James Lucas (1813 – 1874)
For some eccentrics a life-changing event proved to be the tipping point into strange and unusual behaviour. A case in point is James Lucas who earned the sobriquets, mad Jack and the Hermit of Hertfordshire.
James was the son of a rich Liverpudlian land-owner who had interests in sugar plantations out in the West Indies. They moved to Hertfordshire when James was about ten, taking up residence at Elmwood House at Great Wymondley, near Stevenage. James used to terrorise the locals by riding through the countryside at a reckless pace, tied to an old-fashioned saddle with a cord and with his long hair flowing in the breeze. Apart from that, though, he was clever, studied medicine and a good conversationalist.
The point at which his eccentricity developed occurred in 1849 when his mother, to whom he was devoted, popped her clogs. So distraught with grief was James that he sat beside the body for thirteen weeks, refusing to allow her to be buried until the local magistrates decided enough was enough.
James had now inherited Elmwood and dismissed all the servants. He shut all the rooms of the house, save for the kitchen. His only furniture was a table and a chair and for clothing he made do with a blanket. James’ sole source of heat was the kitchen fire which he never allowed to go out. Inevitably, the ash accumulated. All James did was scrape them out by hand so that they gradually filled the room. Dirty and unwashed, he lived amongst and slept on piles of ashes for his remaining twenty-five years, subsisting on milk and bread.
In order to deter unwelcome visitors and relatives, the windows and doors to the kitchen were barred with logs and iron struts. Towards the end of his life he took extra security precautions by employing a couple of watchmen. But the hermit’s fame spread far and wide and he had a steady stream of visitors with he would converse through the barred windows. James enjoyed the company of tramps whom he would interrogate. If there were no holes in their story, he rewarded Protestants with a penny and Catholics with two pence. Those whom he caught spinning a yarn were sent packing with a flea in their ear and, possibly, a shower of ashes.
Children were also welcome and on major Christian festivals, principally Christmas Day and Good Friday, he would shower the local ragamuffins with money, sweets and buns. Perhaps Lucas’ most famous visitor was Charles Dickens who paid his respects in 1861. The author immortalised the encounter in Tom Tiddler’s Ground, published in 1861, featuring a misanthropic, morbid hermit called Mr Mopes who sought seclusion to gain notoriety. This rather unsympathetic portrayal of his condition probably pissed Lucas off.
An attack of apoplexy finished him off in 1874 and when the house was opened up, it took 17 cartloads to remove all the dirt and ashes. After twenty-five years of studied neglect, the house had slowly rotted away and in 1890 it was finally demolished. Lucas was buried in the family grave in Hackney in east London.