Old Three Laps
His downstairs room was nine feet square, its sill level with a field and its stone-flagged floor cold and damp. Broken panes in its window had been patched up with wood. There was a fireplace in a corner but any actual fire depended on the vagaries of the wind. The only fresh air came in when the floor was left open. Furniture comprised “an old oak clock, minus weights and pendulum, almost covered with a thick network of ob webs, a small round table of dark oak, and a plain, unvarnished, four-post bed, without hangings.”
Here, at the Whorles or World’s Farm at Laycock, near Keighley, Old Three Laps lay obstinately in bed from 1807 till his death in 1856.
The basic story is soon told. Farmer’s son William Sharp, aged 29, had gone to church for his wedding but, the bride not turning up, took to his bed and stayed there for the rest of his life. This extreme example of a “love-lorn” individual has often been repeated down the generations. Keighley’s first detailed history, published in 1858 only two years after Sharp’s death, devotes more than two pages to the tale, though it usually appears in anthologies of the “quaint owd Yorkshire eccentrics” or “nowt so queer as fowk” genre.
But the recent acquisition by Keighley Local Studies Library of his father’s will throws a different light on some aspects of the popular version.
Legend has dealt unkindly with the lieabed’s father – another William Sharp – seen as a miserly eccentric in his own right, and responsible for the nickname of father and son. He had once taken a roll of cloth to a tailor to be made up into a coat, and on the tailor remonstrating that unless he supplied more material the coat would have only three laps, he had replied: “Then mak’ it wi” three laps, or onyrooad.” Thus were they both labelled for life.
Yet, in addition to farming, father Sharp had doubled as one of Keigh ley’s early industrialists, “journeying into the North and East Ridings of Yorkshire, besides Lincolnshire and Leicestershire, to purchase his wool from the growers” – this in the later eighteenth century.
Besides his Laycock farm he also owned properties at Oldfield, Lawkholrne, Long Lee and Halifax. He held shares in the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, and an interest in a Keighley to Halifax turnpike road. His four daughters were all married by 1817, when his will describes him as ‘gentleman.’ He hardly fits the figure the legend portrays as hiding behind walls because he didn’t like meeting people.
As for his son William, the more famous Old Three Laps, he was seen “frequently ranging the adjoining moors with his gun, and spending whole nights alone in the open air,” until his fateful would-be wedding day, which was perhaps spurred on by the arrival of a child by his sweetheart Mary Smith, a farmer’s daughter from nearby Newsholme Dean. A doggerel verse records the reason for the bride’s non-appearance:
“The father of Mary was ready with pride to settle a dowry his daughter upon; But vow’d that young ‘Three Laps’ should ne’er call her bride, should the father not equally portion his son.”
This case of possible agricultural politics, with neighbouring farmers seeking to unite their interests through their offsprings, reinforces father Sharp’s meanness in refusing to pay his full share of a settle ment; as does a curious alternative tale culled, oddly enough, from the Preston Chronicle of 1839:
“The cause of his first taking to bed is said to be from his father having at two different times taken from him three guineas which he had saved, and on the second three guineas being taken from him, he declared he would never work any more, and took to his bed, which he has never since left.”
Be that as it may, father Sharp’s will, dated 1817 – the year before he died – reveals that his daughter Phoebe was married to Robert Smith, father of Old Three Laps’s lost bride. Smith, however, was to receive no benefits after father Sharp’s death “if he make any claim for money which I stand indebted to him on his marriage to my daughter Phoebe.” Clearly, there was deep-seated financial trouble between the two farmers.
At the same time, father Sharp made provision for William Smith, “the natural son of my said son William, by Mary Smith, daughter of Robert Smith.” He was to inherit property at “Sheep Holes, in the Parish of Keighley,” when he reached twenty-one.
The will was also punctilious in its provision for poor Three Laps, guaranteeing the wherewithal for his “maintenance and support”, and his eventual funeral expenses. To this end two obvious friends were appointed as “executors and administrators” in the shape of two Abraham Shackletons, of Kildwick and nearby Braithwaite respectively. The Braithwaite Shackleton was a quietly outstanding local personality, a contemporary of Three Laps, who compiled weather records for sixty years to his death in 1857 and who, keeping a diary in 1794, had been one of a group who started a homely school and library in modest Braithwaite.
“We had our school at Braithwaite this Night, & we subscribed everyone a shilling to our Library 16 of us,” he recorded. Could a youthful Three Laps have been one of the sixteen?
At the time Father Sharp made his will, Three Laps had been in bed for ten years: few then could have imagined him lying there for another thirty-nine. Eye-witness descriptions, mainly from his later life, suggest that the “maintenance and support” may have worn rather threadbare, as witness the miserable room in which he lay.
In 1874 the Rev Sabine Baring-Gould (author of Onward, Christian Soldiers) published his Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events, notable for the graphic account of a gentleman visitor, who gained admittance to Three Laps’s bedroom by bribing the female nurse with a tin of tobacco:
“As soon as he heard strangers, he pulled the bed-clothes over his head, which the nurse with considerable force removed, and uncovered his body, which was devoid of every vestige of body linen. A more startling and sickening sight I never saw… Three Laps covered his face with his hands, his fingers being like birds’ claws, while, with his legs drawn under his body, he had the appearance of a huge beast. He had white hair, and a very handsome head, well set on a strong chest… He gave no signs of joy or pain, but lay like a mass of inanimate matter…”
At least, “his body and all about him was scrupulously clean, and his condition healthy, as his nurse proudly pointed out, digging her fist furiously into his ribs.”
The 1851 Census gives a more succinct picture: “William Sharp. Unmarried. Aged 74. Independent Landed Proprietor. Lain in bed 44 years.”
His nurse was his aunt Sarah Marshall, a year older than himself.
His downstairs room enabled people to peep in at him, variously describing him as “like a big fat pig” or “rolled up like a hedgehog.” Bradford antiquary William Scruton recalled him (“What a spectacle!”) lying on his stomach rapidly counting his fingers as if trying to solve some problem or other. His long hair and beard (then quite grey) looked lank and neglected, and he wore nothing in the shape of a nightcap.
“His beard,” observed the Preston Chronicle, “is grissly, his hair silvery white, and most enormous teeth project from his lips.”
His few amusements included playing with his plate when he had eaten his dinner, “in the manner of a Chinese juggler, and with considerable ability,” and extending his forefinger as if it were a gun and shooting at imaginary birds. When eating, he would roll over on to his knees, turn down the blankets and eat off the mattress, so that the crumbs should not get among the bed-clothes.
He is said never to have spoken until his very end, although a humorous verse by Keighley poet Carey Williams Craven, published in 1889, suggests otherwise, relating the strange tale of a servant-girl getting her foot stuck behind his neck:
“She called on ‘Three Laps’ to release, but, grumbling, he replied, that she might do it for herself, if patiently she tried…”
Otherwise, according to the legend, his only known words in 49 years were his last. His appetite had remained good, his flesh “firm, fair, and unwrinkled, save with fat”, but towards the end he stopped eating and his legs contracted. Dying, he said, “Poor Bill, poor Bill, poor Bill Sharp!”
He was buried in a big oak chest weighing some 480 Ibs. and taking eight men to lower into his grave at Keighley Parish Church, watched, we are told, by thousands.
Assuredly not a droll eccentric but a victim of severe mental illness at a time when such conditions were not understood, Old Three Laps had spoken his own best epitaph: “Poor Bill, poor Bill, poor Bill Sharp!”