An eccentric from 18th century Yorkshire, animal-lover and inventor Jemmy Hirst was the greatest eccentric in English history. His bizarre exploits included riding bulls, teaching otters to fish, fixing sails to his carriage, and treating the king like an equal.
James Hirst was born in 1738 in the tiny northern England town of Rawcliffe. His father was a moderately successful farmer and, by all accounts, Hirst's family was of a quiet and respectable sort. But young James - who would be known for most of his life as "Jemmy" - quickly distinguished himself from the rest of the family. Even as a toddler, he showed a unique intellect and wowed his fellow villagers with his remarkable insight, and so his parents decided to send him to a boarding school for prospective clergymen.
This did not prove to be a good fit. Hirst was unremarkable academically but he proved himself a gifted prankster. He once discovered the principal's glasses lying about and carefully removed their lenses from the frames. The principal was outraged when he discovered his glasses were now entirely glass-free, and it was only the fact that all his fellow students found the scene so hilarious that Hirst escaped any blame for the incident.
His pranks quickly began to overlap with his true love, which was animals. Specifically, it was training animals to do things that, in the ordinary course of things, they were exceedingly unlikely to do. For instance, the young Hirst had a great deal of fun training an old pig that belonged to the principal, as John Tomlinson recounts in his 1865 book Some Interesting Yorkshire Scenes:
Jemmy's greatest enjoyment about this time was in riding on the back of an old sow belonging to the parson. He used to tie a piece of twine to the ring in her snout, and call it his bridle; and a nail stuck in his shoe heel served for a spur. But, like most of her sex, the old sow was very wayward and obstinate; and many were the falls Jemmy got from her ladyship's back, and many a tussle he had with her before he succeeded in breaking her in.
He had just got her to leap over a stick about a foot high, and was practising this novel equestrian feat one night after school hours, when who should come into the yard but the principal himself, bringing a horsewhip with him, with which he gave Jemmy two or three strokes on the shoulders before that young gentleman was aware of his presence. Jemmy tried to dodge, putting the old sow between himself and the master, but it was no go, as Jemmy said himself, so be was obliged to run for it, receiving a few more strokes before he could get out of the parson's reach. For this Jemmy was confined all next day, and fed upon bread and water; yet he was in no wise deterred from mounting his swinish charger in future whenever he had an opportunity.
His attempts to teach the pigs to jump hurdles ultimately led to his expulsion, and so he was sent off to be an apprentice tanner. He made a remarkable comeback in 1756 when he earned a small fortune speculating on farm produce. This allowed him to spend the rest of his long life back in Rawcliffe as a gentleman farmer, and to be generous in the most eccentric way possible. He supposedly would blow a hunting horn to invite the poor and elderly to his house for refreshments...which were served in his favorite coffin, because where else would you serve them?
In any event, the real boon of his newfound wealth was the ability to take his love of animals to the next level. His two most frequent companions were apparently a fox and an otter, and he even kept a bear named Nicholas. This creature, unfortunately, resisted Hirst's efforts to tame it, resulting at least once in injury to the eccentric farmer. Equally unsuccessful but significantly less painful was Hirst's attempt to train a litter of pigs to be foxhounds, but he could never get the piglets to stop grunting, which made them spectacularly ineffective when it came time to sneak up on foxes.
But his great achievement in taming animals that had no business being tamed was with his prized bull Jupiter. John Tomlinson recounts the story of how Hirst actually managed to render the fearsome bull into a lovable pet:
Old Mr. Hirst had a fine young bull, called Jupiter; so, one day, Jemmy resolved to make a hackney of him. Accordingly a saddle was constructed to fit the bull's broad back, and a bridle to encircle the bull's capacious head: then Jemmy mounted his sullen charger. Jupiter stood for a moment amazed at such stupendous effrontery; then, with tail erect and head declined, set off at full gallop across the field, ever and anon throwing up his heels in a paroxysm of rage. Jemmy kept his seat, with courage deep embued, until the bull rushed at a thick-set hedge, which the rider intended Jupiter to clear, and Jupiter intended to breakdown.
Neither result happened, however; the concussion sent the bud reeling backwards, and Jemmy flying over the bull's head into an adjoining field. No serious damage was done to either of them, and a few minutes afterwards Jemmy, being again mounted, gave the brute such a drilling, that he was compelled to acknowledge the dictates of a superior will, and learn his first lesson of obedience. From this time, the task became comparatively easy, and not only was Jupiter rendered sufficiently docile, carrying his master to all the surrounding villages and market towns, but learnt to take a moderate-sized fence like any thoroughbred hunter.
Hirst treated Jupiter like a horse for the rest of his days, riding him in various hunts and having him pull his carriage. Remarkably, this was one of the more sensible things Hirst spent his time doing.
Animals were always Hirst's first, second, and third loves, but he also had a flair for invention. He built a special windmill intended to thresh corn, but it didn't quite work for its intended purpose - Hirst ultimately put it to use cutting straw and chopping turnips. He built a special wickerwork carriage that took a full year to complete, which was said to contain an entire wine cellar and a double bed. The carriage required either his bull Jupiter or four strong mules to pull, and he built a simple mechanical odometer that would ring a bell after every mile of travel.
But his greatest achievement has to be his attempt to fix sails to his carriage and create what can only be called the world's first land boat. In the book Yorkshire Oddities and Incidents, the 19th century scholar Sabine Baring-Gould recounts Hirst's disastrous first voyage...and his triumphant second attempt, all on the same day:
With the assistance of the captain of his sloop, Jemmy rigged some sails to his carriage, and after a few trials of the new contrivance in the lanes about Rawcliffe, he set off one day to Pontefract with all sail set. Having a fair wind he went at a dashing speed. When he reached the town every one turned out to see the wonderful ship that sailed on dry land.
But when Jemmy reached the first cross-street a puff of wind caught him sideways, upset the carriage, and flung Jemmy through the window of a draper's shop, smashing several panes. The crowd that followed speedily righted the carriage and extricated Jemmy, who paid for the damage he had done, and led the way to the nearest tavern, where he treated the whole crowd with ale. This bounty naturally elicited great enthusiasm, which exhibited itself in pro-longed cheers, to Jemmy's great delight, for he was one of the most conceited of men.
The authorities having intimated to him that he would not be allowed to sail back through the streets, the crowd yoked themselves to the carriage, and drew him triumphantly out of the town, and would have dragged him halfway to Rawcliffe had not a favourable wind sprung up, when Jemmy spread his sails again, and was blown out of sight of the crowd with expedition. He reached home without any further mishap.
Hirst possessed a remarkable talent for making his supreme strangeness seem endearing instead of merely obnoxious, but even he sometimes struck the wrong balance. One incident began with a dinner party, in which Hirst was showing off his unsurprisngly bizarre choice of home furnishings to his guests. Sabine Baring-Gould tells the story:
Immediately over Lord Wharncliffe's head was suspended a pair of horse's blinkers.
"Do you wear these?" asked a Mr. Sadler who was present.
"No, sir, I do not; I keep them for donkeys of a peculiar make, who stand on their hind legs and ask impertinent questions."
"What do you mean ?" asked the young man, reddening. "Is that intended as a personal remark?"
"Draw your own inferences," answered Jemmy, knocking the ashes out of his pipe.
Mr. Sadler felt so insulted that he demanded satisfaction, and after some brief consideration Hirst accepted, naming Lord Wharncliffe as his second. Jemmy and his second then excused themselves from the room, but not before his lordship advised another in the party to get Mr. Sadler as drunk as possible. Then it was just a matter of Hirst's mechanical know-how saving the day:
Then Lord Wharncliffe and Jemmy, slipping in by another door, proceeded to dress up a dummy that was in a closet hard by in Jemmy's clothes. Mr. Sadler was then told that all was ready, and he returned into the room rather the worse for the liquor he had drunk. The pistol was put into his hand, and he was stationed opposite the dummy, which with outstretched arm pointed a pistol at him. The signal was given, and Mr. Sadler fired; then Jemmy, who was secreted in a closet hard by, pulled a string, and the dummy fell with a heavy thud upon the floor.
Sadler felt immediately remorseful when he thought he had killed his opponent, and he rushed over to the "corpse" to make sure it was really dead. He then discovered that his victim had been made of wood all along, and everyone else burst out laughing. Hirst then emerged from his hiding place and profusely apologized to Sadler, and the pair parted as friends...but not before partying into the wee hours of the morning.
Hirst's eccentricity made him a frequent topic of conversation with the Yorkshire aristocracy, and their stories of him eventually reached King George III. The monarch, who still had a few decades left before his own faculties would abandon him, was intrigued to meet Hirst, and so had Lord Beaumont write a letter inviting the eccentric to the royal court. Hirst's response was simply incredible (emphasis mine):
"My Lord,-I have received thy letter, stating his Majesty's wish to see me. What does his Majesty wish to see me for? I'm nothing related to him, and I owe him nothing that I know of; so I can't conceive what he wants with me. I suspect thou hast been telling him what queer clothes I wear and such like. Well, thou may tell his Majesty that I am very busy just now training an otter to fish, but I'll contrive to come in the course of a month or so, as I should like to see London. -I am respectfully, James Hirst.
Hirst did eventually arrive in London, wearing an outfit that comprised "an otter-skin coat, patchwork breeches, red and white striped stockings, [and] yellow boots." The noble peers and assembled crowd alike found Hirst's outfit completely ridiculous, and the Duke of Devonshire is said to have collapsed in laughter. Hirst naturally assumed the Duke was suffering from a hysterical fit, and so he immediately threw a glass of water in the noble's face.
When the king arrived, Hirst saw no great reason to give him special treatment - after all, as he had pointed out to Lord Beaumont, "I didn't seek the king's acquaintance, he sought mine." Hirst didn't bow before the king but instead held out a hand to shake, complimenting the sovereign on being a "plain-looking fellow" and inviting him to his Yorkshire home for a brandy. George III was by all accounts greatly entertained by Hirst's eccentricity, and after a long chat about Hirst's inventions he sent the man away with a carriage fully stocked with wine from the royal cellars.
Hirst had about as much reverence for religion as he did the monarchy. He quite openly made no spiritual arrangements for the next life, explaining that making a good coffin was all he required to be ready for death. When a local noblewoman asked him about the state of his soul, Hirst is said to have offered this reply:
"...I don't see what provision I can make, for I once heard a parson say that we could take nothing away with us when we died; so I think the best plan would bo to do the best we can for the body while we are here, and let the soul, if we have one, look but for itself in the next shop we go to."
That said, Hirst did provide for a potentially spectacular funeral. When he died in 1829 at the age of 91, his will insisted that much of his remaining money be used to provide for twelve maidens - accounts differ on whether they were meant to be old or young - to carry his coffin to the grave, accompanied by bagpipes and fiddle. Unfortunately, only two actual maidens were available in the surrounding area, and so ten widows were hired to fill out the ranks. Sadly, the raucous music Hirst had intended was forbidden by presiding priest, who insisted the bagpipe alone should play and that the piper only play sacred music.
To the bitter end, Hirst was an iconoclastic inventor and an irrepressible eccentric. I said he had made a good coffin, and I wasn't kidding. John Tomlinson describes his remarkable box, and the even more remarkable trade he made out of viewing the thing:
He made a coffin, most curiously contrived, with folding doors, in which were bull's eyes of glass to peep through, and a bell to ring when he wanted anything in the grave. The coffin was for years reared up against the wall of his house, and all his male visitors paid a penny for the privilege of standing inside this wooden box. I suppose it humoured the old man's whims to do so. From the womankind he exacted, not a penny, but a different kind of toll. A kiss, you will say. No; guess again. Do you give it up? Well, he exacted a garter; and each garter was tied to his old armchair, until one could scarcely see the wood for garters.
Bull tamer, carriage sailer, duel puppeteer, king befriender, coffin innovator...Jemmy Hirst truly did it all, and he quite clearly lived his life for his own amusement. Considering what he managed to accomplish in the fields of animal psychology and automotive engineering, we are only left to speculate what Hirst could have done if his singular mind had been unleashed on relativity or quantum mechanics. I'm guessing he would have batted out the grand unified theory in a weekend...provided that damn otter had finally learned how to fish.