The Smell of Water Part 3: Danby Rigg

A sad tale

Freebrough s

In 1857 Sarah Jemmison was 25yrs old, she worked for a farmer called William Pearson at his farm near Egton. Sarah had an illegitimate baby who she named Joseph. She left Joseph in the care of a Mrs Marley who lived in Sleights. Sarah was unable to keep up the payments so Mrs Marley returned the baby to Sarah. The baby was wearing a white shirt with a slit in the sleeve

Farmer Pearson wasn’t happy about having to feed Sarah’s baby so Sarah took her baby over to Moorsholm saying that she was going to leave the baby with Mrs Wilson, the baby’s father’s sister. The baby was never seen again.

Three days later a shepherd, Mr Green, was working on the moor side of Freebrough Hill when his dog brought him the remains of a decayed human leg. On investigation a babies skull  and a white child’s shirt matching Joseph’s was found. The skull showed signs of trauma indicating that the baby had been decapitated after death.

Sarah was arrested and taken to York Assizes where she was found guilty of the murder of her illegitimate child or ‘murder of a bastard’. She was sentenced to death which was commuted to penal servitude for life, after a plea for mercy.

Sluttish Whitby, the Devil & the Old Witch

John Ray (1627-1705) was one of the pioneers of modern botany. A parson naturalist, he was the first to classify plants by species. He undertook a number of tours of Britain and Europe where he collected and described the local flora and topography.


The following passage, describing his visit to North East Yorkshire, is taken from Selected Remains of the Learned John Ray with his life. By William Derham published 1760.

We ascended the top of that noted hill, called Roseberry or Ounsberry Topping, the top whereof is like a sugar loaf and serves for a sea-mark. It may be seen at a great distance, viz. from Stanmore, which is in a right line above 20 Miles off. From hence we had a prospect of that pleasant and fruitful vale, part whereof is called Cleveland a country noted for a good breed of horses.

The ways here in winter time are very bad, and almost impassable, according to that proverbial Rhyme,

Cleveland in the Clay

Bring in two Soles, carry one away.

Near this hill we went to see a well celebrated for the cure of sore or dim eyes, and other diseases. Every one that washes in it, or receives benefit by it, ties a rag of linen or woollen on a shrub or bush near it, as an offering or acknowledgement.

The People of Gisburgh are civil, cleanly, and well-bred, contrary to the temper of the inhabitants of Whitby who, to us, seemed rude in behavior and sluttish.

In the way from Whitby to Gisburgh we passed by Freeburgh Hill which they told us was cast up by the Devil, at the entreaty of an old Witch, who desired it, that from thence she might espy her cow in the moor.

Image – National Portrait Gallery / Public domain


Freebrough Hill

This beautiful hill has always fascinated locals and visitors alike. Prior to the twentieth century a number of antiquarians and historians speculated  as to whether Freebrough Hill was natural or man made. It was often compared to Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, the largest man-made mound in Europe. Sadly, the hill is completely natural and bears a scar where sandstone was once quarried from its flanks. There are a number of folk tales concerning the hill and it’s origins.

Freebrough was supposed to have been created by the Wade, the giant of the moors. The origins of Wade and his wife Bell are unknown but they were primal deities, responsible for the creation of many of the landscape features on the North York Moors.  Another tale attributes the creation of the hill to the Devil. Apparently ‘Ould Scratch’ was enraged by a witch who had outwitted him. As the witch made her escape the Devil threw handfuls of earth at her across the moors, thus creating not only Freebrough Hill but also Roseberry and Blakely Toppings. The resulting hole, from where the Devil had gouged out the earth, became the Hole of Horcum or the ‘Devil’s Punchbowl’.

Freebro van My favourite tale regarding the hill is the story of Edward Trotter, a farmer who lived in Dimmingdale during the reign of King Edward II. Trotter was checking his sheep on the slopes of the hill when he discovered a tunnel leading into the hill. He crawled into the narrow opening which soon opened out becoming large enough to walk along. After a while he came across a heavy wooden door which led to a dimly-lit chamber. On entering the chamber Trotter met a large man, dressed in chain mail, guarding the chamber. Beyond the guard he could see a number of men, dressed in armour, sleeping around a large wooden table. The guard hushed Trotter and told him that the sleeping knights were King Arthur and his knights. The guard told Trotter that the knights were sleeping until a time when they were required to free England from tyranny.

The guard swore Trotter to secrecy and allowed him to leave, Trotter returned home and told his wife about the tunnel and the sleeping knights. The following day they returned to the place where Trotter had discover the tunnel but could find no trace of it. Mrs Trotter accused her husband of dreaming the whole event.