‘Fair Alice’ novel set at Extwistle Hall

Extwistle Hall
Extwistle Hall

I was pleased my four-part series, which preceded this year’s Hallowe’en, was enjoyed as much as it appears to have been.

A number of you have contacted me and told me as much, but a few have pointed out I have not mentioned “Fair Alice of Extwistle”.

John W. Kneeshaw

John W. Kneeshaw

In truth, I merely mentioned a few of the stories for which this area is justly very well known. There are plenty of other myths, legends and ghost stories with which I might indulge you next year but “Fair Alice” is not one of them.

“Fair Alice of Extwistle: A Romance” is a novel by John W. Kneeshaw which was serialised in the pages of the Burnley Express and then published as a sixpenny novel by Lupton Brothers, the Burnley booksellers.

It was printed by the Burnley Express Printing Company along with a few of Mr Kneeshaw’s other novels. These included “Holden of the Clough”, “The Pendle Forest Outlaw”, “The Romance of Brayfield Mills”, “The Calder’s Secret”, “The Factory Lass”, “A Black Shadow” and “Knave or Hero?”

“A Black Shadow”, sub-titled “A Tale of Lancashire Life”, was one of Mr Kneeshaw’s novels that was given the full treatment, in that it came out as a bound book, published by Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent and Co., though the Express Printing Company appears to have shared the cost.

I have a copy of “A Black Shadow” which is inscribed to “Mr James Ashworth from his friend, the author” and then signed by John W. Kneeshaw. It is dated January 23rd, 1897, but my copy of “Fair Alice” is not up to that standard and may never have been published in a bound edition. This sixpenny edition is without the front and back covers and is printed on very poor quality paper, but, apart from a few words, the edition is complete.

John William Kneeshaw was born in Newbald, near Beverley, in what was the East Riding of Yorkshire, in 1857. He was an author, as we have seen, of a number of novels but also wrote on political subjects and was the author of “Burnley in the Nineteenth Century” which was published as a souvenir of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. One of his sidelines was writing stories which accompanied slides, the precursor of the cinema.

He was most active, as a writer, from c1890 until his death, which was in Burnley at the age of 57 in 1915. I am not sure when he came to Burnley but was involved with St Stephen’s Church where a memorial window was dedicated to his memory on November 26th, 1922. This was seven years after his death but, of course, he died during the First World War when activities such as this were necessarily curtailed.

Many of the novels of John W. Kneeshaw are inspired by the Burnley area and appeared, in serialised form, in the pages of the Burnley Express.

“Fair Alice of Extwistle”, “Holden of the Clough” and “The Calder’s Secret”, subtitled “A Story of the Cotton Famine”, are clearly local titles written for local readers.

In the latter, which is really the story of a murder, a number of local places are featured, the evil deed taking place on the banks of the River Calder in the area of Oxford Road, Burnley. Of course, someone is charged with the murder but has nothing to do with it and the story is about, well, I will not spoil it for you...

The “Fair Alice” of the novel that interests us, is Alice Parker of the family which owned Extwistle Hall. She is introduced to us as follows: “Alice Parker was one of the loveliest of our maidens, slim as a young pine tree, and as straight. Her face was sweet and fair to look on, and in her eyes there dwelt the gentleness of a loving heart and the lurking mischief of a wayward child”.

With such an introduction one expects more of Alice that unfolds in the novel. Kneeshaw tells the story through the words of Walter, a priest at the chapel (of St Peter) at Burnley. Walter is living at the time of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, who lived in the 13th and 14th Centuries, a real person who was defeated and killed at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322.

The story is about crime and duplicity but is not a ghost story and those who understand that Fair Alice is a ghost, and Extwistle Hall is haunted by her, are mistaken. In the story, Alice is only a minor character. For long periods, in the book, she is in fear of her life and takes to hiding in the forest but Fair Alice survives and prospers.

The story, set in turbulent times towards the end of the troubled reign of Edward II, is really about some of the other characters. A few of them actually existed, like Oliver Stansfield of Heasandford House, and others, such as Jeppe Knave, Jeppe the Outlaw, come from our local folklore. Many others, like the Alice of the title, are created by Mr Kneeshaw and, like the story, have no foundation in historical fact.

That said, it is still worth the read if only for the local references. The book, though, is typical of many of the novels written at the time for adventure - to escape from the workaday world of the cotton mill - rather than for historical accuracy. As an adventure story, however implausible, it would have succeeded in the period for which it was written, and may well do today, if you can find a copy!