Stranger than Fiction (from archives)

All day the wind had blown hard from the north-east, drifting snow from the hills. As night fell, Mary Roberts turned from the kitchen sink after a day of trying to behave as though everything was normal and said: “It’s no use…I know I will never see him alive again.”
Not even her husband’s arms around her shoulders could comfort her now. Sitting on a stool by the fire she cried as though her heart would break while out on the bleak moors of Yorkshire’s North Riding, lanterns bobbed and voices called vainly into the wind.

Today the village near the River Ure, just east of the Pennines, is a busy community served by a network of roads. But in the winter of 1910 it was not unusual to see no outsiders for a week and self-sufficiency was bred deep into the taciturn hill farmers who extracted a sparse living from the inhospitable land.

“If you want anything doing, do it yourself” could well have been the motto of these independent folk but the strange story of James Roberts seems to throw this into some doubt.

John and Mary Roberts had farmed their smallholding at Manor’s Acre since the death of John’s father in 1904 and their two sons, James, 10 and 12-year-old Arthur, were expected to help all they could.

On the Saturday morning two weeks after Christmas, snow lay deep on the hills when James and Arthur took a home-made sledge on to a slope about a mile away from the house for a few hours of boyish sport.

“Make sure you’re back for dinner,” Mary Roberts called as she straightened the mufflers around their necks and watched them trudge away up the lane pulling the home-made matchwood sledge behind them.

She had no fears about their safety. They had lived on the moors all their lives, loved their beauty and were mindful of their dangers. Even so, she had a slight twinge of anxiety when Arthur returned home just after one o’clock pulling the sledge.

“Where’s James?” she asked and the boy looked blank. He came home an hour ago,” he said. “He said his hands were cold…”

It was a tiny incident, but Mary Roberts felt a shiver of apprehension. From the kitchen window she could see that the sky over  the surrounding hills was heavy with snow.
When James didn’t return by 5pm she was thoroughly alarmed. A party of men from the village had already searched nearby moorland without success and now, with lanterns, were searching further afield.

By now the night was a swirling mass of wind-whipped snow and at midnight the search was abandoned until morning. But at first light a group of six men, including the boy’s father, set out again for the moors.

By now then wind had dropped but the previous night’s snow had obliterated all tracks. They would have to start from scratch again. By 7am it was light enough to resume the search and the men trooped away from the village.

Leading the party was the village postman Walter Padleyn, who was later to remember “As the hours went by and there was no sign of the lad I think we all began to fear the worst although no one would admit it.

“At 11am we had split into two parties and I was standing with two other men in a narrow valley which contained a stream. Suddenly I turned round and standing on a rock by the stream was a boy. We all saw him, but it wasn’t James Roberts.

“He was about 15 and dressed in strangely old-fashioned clothes. There was something unreal about him, but it’s hard to explain what. He was beckoning to us and automatically we began to follow him. It was as though some power was drawing us along – we all felt it.”

The men would say that the figure led them down the valley and down a boulder-strewn dip towards a pile of rocks. According to Walter Padley, it walked about 100 yards ahead, turning to see if the men were following.

At one side of the rock-pile was a tangle of snow-covered bushes and as they watched, the figure merged with then undergrowth and finally vanished.
Padley and his companions reached the bushes and began to push their way through. Under the thicket, in a cleft of rock, lay James Roberts. His left leg was twisted awkwardly under him, obviously broken, and he was semi-conscious and showing signs of exposure and frostbite. But he was alive.

Padlery recalled later: “Without the boy’s help we would never have found him in a million years. He was too weak to shout out. He would probably have died had he been out in another night like the last one.”

They took James Roberts home and slowly he recovered. The story got about and a doctor from Sheffield, Dr John Stoner, secretary of a local historical research group, made inquiries in local newspaper archives and came up with some astonishing findings.
Apparently a boy from the same village, Richard Warley, had died in a severe blizzard in 1710. And according to contemporary reports of the tragedy, Richard Warley was the spitting image of the boy rescuers had seen out on the snowy crags just 200 years later…   

Read Stranger Than Fiction every week in Ireland’s Own