Matthew Robinson, 2nd Baron Rokeby (1712 – 1800)
In considering the question of eccentricity, an intriguing question is whether an individual was truly eccentric or whether their standards of behaviour were simply contrary to the accepted customs and mores of the time in which they lived. Take Matthew Robinson, the second Baron Rokeby as a case in point. For many today his lifestyle would win him plaudits rather than the opprobrium heaped on him by his contemporaries.
Born in Hythe in Kent, Rokeby was educated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge where he read law and became a fellow in 1734. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1746 and inherited his title upon the death of his cousin in 1794. He was a Member of Parliament between 1747 and 1761, supporting the Whigs. The transformative experience for Rokeby came on a holiday to the German spa town of Aix-le-Chapelle where he became intrigued by the custom of immersing yourself in freezing cold water.
It must be remembered that at the time the English had a love-hate relationship with H2O. It was fine enough for pursuing mercantile trading on and for extending the reach of the British Empire but using it for personal hygiene purposes was beyond the pale. Brits rarely bathed – even Lord Melbourne was repulsed by the whiff emanating from Queen Victoria – and drinking it was a sort of Russian roulette with the fatal shots being a dose of cholera or typhoid. That’s why gin and ale were more usually quaffed than Adam’s ale.
Rokeby, who by now was living back at the family home, Mount Morris, near Hythe, would make a daily trip to the coast to take a dip in the sea. He would walk there although he allowed his servants to follow him in a coach. And it was a good job he had attendants because he would often swim to the point of exhaustion and had to be fished out. Perhaps fed up with having to act as amateur life guards, his servants persuaded Rokeby to construct a swimming pool in the grounds of his house with a glass roof which heated the water up when the sun chose to shine. He spent hours there each day immersing himself for hours, taking with a joint of veal from which he would feed as the fancy took him.
Contrary to the fashion of the time, Rokeby sported a beard which he let grow until it reached his knees and could be seen from behind under his arms. The locals treated him with suspicion, particularly as he kept himself to himself, rarely receiving visitors. Those who plucked up the courage to visit him were regaled with long, boring poems. Rumours abounded that he was a cannibal but there is no evidence to think he was. He was just odd for the times.
He did have a generous streak and erected drinking fountains along the route between his house and the sea, giving anyone he saw drinking from them a half-crown, a princely sum. Rokeby eschewed tea, coffee and alcohol, preferring to quaff just water and beef tea. He even forbade his tenants from growing barley, principally because it would be used to brew alcoholic drinks and also because the taxes levied on it were going to fund the war against France, something he vehemently objected to. Rokeby steadfastly refused to see a doctor. His lifestyle didn’t do him any harm as he lived to the ripe old age of 88, dying peacefully in his bed on terra firma.
His sister, the authoress Elizabeth Montagu, described Rokeby as “emulating the great Diogenes and other…doctors of the stoic fur: he flies the life of London and leads a life of such privacy and seriousness as looks to the beholder like wisdom”.
Mad, eccentric or just ahead of his time, I will leave you to decide.