ridley recognised this and stated the hopelessness of the task, being no further forward with definite knowledge of the direction of the girls, all searches that day being fruitless. It was now eight days since they had gone missing in terrible mountainous conditions and weather, no one was saying it publicly, but it was now a body recovery exercise. The official search would continue, but scaled down to local people and police. Prayers were being offered at the church of St Cyprians, Harehills, Leeds, Miss Johnson's place of worship.
On 4th April the search continued, small parties of Ramblers still went out and were briefed on safety, but they did not form any official police search. By now the families had viewed the gloves and they were not those of the girls, so gave no indication of their route.The search was again fruitless despite 'sightings' from members of the public which were all checked, including people seen on Helm Crag (west of Grasmere) and two girls asking for directions to Alcock Tarn (east of Grasmere) and questions were being now asked as to why routes were not logged, helicopter search assistance nor utilised (it was deemed unsafe) and a search for a real answer to cut such accidents.
By Monday morning, 9th April the search was officially called off; the same numbers hundreds of volunteers had unofficially scoured the fells continually, but also to no avail. Superintendent Ridley repeated that not a single trace of the girls whereabouts or route had been traced. More than 1,000 had assisted over the last few days and he thanked them. He did ask walkers and shepherds to be aware and to continue to keep a look-out for any clue, but only as part of their normal walks or working life of the shepherd. The younger family members and Co-operative Holidays Association still searched. The weather conditions had improved greatly and the snow below 2,000 feet had disappeared. The police had been convinced the ladies would not have reached any higher; snow drifts in gulleys and against walls were probed for their bodies. At the conclusion of the day still no trace was discovered. The mystery of the most detailed search in Lakeland history was still unsolved. 
On 9th April an off duty 22 year old R.A.F. man from Preston was climbing in the Fairfield area when he noticed a red object in a gulley in Deepdale that exits on the Patterdale side of Fairfield. He decided to investigate and made a difficult descent into this gulley finding a red cardigan, blue silk pyjama jacket, a multi coloured head-scarf, a green jumper, a pair of brown shoes and a white handkerchief. When it was reported Westmorland Police (now encompassed within Cumbria Police) organised an experienced party to search the area now known as Flinty's Grave. The clothing was recognised as belonging to Miss Baker and Miss Johnson and as it was just clothing it may have been that a haversack was dropped over the gulley. It was the best indicator of the route and they had clearly achieved the top of Fairfield, a natural route being from the Alcock Tarn direction for a high fell walk to Fairfield and on to Ambleside. Like Helvellyn, the snow here can hang as a cornice and cause an unwary walker can fall into the abyss of the valley below in a blizzard. The families on hearing the news were about to start to travel, but were advised not to do so due to further adverse weather affecting the roads. They were however, holding on to every hope, not realising the terrain the clothes were found in, that the girls had left a trail for searchers to find them. 

The view through Deepdale from Fairfield summit. 
On 10th the search party, in company with the off duty R.A.F. gentleman, went to search the area and saw lower down in Deepdale two boot-heels sticking out of the snow  and there found the body of Betty Baker. The weather was snowstorm conditions once again and they struggled to bring her body out to Patterdale via Deepdale. It was then decided to leave the search, awaiting conditions to improve. At least now the Baker family knew the fate of their loved one and the Johnson family had the expectation of the same fate; a conclusion to the melancholy affair seemed to be drawing closer.

Heading up Deepdale, Cofa Pike ahead, Flinty's Grave to the left in the background.

 An inquest was opened at Kendal on 12th April and after some preliminary evidence of identification, it was adjourned to the next day. On 13th, following medical evidence the verdict was given as Miss Baker dying of a fractured skull (which the pathologist stated may not have proved fatal in its own right) and exposure. The coroner took the step of asking walkers to exercise discretion when faced in such conditions as prevailed that Easter Monday. The body of Peggy Johnson still had not been discovered when the inquest was closed.
On 21st April a local Troutbeck man was walking his bloodhound on his normal trail at Deepdale Head. He noticed the dog scratching in the snow and on climbing down to investigate he found the body of Miss Johnson under a foot of snow; she had come to rest not far from the area where Miss Baker had been found. He immediately went to Patterdale and reported the find, returning with a party of huntsmen and Shepherds, organised by PC Barrass. The body was recovered and brought out to Patterdale, then transported to Kendal so that a further inquest could be held. This was duly done the next day and the head and neck injuries she sustained meant she would have died immediately from the fall of several hundred feet. Superintendent Ridley said at the inquest that a scheme had been now suggested that the Youth Hostel members should in future record in the hostel registers their intended route when they depart on walks. Not to have such a scheme at this time meant that half of the many searchers had been looking in the wrong area. 
Such a scheme may not have saved the girls but it could have brought this tragedy to a conclusion much sooner which would have at least been of some benefit to the families.

 Looking across to Fairfiled. On the left is St. Sunday Crag, leading to Cofa Pike and onto the flat top of Fairfield. The snow specks on the crag face indicate Flinty's Grave and it's steepness in snow. 
 It must be remembered that the search for Mr Barker on the Helvellyn range had taken up manpower, both of the police and volunteers. He was eventually found after been missing for nine days and was within 100 yards of the A591 Keswick to Ambleside road and within 400 yards of The Kings Head at Thirlspot. Due to the adverse conditions the body had been covered in snow, which only cleared when the rain melted it. The coroner was critical in this case with reference to the clothing Mr Barker was wearing, he was dressed in shorts. He had sustained a sprained ankle, which may have slowed him, causing heat to be lost. He was found to be wearing a wind-breaker jacket, a leather jerkin, two pullovers, a shirt and vest, corduroy shorts, two pairs of socks and studded shoes. He still had food in his haversack and evidence showed he had recently eaten. It was accepted that he had a good knowledge of both walking and the Lake District, but having apparently injured himself, he would be unable to move quickly to generate heat and the cold overpowered him, when he was just about to reach the safety which Country Inn would provide, but that proved too much to achieve at the obvious limits of his endurance to the conditions. 

Many searches for lost walkers had occurred before, many have occurred since and many will continue to occur in the future; but this was the biggest and likely never to be equalled, thankfully.



  1. Excellent article, well researched and nicely written.

    1. Thanks Tony. I have been getting a bit bored so set about some 'research'.

  2. Peggy Johnson was the aunt I never knew, the younger sister of my mum Hazel Dent (nee Johnson). I was born in 1960. I can add that my sister was born on 4 April 1951, so, during the search period that my dad Eric Dent participated in. He is I think the brother-in-law referred to in this article. This article has reminded me of some things, and given additional information I did not know (some of which may be debated). I hadn't appreciated until recently that it was to some extent a national story. Phil Dent

    1. Phil, It was worth the writing if it has helped you gain more information on a family issue. I have the news articles if they would help?

  3. I would appreciate having the news articles - I've read some recently. As I say, I was surprised how many newspapers covered the story. Recently, I and cousins renewed the memorial plate in Lawnswood Cemetery in Leeds, which Peggy Johnson shares with her parents who died of natural causes later.