The Shotley Bridge Swordmakers’ Neighbour: Ralph ‘Mad’ Maddison

The Shotley Bridge Swordmakers’ neighbours

When the swordmakers arrived in Shotley Bridge in 1687, it was sparsely populated and one of their nearest neighbours was most likely Ralph ‘Mad’ Maddison, who lived in nearby Hole House. Potentially, another neighbour might have been Jane Frizzle, an alleged witch, who lived in a cottage at Crooked Oak and was the subject of a poem by John Carr (Rev. John Ryan, History of Shotley Spa and Vicinity of Shotley Bridge, 1841, p. 153). For more information on local lore and legends, please see the section near the end of this article on J. W. Fawcett’s, Tales of Derwentdale, and in the references, there is a link where you can read Ryan’s book on Google Play.

Book cover with black background and gold lettering. The O of wolf is a piece of molten gold with an etched wolf running through it. There are 10 swords, 9 of which make up a sun ray. There is a Dutch warship sailing under the constellation of cancer and a crescent moon.
The Running Wolf by Helen Steadman

There’s no documentary evidence that the Shotley Bridge swordmakers and their neighbour Ralph Maddison had any dealings with each other, whether good, bad or indifferent, (or none that I’ve found, at any rate). As they moved onto his doorstep, it seems very likely that they must have crossed swords with him at some point, whether literally or figuratively. Given Maddison’s high propensity for mischief at best and murder at worst, I wondered how they got along, and I’ve woven some of the real-life stories about him into my fictional book about the Shotley Bridge swordmakers, The Running Wolf.

According to The Monthly Chronicle, Ralph Maddison lived, ‘immediately opposite the village of Shotley Bridge, on the Northumberland bank of the Derwent, at the confluence of the Rothley Burn, in a plain, good house, which stood where the offices attached to Shotley Hall now stand’. As the local district warden, he must have carried some clout and he reportedly had large estates in the area (p. 70).

Maddison and the little old lady

Perhaps one of the most famous pieces of local folklore about Maddison involves him hurling an elderly woman into the River Derwent, which would have flowed much faster in the seventeenth century, prior to the dam being built at the Derwent Reservoir. According to lore, the River Derwent was badly flooded following heavy rains. (If anyone saw the river in August 2008, they might remember how ferocious the current was and how it tore down the Victorian bridge.)

It is said that an elderly lady was too far from the bridge at Shotley, and instead intent on trying to cross the ford. When Maddison appeared on his grey horse, he offered to carry her to the other side. According to the Monthly Chronicle, the woman was pleased with the offer. After describing her gallant rescuer as a ‘canny man’, the unwitting passenger is said to have confided that she was keen to get away as she’d been worried about bumping into Ralph Maddison, a man whose evil reputation preceded him. When Maddison’s horse reached the midpoint of the ford, he allegedly flung the woman into the flooded river, and according to The Monthly Chronicle, he was ‘laughing heartily, like a genuine water kelpy’ and left his victim to ‘sink or swim’. Fortunately, she survived, and the Chronicle notes that she was lucky not to drown, or her corpse would have ‘carried down to Derwenthaugh’ (p. 70).

A brief aside on the word ‘canny’

For anyone not from the area, it’s worth a quick digression on how this word is used in the north east of England. In this sense, the Oxford English Dictionary describes ‘canny’ as ‘Chiefly English regional (north-eastern). Pleasant, nice, agreeable; neat, attractive, comely; good, worthy, satisfactory. Often a general epithet of approbation or satisfaction, as in Canny Newcastle, the Canny Town, etc.’ and its first recorded, written use was in 1643, by the Pindar of Wakefield (a pinder is someone whose job it was to catch strays), ‘I was sare flade thou wert gane from the canny City of London to leuke abrade for better warke, whilke I trow will be far warse than to stay at hame.’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Canny can be used as a warning, ‘gan canny/take it canny’ means ‘go carefully/take care’. It’s also an intensifier that can be used in place of very, considerably, quite, fairly, etc., so ‘canny good’ can mean very good or quite good and the sense needs to be picked up from inflection and context. Historically, a ‘canny wife’ can mean a midwife or a wise woman and so the moment of birth was often known as the ‘canny moment’ (OED). Anyway, enough of the digression and back to Ralph Maddison. 

Mad Maddison, the farmer and the witch

Mad Maddison’s antics were by no means restricted to the waterfront and he was a menace to the surrounding farms, too. According to The Monthly Chronicle (p. 71), he enjoyed turning haystacks upside down until one wily farmer fettled him by building his haystack around an old tree stump (an ash tree by all accounts). When Maddison arrived in the night ready to wreak havoc, he found himself unable to ‘coup ower’ (pronounced ‘cowp’, meaning to tip over; in this sense, OED first records it in writing by John Knox in 1572). No matter how much he grappled, Maddison was unable to complete his mission. It seems he was very superstitious, in common with many people at that time, and fled, fearing witchcraft.

Since there was an alleged witch living at nearby Crooked Oak, and given the Derwent and Tyne Valley witch trials of 1673, Maddison may well have gone in fear of witches. Although my first two books, Widdershins & Sunwise are about the 1650 Newcastle witch trials, I have written a blog post about the Derwent/Tyne Valley Witch Trials, which provides a link to the alleged witches’ depositions so you can read them online for yourself; they make for fascinating reading. There is also a novel about them, The Ghosting of Anne Armstrong, written by Michael Cawood Green, a professor at Northumbria University.

Ralph Maddison, linen snatcher

Maddison also made a nuisance of himself when a local woman was bleaching two lots of linen and he came by and snatched one piece. When the hardy soul told him he would hang, he came back and snatched the other, saying, ‘Then I will have both, for it is as well to hang for a hog as a halfpenny’ (The Monthly Chronicle, p. 71). By all accounts, Maddison was a wild lad in his youth and never checked by his father, who seems to have revelled in his son’s exploits, and he was widely regarded as a ‘royster-doyster’.

Maddison the sheep rustler

I’ve had a look at John Raine’s published account of the depositions at York Castle (Volume XL, Relating to Offences Committed in the Northern Counties in the Seventeenth Century, 1861). Raine reports that Ralph Maddison appeared at the Assizes before Utrick Whitfield and Francis Addison on 30 May 1681 (six years before the German swordmakers arrived at Shotley Bridge and thirteen-and-a-half before his execution). According to the plaintiffs, John and Margaret Ellison, Ralph Maddison (along with his son, Joseph Maddison, Thomas Pattyson from Unthank, and Robert Thompson from Acton) stole ‘four oxen, six cowes, … young beasts and five score ten of weathers, yewes and hoggs (Raine, p. 248). Here, wethers, yewes and hoggs are all sheep, essentially, lambs, ewes and rams as hoggs (hoggets) are weaned lambs, yewes are ewes and wethers are rams, often castrated. Over 120 animals in one haul is a fair amount of rustling and it looks as though Maddison was prepared to give the Border Reivers a run for their money, not just in terms of rustling, but also arson and murder.

Maddison the arsonist

Ralph Maddison was a renowned arsonist who confessed to burning down a house at Benfieldside that belonged to Jo. Rawe (possibly John, as Joseph is usually abbreviated to Jos.), as well as Nuns-house stable, using ‘match, gun-powder and tow’ (Raine, p. 248). According to Isaac Warde of Cronkley, when Maddison had burned down premises at Espershields and Cronkley, he’d been ‘in a quandary’ about which to burn down first (Raine, p. 248).

Mad Maddison’s first murder

As well as causing mayhem amongst his neighbours, Ralph Maddison also seemed to have had a significant problem with his son-in-law (or rather, sons-in-law). On the night in question, the evening began with a drinking contest in the Bridge End Inn, on the riverside at Shotley Bridge. When the younger lad was the worse for wear, Maddison is said to have perched his hapless first son-in-law back-to-front on his grey mare and tormented the horse with some thorns, causing her to bolt towards Black Hedley in Shotley Low Quarter, Northumberland. Here, the man was thrown from the horse and died as a result.

The Bridge End Inn later became the King’s Head Hotel and is now home to Rumi’s, an Indian restaurant and also to the King’s Head Social Club. It is a Grade II listed building and there are photos, details and a map on the Historic England website. According to a Conservation Area Appraisal produced by Durham County Council, the Bridge End Inn was built in 1688 (p. 51). This was a year after the swordmakers arrived in Shotley Bridge, but in The Running Wolf, the inn is already standing and kept by the innkeeper, Blenkinsop. (Not to be confused with the Crown & Crossed Swords Hotel, site of Oley’s Bar, which is over the road. This used to be two pubs, with the other being the Commercial, until they were made into one.)

Mad Maddison’s second attempted murder

Undeterred by her father murdering her husband, Maddison’s widowed daughter remarried, and this time, Maddison attempted to kill his son-in-law by shooting him. The Monthly Chronicle considers this was because ‘he did not approve of the match or out of some sudden passionate freak’ (The Monthly Chronicle, p. 71).

However, John Raine records another, darker, motivation for Ralph Maddison’s murder of his first son-in-law and attempted murder of the second. He provides an excerpt from a petition against Maddison, which was made by his son-in-law, John Elrington, also from Unthank. Until he got mixed up with Maddison, Elrington was, as Jane Austen would have it, ‘a single man in possession of a good fortune’ and so ‘in want of a wife’.

The son-in-law’s estate was worth 300 shillings per year and in his petition to the Newcastle Assizes, Elrington complained about his father-in-law at length, saying that he’d been coerced into handing over his estate to Maddison and his daughter and that he was now no more than a tenant on his own land. In a troubling case of victim blaming, Raine records John Elrington being described as a ‘weak and foolish person’. Before taking Elrington’s estate in its entirety, Maddison had earlier forced his son-in-law to sell off parts of it in order to save his own neck. This had cost Elrington a portion of his estate that was worth in the region of 40–50 shillings a year.

This talk of 300 shillings (£15) a year, or 40 shillings (£2) a year would most likely be the interest on Elrington’s capital. Working on the basis of interest being set at 5%, Elrington’s estate would be worth something in the order of £300 and so he must have sold off a portion of his estate worth about £50. This money would potentially have been to save Maddison from hanging for murder. In the seventeenth century, it was possible to buy your way out of a death sentence, if you had the money…

Maddison’s motive for murder

Raine offers a possible clue for Maddison’s hatred of his sons-in-law when he quotes from the Assizes records that, ‘He hath debauched the petitioner’s wife, his own daughter. He threatens to kill him, and hath stolen away the deeds and writings of the petitioner’s estate. He [Elrington] begs for protection against Maddison, and his son, Joseph’ (Raine, p. 248). It seems Maddison got away with having his hand burnt at the Assizes on this occasion and his son was let off. Not all the Maddisons were wild, though and Raine mentions Maddison’s brother, who was a diplomat in France. Although he also came to a bad end at the hands of assassins who poisoned him.

Maddison’s second murder

As far as we know, Maddison didn’t quite qualify as a serial killer. He is known to have killed two men and attempted to kill a third. Despite his string of crimes, including arson, murder and attempted murder, Maddison had got away fairly lightly. However, on this second charge of murder, Maddison’s luck, or rather, his son-in-law’s money, ran out. According to Raine, Captain Featherstone and Thomas Hunter tried to raise money to help him dodge the hangman once again, but they failed, their only reward being threatened by Maddison (p. 248). So, out of luck and money, Maddison was finally executed at Durham. According to Sykes, Maddison is recorded on 16 September 1694 as having been found guilty of the murder of Lord (Laird) Atkinson, and afterwards hanged (Sykes, Local Records, 1833, p. 125).

None of the main authors I’ve referred to here comment on how Laird Atkinson died. However, I discovered a curious snippet during a visit to the Northumberland Archives at Woodhorn Museum in Ashington. As it’s part of a private collection, I wasn’t allowed to take a photo of it, but made some notes instead. The snippet came from a book entitled, Melange, and it was filled with handwritten accounts that had been pasted in, scrapbook-style.

The article is not dated but it states, ‘One of the Maddison family, about a century ago was so eccentric and extravagant in his manners and conduct that he was usually styled “Mad Maddison”. After many nefarious exploits, he was executed at Durham for murdering a countryman who opposed him in leaping over a hedge. A man at work, unseen by Maddison, was witness of the whole transaction.’ (Melange, Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, c.1800.) It seems odd that two grown men, one of them a laird, were engaged in a violent quarrel about hedge-jumping, let alone one that ended in a man’s death. Perhaps drink had been taken…

The Monthly Chronicle explains that in Sykes’ record, ‘Lord’ had been stated in error and that it should have said ‘Laird’ (the latter being a north country term for a man with land, irrespective of how much or little). It goes on to say that ‘Cannyside’ is most likely a corruption of Consett, which itself is a corruption of Conkesheved (p. 70). It’s worth a little detour here to talk about this name. In Douglas Vernon’s book about Shotley Bridge and Consett, Thread of Iron, he talks about the origins of this name, suggesting it comes from Coney’s Head, after the rabbit-shaped local topography (Douglas Vernon, Thread of Iron, 2003, ch. 3).

Following the murder of Laird Cannyside, The Chronicle reports that Maddison was difficult to capture and that the magistrate charged with bringing him in had to be escorted by soldiers. Maddison fled on his horse to Eddy’s Bridge, but was cornered in Muggleswick Park, where he dismounted and ran into the woods, hiding himself inside a big yew tree (The Monthly Chronicle, p. 71).  

Muggleswick is a fascinating place in its own right, particularly in terms of its trouble with the church. The name comes from ‘Muglingwyc’. Of course Harry Potter fans and stamp collectors will associate it with ‘muggles’ from her books about the boy wizard, although JK Rowling says her term for people without magical powers originated from the word ‘mug’, which she turned into ‘muggle’ to make it sound a bit kinder.

J. W. Fawcett and Tales of Derwentdale

If you’re interested in the various characters of the area at the time, it’s well worth reading J. W. Fawcett’s book, Tales of Derwentdale (1902), which covers lots of exciting local lore, not least of which is that King Arthur and his knights are slumbering in a cave at the Sneep. The Devil also seems to be pretty busy in the area – paying a visit to the poor souls at Edmundbyers (a tale I adapted and retold in Widdershins in the chapter, ‘The Devil Himself’. His Satanic Majesty was also busy at nearby Benfieldside, ‘roaring in the souls’ of the local Quakers ‘in a most strange and dreadful manner’. The area also seems to be infested by giants… Here’s a list of contents from the original version:

  • The Blanchland Bells
  • The Blanchland Murder
  • The Devil at Edmundbyers
  • The Muggleswick Park Conspiracy
  • The Muggleswick Giant
  • The Moss-troopers and Border Thieves
  • Rowley Harrison, The Moss-Trooper
  • The Muggleswick Murder
  • King Arthur’s Enchanted Cave
  • Jane Frizzle, The Witch of Crooked Oak
  • Stirling of Stirling’s Bridge
  • Thomas Raw, The Moss-Trooper
  • The Witches of the Derwent Valley
  • The Derwent Valley Giants
  • The Devil at Benfieldside
  • Mad Maddison
  • The Ebchester Money Chest
  • The Burnt Arm, A Tale Of A Broken Vow
  • The Hedley Kow
  • The Lowd Farm Money Pot
  • The Hidden Treasure of Friarside
  • The Burnopfield Murder
  • Stoney Bowes, The Fortune Hunter
  • The Giants of Hollinside
  • Selby’s Grave

Because of the similarities in Fawcett’s descriptions of Maddison, and the descriptions in The Monthly Chronicle, I wonder whether Fawcett contributed the original article to the Chronicle. He does contribute a number of articles throughout the Chronicle and these are ascribed to him. As Fawcett’s tales were earlier printed in serial form in the Consett Guardian, it’s entirely possible they were also contributed by Fawcett to The Monthly Chronicle.

Curiously, neither Fawcett nor the Chronicle mention the accusation by Maddison’s son-in-law, John Elrington, of Maddison ‘debauching’ his own daughter. Another curiosity is that Fawcett, when relaying the tale of Maddison taking the old lady over the ford, states the bridge hadn’t yet been built, which seems odd since the bridge gave the name to the place.

Fawcett’s book is out of print nowadays and hard to find, but historical novelist, Val Scully, has given new life to this fascinating book by revising it and having it reprinted through the Land of Oak and Iron. The new edition includes a memoir of Fawcett himself, written by Scully, and it also includes woodcuts from the famous wood-engraver, Thomas Bewick.


Durham County Council, Conservation Area Appraisal: Shotley Bridge, 2009. (Well worth a look as it contains a photo of one of the stone lintels above a swordmaker cottage on page 11.)

Fawcett, James. W., 1902, Tales of Derwentdale. Consett: Robert Jackson & Co.

Green, Michael Cawood, 2019, The Ghosting of Anne Armstrong. London: Goldsmiths, University of London.

Newcastle Weekly Chronicle,1887, The Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend, Newcastle upon Tyne and London: Walter Scott.

Northumberland Archives, Ashington, Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, c.1800, ‘Ralph Maddison’ in Melange, SANT/PRI/5/8/23/B 442992.

Raine, James (ed.), 1861, Volume XL, Relating to Offences Committed in the Northern Counties in the Seventeenth Century, Durham: Frances Andrews & London: Whittaker & Co, 1860. (A note from the Secretary, James Raine, states, ‘At a General Meeting of the Surtees Society held at Durham Castle on the 18th of June, 1860, It was ordered that a volume of the Depositions preserved in York Castle should be prepared for the Society, to be edited by the Secretary, as one of the publications for the year 1861).

Ryan, John, 1841, History of Shotley Spa and Vicinity of Shotley Bridge, Sunderland: R. Vint & Carr.

Sykes, John, 1833, Local Records: Or, Historical Register of Remarkable Events, which Have Occurred in Northumberland and Durham, Newcastle Upon Tyne, and Berwick Upon Tweed, from the Earliest Period of Authentic Record, to the Present Time; with Biographical Notices of Deceased Persons of Talent, Eccentricity, and Longevity (Newcastle: Thomas Fordyce).

Vernon, D. (2003) Thread of Iron: A Definitive History of Shotley Bridge and Consett and District, County Durham with Particular Reference to Iron and Steelmaking. Knebworth: Able Publishing. [Please note that this book is being reprinted by the Land of Oak & Iron on 12 September 2020, which will make it easier and cheaper to find a copy.]

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