A brief account of the once well-known individual who bore the above appellation will probably be of interest to those who love to study the short and simple annals of our local peasantry.
Edward Sharples, better known has blind Ned, was born in 1822, one of four brothers—John, Richard, and Peter being the names of the three others. His father belonged to the yeoman family of Sharples, who were farmers at Putforth (locally pronounced Pufforth), Lower Darwen, for close upon 150 years. He died in 1831, having been previously sold to the Water works Committee of the Blackburn Corporation his share of the land in Spa Brook Bottom for £3,400. Blind Ned and his brothers were all four fine, strong, and well-built men, with scarcely a straw to choose between them as to height or weight. Many stories are told of the quartet and their youthful pranks which are well worth recounting, but for the present Blind Ned must receive our sole attention.
When he was five years old he went to peep through the key-hole of a cottage near Belthorn, when a little girl about his own age pushed from the inside a sharp steel spindled, known locally as a “hotzel,” which penetrated into his right eye, at once half blinding him. Soon after this occurrence the other eye became inflamed and eventually Ned lost his sight entirely. At ten years of age Ned had to begin to earn his living, and as two of his brothers were shoddy (cotton) manufactures at a small mill situated on the side of the tiny rivulet coming down from Spa Brook Clough, he obtained from them work at suitable jobs, mostly of a laborious nature. Here he developed great bodily strength, for he had to assist in carrying bales of cotton shoddy from the mill at Dick Bridge up to the top of Daub Hill, where the cart road commenced. He also helped his mother on the large farm known as “Eden,” and thereby developed an extraordinary sense of touch which enabled him to be a better judge of cattle and horses than most of those who possessed good eyesight. He could even detect differences of colour in the hides of the animals and proved this in a transaction at Brough Hill. When he was twenty-seven he attended this fair to buy cattle, and bought no less than 70 beasts, all about a year old. The man from whom he purchased the cattle could not believe that blind Ned was able to tell the colour of the hicks by touch, and he volunteered to knock 5s a head off the price if Ned would name the colour of 30 out of the 70. But Ned performed the task easily and thus saved £17 19s, afterwards re-selling the whole lot to Mr W. Hindle of the Brown Cow Inn Livesey.
Once for a wager he undertook to tell the colour of any cow in the shippon at the Red Buck, Oswaldtwistle. Blind Ned was led into the shippon and a du-coloured cow was selected out for his judgement. He ran his hand softly over it and named the colour correctly, then passing his hand under the belly; he found and named a white patch thus easily winning the wager. The challenger after his return to the inn said somebody had told Ned the secret of the two colours. This so incensed the blind man that he struck the challenger a blow from the shoulder which knocked him into a big chair and broke it to fragments.
As a young man he “kitted” milk into Blackburn. Some old inhabitants of Grimshaw Park tell of his driving down the road a good rate of speed, carefully avoiding collisions by his acute sense of hearing, his great round face beaming with intelligence, though deprived of his principle attraction, the eyes. He both rode and drove many thousands of miles, and it is stated that he could draw up within a yard of his destination. An old toll-bar keeper says he has seen Ned drive his horse up to a foot off the gate and stop suddenly whilst he himself was greatly alarmed lest the horse should smash down the gate, but Ned only laughed. His knowledge of the country around his home was really wonderful. Men tell that when they were lads and trespassing on the farm Ned would follow them, no matter which way they went, just as if he could see them. Blind Ned lived at the old house which stands nearest to the Yate Bank Reservoir, perhaps better known in the district as Dick Bridge Reservoir. The road from Daud Hall to Holehouse used to cross the by-wash by a single loose plank nine inches wide, which served for a temporary bridge for over 60 years. Blind Ned had crossed it in all weathers, and at night had often guided or carried his neighbours across upon his back.
He thought no water equal to that which rises at Ooze Castle, high up the bank, and which runs down Spa Clough, ultimately forming the reservoir. At one place is the ravine just below Windy Bank Farm, called Rock Hall, can still be found turkey or oil stone suitable for whetting purposes, and one of those stones was a favourite gift of Ned’s to his farming acquaintances.
In his prime he was 5ft 10½ in high and 230lbs weight, 43 inches round the chest being altogether a fine specimen of lusty manhood. His brothers though equal to him in height and general appearance, never possessed his mighty muscles and frequent wagers were made upon his feats of strength which he was never loath to display, being very fond of rough amusements. He possessed a double set of teeth, generally an indicator of physical strength and one of his favourite feats was the lifting of a sack of flour—240lbs—with his teeth alone. Once, for a sovereign, he lifted and carried for 50 yards three sacks of flour—one under his right arm, one upon his left shoulder, and the other held by his teeth. It was a common occurrence for him when he came to Blackburn Market to lift a 27 gallon cask over the top of his cart wheel. Travellers tell of the enormous weights the Turkish hamlas or porters of Constantinople can carry with their enormous practice, but the greatest weight mentioned by them is 448lbs. This was once exceeded by Blind Ned, it occurred in this way: a man named John Maden, a spinner at Dick Bridge Mill, was taunting Ned about his carrying of the heavy bales of shoddy which were made there, and a big bet ensued on Ned saying; “will carry every ounce of weft that this man Maden roves off a one-hundred spindle-billy in a week in one load.” The rover strove hard to win the bet by working with all his skill throughout the week, and on Saturday Ned was watching to see that he did not work longer than the appointed time. He stopped his billy a minute or so after the hour had expired to doff his sett but as it meant 25lbs more weight, Ned said “Maden tha morn’d doff.” The week’s work was packed in a huge bale and put upon the scale, when it turned the beam at 572lbs, which ponderous load Blind Ned carried not on the level but up a steep hill to the cart at Daub Hall.
Another feat was “ringing the fifty sixes” which was a pet feat of Ned’s. It was performed in this manner; three fingers of each hand are inserted in the lifting ring attached to the weight, the arms are slowly raised until both the weights hang over the head, when they rung by banging them together. Blind Ned had done this as often as six times, a performance which Sandow* can scarcely equal. Ned’s brother John, who—people say—was as good a carter as ever cracked a whip, once brought a load of 30cwt. of cotton from Blackburn to the top of the old lane leading down to Dick Bridge. To bring such a load down in winter was very dangerous, so John left it there all night. It was then the practice to trail a rude sledge down behind the loaded cart with a pack of meal or flour upon it to act a sort of drag or brake. In the morning, Ned, who was then only eighteen, undertook the task, although the road was in local parlance, “a whirl of ice.” His horse, Rowley, almost as sensible a Christian, planted its feet firmly for the dangerous descent, whilst Ned held its head with his left hand, and also acted as brakesman with all his giant strength. But the man, cart and horse, all three slid from top to bottom of the lane without a halt. Not a hair was injured, but his narrow escape from death or disaster often sent a thrill of emotion, upon remembrance, through the mind of Blind Ned.
He was a frequent visitor to the bi-annual fairs in Blackburn, and as he sat in the “Anchor” or “Three Crowns” in Darwen-street old public-houses which have now disappeared, he could recognise any of his old neighbours or friends, either by voice or footfall, before they entered the room. Having very long arms and being of great girth round the chest, he was a clever hand at what is called “fathoming,” that is reaching in height or breadth. At his old home there was a beam in the ceiling of the low Kitchen just six feet from the floor. This, Ned could rest his fingers upon whilst those of the other hand lay flat upon the floor. He could fathom seven feet ten inches in height, but was beaten once by a man named Farley, who kept the St. Leger Inn, King-street, about 60 years ago. This Farley had the largest hand Blind Ned ever saw, and Ned said that if anyone else saw one larger they never told him. Other feats of this local Samson still lingering in memory are the lifting of nine successive loads of potatoes and throwing them over his head, the lifting of a stone weighing over three cwt to form the roof of a porch at the farm and the winning of several walking matches, notably two with another well-known Blind man, Blind Tom of Haslingden. We are told that fancy dinners and elaborate cooking were nothing to Ned, he had always been used to hard bread, cold bacon, and buttermilk, with an occasional “prato pie” as his chief diet. He attributed the good condition of his teeth and his stomach, even when he was an old man to his abstention from tea and heavy feeding. At the time of his death in February, 1895 aged 72, he and his wife were all that was left of the Sharples family living upon the family copyhold estate. He was buried at St. Paul’s Church, Hoddlesden, and as the lease had expired, his wife also died some years ago in very impoverished circumstances. None of his sons survived him, and his two daughters both are married, one Ellen, living in the United States, and the other Mary is the wife of a man named Thomas Yates, who in 1890 kept the small farm and inn known as the “Star,” properly the New Inn, at Daub Hall, Pickup Bank. Several of Blind Ned’s Nephews are in business in Blackburn, notably Thomas Sharples, the hatter, in Darwen-street. Many of the circumstances here narrated are taken from a scarce pamphlet of religious experience published some 20 years ago  by William Lee of Haslingden. Such is a portion of the history of a remarkable character fully as celebrated locally as his eminent prototype “Blind Jack” of Knaresborough ϯ.
*Eugen Sandow (April 2, 1867 – October 14, 1925), born Friedrich Wilhelm Müller, was a German pioneering bodybuilder known as the "father of modern bodybuilding".
ϯBlind Jack of Knaresborough: (1717–1810), born John Metcalf, also known as Blind Jack of Knaresborough or Blind Jack Metcalf. He was blind from the age of six, and was the first professional road builder to emerge during the Industrial Revolution.