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Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Nineteen

Henry de la Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford (1811 – 1859)

We have come across our Henry before when we were examining the origins of the phrase, paint the town red, but his exploits are worth examining in more detail. To many they seem just the product of what extreme wealth and no gainful employment can do but if we measure eccentricity as behaviour out of kilter with the mores of the time, then the mad marquess, as he was known, is right up there.

Henry was actually the second son of the Second Marquess of Waterford but inherited the title upon his father’s death in 1826, because his elder brother had shuffled off this mortal coil in 1824. The title and the money that went with the grand estate in Ireland seems to havre gone to his head and during the late 1830s he was frequently in the news. His particular penchant was to drink heavily, brawl, vandalise property and strike peculiar wagers – a bit of an erstwhile Oliver Reed character.

At that time there was little in the way of an established police force and significant properties or thoroughfares were guarded by night watchmen. These poor individuals were seen as fair game by Henry and nothing rounded off a good evening on the electric sauce than beating one (or more) of them up. An even more sinister character trait was his love of a sick joke. On one occasion he wrote to the London and Greenwich Railway Company, offering them the princely sum of £10,000 if they would stage a train crash that he could watch. The thrill for him would be to observe the distress of the victims. Although train safety was parlous at the best of times in those days, thankfully the Company politely refused his offer.

Henry would do anything for a laugh. On one famous occasion, he bought several large casks of gin and stationed himself in London’s Haymarket, offering free mugs of the hooch to anyone who cared to take them. He seemed to see it as a bit of a social experiment, keen to see what would happen when the grateful public indulged in his largesse to excess. Well, what happened was that a riot broke and Henry had to be carted off for his own safety.

Beresford was a reckless horse rider and was brought up before the beak for riding at high-speed through a crowded street, without any concern for any of the poor pedestrians who may have been in the way. Arriving at the court on horseback, Henry demanded that his nag be cross-examined. After all, he argued, only the horse knew exactly how fast he was going. Whether it was the strength of his forensic arguments or his nobility that caused the case to be dismissed, we will never know. Mind you, he could have done with a fast horse when he rode in the 1840 Grand National. His horse, the Sea, was all washed out and finished last of the four to finish, half a mile behind the winner.

Such was Henry’s notoriety for practical jokes, or rather hooliganism, that the finger of suspicion was pointed at him as the perpetrator of what were termed the Spring Heeled Jack incidents. The Reverend E C Brewer, no less, attested in 1880 that he “used to amuse himself by springing on travellers unawares, to frighten them, and from time to time others have followed his silly example” These incidents occurred between 1837 and 1904, so Henry couldn’t have been the sole perpetrator but perhaps the Reverend was on to something.

The first incident occurred in Clapham Common  – Henry was in London at the time – when Mary Stevens was assaulted by a figure that leapt out of the dark and the following day another girl was attacked, the perpetrator effecting its escape by scaling a nine foot wall.

Whether Henry was involved is unclear but as well as painting the town red, he was tarred with the same brush, it would seem.


Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Seventeen

Anna Maria Helena, comtesse de Noialles (c1826 – 1908)

Wealth does not make you immune to the lottery of life. Take the curious case of the English noblewoman, Anna Coesvelt, who in 1845 married Charles-Antonin, the second son of the duc de Mouchy and prince-duc de Poix. The marriage did not last long and worse still, their only child died at birth. This tragedy probably left Anna with a lasting desire to have a child, something she resolved in an extraordinary way.

Taken by a portrait of a child by Ernest Hebert, hanging in the Paris Salon in 1863, Anna wanted to buy it. Unfortunately, it had already been sold but undaunted, she made enquiries of the model, one Maria Pasqua Abruzzesi with the intention of adopting her. Abruzzesi’s father agreed to the transaction for two bags of gold, insisting that his daughter be raised as a Catholic and as an equal. Anna agreed, the deal was struck and the poor girl was taken to England where her upbringing was far from conventional.

Maria was only allowed to wear loose-fitting clothing for fear of constricting her circulation – an imposition which at least exempted the child from wearing a school uniform at her boarding school. Believing that children who drank milk were less likely to become drunkards, Anna provided Maria with a supply of fresh milk from her herd of dairy cows. The cows served another purpose, being encouraged to graze near the house. The open windows ensured that the aroma from the trumping cattle circulated through the rooms, Anna believing that methane was good for the child’s health.

Anna herself followed an unusual health regimen. She would have a string of fresh onions hung from her bedroom door to ward off infections but fearing this was not effective enough, would flee England when the leaves started to drop from the trees, thinking this was a sign that the air was not healthy and influenza was about. To prevent the onset of bronchitis, she would eat prodigious quantities of herring roe. Anna was also concerned about her appearance and to prevent wrinkles would wrap stockings (silk, natch) stuffed with squirrel fur around her head.

Other eccentricities included only eating food if it was served to her whilst she was sitting behind a two-foot high silk screen and sleeping with a loaded gun by her bedside. Anna enjoyed a glass of port – who doesn’t? – but insisted that it was served to her at sunset, mixed with some sugar and diluted by fresh rainwater. She was also concerned about her eyesight and commanded her servants to wrap a piece of blue silk around her brass bedroom door as protection against excessive glare. When it fell off, it would cause her to shriek in terror.

In her will, Anna set aside some money to create an orphanage for the daughters of clergymen. Needless to say, anyone staying there didn’t have a normal existence. They were examined by phrenologists to ensure that they were “firm spirited and conscientious,” were prevented from being vaccinated against contagious diseases and those under the age of ten were taught no mathematics other than the multiplication tables.

Anna did use her wealth to some good, funding Elizabeth Blackwell in her struggles to become the first female doctor in the United States and was a major shareholder and financier of the English Woman’s Journal which, in the 1850s, campaigned on women’s employment and equality issues. But she was an odd fish by anybody’s standards.

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Thirteen

Caroline Giacometti Prodgers

Should we feel sorry for cabbies? The ready availability of the sat nav has rendered otiose their encyclopaedic knowledge of the highways and byways of London – the longest and slowest when a fare is in the cab, in my experience, and the shortest and quickest when touting for custom – and now that their stranglehold over the taxi business has been challenged, their livelihoods are under threat from nimbler operators. Taking a taxi is often seen as a necessary evil rather than an enjoyable experience and there is always the suspicion that the driver is ripping you off.

It seems that this feeling is not new. What is particularly interesting about Caroline Prodgers is that she was uber-zealous in her pursuit of cabbies, turning their ability to memorise routes and fares against them. The tipping point in Prodgers’ journey to eccentricity appears to have been her divorce in 1871 from an Austrian naval captain, Giovanni Battista Giacometti. Prior to her marriage Caroline had inherited a large sum of money and so was considerably better off than her hubby. This counted against her in the spectacular divorce proceedings during which she seemed to question the legitimacy of her children and the court ordered her to pay maintenance to Mr Giacometti for the rest of his mortal, creating a legal precedent along the way. Caroline failed to make the payments and was back in court.

Suitably pissed off, Caroline became an enthusiastic litigator. She sued her cook whom she had sacked for refusing to leave the house and continuing to sing around the place. She sued a newspaper publisher for ripping her dress in an altercation over a newspaper she refused to pay for because she thought she was mentioned in it. A poor watchmaker was dragged through the courts for returning the wrong watch to her.

Caroline’s major contribution to clogging up the legal system was to wage a ferocious campaign against London cabbies who, she was convinced were ripping their customers off. Outside stations would be posted bills showing fares from the railway terminus to principal areas of London. She memorised them and calculated the exact point at which the fare would increase from one amount to another. Taking a cab she would order the cabbie to stop immediately before the fare would increase. If he sought to charge the higher fare, Caroline would protest, throw a fit and provoke the cabbie into an altercation. The result was that the cabbie would then be up before the beak who usually would find in favour of the passenger. In a twenty year campaign, Prodgers sued more than fifty cabbies, winning most of the cases.

This rather unorthodox campaign brought Prodgers further notoriety. On Bonfire night in 1875 cabbies paraded an effigy of Caroline around in a cab. The cab driver was arrested but the case was dismissed, the judge commenting that the cabbie was “acting as a showman for the amusement of the public”. Cabbies also developed a warning system if they saw Caroline approaching, looking for a cab. The cry of “Mother Prodgers” would ring through the streets and cabs would rush away as quickly as they could.

Today we might view Caroline as a slightly dotty campaigner for the consumer. Her actions bore fruit because in 1890, the year of her death, a controversial plan was announced to fit hackney cabs with machines which would measure distances and calculate fares. A victory of sorts but contemporaries remembered her as a right nuisance. As comedian, Herbert Campbell, wrote, “ I’d like to send,/
A bust of Mrs Prodgers the Cabman’s friend./ Of all the strong-minded females she’s the worst I ever saw,/ Oh, wouldn’t she be lovely as a mother-in-law?/ At the corner of every cab-rank her flag should be unfurled/ As a horrible example to this wicked world.”

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Ten

Robert Coates (1772 – 1848)

If there is one pleasure to be gained from watching talent shows or enduring a karaoke session in a pub, it is the hope that you will find someone who is absolutely dreadful. These types seem impervious to criticism and are imbued with the notion that they are misunderstood geniuses. One such was Robert Coates who thought he was an outstanding actor and so made the role of Romeo his own that he earned the sobriquet, Romeo.

Alas, not everyone shared his opinion. He made his debut at the Theatre Royal in Bath on 8th February 1810. According to contemporary reports, the audience was confronted by “one of the most grotesque spectacles ever witnessed on the stage”. Coates wore “a spangled suit of sky blue silk and crimson pantaloons” as well as diamonds, a huge baroque wig and a white trimmed head with ostrich feathers. His acting style was unusual – forgetting lines, extemporising and improving upon the Bard’s plot. Coates even pulled out a box of snuff and took a slug during the famous balcony scene, proffering some to the front row, and enacted such a dramatic death scene that he did it again for good measure. Unfortunately, his costume was too tight and the seams of his breeches gave way revealing “a quantity of white linen sufficient to make a Bourbon flag”.

Despite Coates turning a tragedy into a farce, the audience lapped it up and Coates was emboldened to repeat his “success”. For the next six years, although the object of ridicule, he toured the country giving his extraordinary rendition of Romeo to packed houses, donating the profits to charity.

Born in Antigua to wealthy sugar plantation owners, Coates inherited a fortune when his father died and decamped to the fashionable watering hole of Bath. There he quickly earned a reputation for his extravagant spending, his good looks and eccentric clothing. He wore furs during the warm weather and gaudy, colourful costumes in the evening. He would entertain liberally and lavishly.

Coates had a number of carriages which he drove around Bath. One boasted a shell-shaped carriage, decorated with brown trimming and a gold bullion fringe which was drawn by four snowy-white horses. On the side was an embroidered, in gold (natch), cock bearing the motto, “While I live, I crow”. Another of his carriages was a curricle, a two-wheeled affair pulled by two nags, which had a silver bar in the middle of which was a silver gilt effigy of a cock. But this extravagant life style eventually caught up with him, even though he married a wealthy heiress, Emma Anne Robinson, in 1823. He began to be pursued by debt collectors and in the 1830s skipped over la Manche to Boulogne where he was often seen cutting a dash in his furs.

As a collector of unusual deaths, I take some interest in Coates’ death. On 16th February 1848 he attended Allcroft’s Grand Annual Concert at the Drury Lane Theatre. He left his opera glasses in the theatre and on returning there at around one o’clock in the morning to retrieve them, he was crushed between his carriage and a hansom cab and then knocked down and run over for good measure. Although it was thought Coates would survive his accident, he succumbed to an acute bacterial infection six days later. The hansom cab driver, who was never caught, was tried in absentia and convicted of manslaughter.

An ignominious end for one of Bath’s most colourful characters.

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Nine

Lord Berners (1883 – 1950)

Shropshire born Gerald Tyrwhitt, aka Lord Berners, was the 14th Baron Berners, a title he inherited, along with Faringdon House in Oxfordshire, on the death of his uncle in 1918. He was an accomplished, albeit minor, composer of classical music, a novelist, painter and all-round aesthete. More importantly, from our perspective, he was an eccentric and gratifyingly showed evidence of unusual behaviour from an early age.

I have learnt from experience that you need to be careful what you tell a child. The young Berners overheard someone saying that you could teach a dog to swim by throwing it into the water. Deciding to experiment he grabbed hold of his mother’s pet dog and hurled it out of a window, expecting the pooch to fly. Alas, the dog just crashed to the ground but walked away unhurt albeit a bit groggy. Berners received a thrashing.

His exasperated and uncaring parents often punished Berners by locking him up in a cupboard. One day Berners exacted his revenge by locking all the doors to the lavatories in his mother’s house and throwing the keys into the pond. This was the final straw and he was packed off to boarding school, Cheam House, and then Eton. He then spent ten years attached to the British Embassies in a number of European cities.

Berners left his stamp on Faringdon House. He had all the pigeons dyed in vibrant, pastel colours, using a harmless form of vegetable dye. The National Trust re-enact this tradition at Easter at the house. His dogs wore ersatz pearl necklaces which he bought from Woolworth. However, his guests were often taken in and when one reported that Fido had lost his necklace, Berners sighed and said “Oh dear, I’ll have to get another out of the safe”.

Berners was very fond of signs and notices. He had a number dotted around the estate proclaiming that dogs would be shot and cats whipped. Inside the house guests would find a sign at the top of the stairs announcing that no dogs were to be admitted and upon opening a wardrobe would be confronted with a sign advising them to “prepare to meet thy God”. The gardens would be full of paper flowers and Berners would disconcert the locals by wandering around wearing a pig’s head mask. Berners was noted for the quality of the tropical fruits he was able to grow. When complimented on some particularly delicious peaches, Berners claimed they were ham-fed.

In 1935 Berners decided that the estate needed a folly and so a 140 foot tower was built and given to his beau, Robert Heber Percy, as a birthday present. When asked what the point of the tower was, Berners responded, “the great point of the tower is that it will be entirely useless”. However, in case someone decided to use it as a launch pad for a suicide bid, he erected a wonderful sign announcing “members of the public committing suicide do so at their own risk”. Quite.

In those days guests would leave calling cards and Berners was an inveterate collector of them. He put his collection to good use. When he lent his house in Rome to friends he would furnish his butler with the calling cards of some of the most notorious bores in London society and instruct him to invite one or two a day to drop in at the Roman gaff. It amused Berners to think of his guests diving for cover every time the doorbell rang!

An eccentric, for sure, but fairly harmless – perhaps more a man with a wicked sense of humour. As he said in his epitaph which he composed himself, “Here lies Lord Berners/ One of the learners/ His great love of learning/ May earn him a burning/ But, Praise the Lord,/ He seldom was bored”.

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Eight


Sir Tatton Sykes (1826 – 1912)

Near Driffield in the East Ridings of Yorkshire (as was) is to be found a rather imposing Georgian house set in grounds designed by Capability Brown, Sledmere House. It was and is home to the Sykes family.

The fifth Baronet, Sir Tatton Sykes, by anyone’s standards was a bit of an eccentric cove. As another famous resident of the area, Philip Larkin, once said “they fuck you up, your mum and dad” and part of Sir Tatton’s problems could be laid at the door of his parents as he grew up even by the standards of the day “in an atmosphere devoid of love”.  His mother used to hide herself away in the orangery and his father spent most of his time with his racehorses. As soon as he inherited the estates on his father’s death in 1863 Sir Tatton wrought his revenge, demolishing the orangery and selling the racehorses for £30,000. Revenge, after all, is a dish best served cold.

As a landlord Sir Tatton had some rather peculiar traits. He could not abide seeing women and children loitering about at the front of their rented cottages and so he ordered his tenants to bolt their front doors and only use the back entrances. He had a pathological dislike of flowers and if he ever saw one whilst out walking, he would flog it mercilessly with his walking stick. Inevitably, his tenants were banned from growing flowers – “nasty, untidy things” – in their gardens. “If they had to grow something”, he fulminated, “grow cauliflowers”.

As he grew older, Sir Tatton developed what might only be termed hypochondriac tendencies. He was obsessed with maintaining a constant body temperature and used to order his coats and trousers in varying sizes. He would put the smaller ones on first, the medium-sized ones next and finally the largest so that he resembled a matryoshka doll. As he got warmer through his exertions he would simply remove a layer of clothing, letting it fall to the ground to be picked up by one of local children who would receive a small reward for their troubles.

Perhaps he had got a taste for revenge because towards the end of his life he lived almost exclusively on cold rice pudding. When his house caught fire in 1911 – the house was pretty much destroyed and what we see today is the result of careful reconstruction – he would not be moved until he had finished his bowl of food. His poor servants and tenants were left to save what they could of the artefacts in the house.

Sir Tatton had a disastrous marriage, to Jessica Cavendish-Bentinck aka Lady satin Tights who was thirty years his junior. Although she bore him a son in 1879, by the 1890s the couple were estranged, Jessica running up enormous debts. In a spectacular court case Sir Tatton refused to honour her debts which caused a major scandal at the time and Jessica died prematurely in 1912, ironically the same year as her husband.

For all his eccentricities, Sir Tatton was a shrewd business man and the sale of his father’s horses enabled him to build up a stud of winning horses and increase his landholding. By 1892 he had 34,000 acres and his estate turned in a profit most years despite the prevailing agricultural depression. He built or restored 18 churches at a cost of £10,000 a time, employing some of the greatest architects of the day, monies which he funded from his own purse. I just hope the grateful church didn’t present him with a bunch of flowers.

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Seven


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.

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Six


Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater (1756 – 1829)

Although educated at Eton and Oxford, Egerton quickly forsook England for the delights of Paris and soon entertained the locals with his version of English eccentricity. Quite why he left the family home of Ashridge House in the Hertfordshire village of Little Gaddesden is unclear, although there are suggestions that he had got a woman in the family way. His friends were somewhat surprised as he regularly spoke of his hatred of the place.

On arrival in Paris he bought a luxurious hotel, as you do, at 335 rue Saint-Honore and moved in with his collection of cats and dogs. A regular Parisian sight was a grand carriage leaving his gaff carrying several dogs reclining on silk cushions to the Bois de Boulogne where the pooches got out and were exercised, under umbrellas when the weather was inclement. At meal times the dogs were kitted out with leather boots, handmade of course, on their feet and linen napkins round their necks. Seated at the table, they were expected to behave with decency and decorum as their grub was brought to them on silver dishes.

Alas, not all of the dogs met Egerton’s exacting standards. Two of his favourites, Bijou and Biche, rebelled and in the eccentric’s own words “behaved like rascals”. So he had them measured up and condemned them to wear the valets’ uniform of yellow coats and knee breeches for eight days and they were deprived of the Earl’s company. I wonder if it made any difference.

As an English gentleman abroad, Egerton was keen to pursue the sport of fox-hunting. To this end he imported a pack of hounds and a fox and dressed in the full hunting rig would pursue the poor creature around the grounds of the hotel. Perhaps even less sporting was Egerton’s habit of clipping the wings of partridges and pheasants with which he stocked the grounds so that he might more easily shoot them even with his by then failing eyesight.

Egerton had a novel way of keeping track of the date. He would wear a fresh pair of shoes every day and when he had finished with them one of his servants would take them into a special room where they were laid out in a row. Egerton would then amuse himself by visiting the room, counting the shoes to calculate the date and by judging the condition of them, determine what the weather conditions had been.

Although eccentric, Egerton was not a man to cross. He faced down Napoleon Bonaparte who was remodelling Paris and wanted to change the layout of the area near the hotel. His workmen were quickly sent packing. The Duke of Saxe-Coburg made an attempt to requisition the hotel, only to be confronted by Egerton and thirty servants, armed to the teeth.

Egerton made little attempt to learn the local language, preferring to converse in Latin, although he did have some of Milton’s works translated into French for the benefit of the natives. And he didn’t think the local cuisine was up to snuff. One summer he decided that his entourage would spend some months sampling the delights of the French countryside. On the day of departure, 30 servants on horseback, the earl and his dogs together with 16 luggage carriages set off from rue Saint-Honore. Stopping some way out of Paris for lunch, he concluded that the quality of the food and the standard of service was not up to his exalted standards and promptly returned home.

He stayed in Paris until his death but was buried back in Blighty in the family chapel.

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Five


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.

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Four


Jack Mytton (1796 – 1834)

Born at Halston Hall near Oswestry, Jack inherited the gaff and the revenue from 132,000 acres of land in Shropshire and North Wales at the age of two when his father popped his clogs. This meant that money was never a concern but Mytton showed from an early age that he was a restless and troubled spirit. Expelled from Westminster school and Harrow, he spent some time at Cambridge University where he was the life and soul of the party, shipping in some 2,000 bottles of port to see him through his time there. Naturally, he left without a degree.

After a brief spell in the army, in 1819 Mytton decided to turn his hand at politics. He hit upon a wonderfully effective electioneering stunt – offering the constituents of Shrewsbury £10 each (a prodigious amount at the time) to vote for him. He was elected but he found the political grind a bore, attending parliament for just thirty minutes before giving up his seat.

Having exhausted the normal sources of employment for a gentleman, Mytton settled down to a career of eccentricity. He liked to experiment. He wondered whether a horse pulling a carriage could jump a tollgate. A wrecked carriage and some cuts and bruises ensued. He would drive deliberately at ruts in the road to see what would happen. Invariably, his carriage was overturned. In 1826 for a bet, which he won, Mytton rode his horse into a hotel in Leamington Spa, ascending the staircase and from the balcony jumped over the diners in the restaurant below, still seated on his horse, making his exit via a window. Astonishingly, no one was injured in the caper. Want a cure for hiccups? Set your night shirt alight to give yourself a fright. It worked!

Mytton was surrounded by animals, having some 2,000 dogs of various types, mainly hunting breeds. His favourites were fed on steak and champagne and some were decked out in livery and other fancy costumes. His horse, Baronet, was given free range of Halston Hall and was often to be found stretched out in front of a roaring fire.

A keen huntsman – he had 150 hunting breeches, 700 pairs of handmade hunting boots, 1,000 hats and 3,000 shirts – Mytton would often go out hunting. Often though, he felt so warm during the heat of the chase that he would strip off and follow the petrified fox in the buff. At night he would leave his bed, stark naked, armed with his favourite gun and fire off at the local ducks.

A visit to Halston could be an experience One evening he entered the drawing-room riding a bear. All went well until he spurred the bear to go faster. The creature took umbrage and bit him on the leg. It was later killed after biting a servant. After entertaining a local parson and doctor who then went on their way, Jack donned a highwayman’s mask, surprised his guests firing shots into the air and was amused as they fled in terror. One benefit was that Mytton was so careless with money that he left bundles of it around the estate which guests were free to make off with.

Mytton was a prodigious drinker, quaffing eight bottles of port a day together with copious quantities of brandy. Inevitably, his lifestyle caught up with him and the money ran out, dying in a debtors’ prison in Southwark “a round shouldered, tottering old-young man bloated by drink, worn out by too much foolishness, too much wretchedness and too much brandy”.

Mytton’s ghost is said to haunt the Mytton and Mermaid in Atcham on his birthday, 30th September, and he is commemorated in Shropshire by the Jack Mytton Way, one of the longest bridleways in the country.