Odd-balls, One and All…….
When I was child, in the 1940’s, in my hometown in Ireland we had our fair share of eccentrics. Not that we ever realised it as we never knew then what an eccentric was. They were known in those days as ‘characters’. Some lived in their own little worlds with harmless delusions whilst others were so extrovert that they became totally believable particularly to young boys such as my friends and me.
One of the best specimen came from well out in the mountains and every Saturday we would wait with baited breath for the country bus to arrive. He never failed us. You see, he would wear a full cowboy outfit. It was authentic in every respect and we as children actually thought that he was a real film star. He would proceed down Main Street, calling out challenges to all and sundry ‘to Draw’ whilst snatching his toy but real looking pistols from their leather holsters.
Most of the mountain farmers came to town on Saturdays and if I close my eyes and think about them, they reappear in my mind’s eye exactly as they used to do in those far-off days. There is no comparison whatsoever nowadays since they began to reap the benefits of European Community subsidies. I doubt if any of the men had real shoelaces in their enormous boots. Yellow binding twine was as close as they ever came to owning laces but not only did they use it to tie up their boots, they also used it to tie around their waist as a belt for their trousers. Two more pieces of twine was tied just below their knees. My dad used to say that they did so to prevent the rats from running up the legs of their trousers back on their little farms. I truly believed him and still do………………
Another, a local Blacksmith – he actually shod horses in those days – was as weird as a nine-bob note (the equivalent of a nine dollar bill). Even in his forge, he would wear a Derby hat. That’s the one that looks like a top hat but has a round top. He never took it off and it was rumoured that he even wore it in bed. However, on Sunday at Mass, he had to take it off. He obviously had a thing about his baldness as he would, and you can believe this or not, cover the top of his head with the black tarry substance that they put on horses’ hooves. The sight in summer, in the heat, of the sticky black muck running down the sides of his face and neck still sticks in my memory.
Most of the street newspaper sellers were truly odd-balls. We had Chicken Riley, Jem Murray and some others. As soon as old Jem sold enough papers, it was into the pub for a pint of Guinness. Old Chicken Riley must have worn the same greasy raincoat for at least forty years. It was in shreds………….
Over here in England, British eccentrics put the Irish ones totally in the shade and I met more than my fair share within the Police service. I mean that literally, as many older officers began to try to ‘work their ticket’, (gain an Ill-health pension) and retire early. Several would wear odd coloured shoes and socks. Others would wander around the station singing God Save the Queen. I may have given the impression that they were pretending but in the majority of cases I am not so sure. I honestly believe that some were totally mad.
I heard of a very reliable Essex Constabulary officer who had two or three more years’ service left to qualify him for his full pension. Sadly he had a stroke which affected his speech, his stance and movements. He was however well liked so a ‘job’ was found for him in order that he could complete his thirty years. All he had to do was clean out the police cars each day and then have the rest of the time off. He wore old overalls to do so…….
One day a memo arrived at his Chief Superintendent’s office stating that the Chief Constable was going to make a visit to the station and all officers were instructed to present themselves in their best uniforms and put on a very good show. Nobody thought of our disabled friend. He however managed to get the message and on the appointed day, he arrived fully booted and suited in his best uniform. The poor fellow, God bless him, looked like nothing on earth. Nobody noticed him until the Chief Constable arrived so the next three hours were spent driving our friend around the extremities of the force area to keep him out of sight. He did in fact manage to survive and draw his pension not long afterwards……..
Over the years England, although a small country, seems to have had more true eccentrics than many larger countries. The old aristocracy supplied many of the most bizarre ones. The reason is obvious as to have a truly odd and expensive lifestyle you require a large personal fortune and the arrogance to ignore the reactions of your fellow countrymen. Inbreeding was also a most likely major factor………..
The fifth Duke of Portland for example was a very shy man who did not like meeting people and banned them from his home Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire. He even went one step further as he decided that he would live underground. He then began having a series of subterranean rooms built.
An underground ballroom was built and a billiard room so big that it housed a dozen full sized billiard tables. He then built a tunnel, a mile and a quarter long, which connected his coach-house to Worksop Railway Station. This made it possible for him to travel in a blacked-out coach to the station where he and the coach were loaded onto a railway truck. When he reached his London home in Cavendish Square his servants were sent away as he climbed from his coach and rushed to the privacy of his study.
Lord Rokeby decided that he would like to spend all his life near or in water. He spent hours in the sea off the Kent beaches and as a result his servants often had to drag him out onto dry land unconscious.
As he got older, at his home Mount Morris near Hythe, he had a vast tank built with a glass top, had it filled with water and spent nearly all his life floating in the water. He grew the most enormous beard which hung down to his waist and spread out on the surface of the water. All his meals were taken in the pool to the embarrassment of his family. His obsession with water was so great that he had drinking fountains installed wherever he could and drank great quantities every day. He lived to be 88 so he was a good advertisement for the health-giving properties of the local water….
Lord North was another remarkable eccentric. He married in the month of September and spent his honeymoon in the Caribbean. When he returned with his new American wife to Burgholt House in England in October, he announced to his new wife that ‘he was going to bed’.
His wife was quite surprised when he remained in bed for many days and was shocked to be told by a manservant that Lord North always stayed in bed from October 9th until March 22nd. A large 25 foot dining table was brought into Lord North’s bedchamber so that he could entertain people to dinner during these months. His explanation for his weird behaviour was that ‘no Lord North had got out of bed from October to March since his ancestor had lost the American Colonies……….’
Francis Henry Egerton, the eight Earl of Bridgewater preferred dogs to people. He had no time for women and he declared that dogs were better behaved than gentlemen were. The dogs ate with him every day. His huge dining table would be laid for twelve and the dogs led in, each with a clean white napkin around its neck. There the servants would serve them from silver dishes – one servant to each dog. Boots were his other obsession. He wore a new pair every day and at night he arranged them around his walls and used them as a calendar.
Another animal love was Baron de Rothschild. His superb chateau in Buckinghamshire was home to many. He drove a carriage drawn by four zebras and in the house he had a tame bear. It used to slap women guests on the bottom……..
He once gave an important political dinner for Lord Salisbury and when the twelve guests were seated at the table they noticed that each had an empty chair beside them. Just before the meal commenced, twelve immaculately dressed monkeys walked in and sat down in the empty seats.
Probably the weirdest of them all was Lord Combury, the third Earl of Clarendon who was Queen Anne’s cousin. His eccentricity took yet another form. The Queen appointed him to be her representative as Governor of New York and Jersey in America. He took it all very seriously and decided that as he was representing a woman, he would dress as a female.
At the opening of the New York Assembly in 1702 he wore a blue-silk gown, satin shoes and carried a fan. His wife did not have a very happy time in America as all their money was spent on his female attire. He took to wearing the most sumptuous decorated hooped gowns in silk and as there was no money left for her, his wife resorted to stealing in order to clothe herself. He was eventually ordered to return to England in 1708 and although he continued to dress as a woman he managed to remain a favourite of the Queen.
William Beckford was aged ten in 1770 when he inherited one million pounds and several plantations in Jamaica. His income was over £100,000 a year, an immense fortune in the 18th century. He became obsessed with erecting large buildings with towers which were his speciality. However, he was forever impatient and could not wait to see his projects finished.
In 1794 he decided to build a Gothic abbey on his estate. Again he was so impatient he could not wait for proper foundations to be dug so the abbey was build on a base that was only suitable for a much smaller building. Five hundred men were involved in the construction and he plied them with large quantities of beer in the hope that they would work faster.
Six years later the magnificent abbey was complete with a spire 300 feet high. A gale blew up and the spire snapped in two. Beckford gave orders to start on a new tower immediately. Seven years later, the new tower was completed. He lived in the abbey with only one personal servant – a Spanish dwarf. However, every day his dining table was laid for twelve and the cooks ordered to prepare food for twelve.
Beckford vowed that he would eat his Christmas dinner in his new abbey’s kitchen and having done so and finished the meal, the entire kitchen collapsed. Little remains of Fontill Abbey today………
As my old Mum used to say – “More money than sense”……………..
Mike- Over the years England, although a small country, seems to have had more true eccentrics than many larger countries.