The Child in the Wood, or the Cruel Uncle

A woodcut showing a child inside a tree, with 3 people on horses nearby, dogs, and other trees.

This is from the “Yorkshire Folklore Journal” (Vol I, 1888, p.115) which states it came from “a very old chapbook”. The image above is stated to be from a woodcut in that chapbook! I’ve rephrased it slightly, but not by a massive amount…

In the town on Beverley, in Yorkshire, about 2 years ago (1703). there lived a squire called Somers, who was a very honest gentleman with a good income. He lived with his wife and two year old daughter. Unfortunately, after a short illness, his wife died, leaving him heartbroken. He found he couldn’t enjoy life at all after his loss, and soon fell ill, took to his bed and died after just a fortnight of illness himself.

While ill, he sent for his brother, who lived about 14 miles away, and begged him to take care of his daughter in case he didn’t recover. “Brother”, he said, “I leave with you the dearest thing that I have in the world, my little daughter. Together with her, I entrust my whole estate. Manage it for her use, and take care of her education and upbringing. Look after her as if she was your own, and for my sake, see her married to an honest country gentleman.” His brother faithfully promised to do this should he not recover, so when the gentleman died, the brother takes the little girl home and looked after her kindly for some time.

But it didn’t take long before he became jealous of the fortune that he was looking after for her. He plotted many different ways in which he could take the estate for himself, and eventually decided to abandon her in the woods. He couldn’t bring himself to murder her outright, so took her to a hollow tree, gagged her mouth so she couldn’t be heard crying, and left her inside the hollow. To conceal the crime, he had commissioned a wax model of a child to be made. Once the child was abandoned in the hollow tree, he dressed the wax effigy in a shroud, laid it in a coffin, and held a great funeral for the girl. The wax model was buried, and no one suspected anything but an illness and a sad, young death, all too common in young children.

At the same time this was happening, a neighbouring gentleman dreamed that the following day he would see something that would astonish him. He told it to his wife, who tried to persuade him to stay at home, but he took no notice and went out hunting instead. As he rode through the woods that morning, his horse was startled and nearly knocked him from his saddle. He turned around, looking for what had disturbed his horse, and saw something move in a dark hole. Worried now that his dream was coming true, he told one of his servants to check the hole – it was the same hollow in a tree that the little girl had been abandoned in, and they pulled her out, barely still alive.

He took her home, looking after her as her strength returned, but she was too young to be able to tell them where she had come from. This remained a mystery until Christmas, and they held a feast and a singing at his house. One of his guests recognised the little girl and told them she was supposedly dead and buried. Shocked, the gentleman went to the parish minister and persuaded him to have the grave dug up, discovering the wax model inside the coffin.

The cruel Uncle was arrested and convicted of abandoning the child and attempting to steal her inheritance, and the court decided that the gentleman who found her should be allowed to look after her as if she was his own. This pleased him and his wife greatly, as they had no other children, and had already grown fond of the little girl, looking after her from then onwards as if she was their own.