The Strange, Short-Lived British Trend of Hiring Ornamental Hermits

An 1830s print of visitors arriving at a hermitage.
An 1830s print of visitors arriving at a hermitage.
Flickr // Public Domain

If you were a grand gentlemen of the Georgian era, having a huge country house with lavishly landscaped grounds wasn’t enough to impress your visitors. No, you needed a little something extra. You needed an ornamental hermit.

True hermits, those who shun society and live in isolation to pursue higher spiritual enlightenment, had been a part of the religious landscape of Britain for centuries. The trend of adding hermits to estate grounds for aesthetic purposes arose in the 18th century out of a naturalistic influence in British gardens. Famed landscape gardener Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1715-1783) was a leading proponent of this naturalistic approach, which shunned the French-style formal gardens of old (think neatly trimmed lawns, elaborately shaped box hedges, and geometric gravel paths) in favor of serpentine paths that meandered past romantic-looking lakes, rustic clumps of trees, and artfully crumbling follies. This new style of garden frequently also featured a picturesque hermitage constructed of brick or stone, or even gnarled tree roots and branches. Many were decorated inside with shells or bones to create a suitably atmospheric retreat.

The hermitage at Waterstown, County Westmeath, Ireland.
The hermitage at Waterstown, County Westmeath, Ireland.

The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome by Gordon Campbell, Oxford University Press, reprinted with permission.

With the new fashion for building hermitages in country estates, the next logical step was to populate them with an actual hermit. It’s not clear who first started the trend, but at some point in the early 18th century, having a resident hermit quietly contemplating existence—and occasionally sharing some golden nugget of wisdom with visitors—came to be seen as a must-have accessory for the perfect garden idyll.

Real hermits were hard to find, so wealthy landowners had to get creative. Some put advertisements in the press, offering food, lodging, and a stipend for those willing to adopt a life of solitude. The Honorable Charles Hamilton placed one such ad after buying Painshill Park (an estate in Cobham, Surrey) and extensively remodeling the grounds. Hamilton created a lake, grottoes, Chinese bridge, temple, and a hermitage on his estate, then placed an ad for a hermit to live there for seven years in exchange for £700 (roughly $900, or $77,000 in today’s money). The hermit was not allowed to speak to anyone, cut their hair, or leave the estate. Unfortunately, the successful applicant was discovered in the local pub just three weeks after being appointed. He was relieved of his role and not replaced, perhaps demonstrating the difficulty of attracting a serious hermit.

One of the more famous Georgian hermits was Father Francis, who lived at Hawkstone Park in Shropshire in a summer hermitage made with stone walls, a heather-thatched roof, and a stable door. Inside, he would sit at a table strewn with symbolic items, such as a skull, an hourglass, and a globe, while conversing with visitors, offering spiritual guidance and ponderings on the nature of solitude. So popular was the attraction of a meeting with a real-life hermit that the Hill family, who owned the park, were obliged to build their own pub, The Hawkstone Arms, to cater to all the guests.

A 1787 etching of "eccentric hermit" John Bigg.
A 1787 etching of "eccentric hermit" John Bigg.

But while some estate owners struggled to find a good hermit, taking on the role did have some appeal, as evidenced by this 1810 ad in the Courier:

“A young man, who wishes to retire from the world and live as a hermit, in some convenient spot in England, is willing to engage with any nobleman or gentleman who may be desirous of having one. Any letter addressed to S. Laurence (post paid), to be left at Mr. Otton's No. 6 Coleman Lane, Plymouth, mentioning what gratuity will be given, and all other particulars, will be duly attended.”

Sadly, it is not known whether or not the would-be hermit received any replies.

When a nobleman was unable to attract a real hermit to reside in his hermitage, a number of novel solutions were employed. In 1763, the botanist Gilbert White managed to persuade his brother, the Reverend Henry White, to temporarily put aside his cassock in order to pose as a wizened sage at Gilbert’s Selborne estate for the amusement of his guests. Miss Catharine Battie was one such guest, who later wrote in her diary (with a frustrating lack of punctuation) that “in the middle of tea we had a visit from the old Hermit his appearance made me start he sat some with us & then went away after tea we went in to the Woods return’d to the Hermitage to see it by Lamp light it look’d sweetly indeed. Never shall I forget the happiness of this day ...”

If an obliging brother was not available to pose as a hermit, garden owners instead might furnish the hermitage with traditional hermit accessories, such as an hourglass, book, and glasses, so that visitors might presume the resident hermit had just popped out for a moment. Some took this to even greater extremes, putting a dummy or automaton in the hermit’s place. One such example was found at the Wodehouse in Wombourne, Staffordshire, England [PDF], where in the mid-18th century Samuel Hellier added a mechanical hermit that was said to move and give a lifelike impression.

Another mechanical hermit was apparently used at Hawkstone Park to replace Father Francis after his death, although it received a critical review from one 18th-century tourist: “The face is natural enough, the figure stiff and not well managed. The effect would be infinitely better if the door were placed at the angle of the wall and not opposite you. The passenger would then come upon St. [sic] Francis by surprise, whereas the ringing of the bell and door opening into a building quite dark within renders the effect less natural.”

The fashion for employing an ornamental hermit was fairly fleeting, perhaps due to the trouble of recruiting a reliable one. However, the phenomenon does provide some insight into the growth of tourism in the Georgian period—the leisured classes were beginning to explore country estates, and a hermit was seen as another attraction alongside the temples, fountains, and sweeping vistas provided in the newly landscaped grounds.

Today, the fascination with hermits still exists. At the end of April 2017, a new hermit, 58-year-old Stan Vanuytrecht, moved into a hermitage in Saalfelden, Austria, high up in the mountains. Fifty people applied for his position, despite the lack of internet, running water, or heating. The hermitage, which has been continuously inhabited for the last 350 years, welcomes visitors to come and enjoy spiritual conversation with their resident hermit, and expects plenty of guests.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

12 Thought-Provoking Gifts for History Buffs

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon
The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon

If you're looking for a gift for the person who can't get enough history in their life, we think you'll find something on this list. From an atlas of the United States's National Parks to a book that will allow one to record their own family genealogy, these presents will both enlighten and entertain even the history buffs who already own every Theodore Roosevelt biography and Titanic exposé.

1. Atlas of the National Parks; $59

National Parks atlas
National Geographic / Amazon

This stunning atlas from National Geographic invites armchair explorers into all 61 national parks, from Gates of the Arctic to Dry Tortugas, American Samoa to Acadia. Each entry features a brand-new map and information about the park’s character, covering archaeology, geology, human history, wildlife, and more. All of which are illustrated with amazing photographs. You can order it now, and according to Amazon, the book will be in stock December 24.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Homesick Library Candle; $30

Library candle
UncommonGoods

Remind your favorite history buff of that book project they've been working on for many years with a library scent that doesn’t evoke mildewed paper and anxiety. Homesick’s hand-poured soy wax candle features spicy notes of orange, nutmeg, sandalwood, and amber.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

3. Spectacular Women Ornaments; $22 Each

Spectacular women ornaments
UncommonGoods

Your giftee will need to make some space on the Christmas tree for these ornaments depicting amazing women in history. Artist Gulnara Kydyrmyshova and her team of textile artisans in Kyrgyzstan make each ornament by hand from local wool. You can choose Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, or all four.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

4. Homemade Gin Kit; $50

Gin making kit
UncommonGoods

Just in time for holiday parties, this DIY gin-making kit includes two elegant bottles, stoppers, a selection of dried herbs and spices, and mixing tools. The giftee supplies the vodka, which acts like a blank slate, to be flavored with juniper berries, coriander seeds, rosemary, rose hips, and more.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

5. Genealogy Organizer Book; $9

Genealogy organizer book
Amazon

Here’s a genealogy gift for the holidays that doesn’t require handing over genetic data to private corporations! This handy book includes organizational charts for tracing one’s family tree back five generations. Plus, there are fill-in family group pages and sheets to record personal memories.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Great Lakes 3D Wood Nautical Chart; $178

Great Lakes 3D nautical chart
Amazon

Up to eight layers of wood are used to demonstrate the depths of each of the five Great Lakes in this unusual topographical map, which also depicts the major rivers and towns of the region. If these lakes don’t float your boat, 3D maps of Cape Cod, the Hawaiian Islands, Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and other waterways are available.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition; $35

W.E.B. Du Bois art book
Amazon

With colorful, hand-drawn infographics, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois illustrated the progress and challenges of African Americans in the South at the beginning of the 20th century. This beautiful volume pairs his maps and charts, which were displayed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, with contemporary photographs of black people and communities.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Three Mini Notebooks; $15

Three map notebooks
Amazon

An explorer should always have a pen and paper at the ready. Make your giftee’s travels memorable with this set of three pocket-sized notebooks, each bound with a vintage map design on the cover and blank, lined, or graph pages.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Penny-Farthing Watch; $40

Penny-farthing watch
Amazon

It’s been said that bicycles kickstarted the women’s equality movement by giving ladies the means to explore their world. Celebrate that history by giving your fave cycling enthusiast this cute watch, which depicts a penny-farthing, the Victorian precursor to modern bikes. The leather band and analog face complete the watch’s old-timey look.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Shakespearean Insults Mug; $14

Shakespearean insults mug
New York Public Library Shop

This 14-ounce ceramic mug includes 30 Elizabethan insults that you can feel free to use any morning pre-coffee—but you may need to reassure you gift recipient that you’re not actually calling them a “canker-blossom” or a “lump of foul deformity” when they open the box.

Buy It: New York Public Library Shop

11. LEGO White House; $222

LEGO White House
LEGO / Amazon

This LEGO set is based on the White House design by James Hoban, which was selected by George Washington back on July 16, 1792. And now, with over 500 pieces, you can recreate your own version of this iconic building. And when you're done, the set also includes a booklet highlighting interesting facts about the White House.

Buy It: Amazon

12. A History of New York in 27 Buildings; $20

NYC buildings book
Amazon

Stories behind such famous NYC icons as the Flatiron Building or the Empire State Building are well known. Those skyline staples appear in this book, but author Sam Roberts also dives deeper into other notable buildings that changed the course of the city’s history—like the Tweed Courthouse, the Marble Palace, and the Coney Island Boardwalk. (For a similar approach to urban history, see the new book The Seine: The River That Made Paris).

Buy It: Amazon

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