The Curious Case of Hermits for Hire
What do millionaires do to show off their wealth? Some buy exotic pets, big houses, or fancy cars. But 300 years ago, a fad erupted among wealthy Brits to buy people—not to make them servants (they already had those), but to have them simply wander around the yard.
HERMITAGE, SWEET HERMITAGE
By the late 1700s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. A by-product of this new technology: the Romantic Era, in which English writers, painters, and the well-to-do railed against modernization. Poets like John Milton and William Wordsworth wrote about the virtues of solitude and anti-materialism. The “humble hermit living off the land” became a symbol of the Romantic ideal (though few were willing to try it themselves). At the same time, a trend was growing among the rich in England: They constructed “architectural follies” on their grounds—elaborate buildings that were primarily decorative, such as Roman temples and Egyptian pyramids, towers, grottos…and hermit houses, or hermitages.
What was a hermitage like? They were pretty small. The one at Hagley Hall in Worcestershire was a closet-sized stone cave covered with roots, moss, and foliage. A Milton poem was hung on the wall, just in case visitors didn’t understand the connection. Many hermitages also included macabre decor, such as floors made of knuckle bones. Marston House in Surrey was surrounded by a bone fence topped with real horse heads. And no hermitage was complete without a decorative human skull for contemplation.
KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES
Soon, simple caves and grottoes just weren’t enough to make the nobleman stand out from his peers; he needed his own actual hermit (preferably a filthy, bearded old man) to live in the hermitage. However, finding an old man who was living a truly non-materialistic life in the woods was difficult, even back then. And convincing him to move to a huge estate was nearly impossible. (There was a reason they lived in the woods.) The next best thing: Hire a peasant from the village to fill the role. Ironically, only the wealthy could afford to maintain a garden hermit, who was supposed to symbolize the landowner’s interest in non-material pursuits.
Most of the time, a rich person would simply put an ad in the newspaper looking for a hermit. But in a few cases, folks who were down on their luck offered themselves up for the job, as evidenced by this London Courier newspaper ad from 1810:
A young man who wishes to retire from the world and live as a hermit in some convenient spot in England is willing to engage with any nobleman or gentleman who may be desirous of having one.
It’s unknown if that man ever became a hermit, but those who were hired were usually contracted to live in the hermitage for seven years. For example, an English politician named Charles Hamilton advertised a seven-year contract for a hermit to come and live on the forested land at Painshill Park in Surrey…
…where he shall be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his feet, a hassock for his pillow, an hourglass for timepiece, water for his beverage, and food from the house. He must wear a camlet robe, and never, under any circumstances, must he cut his hair, beard, or nails, stray beyond the limits of Mr. Hamilton’s grounds, or exchange one word with the servant.
Hamilton offered a payment of 700 guineas (more than $500,000 in today’s money), but there was a catch: The hermit wouldn’t get a penny unless he followed every detail in the contract. Hamilton did find a man willing to shed his wares, but the hired hermit lasted for only three weeks—he was fired when he was found drinking at the local pub.
MASTERS OF PUPPETS
Indeed, finding a good hermit could be quite difficult…unless you were the queen. In the 1730s, Queen Caroline, wife of King George II, offered to let a poet who was grieving the death of his wife live in her hermitage at Richmond Park near London. The poet, whose name was Stephen Duck, accepted and became one of the most famous hermits of the Romantic Era. Duck grew a long beard and wrote poetry in his garden hermitage, having all the access he wanted to the queen’s library. He received thousands of visitors each year (not exactly a life of solitude), but never did seem to find solace. In 1756 Duck drowned himself in the River Thames.
But most rich folks weren’t as fortunate as Queen Caroline. They became frustrated by the hermits sneaking off and embarrassing them. So some wealthy landowners placed wax dummies in chairs in their hermitages. John Hill of Hawkestone Park in Shropshire went one step further: He used a puppet. That’s because his real hermit, known as Father Francis, had died after living for 14 years in a cave at Hawkestone, sporting the requisite long beard and contemplating an hourglass to the delight of passersby. After his search for a suitable replacement failed, Hill instructed his servants to build him a life-size replica of Father Francis. The new “Francis” turned out to be distinctly less animated than his predecessor, but Hill had a solution for that as well: He hired a man to crouch behind the dummy and make it “stand up” whenever a visitor approached. The operator would then recite poetry while moving Francis’s mouth with a string.
As the Romantic Era came to a close in the mid-1800s, interest in ornamental hermits declined, and the practice was all but forgotten. However, many of the hermitages have been kept up for posterity. And every once in a while, one is actually used for its intended purpose. In 2004 an artist named David Blandy revived the hermitage built by Charles Hamilton at Painshill Park, announcing on his website:
The 18th-century tradition of housing a human pet at the bottom of your garden to impress the neighbours is set to return. I will seal myself off from the outside world and reside in a house with similar proportions to a rabbit hutch.
Like his Romantic predecessors, Blandy was protesting modernism. His goal was to illustrate that in today’s world, people care more about their electronic gadgets than each other. So how long did Bandy’s detachment from society last? Only a few weeks.
They just don’t make hermits like they used to.
This article is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s 24 Karat Gold Bathroom Reader. The information miners at the Bathroom Readers’ Institute have unearthed a priceless collection of surprising, amazing, headscratching, and hilarious articles. 24-Karat Gold is chock-full of little-known history, random origins, weird news, celebrity secrets, and urban legends.
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