Ellen Sadler: The Sleeping Girl of Turville

Jan 12, 2022 0 comments

The small village of Turville in Buckinghamshire, about 7 miles north of Henley-on-Thames and 35 miles west of London, is a favorite destination among British movie producers for its quintessential English village style. Many movies and television series have been shot here including the sitcoms The Vicar of Dibley, Midsomer Murders, Agatha Christie’s Marple, Foyle's War, and the movies Maleficent and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, to name a few. But the town’s biggest claim to fame is an eleven-year old girl named Ellen Sadler, who went to sleep one night and didn't wake up for nine years.

“Young Girl Sleeping” by Bernhard Keil  (1624–1687)

Ellen Sadler was born on 15 May 1859 to Ann and William Sadler. She was the tenth child of a family of twelve. The Sadler family was impoverished, and many of Sadler’s children worked as farm hands. When Ellen turned eleven, she too was sent to work as a nursemaid for a family in the nearby town of Marlow.

Ellen was a quiet, dreamy and thoughtful child. She remained distant and melancholy, not inclined “to join in the more boisterous sports of her youthful companions.” She preferred to sit by the fireside for hours watching the shadows dance across the wall, lost in her thoughts. She had a great reverence for sacred things, particularly the Bible, and was always good and obedient.

While Ellen was in Marlow, she became overcome with fits of immense sleepiness. At the same time she began to complain about a constant pain in her head. Both the discomfort in her head and the near constant drowsiness began to affect her work, and she lost her employment. Ellen returned home to Turville where she was attended be a local doctor named Henry Hayman, from nearby Stokenchurch. Hayman diagnosed her of “glandular swellings”, or an abscess on the back of her head. Her symptoms also suggested a spinal disease. Because Ellen’s family did not have much money, the parish vicar pleaded Hayman to secure Ellen's admission to a local hospital where her condition worsened. After 18 weeks at the hospital, Ellen was released. The doctors stated that her condition was incurable.

Two days later, on 17 March 1871, Ellen suffered a series of seizures. That night, she laid down to sleep on her left side, with her hand under her head and knees slightly drawn towards her torso. Ellen would remain in this position for the next nine years.

Sleepy Cottage turville

The house where Ellen lived, now called “Sleepy Cottage.”

News of the sleeping girl spread like wildfire, and people began to flock to Turville. Ellen’s parents didn’t mind the visitors for the publicity brought money which the family desperately needed. Many began paying an admission fee in return for a glimpse of the girl. Some people wanted to take a lock of her hair as souvenir, which her mother obliged until it began to diminish the supply. Among those who visited her were journalists and medical professionals. Even Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, is said to have visited her.

A journalist for the Bucks Free Press noted that “her breathing was regular and natural, the skin soft and the body warm, as in a healthy subject” but her pulse was rather fast. The paper continued:

The hands were small and thin, but the fingers quite flexible; the body somewhat emaciated; the feet and legs like those of a dead child, almost ice cold ... her eyes and cheeks were sunken, and the appearance was that of death ... but although there was no colour on her cheeks, the paleness was not that heavy hue which betokens death.

The Daily Telegraph wrote about Ellen about 22 months after she fell ill:

The girl's face is by no means cadaverous. There is flesh on the cheeks, which have a pinkish tint, and there is some colour in the thin lips. The eyes are calmly closed, as though in healthy sleep. I ventured to raise one of the lids and touch the eye beneath ... but there was not even a quivering of the eyelash. ... The girl's [hand] was quite warm and moist, and the finger nails were neatly trimmed. The fingers are not the least bit stiffened ... It is not a skeleton hand, neither are any of the girl's limbs so emaciated as, under the extraordinary circumstances alleged, might be expected. ... The child's body is very thin as compared with her limbs. ... There is not much substance in her flesh, however; it is soft and flabby ... [Her feet were] almost ice-cold. ... As regards the child's breathing, it is so feeble that it is almost impossible to detect it; you cannot feel it by holding the cheek to her mouth, and the only faintest flutter is felt when the hand is laid over the region of the heart.

According to Ellen’s mother, Ellen was kept alive on port wine, tea and milk, given three times per day. Ellen’s mother would open her mouth slightly and feed her with a spoon. But after about fifteen months, Ellen’s jaw locked close, and she had to be fed with a small teapot using which her mother poured liquid nourishment into her mouth through a small opening in her jaw caused by a missing tooth.

Sleepy Cottage turville

The interior of “Sleepy Cottage.”

It was unclear how the family dealt with Ellen’s passing urine and feces. Ellen’s mother claimed in 1880, nine years after she fell asleep, that Ellen had stopped moving bowels for the last five years and that approximately every four days "a somewhat large amount would pass from the bladder”.

Naturally, not many people took Ann Sadler’s words at face value. Some visitors secretly smuggled pins into Ellen’s room on the pretext of seeing her and tried to uncover the ruse by stabbing her with the said pins, but to no effect. Meanwhile, the Sadler family was turning up a substantial income of two pounds a week through donation money, which was equivalent to two hundred pounds today, which furthered suspicious that this was all a big money-making hoax. Some neighbors swore that on some nights they saw Ellen sitting by her window. Ann Sadler did not allow medical personnel to remain in Ellen’s room for too long. She also prohibited Ellen to be moved to a hospital.

The press began to link Ellen’s case to the well-known case of Sarah Jacob, a girl from Wales who, her parents claimed, was able to survive without nourishment. But when subjected to a test, Sarah, in her effort to prove her miraculous survival, died of starvation. Her parents were subsequently convicted of manslaughter.

A journalist wrote in The Observer: “It is to be hoped that [Sarah's case] is known in the obscure village of Turville, where—we are asked to believe—a fresh case of miraculous trance has taken place. ... [Ellen's case] very much ... incites suspicion of deliberate imposture.”

One correspondent to The Times wrote: “It is by widespread publicity that such cases are multiplied, and it is difficult to overstate the harm thus done. These impostures exist through a morbid love of sympathy on the part of the children, or from the gains that accrue to the parents. Once begun, they soon pass into real disease.”

Many believed that the “ridiculous mystery” could be resolved if only Ellen’s mother allowed her to be properly examined in a London hospital.

Turville in Buckinghamshire

The village of Turville. Photo: Amateur with a Camera/Flickr

In May 1880, Ellen’s mother passed away by heart attack. The responsibility of taking care of Ellen then fell on her married sisters, Elizabeth Stacey and Grace Blackall, both of whom lived in Turville.

Five months after her mother’s death, Ellen woke up with no memory of the previous nine years. By this time, Ellen was twenty-one years old. She was reported to have “fully recovered”. However, she suffered few long-term effects such as slightly stunted growth and a "weak eye".

Ellen recovered enough to lead a fairly normal life. She married in 1886 and gave birth to six children. She died sometime after 1911.

The case of the sleeping girl of Turville became part of the local folklore, spawning tales of witchcraft and rumors of royal attention. The mystery was never solved. Modern historians suggest Ellen might have been suffering from narcolepsy, a neurological disorder that involves excessive sleeping and a decreased ability to regulate sleep-wake cycles. It’s also possible that Ellen might have been drugged by someone in the family, possibly by her mother, which might also explain her sudden recovery after her mother’s death.

The Sadler family home still stands in Turville and is known as the “Sleepy Cottage”.


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