John Tallis (1676 – 1755)
Sometimes, when the world gets too much to bear, it is tempting to retreat to the comfort of your bed. But rarely do any of us go to the extremes of John Tallis who lived in the Worcestershire village of Buscot and is not to be confused with the distinguished cartographer of the same name. His strange behaviour appears to have started in 1724 when he was forty-eight.
Tallis had a room specially built which had only one window, consisting of four panes which were triple glazed to minimise the amount of fresh air that might enter the chamber. The following year he retired to bed to minimise his contact with the air which he deemed to be potentially injurious to his health. His attire was extraordinary – on his head he wore an elaborate construction which a contemporary described “as large as a large beehive”. It is estimated that it contained as much as 84 yards of flannel on top of which were perched ten linen caps and a further ten flannel ones.
On his chest, Tallis kept a frame, across which was stretched a piece of flannel, which he then placed over his face when he felt like going to sleep. His shirts were made of flannel, lined with swanskin, and quilted, although it is not known for sure how many he wore at any one time. There was no heating in the room as he would not allow a fire to be lit. To complete his unusual ensemble, he would position a cork stopper in each of his nostrils – only during the winter, mind – and a piece of ivory in his mouth to reduce the inflow of noxious air. He was wrapped up tightly under a prodigious weight of blankets.
Despite taking to his bed, according to a contemporary account Tallis ate well and drank heartily of wine or ale. Those being more prurient times than they are now, there is no mention of how the output was dealt with. Notwithstanding the encumbrance on top of his head, he was able to sit up but he was resolute in his determination to stay in his bed. When the servants came to make his bed, Tallis simply rolled onto one side and then the other. The only time he left the bed was once a year when the servants moved another bed into the room alongside him enabling him to tumble or be tumbled into it. A correspondent to the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1788 noted drily, “it seems his sweat rots a bed through in a year’s time”. As well as the bed, the headgear was changed annually.
The correspondent was cautioned not to enquire of Tallis why he persisted in his eccentric behaviour, “for all the answer he gives to any inquisitive stranger is that he would not do so if he could help it”. That said, our intrepid correspondent believed that it may have been the result of a strange encounter with an old woman when Tallis was a youth. He caught her stealing part of his fencing and ordered her to put the sticks down. On doing so, the woman cursed him, condemning to remain cold and never to feel the warmth of a fire. From that moment Tallis felt a chill and progressively wore more and more clothes until the only recourse was to stay in bed.
Whatever the cause, he stayed in bed for around 30 years until he met his Maker.