The Ballad of Happy Ned
“My name was Elizabeth Taylor,
But bless you I’ve long been a man;
I served in the fleet as a sailor
When the war o’Secession began;
I fought for the North like a good un
Though I wasn’t a Yankee mysel;
And why it ended so sudden
I’m dash’d if I ever could tell”
The above verse is the only surviving part of a well known ballad that was popular around Lancashire in the late 19th century. It tells part – but only a small part – of the story of “Happy Ned”.
“Happy Ned” was born around 1831 as Elizabeth, the daughter of a farmer from Penketh near Warrington. Elizabeth’s middle name was Harriet but we don’t know the surname and Elizabeth was apparently never christened. In her youth Elizabeth married a local farm labourer called Taylor, but their marriage did not last long and the couple separated after some form of disagreement.
It was at this point that Elizabeth decided to “throw off her woman’s clothes for male attire” as it was later described, and started to both dress and to identify as a man. In this way he was able to earn himself a living as an agricultural labourer. One day, in what was later described as “an evil hour”, he made romantic advances to one of his fellow labourers while working on a farm in Warrington. This moment of weakness revealed his so-called “secret” both to his colleagues and his employers and was to lose him his job.
He subsequently got a job as a sailor on the Confederate States Ship “Alabama” which was being built on the River Mersey at Birkenhead. There, under the name Ned Davies he served under Captain Raphael Semmes during the American Civil War between the Northern and Southern States. It’s not clear how long Ned served aboard the Alabama as he does not appear on any of the surviving lists of crewmembers. Furthermore, despite the ballad, Ned can’t “have fought for the North like a good un” because the Alabama was a commerce raider for the Southern States, tasked with capturing and destroying merchant ships taking supplies to the Union states in America. The Alabama carried out several missions over 2 years, but was eventually sunk at the Battle of Cherbourg in France in 1864 with the loss of 19 of her crew.
Abandoning the navy and returning to the land, Ned resumed working as an agricultural labourer on farms in what is now Cheshire and Lancashire. His strength and skill with the plough meant that he was much in demand, but unfortunately Ned had one weakness. During his time as a sailor he had acquired a taste for rum, and when he was drunk Ned’s so-called “secret” would occasionally come to light. Ironically the way other people reacted to this revelation often meant that Ned himself would end up in the police cells.
In November 1876 the Cheshire Observer reported that Ned had been charged with drunken and disorderly conduct. He had been discovered by the police drunk in the street with his hands in his pockets, smoking a short pipe, while surrounded by a mob of hundreds of people who were jeering at him and calling him names. Ned always reverted to his birthname with authority for fear of persecution, and so the Cheshire Observer reported the story of a drunken sailor called “Harriet”. Having been sent to the cells in Warrington several times already, on this occasion Ned was issued a fine but ended up being sent to prison for 7 days anyway when police discovered that he couldn’t afford to pay.
The following year, on Tuesday 24th July 1877 Ned was again brought before Warrington magistrates on a charge of being drunk and disorderly. The court heard how the young boys of the town took great delight in following Ned in the street and how, on this particular occasion, he had yet again found himself drunken in the streets and surrounded by a crowd. This time, however, the crowd was bigger – consisting of up to a thousand people. Some of them were pelting him with stones and other objects while shouting “man-woman“.
Ned promised the magistrate that he would become a reformed character and avoid the bottle. Mindful that Ned had suffered very rough treatment from the Warrington mob, the magistrates accepted his promise and discharged him with a caution.
Escaping persecution in Warrington, Ned moved to Liverpool to live and work amongst the more relaxed attitudes of the dockyards where he became known simply as “Happy Ned”. Whilst in Liverpool he became friendly with a woman with whom he embarked upon a relationship for several years, but when this relationship ended he once again returned to Warrington.
There Ned moved into Wainwright’s Yard, off Buttermarket Street, once again finding work in the surrounding farmlands as an agricultural labourer. Unlike his previous stay in the town this time Ned was able to find some level of acceptance from the people of Warrington, who also came to know him as “Happy Ned”, “Navy Ned” or “Navvy Ned”.
On Wednesday 8th November, 1886 Ned once again appeared before magistrates Joseph Davies and Alexander Mackie at Warrington Borough Court. This time, however, Ned was the prosecutor rather than the defendant. He had charged a woman called Margaret Killala with stealing £4 from his house. Four pounds was a considerable sum in 1886, worth about £265 in today’s money.
As Ned stepped into the witness box, he began by announcing “I am a poor afflicted person“. He then modified this by saying “I am not exactly poor” as he was well known to have amassed considerable savings.
“What is your name?” asked the magistrate Joseph Davies.
This was not a straightforward question as Ned was the first to admit he was “the happy possessor of about half a dozen aliases” and so he answered “I never used my name. I never was christened. They call me anything,“. This caused laughter from many of those in court, but the magistrate was not amused and pressed Ned for an answer. Ned did what he always did when pressed by people in authority, and gave his childhood name “My name is Elizabeth Harriet.”
“Elizabeth Harriet what?” asked Alderman Davies
“It is Ormaston now, but formerly was, in my younger days, Taylor”
Describing the theft Ned gave the following account:
“Well this woman came into my house and turned me over in bed. She said she had nothing to eat, and I said, “Oh, bless me, why didn’t tha tell me that before; go for a pint of bitter beer,” and I fetched a pound of mutton chop. We fried it and shared it, and she put her arm around my neck and said, “I will go for more beer; I wish I had your purse”.
This woman, Margaret Killala, had then left his home and Ned had not seen his purse since.
“You say you didn’t see her take it?” asked Davies.
“Well it couldn’t have flown.” responded Ned, raising laughter from the spectators again. “And the cat wouldn’t take it, honourable gentlemen.”
It was now time for Margaret to cross examine Ned, but her questions made him so indignant that he waved his stick at her, expressing his anger “You know you are a confounded thief, and if I had my revolver I’d shoot you.”
Luckily for Ned the police and magistrates did not the threat seriously, and after the evidence was concluded the magistrates took a few minutes to confer. Their verdict was that there was no doubt that Margaret was guilty, but that there was insufficient evidence to prove the case.
Ned seemed to accept this and at the end of proceedings he walked over to the magistrates. Doffing his hat, thanked them “for expressing their opinion so truthfully”.
“I’m sorry you have lost your money,” said the presiding magistrate Alexander Mackie.
“Oh, it isn’t the money” responded Ned, “it’s the dirty action, sir. Such villains ought to be put out of the land.” and with this observation Ned left the courtroom.
Ned died less than a year later in September 1887 at the age of 56. He continued to work as a labourer up until the end, and he was reportedly slaughtering animals for local farmers a month before his death.
Ned’s death caused much sadness in Warrington, and many of his friends attended the burial service and interment in the churchyard of Sankey Chapel. He was buried under the name “Harriet Ormaston”, although it is unclear whether this was by his own choice.
The story about an individual who had been born Elizabeth, but had served in the Confederate navy before working the land and the docks as a man called Ned made newspaper headlines in Britain and around the world. The New York Times of February 12th, 1888 reported the following:
“The remains of a woman who had a remarkable career were yesterday interred at a village near Warrington. Her name was Elizabeth Taylor, but locally she was known as Happy Ned.”
Much of the information in the above article was taken from Warrington Murders and Misdemeanors by Julia Joyce.