Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The story of Peter Raeney, the ‘Maniac of Woodseats’

A few years ago, we uncovered the sad story of Peter Raeney of Woodseats who lost both his love and his mind in the early years of the 19th century.  The story unfolds in a detailed account from 1828, held at Sheffield Archives, which was published in local magazine, Active8.  Four years later, a local band, who read the article, have written and recorded a song called ‘Peter Raeney’ inspired by the sad life story of the tragic character who hid himself away and ‘died for love’.

Raeney, a fine-looking 20-year old, had courted Mary Jones, the daughter of a local landowner.  The couple were due to be married at Dronfield Church but Raeney’s bride-to-be left him standing at the altar, instead marrying another Sheffield man in a different part of the country on the same day.  Raeney returned to the Woodseats hovel which was his family home, tore a hole into the loft, climbed into it and vowed never to leave.  His family took him food but he refused to speak to them.  They left the door open for him each night and, after a while, he would creep down from his hiding place when it was dark and either cover himself with earth or roll in any pool he could find.  According the account from 1828 ‘at last he refused to go out any more and pulled his bed all to pieces; everything which has since been given him for bedding or clothing, he destroys’.

After 14 years, two people travelling from Sheffield to Derby heard about his existence through talking to people at the Freemasons' Arms (now The Big Tree) and they learned where to find ‘the maniac’s dwelling’.  Heading towards Chesterfield, just 200 yards from the inn, they discovered a small croft: ‘A miserable abode of the creature whose wrongs or miseries we sought to enquire’.  They were allowed into the tumble-down building by a widow, but she was reluctant to let them see her son.  At that moment the two visitors noticed something in the loft above: ‘a moan we knew to be human was heard’.  Offering the old woman a few shillings, they were pointed in the direction of a few stone steps which led to a hole in the ceiling.  In the darkness they discovered Peter Raeney, bent double in the loft space wrapped in a ‘foul discoloured sheet’ and covered in a mass of hair.
The visitors describe in great detail the physical and mental state of the man: ‘the lower part of his face was buried in hair… the whole body was in the attitude of an ape sitting..’ The narrator goes on to say: ‘I looked around the miserable loft which contained nothing but the naked body of the poor maniac, the dirty sheet I have spoken of, myself, my friend and the woman who conducted us.  In spite of my appetite for information, I grew physically as well as mentally sick, when, to my surprise and almost horror, the poor wretch who had kept his wild looks almost continually upon us, turned his face to the floor, and said in a tone which smote the heart “I am bound to sleep”.’

The 2,000 word account concludes that ‘Mentally he has died for love.  It cannot be doubted that the falsehood of Mary Jones broke the heart of Peter Raeney’.  Raeney died two years later and was buried at Norton Church in December 1830.

Some years later, after reading this account in Active8 magazine, local songwriter Andy Whitehouse, realised that the Raeney family home must have been very close to his own house at Woodseats.  Taking some of the narrative word for word from the original account he put ‘Peter Raeney’ together.  Now his band, The Silver Darlings, are to release ‘Peter Raeney’ as a single on 17 Sep with a launch party at Shakespeare’s, Gibraltar Street, Sheffield.  Doors 8pm, admission free.  Listen to the song here:

To find out more about this dramatic story as retold by Andy Whitehouse and Tim Knebel, listen to Rony Robinson’s show on BBC Radio Sheffield (8:00 to 24:00).

The original article can be viewed at Sheffield Archives (reference number: JC/29/21) and a copy can be seen on Picture Sheffield