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The Mysterious Death of Joseph Downing

Did he see the Devil?

Joseph Downing lived at Bell Royd, Thurlstone, and was a dealer in yarns. Bell Royd is off Folly Lane and now lies between Royd Moor reservoir and Scout Dyke reservoir. One day he received an order from someone living at Hunshelf and decided that he would deliver the goods the following Sunday, as this suited him better. Working on the Lord’s Day was, at the time, frowned upon. The distance from his home to Hunshelf would be about five miles.

The day came, and Downing walked over to Hunshelf and handed over the yarns in return for payment. He then visited several friends before turning towards home. When he reached the top of Hunshelf Hall Lane, he found himself accompanied by a stranger. The man showed no inclination to talk or be friendly, in spite of Joseph’s efforts. He found the stranger’s attitude so disconcerting, that he tried to shake him off by turning in at Dean Head for a while. But when he walked out of the farmyard into the lane, there was the stranger, waiting for him. And without offering any explanation, the man walked on as before, silent and unsociable.

Downing called at other houses where he was known and welcomed, but still the stranger kept up with him. His taciturn manner, and the persistence with which he stuck to him, alarmed Downing. He increased his pace but the silent, gloomy figure kept pace with him until they came to within a few yards of Downing’s house at Bell Royd. When he got in, Joseph sank down into the nearest chair, saying to his wife, “I’m done for lass,” and sure enough, when sufficient strength enabled him to tell of the stranger who had accompanied him from Hunshelf, he died.

This story was told to local historian Joseph Kenworthy by Downing’s niece, a lady called Mrs. Cuttil. He was “heart-sloughed,” she remarked. S. O. Addy defines this as “heart-broken; only used with reference to horses, etc.” (in his book A Glossary of Words used in the neighbourhood of Sheffield. London 1888, published for the English Language Dialect Society).

Mrs. Cuttil was firmly convinced that her uncle had seen the Devil, “as a punishment for trading in yarn on the Sabbath Day.” Apparently Downing’s wife had heard a knock at the door shortly before her husband arrived home, but on opening it no one was there. This, said Mrs. Cuttil, corresponded with the disappearance of the stranger when Downing came to the last few yards of his fatal journey. Downing was “a steady, sober, good living man, and of good nerve.”

Was it his conscience, or superstition? You decide….

Taken from an article written by Joseph Kenworthy published in the Penistone, Stocksbridge and Hoyland Express 27 August 1921


Joseph Downing was buried at Penistone on the 22nd March 1831. He was 50 years old. The vicar made no comment about the manner of his death. His wife was Sarah Ramsden, who was the daughter of Jonas Ramsden who lived at Gin House on Hunshelf Bank (now called Well House).

Mrs. Elizabeth Cuttle [spelling varies] was Joseph’s niece. Elizabeth (1821-1916) was the daughter of Ann Ramsden and Charles Askham. Charles had previously been married to Ann’s oldest sister Elizabeth. Elizabeth first married Samuel Ro[d]ger[s], then Samuel Elliott and finally Edward Cuttle.

Elizabeth and Samuel Rodgers had a son called Joseph who married Lucy Walton in 1885; she’d had an illegitimate son, Harry Walton, in 1883 – he was born in the Union Workhouse.

Photo: 1906 Ordnance Survey map showing Bell Royd.

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