Hilda Sharrock (18), a domestic servant living in Rufford, near Ormskirk in Lancashire had failed to come home at her usual time after meeting a friend. By 11.15pm, her father and stepmother were becoming concerned – Hilda was a home-loving young woman, fond of knitting and engaged to a young haulage driver who was away in Scotland, and it was very unlike her to be so late.
Bound with her own silk stockings
The Sharrocks went outside to see if there was any sign of Hilda coming down the road, but instead heard a moaning noise coming from near their garden gate. They were horrified to find Hilda face down in the gravel, a gag made from her own silk scarf tied around her mouth and her hands bound behind her back with her own silk stockings. Her clothes were torn, her beret, gloves and shoes were missing and the girl was, according to the many newspapers that covered the story, badly bruised about the face and body.[i]
Hilda was taken inside, but she was in a hysterical condition. She was delirious and met any attempt to touch her with screams and bites. She kept crying ‘Go away!’ or ‘What have I done?’ She also cried out ‘You have tried to poison me and threatened to throw me into the canal. Let me go home now’.[ii] The doctor and the police were called and Hilda, still crying for her fiancé, was sedated and taken to the local hospital.
When the young woman had finally recovered enough to make a statement, she told the police what had happened to her that evening. After leaving her friend at around 9.30, she was walking home when a car stopped by her. The driver asked for directions and then offered Hilda a lift, which she declined as she was nearly home. And that’s when her ordeal began. According to her statement to the police:
‘There were two men in the car. The man who was not driving got out of the car and said ‘You are coming with us,’ and I said ‘No, I am not,’ and I slapped his face. He then got hold of my hands and the driver came and they tied my hands behind me, and tied something round my mouth. They tried to lift me into the car, and I struggled.
One of them said ‘Oh, never mind, take her on the cut [canal] bank.’ One of them carried me over the canal bridge. The other man came along and forced a bottle into my mouth and poured something down my throat. It seemed to burn. I was laid on my side with my hands tied behind me. I tried to shout and scream but the gag was too tight. I could hear my coat and skirt tearing. Then I seemed to go all dazed and everything went black. I did not know anything else until I awoke in hospital.’[iii]
The attack reverberated through the local community, and the villagers were terror stricken with many too scared to leave their house at night after this strange and apparently motiveless attack on an innocent young girl. The police set about interviewing thirty or so motorists who were in the area at the time, and although no arrests were made, a few men fell under suspicion.[iv]
Sex and Drugs
The shocking attack was widely reported, and no doubt some of the salacious details added to the nationwide interest – the hints of sex (bound with her stockings) and drugs (‘date rape drug’ scares are nothing new). Indeed, since the middle of the nineteenth century there had been fears about the use of new synthetic wonder drugs such as chloral hydrate, a synthetic opiate synthesised in 1832. These ‘knockout drops’ could easily be dissolved in alcohol and there was great concern about the use of such drugs to incapacitate young women before spiriting them away to a life of addiction and prostitution.[v]
But who were the malignant men that had subjected Hilda to this cruel ordeal? Why had they tried to entice her into their car? Was their object sexual assault? Or was it to sell her into prostitution? And why did they let her go? Perhaps it was because she had put up too much of a struggle for them to get her in the car. In any case, it seems odd that the men would decide to drug her after her fake abduction rather than before it.
It’s unclear from the accounts how far the assault went, or even if it went beyond the ripping of her coat and dress. The police soon located her missing clothes near the canal, but the identity of the attackers remained a mystery.
Confessions of a Maid
Until, that is, the police reinterviewed Hilda on 2 December and she made a startling change to her statement: ‘I tied myself up because I was late. I tore my clothes myself and I threw them on the canal bank.’ She added that she had been with a ‘lad’ that she had met that night and, afraid of coming home late, she had torn her own clothes and the lad had helped her tie herself up. ‘I do not know the lad I went with,’ she said. ‘I just picked him up round Allan’s corner. I am very sorry I have caused everyone this trouble’[vi]
The next day, Hilda changed her statement again, saying this time that she had met a man that evening (his name was mysteriously redacted in the papers) and had been kissing with him in his car. She had then asked him to help tie her up and drop her outside her home. ‘This is the truth this time,’ she said.
In her first ‘confession’, Hilda claimed she was with a young lad. In her second version of her statement, she referred to a man, suggesting an older gentleman. Hilda had owned up to inventing the story of the assault on her, but was still hiding her relationship with this man. She must have had a good reason to want to protect his identity.
Perhaps he was a prominent local dignitary. He had a car in 1938, suggesting he was reasonably wealthy. He was powerful enough for his name to be kept out of the papers and Hilda was reluctant to reveal his identity, even when confessing to her hoax. Just speculation on my part, but it is an intriguing hole in the story.
In any case, Hilda certainly enjoyed other pursuits to staying home and knitting, including picking up with strange men while her fiancé was out of town, and possibly spending the money for her stepmother’s birthday in the pub. Her histrionic acting talents added to the melodrama and had fooled her parents, the police and various medical staff. She invented an exciting story of her plucky defiance of some dastardly villains spiced with bondage, drugs and knicker-ripping titillation – just what the sensation hungry press wanted.
But she’d also wasted 283 hours of police time and placed several innocent men under suspicion of a heinous crime. Perhaps worst of all, she’d played on her community’s sympathy and good nature. It must surely have been a shameful time for the young woman as she faced trial.
Hilda pleaded guilty to a public mischief offence at Preston Quarter Sessions on 10 January 1939. According to the Liverpool Echo ‘Sharrock, a good-looking girl, wept quietly throughout the hearing and had nothing to say for herself.’ She was bound over for twelve months after being given an excellent character reference by the local vicar.[vii]
The Halifax Connection
However, the West Yorkshire town of Halifax cast its shadow over this story. As Hilda was questioned, she told the court that earlier in the evening of her ‘attack’ she had been talking with her friends about certain events in Halifax. She continued ‘I am sorry this has happened. The ‘Slasher’ put this idea into my head’.[viii]
The Slasher she referred to was, of course, the Halifax Slasher – the razor blade wielding maniac who was terrorising the residents of Halifax in the sodden and murky November of 1938. Thousands of vigilantes patrolled the streets, innocent men were almost lynched and the town was gripped by a febrile mass panic as the Slasher’s attacks became more audacious.
But the Slasher was just a bogey man and the Slasher’s victims were found to have cut themselves and made up their exciting stories of being stalked and slashed by the eerily silent assailant who was always too fast and too cunning to be caught. Hilda’s story is one of many Halifax Slasher inspired hoaxes that spread across the whole country in the anxious winter of 1938. The prospect of another world war loomed large at the time, and this anxiety surely fed into this strange episode.[ix]
It’s easy to forget that the Halifax Slasher panic and the self-inflicted wounds and false claims of a maniac attacker was not just a matter of hysteria in Calderdale. Although it started in Halifax, it spread across the country with ‘Slashers’ springing up in Manchester, Glasgow, Blackburn, Wigan and beyond in a nationwide panic.
There were no slashers. All the victims – and there had been many – had inflicted the wounds themselves and lied about the attacks.
The moral of the tale for me is this – people make stuff up. They always have and they always will. And this phenomenon is much more common than we might like to think.
Stay tuned for more exciting historical abduction hoaxes…
[i] ‘Girl gagged and bound in garden’, Lancashire Daily Post, 30 November, p.12
[ii] ‘Gagged girl mystery at Rufford’, Liverpool Echo, 30 November, 1938, p.6
[iii] ‘Slasher put idea into my head: Bound girl story’, Lancashire Daily Post, 13 December, 1938, p.7
[v] Pamela Donovan, Drink Spiking and Predatory Drugging, (Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2016) p.37
[vii] ‘A made up story’, Liverpool Echo, 10 January 1939, p.4
[ix] For the amazing full story of the Halifax Slasher, see my Weird Calderdale
Image: Hilda Sharrock Liverpool Echo, 10 January 1939