Poor Susannah!

There is a beautiful cross in Rivington Chapel yard, bearing only one inscription, “In Memory of Susannah Pilkington who died November 22nd 1887. Aged 22 years. On the head of the cross is a letter ‘S’ entwined in what seem to be tree trunks. Alongside are two other Pilkington graves, but who was Susannah and what happened to her in those twenty two years?

Her’s is a very Victorian tale. Susannah was born to a widow, four months after her father’s death, with one older brother, a collection of grandparents and step-grandparents and a large extended family. Her parents were both born illegitimate into tenant farming families.

Her brother was sent to live with relatives in Belmont and she spent her first sixteen years in Anglezarke ‘boarded out’ to distant relatives, at Lower Hempshaws Farm. One by one, her closest relatives passed away and she moved into the Elephant and Castle in Adlington.

Lower Hempshaws

She worked there as a servant and started to keep company with a young man but when she lost the last of her close family, her brother, she became depressed. We will never know whether it was suicide, a tragic accident or foul play, but something happened on the night of the 21st November 1887 which resulted in Susannah drowning in the Leeds Liverpool Canal. Her body was found three weeks later.

The Elephant and Castle Pub, Adlington

From the beginning

Susanna Pilkington was born in Anglezarke, on the 1st July 1865 to Ellen Pilkington recently the widow of James (Ainsworth) Pilkington, a stone cutter, who passed away in February earlier that year. The transcript of her baptism isn’t dated (and at time of writing, March 2021, the LDS Film 1966746 cannot be accessed), but she was baptised by J. S. Gilbert between July 1865 and Jan 1866. Her baptism is recorded three entries after her brother John, who had been born in the spring of 1864 and she had another older brother James.


Her father James hadn’t had the easiest start in life, he was the illegitimate son of Ellen Ainsworth, herself the illegitimate daughter of Betty Ainsworth, born before Betty married Samuel Pilkington in Jun 1798. No baptism for James is recorded in Rivington.

James was raised by his mother and (step?) Grandfather Samuel, both Ellen and James would legally be Ainsworth’s, but as each householder completes their own schedule (provided they were literate), we can assume it was Samuel who claimed them as Pilkington in 1841. When James was 14 his mother married a man only ten years younger than James. They moved to Liptrots, near Great Hill (Ellen is recorded as illegitimate on their marriage certificate). James stayed with his Grandfather Samuel, by then in his seventies, and is recorded in the 1851 census as ‘Grandson’ in the cottage at Jepsons. Samuel died in 1855, and Ellen and her husband Richard Taylor moved back to Anglezarke where both Richard and James were working the quarries.

In 1860, James, now nearly thirty, married Ellen Brownlow (again, their marriage records James Ainsworth, illegitimate) and they setup home at Brooks cottage in Anglezarke. Clearly in the parishes of Rivington and Anglezarke, James is known as Pilkington, but in parish records at Bolton, he must use his legal surname. Their first son, James was born in March 1863, followed by John in May 1864. Ellen was pregnant with Susannah when James died in February 1865. He was buried at the chapel on the same day as his youngest son John, never getting to meet Susannah.


Susannah’s mother Ellen was raised by John and Susanna Brownlow in Horwich, although Ellen was born four years before their marriage. Without an obvious baptism, it is difficult to say which was her natural parent. Though Susanna (nee Mellody) was under-age at the time of the marriage, she was old enough to be Susannah’s mother. Sadly Susanna Brownlow died, aged 32 in 1850, when Ellen was in her early teens, and John re-married a spinster, Mary Kershaw of Anglezarke.

One can only imagine what Ellen was going through when her daughter Susannah was born the summer of 1865, after burying a son and a husband on the same day, and already caring for a toddler. What happened next may never come to light, but Ellen moved to Preston where she worked as a general servant at the Plough Tavern. The next record of Ellen is on Christmas Day 1872, where she is recorded as a servant, from Ribbleton Lane Preston when she married Adam Hatch, a Blacksmith and himself a widower, from Wheelton. Ellen gave birth to another daughter Mary in 1875, but it wasn’t a happy ending for Ellen who died aged thirty-eight in the summer of 1876 and was buried in the ‘free ground’ at Heapey, followed a few days later by young Mary.

Early life

After 1834 children were the financial responsibility of their father, unless they were illegitimate in which case they were the sole responsibility of their mother until they reached the age of sixteen. At the time of marriage a woman lost her own settlement rights and took on those of her husband.

A boy of seven could attain a new settlement parish by apprenticeship, and over the age of sixteen by continuous employment for one year, often leading to 364 day terms of employment. Amendments meant that by 1846 this was a five year residency, reduced by 1865 to a one year residency.

Anglezarke had always had an overseer, who was charged with collecting poor rates and identifying those individuals who were in need of poor relief. It was the overseers of the poor who would determine where an orphaned or deserted child would reside. Although in towns and cities, they were usually sent to the workhouses, in rural areas, they were more commonly boarded out locally, often to relatives, even distant ones, funded, at least in part by the poor rate.

In 1863-4 Ephraim Cocker and William Marsden were the appointed overseers for Anglezarke, however, after the death of Ephraim Cocker in 1865, his role passed to one Samuel Pilkington working alongside his neighbour, Marsden.

Having lost their father, and their mother living in Preston, the children were separated. Susannah’s brother James was sent to Belmont, to live with their mother Ellen’s ‘parents’ John and Mary Brownlow. In many ways it was easier to accommodate children on the rural farms, than in the overcrowded towns. At five, Susannah is living at Lower Hempshaws with the Mayoh family, where she is described as a ‘boarder’, but as always in Anglezarke, it isn’t that simple. Ann Kershaw had married William Mayoh in 1844 and they had two children, John and Mary. Kershaw families had lived at Hempshaws since the turn of the 17th century. She was widowed when William died in 1857, but Ann carried on farming and raising the two children at Hempshaws.

Ann had a sister Mary who had married a widower, John Brownlow and lived in Horwich. (see above, this John had previously married Susannah Mellody in 1839. I believe Susannah already had her daughter Ellen in Tockholes, before she married John, who after Susannah’s death he raised as his own. This Ellen was Ellen Brownlow, poor Susannah’s mother).

Ann Mayoh died in 1878, the tenancy passed to her children. The following year, her daughter, Mary, married Christopher Brownlow and John moved out. Susannah stayed on at the farm.

The years go by, and Susannah is still living at lower Hempshaws, with Christopher and Mary Brownlow, she is aged fifteen and is described by them as their niece and farm servant. Any contribution from the poor rate to help keep Susannah was about to end.

Her brother James was in a similarly precarious position. Mary Brownlow his ‘Grandmother’, died in May 1882 followed in July by his Grandfather John, leaving James alone aged 19.

In June 1874, Susannah’s distant relative, Joseph Pilkington (b. 1822) took over the tenancy of the Elephant & Castle in Adlington, Susannah was actually his Grand-niece as Joseph was the brother of Samuel Pilkington, (raised at Stones House in Anglezarke). This was to be Susannah’s next abode. She was a few years younger than Jane, Joseph’s daughter, and when Jane married Daniel Calderbank and he became licensee, Susannah worked for them as a domestic servant.

Her final days

Susannah spent the evening of Monday 21st November 1887 at the Elephant & Castle, keeping ‘company’ with a young man whom she had been seeing for some time. She apparently retired to bed. What happened next, we will never know, but she was missing the following morning and a search made for her.

Her body was found nearly four weeks later, around 11am on Friday the 9th December, in the Leeds Liverpool canal about two miles from Chorley by a woman and a canal boatman on the towpath. The newspaper reports vary in their description between, “lightly dressed” and “partly dressed”, but she had clearly been in the water for some time as her body as described a being in an advanced state of decomposition. She was taken to the Elephant & Castle.

The local papers broke the news in a typically unsympathetic series of headlines.

“The Mysterious disappearance from Chorley” – Lancashire Evening Post

“Strange death of a Servant” – Wigan Observer

“Mysterious death of a young woman” – Blackburn standard

“Melancholy drowning case at Adlington” – Preston chronicle


Susannah’s inquest was held on the 10th December by Dr Gilbertson, one of two post mortems he was carrying out that day with the other being in Standish. The coroner paid two shillings and sixpence for the use of rooms at the Elephant and Castle in Adlington and five shillings ten pence for witnesses.

Susannah had a cut over her right eye and her right knee which the coroner said may have been caused by canal boat damage whilst in the water.

The witnesses called were Mrs Calderbank (Jane Pilkington, Susannah’s second cousin once removed, wife of Daniel Calderbank), her boss as landlady of the Elephant and Castle. Mrs Calderbank said Susannah had complained of feeling weak and unwell on Sunday 20th, but nothing was unusual in her manner. The following night around 10pm she saw Susannah in the bar talking to her sweetheart and told her to go to bed, though she didn’t actually see her go. She had gone to Susannah’s room the following morning around 6am, but there was no sign of her. A resulting search found no trace.

An unnamed young man who was Susannah’s beau attested that she had been in low spirits. The witness testified that she was depressed in mind, but not more so than she had been for several months previously, she having been “very much upset on consequence of the death of her brother” and had not been in good health for some considerable time.

Robert Deaken, a canal boatman was on the bank of the canal when he saw a body floating in the water, partly dressed with only one shoe and one stocking. Her dress was shredded. With some help, he pulled the body from the water, and it was much decomposed. It was thought the injuries to Susannah’s head and knee may have been caused by the screw of a steam canal boat.

The jury gave their verdict ‘found drowned’, and the date of death given as 22nd November 1887.

Susannah was laid to rest at Rivington Chapel on Sunday the 11th December. She was just twenty-two years of age.

Her probate was finally proved by Nathan Pilkington of the Spinners Arms, “Cousin-German” and one of the next of kin on the 8th August 1888. Her personal estate was worth just five pounds and seven shillings.

Thankfully someone cared enough about Susannah to erect a beautiful memorial, which at the time of writing was surrounded by the first flowers of spring.

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