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

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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… 

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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.

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Brinsley Le Poer Trench, chairman of the International Sky Scouts, talking to a group of Japanese sky scouts at a reception in Tokyo, 23 June 1966. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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.

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Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson Berners. (Photo by Gordon Anthony/Getty Images)

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.

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Great British Eccentrics by SD Tucker is published by Amberley. To find out more, click here.