In the summer of 1833, Yorkshire and national newspapers were gripped by the story of ‘the Kelfield Prophetess’, a young woman called Hannah Beedham. Hannah described having a vision where she was told her death date. Two thousand people flocked to Kelfield – a village just South of York – to see her ‘die’. Nine days before her appointment with death, she took to her bed in local farmer James Sturdy’s farmhouse. She told the world she would die on August 1, 1833.
The world waited.
She didn’t die.
By mid-August 1833, the press were calling Hannah ‘The nine days’ wonder’.
Ousebridge: Home of Hannah Beedham’s family
The Beedham family can be found in the records of St John’s Ousebridge, Micklegate in the centre of York, and later, Holy Trinity, Goodramgrate. The Ousebridge church was deconsecrated in the 20th century. Ouse Bridge was at one time covered in buildings – in medieval times there were 36 shops on it, and five tenements.
Hannah lived in York city centre, not far from the river Ouse ina slum area, Hagworm’s Nest, notorious for prostitution and crime. Baptised on 18 April, 1814, she was eldest surviving daughter of John and Ann Beedham.
The York of her lifetime was home to various Millenarian sects, like the Soutcottians and Wroeites of ‘Wroes’ Virgins’ fame, who preached hellfire, brimstone and the second coming of Christ. If Hannah came across the story of Johanna Southcott, she must have realised that she could gain notoriety by dying on cue – the same way Southcott became famous for claiming to be about to give birth to Shiloh (the Second Coming) – when she was in her 60s.
Hannah’s prophesies and ‘psychic phenomena’
According to a press report, Hannah spoke of things that we would now equate with ‘psychic phenomena’ – items flying around the room, strange noises etc. This was decades before the spiritualist movement.
Hannah correctly prophesied an epidemic. In 1832, right in the heart of the Bedern where Hannah is known to have lived, a waterman named Thomas Hughes was the first York person to succumb to cholera. Hannah gained believers and followers after the epidemic.
In 1833, The York Courant of the week after the-death-that-never-was, refers to “ravings”, “trances, predictions, and street preachings”. We have no idea of which sect Hannah belonged to – although the papers make reference to her having her ‘ticket withdrawn’ by her own Methodist chapel.
Hannah Beedham’s preaching
We can get an idea of how Hannah operated. There is an account of her preaching, on Queen’s Staith – a very short walking distance from her parental home in Skeldergate. The story went national. The Times reported in July 1833:
“A FEMALE PROPHET. – A young woman, named Hannah Beedham, addressed a large congregation of people from a cart on the staith, on Wednesday evening. She lately lived at Easingwold, where some weeks back, it is reported, she was in a trance for three days. During that time many wonderful things were revealed to her….she was instructed that her own death will take place on Thursday, the 1st of August; and on Monday next she is to leave York for the house of some gentleman, where she will remain until her death…..”
‘Some gentleman’ was in fact, my relative – Kelfield farmer, James Sturdy.
When cholera broke out in June of the previous year, Hannah may well have escaped to Easingwold relatives, as the scenes unfolding in York were truly apocalyptic; carts of the dead being trundled through streets where torches of sulphur burned to dampen contagion. On one occasion a funeral train was attacked, and the coffin thrown in the river, as people feared it even passing their doors would infect them.
At the height of her fame, Hannah Beedham was just 19 years old.
Hannah was gaining notoriety for preaching. John Wesley had had no problem with women preaching, but with his death, the Methodist movement became more conservative and by this date, Hannah would have been an embarrassment for those who wanted to move on – relegating women once again to the congregation, not the pulpit.
My relative, James Sturdy
It’s possible that her future husband, William White, was a labourer for James Sturdy, who took Hannah in and allowed the multitudes to file past and give their respects to Hannah, as she lay in state, waiting for the hand of God to smite her. White was born in 1814 in Kelfield, and his father’s market garden was next door to Sturdy’s farm.
In the summer of 1833, The York Gazette journalist wrote with not a littleschadenfreude:
“…The awful hour at length arrived, and Mr.Sturdy’s family, with many other friends, were in close attendance, watching her departure, and contributing, as they supposed, their kind offices to smooth her passage to the grave, such as moistening her lips with some liquid, as it customary when people are really dying…”
Hannah Beedham receives thousands of visitors while on her ‘death bed’
There were upwards of 2,000 visitors camped out in Kelfield, at the height of things, and coaches returning to York from the village were mobbed by people anxious for the news from Kelfield. All waiting for Hannah to die. The Leicester Chronicle of 24 August 1833, headlined ‘Gross Infatuation’, read:
“Many hundreds of believers followed but mostly dressed in mourning … The dyers were busily employed in giving the funeral colour to garments… for the great occasion … the ferryman … netted £15 by conveying those over who wanted to be present at sister Hannah’s departure. The prophetess lay in wait for her change, sometimes holding conversation with the celestial beings she was about to join …
“The Methodist chapel was opened and numbers assembled there to pray; processions singing funeral hymns passed along the village street, and altogether the scene was one of the most extraordinary of modern times … The three hotels in Kelfield were emptied to the larder… and even the adjacent orchards and turnip fields gave proof to having had a visitation.”
At the appointed hour, Hannah failed to die.
Nine Days’ Wonder
In The York Courant of 13 August 1833, Hannah’s shamefaced return to Bedern is described with The Courant’s usual cynicism:
“… The prophetess – the ‘nine days’ wonder’ –, she whom the people went far to see, arrived yesterday in Beddern, [sic] in this city, from the scene of her imposture, at Kelfield. Her coming excited some little interest in the neighbourhood…”
James Sturdy’s embarrassment must have been acute. For nine days the faithful (and not so faithful) had filed through his farmhouse, to visit Hannah’s great lying in state. When God and the angels failed to swoop – he must have been left wondering how quickly he could decently get Hannah back to York and out of his home.
The story is taken into its final chapter in the records, of Holy Trinity church, on Goodramgate. This is the small church almost opposite the Bedern, where we know Hannah seems to have spent her married life.
On 29 December, 1835, two years after the ill-fated ‘death’, William White and Hannah Beedham were married. At their wedding White signed the register and Hannah marked with a cross. Remarkable that a woman who couldn’t sign her own name was an orator so impressive that thousands travelled the length of Yorkshire to see her.
William and Hannah’s marriage was only to last four years and the baptismal records for Hannah’s children, Elizabeth and Ann, show the girls to have been baptised at the Bedern Chapel, just across the way from Holy Trinity. I can’t find or trace her young daughters; they disappeared, as many impoverished people did, from the records. Their father became a general labourer before he too, vanished.
Representation of Hannah in the press
It’s impossible to decide whether she was deluded or had set about to manipulate others for attention or had some obscurer motive. The press made their scepticism plain, referring to her with terms like “imposture”, who was “spouting rhapsodies” and called her a “fanatic” – also making reference to her “limited intellect”. Maybe Hannah was the press’s silly season fodder.
Hannah’s funeral was on Christmas Eve, 1839. She died aged only 27 years. There is no gravestone.
A couple of local papers carried a brief, laconic notice of Hannah’s death. Six years on from the-death-that-never-was, the Prophetess of Kelfield was still just about remembered.