What is lurking in your past?
by Michelle Barber
Have you ever thought of having your family history researched but decided that it’s not worth it because your family probably weren’t that interesting? You may be surprised to find that you are not on your own. Many people make presumptions about their ancestors and the real truth is that unless you get someone to research them or do it yourself, you will never know what may be the fascinating truth.
In this article, I’m exploring eccentrics. The most well documented ones tend to be aristocrats and habitually male at that. Although they make an interesting read, I have discarded them with savoury vigour because they are common on the web and you can read about them elsewhere. Essentially, what I hope to demonstrate is that any one of us could have an eccentric in our family history whatever it turns out to be.
Lunatic or not?
Even though it was a long time ago that I found out that my great great grandfather, Charles Howard lived a large part of his life in a lunatic asylum, I can still remember how I felt when I first discovered it. I felt sick for him but I also felt worried in case he had done something horrendous like a series of murders. In hindsight, I really should have known better because I knew what the Victorians were like for flinging folks in asylums. However, it seems that when it comes to our own family even though it is four generations back, all good sense disappears up the chimney. In other words, until I read the actual notes on his incarceration, my mind danced through all sorts of scenarios that involved cut throats and strait jackets. It probably didn’t help that another researcher told me a gory story about one of their ancestors that was in a lunatic asylum for cutting the throats of their immediate family.
My ancestor, Charles Howard was born in 1823 in Wigan, Lancashire but moved to Hull, East Yorkshire for work and then marriage. On the 4th April 1867, he was admitted into Hull Asylum. His youngest child, my great grandfather was two years old. His wife, Ann was left with five children to support plus the shame of her husband being put into an asylum.
As far as I can see from reading the doctor’s observations of Charles, his only crime was that he was eccentric. In 1867, he walked from Hull to Wigan (his home town) and back four times. These days, he would be applauded for walking right across the country and probably be able to raise money for charity too. His other crime was that he had a creative mind and talked about inventing something that would help the government. One thing is for certain after reading all the medical notes and that is that when Charles entered the asylum he was probably just eccentric but being in the asylum for such a long period actually caused mental illness. He withdrew into himself to such an extent that he seemed to lose touch with the world outside of himself.
Charles died in the asylum in 1898 at the age of 76. He died of a heart condition. What I find questionable in this particular situation, is whether Charles would have been put into an asylum if he had been of a higher class. Was it viewed that there had to be something mentally wrong with a working class man that liked hiking and had a creative mind because surely that was something just for the upper echelons of society? I know what I think.
Shakespeare, a pub and a painting or two.
The next eccentric, Shakespeare Hirst has a far jollier existence than Charles Howard – well, up until his wife’s demise and then his own, that is. Shakespeare Hirst was born in Almondbury, Huddersfield in 1841 into a family of woollen weavers. His father, Henry was a strong enthusiast of the work of William Shakespeare and so called his second son after him. By the 1871 census, the family have moved into the Shakespeare Inn and are no long woollen weavers. Henry Hirst is a publican and Shakespeare is an elocutionist.
The local newspapers of the time often report on what Shakespeare Hirst was up to. A favourite event at the Huddersfield inn was the commemoration of William Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23rd. A large banquet was laid on with lots of drinks and speeches. After which, Shakespeare Hirst would recite his favourite Shakespearean monologues whilst in full costume.
On top of that, Mr Hirst would often have a reciting hour early on Sunday evening in his public house. During that period, drinks were not served. Apparently, his favourite party piece was doing the strangulation scene from Othello. He used the pump handle to demonstrate the strangulation. What an amazing sight that must have been.
Shakespeare Hirst also loved art and he claimed to own an original painting of the Bard by Adam Elsheimer. He alleged that the painting was done in 1608 in Rome. Mr Hirst was of the opinion that Shakespeare often travelled to Rome, of that there is no evidence. He also claimed that other pictures in his collection were by Titian, Rubens, Turner, Caravaggio, Raphael, Leonardo De Vinci and a host of others. However, after his death the auction, unfortunately, only realised about £1,000.
- In 1889, he held an exhibition of his old masters at his home.
- He bought two properties 83 and 85 Town End in Almondbury, Huddersfield and named them Shakespeare House.
- Shakespeare Hirst named all his children in connection to Shakespeare. They were Cordelia, Henry, Ophelia, Shakespeare Elsheimer and Miranda.
Unfortunately, even the death of his wife and himself would not have been out of place in a tragedy. In 1891, his wife Mary Ann committed suicide by drinking mixture of carbolic acid and glycerine. It was for treating ear canker in dogs. She was 36. 1907 Shakespeare Hirst died at the age of 63 through an excess of alcohol. His daughter, Ophelia stated that he drank a quart of brandy a day.
A female second Jesus Christ – Mary Ann Girling
It seems that female eccentrics are more difficult to find than males. However, I think that Mary Ann Girling can beat most chaps on the eccentricity scale. As you shall see, up to Christmas Day 1864, her life was just plain ordinary and then it all kicked off. She was born Mary Ann Clouting on the 27th April in Little Glemham, Suffolk. Her parents were Emma (nee Gibbs) and William Clouting, a farmer. In 1863 at Lowestoft in Suffolk, she married George Stanton Stirling and they had a number of children, the youngest being William.
On Christmas Day 1864, she got a message from God that she was the second coming of Jesus Christ. It has been alleged that one sign of this was that she had stigmata on her hands, feet and side. Apparently, from then on celibacy was the order of the day. She then set up a religious order called the Children of God in the New Forest. The community was referred to as the Shakers by other people.
Although the community were celibate and worked hard, they still managed to be looked down on and get into debt and ended up being evicted. At one stage in 1878, they had all their belongings out on the road blocking it and they stayed there for a couple of days but were given notice to leave. The Shakers went from one state of hard living to another but it never seemed to deter Mary Ann.
Mrs Girling only wrote one piece which was entitled “The Close of the Dispensation: the last message to the church and world. She signed off with – “I close this letter with the true and loving declaration that I am the second appearing of Jesus, the Christ of God, the Bride, the Lamb’s Wife, the God-mother and Saviour, life from heaven and there will not be another. She died from cancer in 1886 aged 59.
The one that swallowed a water-wolf.
Again we have a woman that lived a very ordinary life until one day… Maria Judson, 7 Prospect Street in Haworth claimed that while drinking some water from a Spring at Lee Shaw, a water-wolf jumped down her throat. The creature then started to grow inside her for a full six years. Apparently, she could feel it getting bigger.
One day, she was cooking onions in butter when she could feel the thing wriggling and squirming up into her throat. Luckily, Maria was cooking her dinner in a tin over the open fire. She opened her mouth and the water wolf went into the fire. According to Maria, she couldn’t quite describe the water wolf but it could have been like a grey frog. Furthermore, she had heard that they were partial to a bit of cooked onion. Apparently, she wasn’t the only one that had had a situation with a water wolf, she heard that a woman at the crossroads had had similar problems.
Eccentrics seem to come in all states of reality – well, it is their reality that is why we consider them eccentric. Do you think that you might have an eccentric lurking in your family history? Anyone of us could have. If you would like to have an article written about your ancestors, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org