Simeon Ellerton (c 1695 – 1799)
To paraphrase Julian Clary, everyone loves an eccentric but no one wants to live next to them. Was Jules Verne right when he averred that it was a quintessentially English trait? I think not and in this series – we may even get to fifty or more as I did with the Clever Bastards – I aim to shine the spotlight on some really eccentric characters whose fame, or perhaps notoriety, has diminished over time.
First up is Simeon Ellerton, whose life straddled both ends of the 18th century. From Craike in what was then the county of Durham but now as Crayke is in North Yorkshire, he shared two modern characteristics – he was a fitness fanatic and a keen recycler or, perhaps more correctly, an upcycler. Simeon enjoyed walking; contemporary records describe him rather quaintly as a “noted pedestrian”. Rather enterprisingly, he made a business out of his hobby, hiring himself out to undertake errands for the local village or for delivering items. Distance seemed no object. He “was often employed by gentlemen in the neighbourhood on commissions to London and other places, which he always executed on foot with fidelity and diligence” – Craike’s very own courier service.
It must be remembered that in those days roads were quite rudimentary, in many places being nothing more than dirt tracks or paths through the countryside made by the tramping feet of through the centuries. Strewn along these paths and tracks would be stones, rocks and boulders. On his travels Simeon would carefully inspect these boulders and when he saw one which met his requirements, he would pick it up and carry it off.
Astonishingly, he would carry the stone on his head. I have always marvelled at the skill required to carry a fully laden basket on your head. I remember sitting next to a woman on the Likoni ferry in Mombasa who had a basket full of produce sitting proudly and securely on her head. In some ways it makes sense because a skilled practitioner has their hands free to cut their way through the undergrowth or do whatever else they need to do with their hands. Studies have shown that you can carry loads of up to 20% of your body weight without expending any extra energy over what they would have incurred walking around without a load.
Simeon collected so many stones this way and returned them to Craike that he had enough, and more, to build himself a small cottage, something which as a poor man he would otherwise have not been able to afford to do. The cottage still exists – a testament to his judgement of stones and the quality of his workmanship – and he lived there until his death on 8th February 1799.
Simeon’s eccentricity knew no bounds. So accustomed was he to walking with a load of stones on his head that when his house had been built it seemed strange to walk around unencumbered. As a contemporary record puts it, “this practice had grown so much into a habit, that he imagined that he could travel the better for having a weight upon his head, and he seldom came home without some loading. If any person enquired his reason, he used facetiously to answer, ‘Tis to keep on my hat”.
It must have done him some good because despite the poor health conditions and almost negligible medical facilities available at the time, our head carrying upcycler lived to the ripe old age of 104.