The extraordinary life of the Goat Woman of Havering-atte-Bower

Elizabeth Balls, the Goat Woman of Havering-atte-Bower

A postcard picture of Elizabeth Balls, the Goat Woman of Havering-atte-Bower, from the early 20th century reproduction produced by A.H. Burgess, South Street, Romford, of an original c1820 lithograph of J.Rolfe’s painting. - Credit: Andy Grant

Here, historian Andy Grant takes a look at the life of a Havering legend...

Like most areas, Havering has historically had its share of eccentrics. One of the most celebrated of these was locally known as the Goat Woman of Havering-atte-Bower.

Elizabeth Balls was said to have been the daughter of a respectable farmer living in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire.

Records for that town show Richard and Elizabeth Balls had a daughter that they Christened Elizabeth on December 23, 1764, although it is uncertain whether this was one and the same person.

It was purported that she "suffered a disappointment in her affections, either from the death or defection of her lover”.

Another version of her early life contended that her "lover had died at sea and had consigned to her a favourite she-goat": To this animal were transferred all the affections that survived the desolation of her heart.”

In her later life she lived in a cottage, which she evidently owned, situated near the village green in Havering-atte-Bower.

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Although she was an annuitant receiving an income of around £150 a year, she chose to live in squalor with a menagerie of goats, sheep, cats and a dog, becoming known as the Goat Woman of Havering-atte-Bower.

The antiquary and author of The History of Essex, Elizabeth Ogborne (1763-1853), wrote a first-hand account describing her abode in 1817: “The lower apartment of this she occupies,
surrounded by a number of goats; and has been known to keep as many as 50; in 1814, she had 32; in September, 1816, her family consisted of 14 goats, some of them very large and
handsome, two sheep, 17 fowls, and a French dog.

"These she called out on the little grass plot, within the pales that surrounded her habitation, to show the writer of this article.”

Most accounts of her life were written after she died, but the one related by Ms Ogborne was written while she was still alive and is probably the nearest to the truth.

Subsequent accounts appear to have been embellished to some extent.

She evidently kept a pony to take her to London every six months in order to receive the income from her annuity and to take her to Romford when she needed to purchase hay for
her goats.

The Gentleman's Magazine, volume 94, part one, 1824, published an obituary for her, as did a number of contemporary newspapers.

It related: “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.”

Although she would not permit anyone to enter her house, a constant stream of curious visitors would peer over her garden fence and she was not averse to holding a conversation
about her "dear children" - the goats that would gather around her.

On more general matters she would talk very rationally and she was quite religious.

Ms Ogborne described her as appearing to be “about 60 years of age, being 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”.

Her attire was said to be “squalid in the extreme”. 

It was stated in her obituary that she died, aged 63, on Saturday December 27, 1823 and was buried in Havering churchyard, although there is no mention of such a burial in the registers of Havering Church.

A number of contemporary portraits of Elizabeth Balls were published including a half-sheet lithographic print taken lately from life was executed by J. Deare; a lithographic print, taken from a painting by J. Rolfe, for the Honourable Earl St Vincent and printed by C. Hullmandel; and a lithographic print by T. Willis and published by Rowney & Forster.