The Ballad of Ellen Strange 1978. Bob FrithLocal stories help us discover our sense of place and community. From the ’70s on I was incorporating them in paintings and prints. Some of the stories I used were recent events – such as an unsolved murder that people said had driven my next door but one neighbour out of his mind.  I reported that his milk delivery hadn’t been taken in for a few days. A carcase of a dog was hanging from the beams in his front room when the police broke the door down. Other stories were old – stories of pilgrims, airships, haunted railways. I came to feel that all stories somehow end up dignifying both the subject and the teller.

I was briefly banned from Helmshore British Legion because of an exhibition of my prints above the library. These were mainly about that story of my neighbour, and the whole thing stirred up trouble. However I was soon allowed back into the club and my friends there encouraged me by telling me more. I rarely knew if these tales were about events that had happened a month ago, or were from way back.

There was a story about Ellen Strange. Ellen was a young woman whose lover had murdered her while they were walking the old moorland way to Edgeworth. This was moorland not far from the cottage where I was living. I later discovered that a colourful ballad had been written about it, by a John Fawcett Skelton. He had written this some time ago; early in the nineteenth century. I was also told that back in the day locals had erected a cairn on the spot. So next morning I walked up the hill to take a look.

Just off the moorland track over to Edgeworth, where you might have expected only cotton grass and tufts of reed to be growing, stones were scattered all around. You wouldn’t call it a cairn, but it looked like what might happen to a cairn if it had been forgotten about. Nature and sheep had knocked it around and flattened it. The location of the stones were probably where I thought the cairn should have been. I took a day out and rebuilt it on the spot where the stones seemed most plentiful.

The Ballad of Ellen Strange

That flattened cairn struck a chord. The story had almost disappeared. I went and found out about it from the reference library (which is where I came across the Skelton ballad). The pile of stones that were a tribute to a murdered girl had suffered a similar fate. For years it seemed that local betrothed couples had carried a stone to that spot to cement their own engagement. So the tragic event and its associated stories grew together and from that developed a romantic tradition. Then, probably just as slowly, they all began to fade away and disappear back into the ground. 

I thought I would help to try to give the story another chance. Skelton’s ‘Ballad of Ellen Strange’ was full of mannered but still evocative imagery. It included the appearance of a guardian angel and the devil, along with sparks flying from the clog irons of the fleeing murderer.  I felt this ballad would make a good starting point for a ceremonial event. So I asked my friend Don McKinley to carve a stone that could be sunk into the moorland next to the cairn. A simple thing I suggested, that might always look old. Maybe just ‘ES’ carved into it, and perhaps a figure of a young woman. Mid-Pennine Arts provided a small grant, and I persuaded the local Council to provide tractors to carry it up to the site. I telephoned John Whittaker (who had recently formed Peel Holdings – Peel Tower is a close neighbour to Ellen Strange) to ask him to donate a suitably large stone from one of his quarries. Eventually he did. 

Preparation

This done, I created a simple scenario for an event inspired by the ballad. I then asked Max Bullock, a bop trumpeter studying Fine Art at Manchester Art College to join me with a group of my students from the Foundation Course. Max agreed and I then asked one or two friends who had left Welfare State to join us. They included Keith Bray, a wonderful and volatile musician who went on to work with Horse + Bamboo for several years. We were fortunate in having a singer among the group – Gail Klevan, now a successful London based jeweller.

We promoted the event by touring local pubs with a small show, including a rewritten version of the ballad. I also made linocut posters advertising the event, which were pasted on walls and poles around Helmshore. A lot of equipment needed to be carried up to the moors. This included telegraph poles which were the basis of large puppet figures. There as also a functioning kitchen complete with oven and butane cylinders. Getting this done soon became the biggest headache and so, in desperation, I contacted and somehow persuaded the army, who had a firing range on the moorland – above the cairn – to help us out. They sent a big truck and a group of squaddies.

Then, a week or so before Midsummer’s Night – when the event was due to happen – I was driving home and glimpsed a billboard outside the newsagent. It was for the local paper, The Rossendale Free Press. The headline read “Local Petition Against Murder Ceremony”, or something similar. It took a few seconds for the message to sink in before I stopped the car and went to pick up a copy. The front page story was about a local woman who was putting together a petition to stop the Ellen Strange event. She felt it celebrated a murder. 

Asking around, I discovered that the petitioner was part of the congregation of St Thomas’s Church in Helmshore. I went to see her, but she seemed unmoved by my suggestion that rather than commemorating a murder the event would help to preserve a local story that was part of our shared heritage. Nor that it no more encouraged murder than Easter Eggs encourage crucifixions. But she did suggest that I should have a word with the vicar. This I did, and thankfully got a very sympathetic hearing from him. He promised to talk to the petitioner and her immediate circle and, a few days later, he phoned me to say that we would hear no more about petitions, and that the event could go ahead with their blessing.

The Ceremony

So, starting at 10pm on June 22nd1978, a short performance, The Ballad of Ellen Strange, involving a Pilgrim, fireworks, music, song, and the unveiling of a carved memorial stone took place by the cairn of Ellen Strange. It was based on the Victorian poem-ballad by John Fawcett Skelton. It was not, as some people have suggested, a ‘re-enactment’ of the murder of Ellen Strange. Like a lot of our subsequent work it was art inspired by art. At midnight the 55 people who trekked up to the moors were offered hot bread in the shape of devils and blood-red mulled wine from the moorland kitchen. This was the first ever Horse + Bamboo show.

The cairn and memorial stone, Ellen Strange, Rossendale

The Cairn and Stone

The next day, as we cleaned up the site, someone came walking towards us from the high ground above the shooting range, in the direction of the Pilgrims Cross. The walker arrived just as we cleared away the final remnants of the performance, leaving just the cairn and the carved stone standing together on the moor. He wanted to know what we doing. Pointing at the stone he said “…and that must have been here for a few hundred years.”

Ellen Strange’s memorial and cairn are marked on the large-scale OS map of the area. It has also become a place for an annual pilgrimage to remember victims of domestic violence – an event supported by the Unite union. I’m glad that we played a part in keeping the story alive.

BOB FRITH, MAX BULLOCK (m), KEITH BRAY (m), GAIL KLEVAN (m), MAGGIE MARIGLIANI (m), GWYN JONES, SUE AUTY, DAVE CHADWICK, MALA SIKKA and students of Manchester School of Art Foundation Course.

Posted by admin

Bob Frith founded Horse + Bamboo Theatre in 1978. He now manages the Dave Pearson Studio and is active in support of Apna Rossendale.

Leave a comment