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A wry view of life for the world-weary

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

mytton

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.

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

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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.

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

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William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 5th Duke of Portland (1800 – 1879)

When I started researching this series I began to wonder where the point at which eccentricity ended and madness began lay. Perhaps eccentricity is the label we attach to someone who is rich enough to indulge their lunatic tendencies. A case in point would be the Fifth Duke of Portland whose eccentricities earned him the nickname, the Tunnelling Duke.

In his early years Portland showed no signs of his later eccentricity, engaging in horse racing and serving in the army and then become the Member of Parliament for King’s Lynn, a seat which he resigned in 1826. In 1834 he sought the hand of the actress, Adelaide Kemble, in marriage but she was forced to decline his overtures because she was already married. Whether this tipped him over the edge or whether he developed some form of skin complaint – some rumours suggested he suffered from some form of leprosy – he became increasingly insular and when he inherited his title on his father’s death in 1854 he resolved to have as little to do with his fellow-men.

If you were to encounter him, you would always remember him. He wore an unfashionable brown wig, a hat that was two feet tall, at least one frock coat – he often wore two – and his trouser legs were secured by a piece of string a few inches above his ankles. His outfit was topped off with a big umbrella, not because he was concerned that he would be caught in a passing shower but because he didn’t want the hoi polloi to gaze on him. If he went out he travelled in a black carriage with the blinds down (natch) and if he went by train the railway company had to supply a special carriage on to which the carriage was loaded. At the other end the carriage would be unloaded and off he went.

Portland’s gaff was Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire which dated from the 12th century. He only used four of the rooms in the place and requested that the servants, upon pain of dismissal, did not recognise his presence in any way. Each of the rooms he occupied were fitted with two post boxes, one for incoming mail and the other for outgoing, his preferred method of communicating with relatives and the outside world. The rooms were painted pink and had a lavatory pan in the corner for his convenience.

Astonishingly, Portland engaged in extensive building works, spending some two to three million pounds on constructing a huge library, an enormous billiard room and the largest ballroom in the country. Quite why a notorious agoraphobe would want to build rooms for essentially public entertainment is anyone’s guess. Portland even had a tunnel constructed, one and a quarter miles long, which ran from the coach house to the railway station at Worksop so he could catch the train unobserved. At least he created employment for 15,000 locals over the 18 years of construction.

When he died Portland was buried in Kensal Green cemetery and true to form he ordered that bushes be planted around the grave so that it would be obscured from view. Even when he was six feet under that was not the end of the eccentric duke. In 1896 Anne Maria Druce claimed that her hubby who was said to have died in 1864 was none other than Portland who was leading a double life. She wanted Mr Druce’s grave opened, feeling sure it would be empty, and pressed for her son to be recognised as the 6th Duke. The unfortunate Mrs Druce was consigned to a mental institution in 1903, perhaps making my point as to the difference between eccentricity and madness.