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  • Great British Eccentrics by S. D. Tucker

    ONE LORD A-LOONING: John Conrad Russell and the Sad Destruction of the House of Lords

    In an extract from his book Great British Eccentrics, out now in paperback, SD Tucker remembers the life of the strangest-ever member of the House of Lords, John Conrad Russell.

    With Press controversy currently raging over the prospect of the assorted time-servers, sycophants and hangers-on in the House of Lords apparently planning to try and block the will of the people by conspiring to wreck the passage of Article 50, there have been renewed calls of late to abolish the entire Chamber. This would be short-sighted. Instead, why not simply return the Lords back to the way it used to be, when Members inherited their peerages, rather than being political appointees? Quite apart from putting an end to the naked political cronyism which now characterises life in the Upper House, this would also have the entertaining side-effect of allowing some genuine lunatics to don the famous ermine once again; as is well-known, eccentricity runs rife in the blood of the English aristocracy. The maddest Lord of all was surely John Conrad Russell, the 4th Earl Russell. Russell’s father was one of the most famous men of his age, the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell. John Conrad Russell, however, had to settle for simply being one of the oddest …

    I suspect there can be few persons outside of politics or the media who have ever actually bothered to buy any copies of Hansard, the official transcripts of sessions which take place in the Commons and the Lords. The exception to this rule was an edition containing a particularly unforgettable speech of Earl Russell’s from 1978, which sold out almost as soon as it was printed. Russell’s rabid rant was nothing if not memorable. Certainly, it pulled no punches, the Earl being quite happy to ask his fellow-Peers ‘What are you? Soulless robots?’ before then going on to accuse them all of being nothing but a bunch of ‘spiritless Papal bum-boys’. ‘Forward, the creative spirit!’ he roared, before providing the country with some very creative solutions to its most pressing problems himself.

    In Westminster-speak, Russell’s speech was technically classified as being a ‘response to an unstarred question’ during a debate that was supposed to be about aiding victims of crime, but which ended up being about much, much more. After all, as Earl Russell explained to a bemused House, there was actually no such thing as crime. If Britain was really the civilised nation it pretended to be, he said, then its police-force should be merged with the Salvation Army immediately, and its officers retrained so that their only function was to make people cups of tea.

    If a man tried to steal anything, then that was his perfect right, Russell made clear, giving the example of someone who might walk into a jeweller’s shop to snatch a bag of diamonds. If such a thing happened, said the Earl, then surely the only truly humane thing for the jeweller to do would be to let him steal them, then give him a second bag as well, for good measure. Prisons, it turned out, should be banned; according to Russell, policemen up and down the land were engaged in a gigantic conspiracy to arrest young men and seduce them in their cells, before then selling them on into lives of gay prostitution in prisons. What way was this to treat the flower of English manhood, he asked? Surely it would be better if the Government just paid them all a fair wage to sit around and do nothing all day in big huts instead of making them become Chief Constables’ rent-boys?

    Earl Russell had some interesting plans for the nation’s schoolgirls, too. At the age of twelve, he said, every girl should be considered a woman, and given a free house. Then, 75 per cent of the nation’s wealth would be donated to the fairer sex, whilst the remaining 25 per cent would be used to protect men from the police in their large communal huts, which the girls could then visit in order to choose their husbands – as many as they liked, the men would have no say in the matter. This, he said, would be the true realisation of ‘Women’s Lib’.

    Explaining that ‘the habit of arresting young people and raping them in gaol is part of a plot which is designed to destroy the human race’, Russell demanded that the nation’s youth be put in charge of everything, and encouraged to play outside all day in the nude instead of being treated as mere ‘indoor products’. As he said, ‘the ancient Greeks fought naked’, and so ‘naked bathing on beaches or in rivers ought to be universal’. School and work were just Establishment conspiracies aimed at forcing adolescents to stay inside all day instead of romping through fields as nature intended; ‘Leisure is the point and working is wrong, being in any case the curse visited by God upon Adam and not to be blessed.’ He approved of bored schoolboys burning down their schools, as it was obvious (to him) that if they were being taught properly by their teachers then the spirit of Sir Isaac Newton would have been reincarnated in one of them by now. Surely we should instead all follow the example of the old cartoon-character ‘Little Audrey’ who, he said, had ‘laughed and laughed because she knew that only God could make a tree’?

    So embarrassing was this episode that a myth has since arisen that it is the only speech ever made in Parliament which was not recorded in Hansard. This is not true, but I think I can explain the misunderstanding; Earl Russell had not finished talking when he was forced to give way to Lord Wells-Pestell, and, seeing as the rest of his speech was not actually spoken in the Lords, Hansard had no business printing it. Russell had planned to end his oration with the surprisingly understated assertion that ‘It may be expected that most people will support these proposals, because they are, after all, in everybody’s own interest.’ In this, as in so much else, I fear he may have been mistaken.


    S. D. Tuckers new paperback edition of his book Great British Eccentrics is available for purchase now.

  • Great British Eccentrics - BBC History magazine feature

    Great British eccentrics: 7 of the most peculiar people in history

    From the Scottish physician who pronounced lobsters as being capable of love and ‘damned crabs’ as having hearts of stone, to the peculiar aristocrat who invented a tiny gun for shooting wasps, Britain has long been a stronghold of eccentricity and peculiar behaviour

    In his new book, Great British Eccentrics, SD Tucker introduces readers to some of the most unusual people ever to have been eligible to hold a British passport. Here, writing for History Extra, he explores seven particularly noteworthy eccentrics…

    1) Lieutenant-Commander Bill Boaks

    My personal favourite eccentric in history is Lieutenant-Commander Bill Boaks (1904–86), a comically obsessive road-safety campaigner and politician.

    A Royal Navy man, Boaks returned to civilian life in 1945 in need of a new foe to fight, and found it in the rise of the motorcar. He was soon out canvassing on behalf of his ADMIRAL (‘Association of Democratic Monarchists Independently Representing All Ladies’) Party, of which he was the sole member.

    Boaks’s aim was to cause such traffic chaos that citizens spontaneously gave up their cars and began travelling by bus or helicopter instead – landing-pads for which he insisted be installed in every city. To this end, Boaks took to holding up traffic by repeatedly walking up and down zebra-crossings wheeling a pram full of bricks, or sitting in the middle of the A40 in a deckchair reading The Daily Telegraph.

    Ironically, Boaks’s death in 1986 was a result of injuries sustained in a traffic accident – he fell off a bus and banged his head.

    2) Sir Tatton Sykes

    Some of Britain’s most famous eccentrics were aristocrats – men like Sir Tatton Sykes (1826–1913), who had such a pathological hatred of flowers so extreme if he ever saw one while out walking he would immediately flog it to death with his walking stick. Tenants on his lands in Yorkshire, meanwhile, were expressly forbidden from growing any such “nasty, untidy things” in the gardens of their cottages. “If you want to grow flowers, grow cauliflowers!” was his habitual mantra.

    As he aged, Sir Tatton became a miserable old hypochondriac who obsessively followed various bizarre health-fads of his own invention. He lived on an almost exclusive diet of cold rice pudding and, so the story goes, in 1911 refused to leave his mansion of Sledmere House during a blazing fire until he had finished his bowl. “I must eat my pudding!” he is said to have told his servants as the flames consumed his property.

    Feeling that it was imperative to maintain a constant body temperature, Sir Tatton used to order his coats in sets of six to eight, all of slightly different sizes, and then wear them on top of one another in layers, like a living Russian doll. Then, when he began to get too warm, he would simply remove one coat at a time and discard it on the ground, relying on local boys to pick them up and bring them back to Sledmere for a small reward. Apparently, he had a similar arrangement with his trousers ...

    3) Lord Clancarty

    Equally strange were certain members of the House of Lords, such as one Lord Clancarty, also known as Brinsley le Poer Trench (1911–95), former editor of the world’s leading UFO publication, Flying Saucer Review.

    Prior to inheriting his earldom in 1976, Clancarty had penned a series of books with titles such as The Sky People, explaining his unusual view that alien beings had emerged through tunnels (including those at the North and South Pole) from a civilisation that still existed beneath the Earth’s crust.

    In 1964 Clancarty helped found a body called Contact International, which linked up ufologists from across the globe. Originally called the International Sky Scouts (pictured below) in order to appeal to children, the name had to be dropped after the real Boy Scouts threatened Clancarty with legal action!

    Clancarty was particularly popular in Japan, and in 1966 was invited there by a saucer-cult named The Cosmic Brotherhood to take part in a ceremony on top of a ‘sun-pyramid’ – his hosts thought an alien astronaut had descended to earth thousands of years ago to teach people how to grow vegetables.

    Clancarty was particularly interested in the issue of UFO propulsion-systems: in 1983 he said that an official from the Japanese car giant Honda had paid him a visit in London, asking to be let in on his secret knowledge about the matter. So, if Honda ever do manage to create an affordable family-saloon spaceship, you know who to thank.

    4) Henry de la Poer Beresford

    Some of our strangest aristocrats have been less neurotic, however. A good case in point is Henry de la Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford (1811–59), a notorious Anglo-Irish wild-man, drunkard and scrapper who enjoyed beating up night-watchmen and playing sick jokes on people, such as the time he wrote to the London and Greenwich Railway Company offering them £10,000 if they would arrange a deliberate train crash for him to observe so he could laugh at the victims.

    Known as ‘The Mad Marquess’, Beresford was known to do anything for a thrill. On one occasion he took several large casks of gin and stood in London’s Haymarket handing out mugs of the stuff to random passers-by for free to see what would happen. Eventually, everyone got so drunk that a riot broke out and Beresford had to be arrested for his own safety.

    Even more outrageous was Beresford’s alleged conduct after being summoned before a magistrate after riding his horse at high speed through a crowded street, heedless of any injuries he might cause. The story goes that he turned up at court on horseback and demanded his steed be questioned in the dock – after all, he explained, “Only he knows how fast he was going”. The case seems to have been rapidly dismissed.

    5) Colonel Thomas Thornton

    If these stories sound a little unbelievable to you, then they are nothing compared to the yarns spun by Britain’s greatest-ever liar Colonel Thomas Thornton (1757–1823), a former leader of Yorkshire’s West Riding Militia.

    It was blatantly obvious that Thornton’s tales were falser than those of Baron Münchausen, but that only added to their appeal. There was the time, for instance, he claimed to have fallen from his horse headfirst onto a scythe. According to Thornton, he was “the only man in Europe” to whom this calamity had ever happened, the scythe causing his head to literally split in two right down the middle, each half drooping down over either shoulder “like a pair of epaulettes” – quite how he managed to survive this catastrophe, he never fully explained.

    Drink, it has to be said, may have played a role in all this boasting, but a stranger would still have to be careful about dismissing all of Thornton’s boasts as false – if, for example, he tried to tell you that his wife was a champion jockey; that he had met Napoleon; or that he had invented a special shotgun with 12 barrels for shooting multiple targets at once with, then he would actually have been speaking the truth!

    6) Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson

    Generally known as Lord Berners, Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson (1883–1950) showed signs of eccentricity from an early age. As a child, he once threw a pet dog out of the window in an attempt to teach it to fly – a test the canine apparently failed. As an adult, Berners made his home at Faringdon House in Oxfordshire, and transformed it into his own personal playground. He dyed the feathers of the estate’s pigeons bright pink, and displayed various bizarre signs around the place. His most legendary notice was placed upon a tall tower in the grounds: “Members of the public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk”, it cautioned.

    Berners also liked to travel in style – his own style. He would drive around wearing a pig’s-head mask in order to disturb the locals, and, when forced to use public transport, would go to great lengths to secure a train-compartment for himself.

    Getting into empty carriages first, he would don a black skullcap and dark sunglasses before leaning out of the window and beckoning sinisterly to strangers on the platform, exhorting them to come and join him for some fun and games on the journey. Those few fools who took him up on the offer were then treated to Berners producing a large rectal-thermometer and constantly shoving it into his mouth while pulling anguished faces.

    7) John Tallis

    Some eccentric lives, however, seem more sad than amusing. In 1724, for instance, a 48-year-old man named John Tallis, (1676–1755) from the small village of Burcot in Worcestershire, decided that he had had enough of the outside world and retreated away from it forever. For some inexplicable reason, Tallis had arrived at the erroneous conclusion that the cause of all ill-health in humans was the very air we breathe.

    As such, Tallis ordered the windows in his bedroom to be bricked-up (although according to some sources he had an entirely new room built with only one window, which had glass three times thicker than usual), and then retreated permanently to his bed, tucking himself in tightly so that his head was the only exposed part of his body.

    Then, Tallis had his entire head wrapped in various coverings, caps and bandages made up of around 100 yards of flannel, like some kind of living Egyptian mummy, and fitted stoppers into both of his nostrils. A piece of ivory placed within his mouth also acted to lessen the inflow of ‘deadly’ air to his lungs and Tallis often had a piece of woollen cloth laid over his bandaged face, just in case.

    Tallis stayed locked in this peculiar tomb for nearly 30 years, during which time his sheets were never once changed – instead a new bed was brought into his room once per annum. His servants had to roll Tallis into it, his leg-muscles eventually having atrophied from lack of use.

    Written by Emma McFarnon for BBC History Magazine on Friday 9th October 2015


    S. D. Tucker's Great British Eccentrics is available for purchase now.

  • 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 ...


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

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