Hainault Forest Website

Written and Designed by Brian Ecott


Mother Balls, The Goat Woman  1761 - 1824

Researched and written by Raymond Small and Elaine Wiltshire

Miss Balls was a well known figure that lived with goats. This account by Elizabeth Ogborne was published in 1817, while the 'Goat Woman' was still alive: 'There is now living at Havering, a very extraordinary female character, Mrs. Elizabeth Balls, her father was a respectable farmer at Hemel Hempsted, where she was born. She inhabits a cottage near the Green, which is her own property: the lower apartment of this she occupies, surrounded by a number of goats; and has been known to keep as many as fifty; in 1814, she had 32; in September, 1815, her family consisted of 14 goats, some of them very large and handsome, 2 sheep, 17 fowls, and a French dog.1

These she called out on the little grass plot, within the pales that surrounded her habitation, to show the writer of this article: no one is ever on any pretence admitted into the interior of her dwelling, except about twice a year when a person is allowed to clean it: indeed, this task is not needless, for, previously to it, the place is nearly choked up with the accumulation of dirt from these creatures. This eccentric woman always keeps a very excellent horse, which she entirely attends to herself; and also a little cart, in which she drives herself to Romford to purchase hay for her goats.

 She appears to be about sixty years of age, of a middle stature, with a fair pale complexion, and a weak voice: her manners are mild, without any of that vulgarity or ferocity, to be expected from a person entirely domesticated with brute animals. It is said, that a disappointment in her, was the original affections, either from the death or defection of her lover, was the original cause of this whimsicality of conduct, and seclusion from all human society. Miss Balls, as she is in general denominated, possesses an income of nearly 150 a year.

In 1821, The Kaleidoscope, Or, Literary and Scientific Mirror, described how tough things were getting: 'There is, at present, residing at Havering Bower, a small village near Romford, in Essex, (heretofore honoured by the residence of Edward the Confessor, and other royal personages,) in a thatched cottage, which formerly might have been neat and respectable, (it's present appearance shall be hereafter described) an old woman, aged about sixty, named Elizabeth (commonly called Betty) Ball. She is known, and talked about, for miles around, by the appellation of "The Goat Woman," from her keeping several of these animals: at present, her stock consists of about seven or eight, besides four sheep, a small horse and cart, &c. and some poultry. She is of a respectable family, and has a brother. I believe, who keeps his carriage2.

They have frequently endeavoured to induce her to leave her cottage  (which is her own, with a piece of ground round it)  and present way of living, but in vain.   She is of low stature, and bowed still lower by age and

infirmity, stooping very much, and  having a hump upon her shoulders.   When she goes out any where, which she does sometimes, to  purchase hay for

her horse, firewood, &c.; she procures the assistance of someone, to harness and put her nag into the cart, and she is no sooner in (indeed frequently not in) than he acts off, full gallop, and very often running away with her to the place where she is going, which he knows as well as she does. It is said she has about 350 a year, which she receives, I believe, as she wants it, which must be very little, and very seldom indeed, at the Romford Bank. The cottage is small, containing four rooms, two on the ground floor, and two upstairs. The latter are now never entered, being fastened up as unsafe, from their decayed state, caused by filth and neglect; the goats, &c. having had free admission, and no scouring brush or duster ever following their steps. The furniture, what there is, falling fast to pieces; and it is only by standing still and untouched, that what is whole remains so. The furniture of her person is, if

 "Don't you," she says, "don't you do so."    Rosemarie Khan, Illustrator.

possible worse. It consists chiefly of an old gown, which the poorest beggar would not pick from a dung-hill; wrapping, occasionally, when she goes out or sleeps, an old dirty blanket or counterpane about her. She is not often seen, for, when she goes out, she sits down at the bottom of her cart, and foot passengers can only see her head, her grey hair turned up in front, and a handkerchief corresponding with the rest of her dress, tied over it. Of the two lower rooms, one is filled with firewood, upon which the poultry roost; the other is her "kitchen, and parlour, and every thing," for, on it, eat, drink, and sleep, the whole household, the feather part excepted in the last particular. The only things that I can hear of in this room (for I have not seen it) are, a small hanging shelf, suspended from the ceiling, on which are deposited such little things as she may wish to keep from the goats, a stool, and a rail round the fire-place.


Some time since she was taken very ill. Not being seen for several days, it was feared something was the matter with her, and the door was forced open, when she was found in a dying state, being unable to move. Those who entered were obliged to do so upon their hands and knees; the never-removed straw for her own bed, and that of her horse, sheep and goats, having accumulated about half-way up the door-way, and was the same height everywhere else. She was taken to the poor-house, where, after a short time, by proper treatment, she recovered. During her confinement, ten large loads of dung were taken out of her room, which was found so good, that a gentleman gave ten guineas.3  for it! A guinea a load!!! When she became convalescent, they tried again, thinking it a favourable opportunity to induce her to alter her mode of living. She appeared to acquiesce, but said she must first go and see her goats. She went; and there they were obliged to leave her, for she would not leave them. While clearing out the dung, a once handsome eight-day clock, apparently whole, (though no doubt was entertained of its being much out of order) upon being touched, crumbled all to pieces, being completely rotten. She keeps a fire continually burning, and sleeps by the side of it, huddled up in a lump, or, if extended, taking her favourite goat as a pillow. Frequently, when putting a piece of bread, &c. on her saving-shelf, and standing on the stool, in order to be able to reach it, some of the goats will run against her, and knock her down. "Don't you," she says, "don't you do so." At her they come again, sometimes; still she only says "don't you," and puts them away with her hands. Henricus.

News of Elizabeth's death in 1824 was spread by the Press. The following obituary appeared in the Stamford Mercury, a large portion of this had already been published in the Essex Mercury before she died: 'DEATH OF AN ECCENTRIC:- On the 27th ult.4 died, at Havering-at-Bower, in Essex, Miss Balls, aged 63 years, celebrated for her attachment to goats: she had at the time of her decease, twenty-four lodging with her in the house, sharing all things in common. The following history of this singular character was published a few days previously to her death:-"The GOAT WOMAN.-At Havering-at-Bower,

 After Terry G. 1880

bordering on the Romford side of the forest, is a dwelling of a singular description; it is a crazy old cottage, the tenure of whose existence seems to hang upon the mercy of the winds. It is enclosed within a high and strongly boarded fence, the gate of which being always padlocked, gives a hint to the curious visitant that he may find no welcome there; but as there is one class of persons who find a way into every house, (we mean tax-gatherers,) the windows are all boarded up 5, by way of notice that they may pass on to the next house, without giving themselves the unnecessary trouble of calling. Though this may seem the abode of penury, it is a house of wealth; yet it is not the den of a miser. Though one solitary human being be its inhabitant, yet that being is neither a maniac or an outlaw. No, it is the dwelling of virtue, of constancy, of truth! Its tenant, Miss Elizabeth Balls, is a lady of liberal education, superior mind, and independent property, who lives thus isolated, withering within blasted hopes, upon the wreck of early affection-true in those vows which, in the fervour of youthful love, were engraved upon a heart the most susceptible. And though upwards of forty years have rolled their changeful revolutions since the death of the gentleman to whom she had plighted her faith, no waning of her constancy, no forgetfulness of her vows, no revolution of her heart, has taken place. Her lover, who died at sea, had consigned to her a favourite she-goat, and to this animal were transferred all the affections that survived the desolation of her heart. Its progeny have increased, and these share her tenderness; they form her family, her society, her friends; they live with her in the same house, sit around the same fire, and sleep with her, to the number of twenty-six, around and upon the same bed. But though the sly deity 6 may still remain in her chimney-corner, the household gods have fled; nor have they left her a single besom to sweep the filth from her floors, which consequently are not the most cleanly in the world. At what intervals sweeping is performed, it is not easy to say; however, about four years ago, the steward of Lady Smith Burgess purchased the dung out of Miss Ball's keeping-room, which, at 5s. a load, amounted to ten guineas. For many years the lady was visited by the nobility and gentry of the neighbourhood; and a full-length portrait of her was two years ago painted for the late Earl St. Vincent, whose sea-man-like gallantry was always withstood with the native grace with which a virtuous and accomplished mind can always entrench itself. Eccentricity, however, must have an end with the being who adopts it-and Death, by putting in his irresistible claim, has deprived it of one of its most ardent votaries, and the goats of their devotedly attached patron"- Essex Mercury.'


Postcard of Mrs Elizabeth Balls. The Goat Woman


Chelmsford Chronicle

Friday 25th November 1938

The Gentleman's Magazine reported her death too:

 'MISS BALLS Dec... At Havering-atte-Bower, Essex, aged 63, Miss Elizabeth Balls, who will long be remembered in that retired hamlet and its neighbourhood for her very extraordinary eccentricity of character. Her father was a respectable farmer at Hemel Hempsted, where she was born. She inhabited a cottage near Havering Green, which was her own property, where she passed the greater part of her life with no human creature, but constantly sharing her pittance with a herd of from 20 to 50 goats, 2 sheep, a number of fowls, a French dog, and 2 or 3 cats. From such inmates, as might be expected, the cottage became constantly so filthy, as to be inaccessible to any one but the whimsical owner. Her cottage had been originally handsomely furnished, but the straw and dung had so accumulated, that her furniture were mostly useless, it being only near the fire-place that it was possible to stand upright. Curiosity, however, brought to the outer rails of her little courtyard continual visitors, to whom she would kindly come out, and hold a conversation about her "dear children" the goats (whom she would call about her): and on general subjects would talk very rationally. In short she was one of the Lions in the neighbourhood; and scarcely any one came to Havering-atte-Bower without calling at her door. One day in particular a lady of quality took several of her friends to see the strange sight; and tauntingly asked Miss Balls "where was her library:" the old woman stept 7 in her cottage, and returning with a bible in her hand, said firmly "this, madam, is my library; I hope it is also your Ladyship's." She kept a pony, to which she attended herself, it never doing any work but conveying her to and from London every half year, to receive her dividends; and going in a little cart, in which she drove herself to Romford to purchase hay for her goats.

Betty Ball homeward bound.

One very wet summer she seriously inconvenienced her finances by purchasing a quantity of fresh-mown grass, which she intended to make into hay in her orchard. But the skies were unpropitious to her well-meant endeavours; for shower succeeded shower, faster than her single hands could turn the grass to dry it again; which was finally never made into hay, but passed at once into dung. For the cost of this very unfortunate grass Miss Balls was afterwards arrested, and put into Chelmsford gaol. She was of middle stature, with a fair pale complexion, and a weak voice; her manners were mild, without any of that vulgarity or ferocity, to be expected from a person entirely domesticated with brute animals. It is said, that a disappointment in her affections, either from the death or defection of her lover, was the original cause of this whimsical conduct and seclusion from all human society. She possessed an income of nearly 150 a year. Some years since her cottage was rifled by thieves, and whilst one of them was holding her down on the bed, she imagined it was one of her favourite goats that had leaped on her. Of her dress, which was always squalid in the extreme, a good idea may be formed from "a striking likeness of Miss Balls, taken lately from the life by J. Deare," and published in a half-sheet lithographic print.'

Michael Tyler, at Chelmsford Gaol, provided an insight to what prison life would have been like: "This was regarded as a minor crime of owing money and would place Miss Balls in our female ward which was harsh enough as you would also have to pay for your keep as well as pay the debt back. Conditions were bleak, with the cells being very cold without any form of lighting, apart from one candle which was positioned so as to allow the warders to blow it out at night. Our first Governor, Thomas Clarkson Neale, was a deeply religious man, who encouraged Bible reading that was supervised by patrolling warders in the evening, again the real reason for the candle. Her labour I think would have been in the wash house, which was adjacent to the female ward. Her sentence although it sounds a petty crime may have involved hard labour and possibly whipping at the end of her sentence, something the Judge would have decided and passed to the Governor for action. She may also have got Transportation." 
In 1832, The Year Book of Daily Recreation & Information, portrayed a rather unsociable lady: "MOTHER BALLS" Perhaps some short account of this eccentric old duchess will not be unacceptable to some of your readers. I live but a very short distance from her late cottage (hovel, I should say), and have gathered the following from her near neighbours:- Elizabeth Balls, or, as she was more commonly called, mother Balls, resided for some years in a wretched hovel in the peaceful and retired village of Havering at the bower, on the borders of Hainalt (sic) Forest, in the county of Essex, a distance of about sixteen miles from the Metropolis. Perhaps a more singular being was never known: for the last twenty years of her life she resided in her wretched abode, accompanied by at leat (sic) ten or twelve goats: these animals were her constant companions; if any of them were sick she attended them with the anxious solicitude of a parent. Some of the neighbouring gentry, from motives of humanity as well as curiosity, frequently, paid her a visit; she was, in general, any thing but communicative, a few incoherent and barely civil sentences usually escaped her in answer to their enquiries. It is supposed that a love affair, in the time of her youth, caused this strange alteration in her habits and manners. At the time of her decease she had a brother living in affluent circumstances, who took care while his unfortunate sister was living she should be placed beyond the reach of poverty, and who also gave her remains a decent interment. She used, during the winter, to sit crouching with her goats before a huge wood fire; her skin was completely changed to a yellowish brown from the filth and smoke of her dwelling: she chiefly lived on the produce of her goats, their milk. She at length died, worn out by extreme old age, and a few years ago was buried in the church yard of the village church, where she for years resided. Her remains were attended to their last resting place by nearly the whole population of the place, very few of whose inhabitants but remember "Mother Balls the goat woman."

The old parish church of ST. MARY, later of ST. JOHN THE EVANGELIST, demolished in 1876,

 stood west of Havering Green, on the site of the present church

In 1877, The Chelmsford Chronicle wrote about a photo: 'The photograph itself, which represents a very repulsive-looking and ragged old dame, seated in a tumble-down cottage, or rather hut, surrounded by a number of goats and cats, gives her name as Mrs. Elizabeth Balls; but a correspondent with whom we have communicated calls her Halls. The picture from which both print and photograph were taken was painted by J. Rolfe, for the Earl St. Vincent, and at the time it was engraved it was in the possession of Mr. Osborne Markham. The "Goat woman" was possessed of considerable property and highly connected. Being crossed in love in her younger days, it so preyed upon her, that she retired to the seclusion of an old house at Havering-atte-Bower, where she gathered about her a number of goats and cats which roamed at will over the dwelling, and were her only companions. She resented the approach of any person as an intrusion. She had, as some people even to this day have, a great dislike to paying bills, and carried it to the extreme that a visit from the sheriff's officer was generally necessary to induce her to part with the money. Her mode of dress was exceedingly grotesque, and when she made a visit to Romford, as she did on some rare occasions, sitting in the bottom of an old tumbrel, she was the object of great curiosity. She lived in the most deplorable state, and at her death some years ago the floors of the rooms were covered to a great depth with filth owing to continued presence of the goats and cats. Despite these miserable surroundings she lived to a good old age, and it is stated that her goats followed her remains to the grave.'

The cottage was later rebuilt and called Ivy Holt. By 1869 the Irving family were living there. Today, it can be found up the hill and to the right, next to a builder's yard. Many years afterwards, a strong smell of goats was still said to be coming from the walls and ground floor. If you go along North Road, near Ivy Holt, late at night, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the ghostly herd, that once belonged to Miss Balls. During the 1950's a motorist reported seeing them crossing the road in front of his vehicle... so drive carefully!


◄  St. John the Evangelist, the rebuilt parish church of Havering-atte-Bower.

aaaAn Edwardian Postcard.




FACT OR FICTION?   It is hard to establish if Elizabeth Balls really lived, or whether a story to entertain society readers developed into a myth

After Ogborne's article, most accounts that followed were similar, but often included embellishments. We were unable to validate birth or death. There was a christening in Hemel Hempstead of an Elizabeth Ball in 1764, but there was no proof that this was our 'Miss Balls'. Parish Records at Essex Records Office were checked. Verity Cooper, at St. John's Church, Havering-Atte-Bower, kindly examined local church records, and the Diocesan Office was contacted. Several local churches were included in our search and a burial book for a Quaker site at Havering Well was investigated too. There was no Census at this time and we could find no trace of a Last Will and Testament. Havering's Court Process Book of Indictments had no entry to confirm a prison sentence and Chelmsford Gaol had no knowledge of her. We found no tangible evidence to her existence and it could be that the Goat Woman was a complete work of fiction. Havering, is derived from two Saxon words 'Haefer' and 'ing' meaning 'goats pasture'. Records may have vanished with the passage of time, or is it possible that the idea for this story came from the village name? 


1. Some regard 'French dog' to mean poodle, but the dog shown in the picture is not that breed. The early 19th century origin of poodle is from the German 'Pudel(hund)', which means 'splash in water' (the poodle being a water-dog, or puddle-dog).

2. Keeps his carriage. Is a man of money.

3. In 1820, manure generally fetched 3s 6d a cartload, so it appears she was getting an excellent deal. A good cartload measured one and a quarter square yards.

4. Ult. means previous month. The magazine was published in January, so death occurred 27th December.

5. Window tax was obviously a bone of contention with the obituary's writer. Some people boarded up windows to avoid paying. It was abolished in 1851. Income tax started in 1799 to help pay for the Napoleonic Wars and top rate was 10%.

6. From early time to the 19th century people were very superstitious. It was commonly believed that domestic spirits became attached to families or places and did housework and odd jobs about the home. These guardian fairies went by many names such as fay, brownies or hobgoblins. These spirits were mainly considered friendly and helpful, but it was not wise to upset one because they would become malicious and spiteful. The reference to the sly deity, refers to one such fairy that didn't go away when the household gods vanished. Whether he stole the besom from Miss Balls is pure conjecture. Some cultures today still build and live in round houses, with no corners for spirits to hide in!

7.  Stept - (obsolete) past tense of step

Thanks go to Mick Barry (Chelmsford Police Museum), Michael Tyler (Chelmsford Gaol) and Verity Cooper (St. John's Church) Sandra Patchett and Rosemarie Khan for their assistance and contributions.