AS dawn broke on Friday, May 9, 1718, Skeeby Manor, which for centuries had taken in visitors, found itself accommodating a most unexpected guest and at the centre of a scandal.

A servant girl was going about her early morning tasks – the Manor is unusual in having four large stone fireplaces – when she heard a little cry outside. She opened the large, heavy door and spotted a basket on a bench just outside. She peered inside and found a newborn baby, hungry, cold and crying, and wrapped up in clean linen and an old blanket. It had a bottle of sugary water beside it.

The servant girl dashed back inside and, at that early hour, raised her mistress, Jane Clarke, who was the wife of the owner, Thomas.

Jane brought the bundle in and tended to the baby, a girl. She deduced from the bottle of sugary water that she had been abandoned by someone other than the mother – but who?

All Skeeby was immediately sensationalised by the scandal, but no local girl could be found who had suspiciously ceased to be pregnant.

The following Monday, two of Skeeby’s most respectable men, Robert Hartley and James Allen, were despatched to Richmond to inform the mayor, Thomas Metcalfe, of the incredible goings-on. The mayor instructed a serjeant-at-mace to write down the evidence so that a proper investigation could begin.

Back in Skeeby, the Clarkes arranged for the baby to be baptised at St Agatha’s Church in Easby. But what to call the foundling? Easby’s parish register records that on May 18 “Isabella, a child found in Skeeby” was baptised, apparently taking the name of the servant girl who found her.

The story of Isabella has been brilliantly pieced together from official records by Richmond historian Jane Hatcher, and the next document she unearthed told of the North Riding Quarter Sessions of mid-June 1718, which were held in Thirsk. Three women from Marrick Priory, to the east of Richmond, were called to summonsed to account for their parts in the Skeeby scandal.

First up was Dorothy Bowes who said that her daughter, Margaret, had given birth to an illegitimate girl on May 7. She said that she had told her younger daughter, Elizabeth, to remove the baby and find a nurse for it, but she had never enquired what Elizabeth had done with it.

Second on the stand was Margaret Bowes, a single woman, who testified that she had been seeing Richmond butcher George Clarkson, with a view to marriage, for four years. On one occasion late the previous summer she had fallen for his persuasions and the result was a baby girl which her mother had ordered be removed.

Finally, Elizabeth Bowes told at about 9pm on May 9, she had left home with the baby and its bottle in a basket. She had passed through Richmond and had arrived in Skeeby at about 2am, where she had set the package down on a bench outside “the best like house” – the impressive Manor had impressed her as having owners wealthy enough to provide for a poor orphan.

The court seems to have ordered the Bowes women to take baby Isabella back home with them.

But there are no happy endings to the story. Margaret may have got her baby back, but she discovered that her lover George had been unfaithful – a month after she had fallen for his entreaties, he had got Margaret Foss in the family way, and her illegitimate daughter had been christened in Richmond church on June 2, 1718.

And finally, the Marrick parish register records the burial on December 12, 1725, of “Issabell Bowes, a girl” without giving any parentage. Presuming that it was the baby Isabella, she had died only seven-and-a-half years after being abandoned outside Skeeby Manor.

  • The Manor House garden at 43 Richmond Road, Skeeby, DL10 5DX, is open on Sunday, April 14, from 10am–4.30pm. Park on the public roads around the village. More information on 01748-822617.
  • With many thanks to Jane Hatcher for her help with this story.


HALFE HILL is an “intriguing grassy hillock” on the edge of Skeeby. Small and rounded, it looks as if it must surely have had been shaped by ancient, mystical hands as a place of worship or burial, but there is no evidence to suggest this. Halfe Hill seems simply to have been shaped by centuries of sheep wandering around and around.

THE bridge over the beck at Skeeby was widened in 1781-2 by John Carr, the great North Riding bridge builder responsible for bridges at Greta, Asygarth, Croft, Yarm and Richmond. He also worked as an architect at Raby Castle, Harewood House, Aske Hall, Northallerton jail and Middleton Lodge, at Middleton Tyas, to name but a few. Perhaps Skeeby bridge is his least successful project as it is irritatingly too narrow to allow two cars over it at the same time – perhaps it is his most successful project because as a traffic calmer, it is far less controversial than the modern speed bumps that lie all the way up the village.

BABY Isabella was baptised at Easby church because it wasn’t until 1840 that Skeeby got its own Anglican chapel. It, too, is dedicated to St Agatha, and it is remarkable because it didn’t have a funeral until 2004 because its main door was too narrow for the coffin and bearers. Villager Doris Bagley broke that duck when she was carried in through the vestry door.

ON Christmas Day 1987, as the 121-year-old church bell was being rung to signal the start of the service, it plummeted 30ft to the ground. That the campanologist beneath it survived is a true Christmas miracle.

THE Methodist chapel opened in 1861 but is now a private house.

SKEEBY used the Queen’s 1977 jubilee to raise money to convert two derelict cottages into a village hall, complete with clock.

SKEEBY was once a well-watered village. Opposite the Manor is the old Rose and Crown, which was first mentioned in 1688. The Travellers Rest closed in 2008 and villagers fought gamely to turn it into a community pub without success.