Jemmy Hirst (1738 – 1829)
Born in Rawcliffe, just outside Goole in the East Riding of Yorkshire (as was) James showed early signs of his later eccentricity. As a boy, he kept a jackdaw as a pet and started a life-long career in training animals to do unusual things by persuading a hedgehog to follow him around.
His descent from mild eccentricity to the full-blown version seems to coincide with being ill-starred in love. Hirst rescued his betrothed from a river in full spate but despite his derring-do the poor unfortunate woman died of smallpox. Devastated, he retired to his bed where he is said to have contracted “brain fever”. Although Hirst recovered physically, he was never the same again.
He trained a bull called Jupiter as if it were a horse, teaching it to pull a carriage. The carriage was a splendid affair, made of wicker and having large wheels and was said to contain a double bed and a cellar of wine. It was fitted with an odometer of Hirst’s own design which rang a bell when each mile was completed. Contemporary reports describe it looking like an upside-down lamp shade. Not content with having the poor bull pulling a carriage, he also rode it as if it were a horse and cut a rather dashing figure at a local fox hunt astride the bull, accompanied by pigs rather than a pack of hounds.
Hirst decided to adapt his carriage and fitted it with sails to make what would have been the world’s first land boat. After some initial trial runs along the lanes of Rawcliffe he was sufficiently confident to attempt a trip to Pontefract. “Having a fair wind he went at a dashing speed. When he reached the town everyone turned out to see the wonderful ship that sailed on dry land”. But disaster struck. “when Jemmy reached the first cross-street a puff of wind caught him sideways, upset the carriage and flung Jemmy through the window of a draper’s shop, smashing several panes”. Despite paying for the damage and buying the onlookers copious amounts of ale the authorities banned him from repeating his journey.
Hirst’s notoriety spread far and wide and he received an invitation to visit King George III. Initially, he declined the invitation, writing in response “Well, thou may tell his Majesty that I am very busy just now, training an otter to fish – he found it difficult to get the otter to let go of the fish –but I’ll contrive to come in a month or so”. When he did grace the king with a visit he wore “an otter-skin coat – I hope the pelts were not from beasts that refused to co-operate with his training regime – , patchwork breeches, red and white striped stockings and yellow boots”. The courtiers were aghast and the Duke of Devonshire burst out laughing. In response Hirst threw a glass of water over him as the Duke, he surmised, was suffering a hysterical fit.
When he got to see the king, Hirst did not bow but shook the monarch by the hand, complimenting him on being a “plain-looking fellow”. They hit it off and Hirst left inviting the king to visit him in Rawcliffe for brandy – somehow the king was never able to take him up – and with a stock of wines from the royal cellar.
Naturally, Hirst made elaborate arrangements for his eventual demise. He had a custom-made coffin “with folding doors in which were bull’s eyes of glass to peep through and a bell to ring when he wanted anything from the grave”. He stood the coffin up in his house and charged gentlemen a penny and ladies a garter to stand in it. When he did snuff it, in 1829, he left in his will £12 for twelve old maids to follow his coffin and a piper and fiddler to play happy songs. Only two maids could be found to oblige and the priest, a spoil sport for sure, only allowed the piper to play O’er the hills and far away – a pretty apt description of Jemmy Hirst, I think.