Saturday, 26 December 2015

White Pike on Clough Head and the death of William Holliday

People walk the Cumbrian fells for the pleasure of a days exercise yet may never contemplate the hard life previous working people have had to endure to exist on or at the foot of these mountains. We walk past nondescript places and pay them no mind while we soak in the beautiful views of the high fells, lakes and valleys, yet would we stop and pay a due respect if we did know?
At around 11am on the morning of 7th April 1858 Mr Bennett, a farmer of Wallthwaite near Threlkeld, Keswick, told his servant to take a quantity of hay to fodder the sheep on the fell. He stated the place where he was to take it to and informed him that he would meet him there with a bale he himself would fetch. The servant was William Holliday and he was 12 years old, the son of a miner from the Wallthwaite area. The farmer duly reached the agreed place, but the boy was not there. The wind raised to very strong with snow beginning to fall heavily and was blown into large drifts. When no sign of William was discovered search parties of local people were organised but failed to find him. They persisted to search continually, Mr Bennett was himself involved heavily in the searches and had offered a £5 reward for anyone who found the boy, dead or alive; no sign of the boy was found during the course of these searches and it was feared he had fallen into a swolley hole or gill and had been covered in snow. A farm dog had gone with William and had returned without him at about 7 o'clock that fateful night. It was ominously speculated that the beast would have remained with the boy, returning only on his death and comparisons were drawn from the Charles Gough incident on Helvellyn, romanticised and entered into folklore by the writer Walter Scott. Gough had died on 17 April 1805, his dog remaining at his side for seven weeks.
In the absence of fact, rumour always fills the void and a story had taken hold that he had been sighted at a great distance, but due to a severe speech impediment that resulted in only those who knew him well being able to understand his speech, he had strayed away from the neighbourhood and would not have been able to ask anyone the way back.
One Sunday in May Mr Bennett had sent refreshments onto the fell as an inducement to bring the whole neighbourhood out to search for William. They were out in such masses that a proper line search was able to be conducted and it ranged up to three miles from Wallthwaite, well beyond the original meeting place; the search failed to find the boy.

Clough Head in the foreground with White Pike jutting on the left(eastern) flank.
On 26th May, exactly 7 weeks after the boy had gone missing, William Harper, a shepherd for Mr Thompson of Birkett Field (this is between Guardhouse and Wallthwaite, below Threlkeld Common), was searching for his stock on White Pike Fell (marked on modern OS maps as White Pike and is the eastern extreme of Clough Head). This is a jut of rocks on this otherwise plain grassy fell face and is about four miles from Wallthwaite. He came across the corpse of the boy William Holliday in the receding snow.
The inquest was held, in the presence of the coroner Mr Carrick, on Thursday 27th May at Wallthwaite and it was given in evidence that on the day he had gone missing the snow had drifted in places up to a depth of 21 feet. It was noted that William Holliday had previously often been over the spot where he later died, but on that day in question the weather must have overtook him and he was unable to regain his bearings in such a blizzard. He was buried at Threlkeld on 28th May with the Reverend William Whitelegg reading the lesson.
One must be guarded in any speculation of how this tragedy came about, but this was clearly the case at the time of and immediately after his disappearance. If such speculation is based on known facts it would have been used to define search areas, extent of search distances, etc. The area William was to meet Mr Bennett is not stated, but since the search extended three miles from Wallthwaite, this would put it in the location of what is now referred to as The Old Coach Road, from High Row, near Dockray, to St. John's in the Vale. One would expect them to check some distance beyond the agreed meeting place as an obvious precaution, so one would assume the meeting would be around Lobbs, or Mosedale Beck, or Threlkeld Common. Perhaps William lost sight of the farmers dog and went beyond the agreed place in search of it, perhaps he couldn't find the sheep and ranged ahead to seek them and the storm came in. Whatever the reason, he would get lost in any snow storm on the barren and featureless Threlkeld Common, but if he continued up he would know he would intersect the Old Coach Road. In large drifts though, he could walk right over this and not have realised he had passed it; that would be the fatal error. 

The view of Clough Head from Halls Fell Ridge, Blencathra. Lobbs and Mosedale Back to the far left, ahead White Pike (Fell) can be seen on the eastern flank of Clough Head, St John's in the Vale to the far right.
I have visited the graveyard at St. Mary's Church, Threlkeld, and there is one grave named Holliday, but it is not William's; the graveyard does appear as if old stones have been cleared in areas, or perhaps the family were too poor to erect one. Now no memorial exists (if ever there was one), or any memory of the boy as he struggled to earn money to help keep the Holliday family. Had it been an adult that died some acceptance could be reached from the hard realisation that people died in the course of their daily work; but a twelve year old boy? Perhaps this will serve as some memorial to William Holliday and hopefully he will be remembered as we continue to walk the fells for our enjoyment and may we pause, before we pass, White Pike on Clough Head.


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