produced by the community, for the community

But at the end of 1912, they left the island and moved to Eastington to help their father and brothers run the business in Millend Mill. This had been bought by James snr. in 1910 along with 16 cottages (Millend Row) and a bakery. The intention was for at least some of the family to return to the island in the spring, but most stayed in Eastington, including Madge who acted as housekeeper, now looking after her brothers and ageing father. The outbreak of the First World War made life on Steep Holm more difficult as it was partially requisitioned by the Admiralty for the duration of the war.

Madge’s life in Eastington

Madge worked as housekeeper and also helped run the mill. Later, as her father’s health deteriorated, she also became his nurse. As the press reporters had noticed (and confirmed by villagers) her greatest love was for birds and animals - she had a “mysterious rapport” with them. Here, I can do no better than to quote from the Rendell’s interesting book:

Villagers remembered that young blackbirds fallen from the nest were tamed by her, and perched happily on her shoulders as she cycled around on an old bicycle with her faithful spaniel sitting in a tomato box perched on the back… after the death of her father (in 1938) she extended her nursing care to other people in the village, and she is still remembered with affection by elderly Eastington villagers. As one expressed it: she was kind and well-liked – a lovely person.

‘Queen’ Madge died alone in her Millend Row cottage on 5th January 1996, aged 72. She is buried with her brother Oliver in the village cemetery.


In 1998, a social history website carried an email from someone enquiring about the Sleeman family in Gloucestershire. A lady from the Isle of Man (yet another island!) replied that her mother had known a Miss Sleeman during the 1950s. She lived in a little cottage behind the Mill at the bottom of Eastington. She occasionally babysat for her mother’s friend who lived next door. Her mother recalled that Miss Sleeman had told her that when she was a girl, she had lived on a tiny island in the Bristol Channel, near Weston Super Mare. What an amazing coincidence!


Stan and Joan Rendell’s book Steep Holm Pioneers, was published privately in Weston-super-Mare in 2003. Both have had a long connection with the island and its protection.

Readers will remember that the Sleeman name has cropped up a few times in previous editions of ECN, all in connection with Millend Mills’ use as a maltings during the early part of the last century.  Under the control of the head of the family, James Sleeman, the business operated at Millend until 1937, when bankruptcy finally closed its doors for the last time.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – this article is not about James Sleeman and his business activities, it’s about his daughter Madge.

For decades after James’ death in 1938, she became something of a fixture of the village, one of those fascinating eccentrics no longer encountered in daily life. Like her four brothers James jnr, Tom, Oliver and John, she had a most unusual and interesting upbringing, something that undoubtedly influenced the way she approached life and the type of person that she became.

Her story really begins not in Eastington, but in Portishead on the banks of the Bristol Channel, where her father, James snr, was the manager of a newly-built mill. Madge’s mother died in 1902 and the young siblings were then looked after by a series of relatives and housekeepers. Down the coast was Weston-super-Mare, and just off shore, the small islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm. Remarkably, it was the former that was to become Madge’s home for a number of years.

Up to April 1909, Steep Holm had been a military base, under the control of the army. When they vacated the island, they left behind massive guns emplacements, 7-ton iron cannons, and a large barracks building. Within a month, James Sleeman had negotiated a 21-year lease on the island and its associated fishery, at an annual rent of £30. On the 30th December, in the middle of a cold, bleak winter, the family moved to the island and set up home in the abandoned barracks.

Surprisingly, James snr. stayed on the mainland, while his five children and a female relative moved to Steep Holm.

Madge had been born in May 1893, so was only around 16 at the time. The intention was that the youngsters would be self-supporting and earn a living through fishing, farming and keeping poultry. More than 100 laying hens, plus a number of goats joined the young Sleemans. Each owned varying shares in the chickens. By February 1910, they were selling up to 1000 eggs a month to local businesses on the mainland. They also grew their own vegetables.

In April of that year, James snr. moved to Eastington, taking over the empty Millend Mill.

Meanwhile on Steep Holm, life continued for the five young people, with their unusual lifestyle. It was so unusual that it even attracted the attention of the national press.

In March 1910, they were paid a visit by a reporter and photographer from the Daily Chronicle. The reporter noted that:

Madge, a pretty girl in her early teens, bore an air of queenly authority and the reporter had never before seen a more self-reliant band of islanders.

Two years later, in September 1912, John, Oliver and Tom left the island, leaving Madge and her brother James to look after the poultry and goats, as well as the vegetable garden. So now, it was just the two of them plus Madge’s pet spaniel and the old donkey used to carry supplies up from the beach to the barracks.

The press came calling again. This time it was the Daily Mirror. Their article talked about the “Island king and queen – the boy and his sister who lived alone on the little island in the Bristol Channel”.

The reporter wrote :

Queen Madge, a pretty girl in her teens with a beautiful complexion and flowing hair. She discharges her domestic duties admirably with quiet ease and dignity. She is accompanied by her fowls, and her herd of goats adorned with fearsome horns follow her obediently, each answering to its name. Madge is passionately fond of animals, even the donkey, and they all vie with each other for a moment’s companionship. She knows their every whim, what they like and dislike, and when she seats herself on a gun in one of the batteries to enjoy the sunshine, or sweep the seas with a telescope, the goats, the donkey and the Belgian hare wend their way from all parts of the island to form a cordon around their friend and benefactor, each anxiously waiting to be stroked and spoken to.

Stephen Mills

Pubished in ECN 152 Aug/Sept 2015

Queen Madge of Millend

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