Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Meet the Great British Eccentrics by Steven Tucker

To celebrate the publication of his new book Great British Eccentrics, author SD Tucker provides some edited highlights from the lives of three of Britain’s most lovable lunatics ...

That Magnificent Madman with his Flying Machine

Charles Waterton, the Squire of Walton Hall in Yorkshire, was a prominent nineteenth-century naturalist who developed the strange belief that he could fly. He even manufactured himself a pair of home-made wings, but found there was one thing which prevented him using them properly; his legs. No matter how “symmetrically formed”, said Waterton, a man’s legs were “inconveniently long and heavy” for an “atmospheric trip” and kept on bringing him back down to ground. He could have chopped them off, but this would have proved inconvenient in other ways; another solution would be to float them on some kind of artificial cloud, but he never worked out how to make one. As a result, when he jumped off a platform to test his wings out, he plummeted straight down to earth like a stone.

Maybe the Squire had simply enjoyed an uncharacteristically heavy meal that day; for, such was the light nature of his diet, he claimed to be able to float down from heights quite naturally, due to his belly being full of wind and air. For example, when cutting off a rotten tree-branch one day, Waterton’s ladder slipped, causing him to suffer a 12 foot drop to the ground. However, in his own words: “I had just presence of mind, in the act of falling, to forcibly restrain my breath, and from fasting, being meagrely supplied within, when I reached the ground I may say with truth that I literally bounced upon my feet in an instant. My transit from high to low merely produced a stiffness in my neck and right leg the following day. Had I been full of beef at the time, I assuredly should have fared worse.” Yet another benefit of going on a diet!

The Mad Hatter of Newton Burgoland

Had you visited the small Leicestershire village of Newton Burgoland during the 1850s or 1860s, then you may well have encountered a very strange gentleman named William Lole, who was happy to welcome visitors into his own personal secret garden. Here sat a large tub, acting as a pulpit, and next to it stood a home-made gallows, from which dangled a stuffed effigy of the Pope. Lole viewed the Pope as evil and, whenever he had managed to lure enough visitors into his garden, would climb into his tub and begin to deliver what was called by one witness “a long rambling tirade”, telling his visitors that the Vicar of Rome was really the Anti-Christ.

Just as strange as Lole’s garden was his appearance. He owned at least twenty special symbolic hats, each bearing various mottoes he felt were of the utmost importance to humanity. It appears these hats were shaped like the objects they were meant to symbolise – so, when wearing a hat entitled ‘Bee-Hive of Industry’, he presumably walked around with a fake bee-hive on his head. Lole’s ‘Patent Tea-Pot’ hat must have looked the strangest, being, I suppose, short and stout, and coming complete with a handle and a spout. It seems that, when wearing this particular item, Lole wished to pour out the sweet tea of social justice into the world; its motto was ‘To draw out the flavour of the tea best – Union and Goodwill’. I wonder how much goodwill he would encounter if he tried on such antics today, though?

The Nutty Professor

Probably the most eccentric scientist in British history was Sir Francis Galton, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin whose interests included statistics, anthropology, currency reform, the best way of flashing signals to Martians, inherited lunacy amongst cats and the fluctuating weight of British noblemen. As an experiment intended to illustrate how easy it was to convince yourself to believe in falsehoods, he decided to see if it was possible to convince himself that a puppet of Mr Punch was in fact God. By sheer force of will, Galton eventually managed to convince himself that Mr Punch did indeed possess divine powers, feeling it impossible to look upon his hook-nosed and red-cheeked face without feeling a mixture of awe and reverence.

Every bit as bizarre were some of his many weird and wonderful inventions, like the so-called ‘Gumption-Reviver’, which dropped water onto his head to maintain alertness during periods of study. By placing pressure-gauges under the legs of chairs at dinner-parties, meanwhile, he aimed to record scientifically how much his guests fancied each other, his theory being that, the more each male leaned towards each female at the table, the more suitable marriage-partners they were. Best of all was a special hat Galton invented to prevent the wearer’s brain overheating during periods of strenuous thought. Claiming to have once ‘sprained’ his own brain whilst studying Mathematics at Cambridge, Galton was determined that his head should never again become too warm through over-use, leading to cerebral malfunction. To this end, he devised a special ‘ventilating hat’, whose top featured a valve which opened and closed whenever a rubber-bulb dangling down from its brim was squeezed, thus preventing disaster. The fact that this aim could have been achieved rather more easily by simply not wearing a hat at all seems never to have occurred to Sir Francis ...

9781445647708

Great British Eccentrics by SD Tucker is available now from Amberley, and features dozens of strange tales about dozens of equally strange people.