The Curious Case of Real Life Ornamental Garden Hermits

In modern times if you want to show off extreme wealth, you may purchase expensive sports cars, buy a private jet, wear flashy jewelry, or, as boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. has been known to do, travel around carrying suitcases filled with sometimes millions of dollars in cash. Such extravagant displays of wealth are a trademark of the boxer with Mayweather reportedly having a standing arrangement with his bank to have huge sums of money in cash periodically delivered to his palatial home with the primary purpose being to facilitate flaunting his fabulous wealth, instead of using a card like mere plebeians.

Going back a few centuries in Britain, a popular way to achieve a similar effect was to simply hire a random person to live on your property, with their job generally being to cease bathing or grooming in any way and otherwise spend their days sitting around doing a whole lot of nothing but looking like a stereotypical hermit, all for the enjoyment of guests.

While it isn’t fully clear exactly how the idea of the so-called Ornamental Hermit came about, author of The Hermit in the Garden, Dr. Gordon Campbell of the University of Leicester speculates, “The idea of keeping an ornamental hermit probably began in Tivoli to the east of Rome when the Emperor Hadrian had a villa. In his Villa, he had a little pond and in the middle of the pond, he had a little house for one where… he could retreat from the horrors of running the Roman Empire.”

What does any of this have to do with 18th century Britain? In the 16th century, the villa was excavated and this little villa was discovered. Pope Pius IV then decided he too should have a similar little building in the Vatican gardens to use as a retreat. This was subsequently built, called the Casina Pio IV, helping to set the idea in popular landscape architecture.

This finally brings us to the 18th century. Around this time, famed landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown, who designed nearly 200 parks, some of which are still around today, strongly pushed for getting rid of elaborately perfect, artificial looking gardens, and instead chose to design parks that looked as if the landscaping of the region was completely natural. Of course, everything was nonetheless still carefully planned out, with paths, streams, artificial lakes, and other landscaping carefully done to create an area that looked like something out of a classic painting.

As for structures, these included things like elaborate stone bridges and models of ancient temples, but also often including something much simpler- a hermitage style retreat. These could be proper buildings, but more commonly were things like hobbit-hole type underground homes. They also sometimes were made of stone, occasionally carefully constructed such that existing tree roots would appear to have grown around the stone, with moss placed to grow on it as well. Adding macabre elements was also common, such as using bones of animals as decoration, or even in some cases as floor or wall material.

Inside these structures would generally be placed various items like human skulls, books, hour glasses, etc. In the early going, some estate owners would actually use these structures as a retreat for themselves, to reconnect with nature and relax. But, eventually, somebody got the bright idea to take it a step further.

Instead of making it look like a hermit lived in the structure or using it as a retreat themselves, the estate owners started hiring actual people to live in their hermitages. These individuals would often be asked to dress like a stereotypical druid, though what the druids actually wore isn’t precisely known. As noted, they would also sometimes be asked to grow long beards, allow their hair, toenails, and beard to grow indefinitely, etc. etc.

As you might imagine, finding someone interested in wiling away their years sitting around in squalor, and in some cases strictly forbidden from venturing into the outside world, wasn’t exactly an easy thing, despite the fact that some land owners were offering a princely sum for an individual willing to do it.

For example, at Painshill Park, Charles Hamilton offered £700 (about a £1.2 million today) to anyone willing to live for seven years in the hermitage constructed in his garden.  The specific ad Hamilton placed seeking such a hermit stated the person hired:

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.

Unfortunately for Hamilton, after a mere few weeks of service, his first hired hermit was found hanging out at a nearby pub rather than sitting around contemplating his life.

In another case, one John Timbs of Lancashire offered 50 pounds per year to anyone willing to live in his underground hermitage. Not without creature comforts, however, this particular hobbit-hole apparently included a chamber organ, a bath, unlimited books of the hermit’s request, and high quality food from Timbs’ own table. Again, as was common, an interested applicant would have to agree not to cut “his hair, beard, toe-nails, or fingernails” for the duration.

In yet another case, the advert noted,

Wanted- Ornamental hermit to occupy natural cave dwelling under waterfall for seven years. The successful candidate shall be provided with Bible, water, spectacles, camlet robe, hourglass, and food from the house. No hair- nail, or beard trimming permitted. Sum offered 600 pounds.

There are also a few known instances of people attempting to volunteer their services as an Ornamental hermits, such as this ad that appeared in the January 11, 1810 edition of the London Courier:

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. Any letter addressed to S. Laurence (post paid), to be left at Mr. Otton’s No. 6 Coleman Lane, Plymouth, mentioning what gratuity will be given, and all other particulars, will be duly attended.

When a particular property owner could not find a suitable candidate, they often resorted to placing dummies or occasionally fully fledged automatons in the hermitages. For example, in the mid-18th century on Sir Samuel Hellier’s Wodehouse estate’s 18 acre gardens, he had a mechanical hermit constructed apparently capable of some form of human-like movement when manipulated by a hidden servant.

As for what the flesh and blood ornamental hermits would get up to, this varied based on the requirements of their benefactors. Some seem to have wished them to sit around and do nothing, speaking to no one, as in the aforementioned case of Charles Hamilton. Others only cared that they look the part, and otherwise when guests weren’t around were free to socialize with other servants, take the occasional bath in the main house, etc. Still others would ask their hermits to entertain guests with poetry of their own making or otherwise impart the wisdom they were supposed to have acquired through spending their days mostly in solitude.

In at least one case, naturalist Gilbert White actually convinced his own brother, a minister by the name of Henry, to take up the post for a time on his estate in 1763, apparently much to the excitement of his various guests. For example, consider this account by one Catharine Battie upon meeting Henry,

in the middle of tea we had a visit from the old Hermit his appearance made me start he sat some with us & then went away after tea we went in to the Woods return’d to the Hermitage to see it by Lamp light it look’d sweetly indeed. Never shall I forget the happiness of this day …

While this might seem an awful lot of excitement for meeting a quasi-homeless person, it should be remembered that this wasn’t that far away from a time when walking was literally the world’s most popular spectator sport. And we’re not talking racing someone or walking around and seeing the sites. No- crowds of thousands would gather simply to watch someone walk around quite normally in circles for sometimes days on end, such as in 1809 when one Captain Robert Barclay Allardice famously walked 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours.

Going back to hermits, occasionally a given land owner would strike gold and find someone actually interested in living as a hermit. Arguably the two most famous of these being Stephen Duck and Father Francis.

As for Stephen, he was a poet who accepted a position as a resident hermit at Richmond Park, owned by King George II’s wife, Queen Caroline. His hermitage was described in 1735 editions of The Gentleman’s Magazine,

A subterranean building is by Her Majesty’s order carrying on in the Royal Gardens at Richmond which is to be called Merlin’s Cave adorned with Astronomical figures and characters.  The figures Her Majesty has ordered for Merlin’s cave were placed there… 1. Merlin at a table with conjuring books and mathematical instruments, taken from the head of Mr Ernest, page to the Prince of Wales. 2. King Henry VIII’s Queen, and 3. Queen Elizabeth who came to Merlin for knowledge, the former from the face of Mrs Margaret Purcell and the latter from Miss Paget’s. 4. Minerva from Mrs Poyntz’s 5. Merlin’s secretary from Mr Kemp’s one of His Royal Highness the Duke’s gardeners. 6. A witch, from a tradesman’s wife at Richmond….

Her Majesty has ordered also a choice collection of English books to be placed therein; and appointed Mr Stephen Duck to be Cave and Library Keeper and his wife Necessary Woman there.

As for the outside, they state it was made of a

heap of stones, thrown into a very artful disorder, and curiously embellished with moss and shrubs, to represent rude nature. But I was strangely surpris’d to find the entrance of it barr’d with a range of costly gilt rails, which not only seemed to show an absurdity of taste, but created in me a melancholy reflection that luxury had found its way even into the Hermit’s Cell.

Fully embracing the role, Duck apparently grew a lengthy beard and otherwise spent his time reading books from the queen’s library, writing poetry, and talking with the many hundreds of people each year who would seek him out at the elaborate hermitage. Unfortunately for Stephen, he ultimately had enough and decided in 1756 to kill himself by jumping into the River Thames and failing to bother to surface.

As for Father Francis, he lived in a cave at Hawkstone Park, belonging to one Sir Richard Hill.  Francis spent his time contemplating life and attending to people who would come visit him to seek advice from him. Those wishing to see Father Francis, would, to quote a 1784 account,

pull a bell, and gain admittance. The hermit is generally in a sitting posture, with a table before him, on which is a skull, the emblem of mortality, an hour-glass, a book and a pair of spectacles. The venerable bare-footed Father, whose name is Francis (if awake) always rises up at the approach of strangers. He seems about 90 years of age, yet has all his sense to admiration. He is tolerably conversant, and far from being unpolite.

When Francis died after 14 years of service, a suitable replacement couldn’t be found, so he was replaced by an automaton, with it noted by one visitor who saw the fake hermit:

The face is natural enough, the figure stiff and not well managed. The effect would be infinitely better if the door were placed at the angle of the wall and not opposite you. The passenger would then come upon St. [sic] Francis by surprise, whereas the ringing of the bell and door opening into a building quite dark within renders the effect less natural.

How the movement in this case was achieved was apparently to have a hidden worker manipulate the automaton each time someone entered to cause it to stand up. At that point, the worker would then manipulate the mouth using a string, while reading out various lines of poetry.

All good things must come to an end, however, and by the early 19th century, having an ornamental hermit on your estate was already falling out of fashion.

But let us never forget that the human drive to one-up our fellow denizens on our journey to the grave is so strong that for a brief period in history people actually took to, essentially, hiring a random squatter to come hang out on their property, just so they could show off the unkempt individual to guests.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Facts:

  • In Saalfelden, Austria, there still exists a hermitage, which is more or less built into the side of a mountain cliff. This structure has been occupied by various hermits for almost four centuries. The most recent hermit to reside there is one Stan Vanuytrecht, who, in 2017, beat out several dozen other applicants for the right to live in the cliff-side abode, which has no running water, nor heat, electricity, or other such amenities. The job of the hermit there is simply to entertain any who seek out the hermit for advice or other spiritual discussions.
  • If you’re at this point wondering if the ornamental hermit has any strong connection to the practice of garden gnomes, this doesn’t appear to be the case. While it took longer to catch on in the United States, garden statuary has been popular in European countries since at least the Renaissance. Saints, gods and mythical creatures were among the early figures depicted, and one character called Gobbi, which is Italian for “dwarf” or “hunchback”, starting in the early 1600s.From there, references of “House Dwarves” are found in the late 1700s. These statues were made of porcelain and produced continuously through the 19th Century.  It is believed the dwarves morphed into gnomes and moved from the house to the garden when Baehr and Maresch out of Dresden, Germany started producing their own take on the dwarves around 1841.

    Sir Charles Isham was also a key figure in the spreading of the gnome, when he introduced gnomes to the United Kingdom by bringing 21 of the terracotta figures home with him from a trip to Germany around 1847 and placed them in the garden of his home. (Amazingly, one of those original gnomes is still around.  Lampy, as the statue is called, is on display at Isham’s home, Lamport Hall.)

    On a related note, besides just sticking the Gnomes in a garden, another modern Gnome “tradition” has recently popped up- Gnome-napping.  Essentially, you steal someone’s garden gnome, then take it on a trip or other sort of adventure while taking lots of pictures of what the gnome’s been up to on its journey and send them back to the owner.  If you choose, when you’re done, you return the gnome to where it started.  This practice seems to have started in the 1980s in Australia, but saw a huge upswing in popularity thanks to the 5 time Academy Award nominated 2001 film Amelie where this is depicted.

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