Alice Ann, Richard’s daughter, was born in 1880, the eighth of ten children born to Richard Gibson and his first wife, Alice Rawson. What a stroke of irony that she was born on Bride Street, Todmorden, for it was her lack of marriage that proved her downfall when, at age of 21, she took her own life only one year after her stepmother, Rose Gibson, did the same. According to the newspaper report “The inquiry aroused considerable local interest in consequence of certain rumours that were afloat” – an unfortunate turn of phrase considering the manner of her death. In fact this tragedy that took place just before Christmas 1900 was reported in newspapers all across the country from Leeds and Manchester in the North of England to Staffordshire in the Midlands and Somerset on the South coast. Alice Ann, a machinist, had told her sister with whom she lived on Myrtle Street in the centre of Todmorden that her sweetheart to whom she was engaged was going to a party with another girl.

She threatened to not only break off the engagement if he did so but to drown herself. Her sister thought she was just being dramatic. Willie Greenwood had gone to the party as planned and had failed to show up at Alice’s home the following Saturday as was their usual arrangement, understanding that by taking the other girl to the party he had precipitated the end of his engagement. The following day Alice had tea with a friend during which she had cried most of the time. Before leaving she had handed a letter to her to pass on to her fiancé the next day. The letter read ‘I cannot live to be laughed at and the shame of meeting you after what has passed between us. I have gone. You have deceived me and no mistake. Yours, Alice Gibson.’ Alice had left her friend’s house but had failed to return home that evening. Later that evening an umbrella, recognised as belonging to Alice had been found on the side of the canal and handed in to the local police. The following morning the police dragged the canal where the umbrella had been found. After an hour Alice’s body was discovered in the centre of the canal. Her body was recovered and at the inquest it was noted that she was fully clothed, minus her hat, and that the body showed no marks upon her body to indicate violence. But Willie still felt obliged to ask if anything could be done by the jury to protect him from the rumours that were rife about the town. The jury unanimously agreed to a verdict that the deceased committed suicide by drowning herself. This afternoon as I began my journey into Alice’s last hours I saw that today no houses remain on Myrtle Street, just the street sign leading to the car park. It was with a startle that I realised that on a winter’s day three years ago I had seen a white figure clothed in a flowing long white dress in this very spot– and she was still wearing her hat! She was carrying a torch, red with a burning flame. Was this Alice’s ghost? No. This was the annual Lamplighter parade, when a giant lamplighter puppet lights a torch symbolically guiding the community through the dark winter months.

The Lamplighter on Myrtle Street

From Myrtle Street I headed to the Rochdale canal. Moored boats were few and far between on this bitingly cold winter day. From the chimneys of the houseboats smoke was bellowing and blending with the low clouds enveloping the bottom of the valley. Carefully avoiding the icy puddles on the towpath I soon found myself at Sandholme Mill with its vast expanse of weaving sheds now silent, its tall chimney now redundant.

Abandoned mill along the Rochdale canal

It was on this stretch of the canal that Alice breathed her last, over one hundred years ago. The newspaper column adjacent to the report of her death that day told of the death and funeral of Oscar Wilde. ‘An ideal husband’ was what Alice Ann had wished for – in vain. *

The remains of Sandholme Mill

The towpath passed over an overflow channel and as I looked down at the bubbling water a flash of colour drew my attention. Looking over the bridge I couldn’t believe my eyes. A bouquet of red roses was caught on the lip of the overflow, fresh and vibrant as if someone had only just thrown them in. They were still bound together with ribbon and looked fresh so only could have been in the canal for an hour or so. it seemed a fitting tribute to my Rose.