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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Peter the Wild Boy

Peter the Wild Boy c.1711-1785

Peter the Wild Boy was the name and epithet given to a feral child discovered in Germany in the 18th century. His association with Norwich was brief but dramatic.

There are few commonly agreed facts about the discovery of the child who would become known as Peter the Wild Boy. He first came to public notice living apparently alone and unsupported by adults in the forests of Hertswold near Hamelin in Hanover in either 1724 or 1725. Some accounts say he was captured at the order of King George I, Elector of Hanover, who had either encountered him while hunting deer or heard tales of his strange existence, others say he was trapped by local peasants or foresters who were either fearful of his behaviour or seeking to exploit his notoriety. Whatever the truth, following his capture he was taken initially to the nearby town of Zell where he was kept under lock and key in the Hanoverian equivalent of Norwich's Bridewell or house of correction.

Apparently aged about 14 (some said 11 or 12), the boy when found was naked (though some said he wore the remnant of a ragged shirt around his neck), very dirty and sunburnt, with long, matted hair and long finger nails. No one came forward to claim him or knew who he was, where he had come from, who his parents were or how he had survived, apparently alone, in the forest for months or possibly even years. Some accounts said he was a vegetarian and refused cooked food, preferring to eat berries and suck the sap from freshly hewn wood, others said he ate raw carrion. He was said to be able to move about with great rapidity on all fours and was as agile as a squirrel at climbing trees. He did not appear to be able to understand human speech and could only utter a limited series of grunts and squeaks, and his eyes tended to flit about rapidly.

Some conjectured that like those children of legend, Romulus and Remus, he had been abandoned as a baby (by travelling people or by convicts working in the forest) and survived by being suckled by a wild pig, a wolf or a bear, all of which did in fact still inhabit Germany's forests at that period. The anonymous author of a pamphlet published in 1726, speculated that a 'she-bear' was his most likely foster mother, the wild pig and wolf having coats too hard and bristly to provide him with enough warmth, noting ''Tis probable that if a Bear was brought to him, he would by some Action or other evince that he was brought up by that Creature'. (Strangely enough the sign of the Wild Man pub in Norwich, which is thought to have been named after him, shows a naked youth cavorting with bears in the wood!) While this explanation of his survival is extremely unlikely, it is worth noting that numerous modern-day examples of feral children found living with gazelles, monkeys and dogs have been reported from all around the world.

Around Christmas time, 1725, George I, who was fascinated by the exotic and had talked at court with native American Indians brought over from the colonies in Virginia, had the wild boy brought to his court at Herrenhausen, where he was treated kindly if somewhat insensitively as a curious and amusing pet. In 1726 the wild boy made his second public appearance when George I (though some accounts say it was Princess Caroline of Anspach, the Princess of Wales) had him brought  over from Hanover to St James's Palace in London, where he was exhibited to the English nobility and became an object of intense curiosity among all levels of society. Numerous pamphlets and satirical poems, each more exaggerated than the last, were published about his discovery and his relationship with the royal family. Some of the leading intellectuals of the age, including Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, wrote about him. Swift, who actually saw him at the Prince of Wales' house in Leicester Square and who was just about to publish Gulliver's Travels, a satire on the public's gullible acceptance of tall tales, doubted he was a true wild child, but more probably an 'idiot' who had been abandoned in the woods only a short time before his discovery. For Defoe he presented an opportunity to speculate on what it was that essentially made one human and the possessor of a soul. How, he speculated in Mere Nature Delineated (published in 1726), could someone like this conceive of God or have any moral sense if he could not understand language and had been nurtured by animals without any human contact? Such beings, he felt, must forever remain only potentially human until they could be taught to reason, which he thought difficult without the acquisition of language.

Several attempts were made to teach the boy to speak. The Princess of Wales, an intellectual lady of superior education than most aristocratic men and women of that era, took a liking to him and arranged for a friend of Swift's, the Scottish physician and writer Dr John Arbuthnot, to undertake his education. It was Dr Arbuthnot who had him baptised and christened 'Peter' on 5 July 1726 at his house near Burlington Gardens, London. However, try as he might, Peter could not be taught to read or write, and could only utter a few barely comprehensible words or phrases, learned parrot-fashion. He loved music, however, and would dance and hum to himself whenever he heard a favourite tune sung or played on the flute or fiddle. After a long struggle to maintain his nakedness he began to accept wearing clothes and eating at the table, but always hated beds, preferring to sleep on the floor in a corner.

After the king's death in 1727 public interest in Peter the Wild Boy began to wane. Dr Arbuthnot tired of trying to teach him and in 1728 he was passed on to the care of one of Queen Caroline's ladies-in-waiting, Mrs Tichbourne, who placed him with a dame school mistress, Mrs King of Harrow. She too failed to make any progress in Peter's education and following the Queen's death in 1737, Mrs Tichbourne passed him on to the care of an acquaintance, Mr James Fenn, tenant of Axter's End farm in Northchurch, a village near Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire. A royal pension of £7 17s 6d per quarter had been allotted to Peter's upkeep and this continued even after the Queen's death. Following James Fenn's death, Peter lived with James' brother Thomas Fenn of Broadway Farm, Northchurch and it was from his keeping that Peter disappeared in the summer of 1751. He had a habit of living in the woods during warm, dry weather but had always previously returned to the farm within a few days. This time he could not be found and Fenn began to place advertisements in the papers offering a reward for his safe return.

The man arrested in Norwich in the autumn of 1751 was of medium height, stocky, with bushy black hair and a thick beard and was thought to be aged about 40. He had been arrested as a 'sturdy vagrant' for 'strolling about the Streets'.'Strolling' then meant vagrancy and begging rather than a leisurely saunter. Some accounts noted that, physically at least, he was quite normal if excessively unkempt and hirsute. Others claimed he resembled an orang-utan or what they imagined an orang-utan might look like, as it is unlikely they had ever seen one. He had, it was said, 'a wild Countenance' and 'a very roving Look with his Eyes'. On being interrogated it was discovered that he could or would not speak, making instead either a strange, low humming noise or a neigh like a horse. Unsure what to do with him the authorities locked him up in the city's forbidding, flint-faced 'house of correction', the Bridewell, hoping, presumably, that a spell of being incarcerated here would bring him to his senses.

At around two in the morning on 22 October 1751, the alarm was raised in the parish of St Andrew's in Norwich's tightly packed city centre. Fire had broken out in Mr Britiff's furniture warehouse in Bridewell Alley, a narrow thoroughfare of overhanging timber buildings that threaded uphill from the imposing tower of St Andrew's church to the Bridewell. Within minutes flames had spread to adjoining properties and threatened to engulf the Bridewell itself, where the choking, terrified inmates were clamouring to be released. The turnkeys had no option but to release their panic-stricken charges into the surrounding labyrinth of alleys and yards, where they jostled with householders startled from their sleep and 'several Gentlemen of Fashion, who attended and encouraged the Populace that were diligent in working at the Engines and carrying Buckets of Water'. After a while someone noticed that one of the male prisoners, an odd-looking character regarded as a dumb simpleton, was still inside the burning prison. Venturing back into the burning gaol, his gaolers found him still in his cell, apparently not in the least afraid but fascinated by the fire. When he did not respond to their repeated calls one brave soul ran in and dragged him out, otherwise, it was said, he would 'probably have perished like a horse in the flames'.

For nearly two months the Bridewell's dank, unsavoury confines had been home to this mysterious hairy 'wildman'. Now, with its cells and workrooms gutted by fire, its inmates were temporarily transferred to the parochial workhouse. The mysterious wildman, however, proved reluctant to move to his new lodgings voluntarily and had to be forced. The emergence of so perplexing a figure in such dramatic circumstances aroused considerable local interest. In an atmosphere of feverish speculation and wonder someone brought the Bridewell's overseer's attention to a recent advertisement in the London Evening Post:

LOST, or Stray'd away,

From BROADWAY in the Parish of NORTH-CHURCH, near Barkhamstead in the County of Hertford,

About three Months ago,

PETER, the WILD YOUTH, a black hairy Man, about five Feet eight Inches high, he cannot speak to be understood, but makes a kind of humming-Noise, and answers in that manner to the Name of PETER.

Whoever will bring him to Mr. Thomas Fenn's, at the Place abovesaid, shall receive all reasonable Charges, and a handsome Gratuity.

There now seemed little doubt in the overseer's mind that his strange prisoner was none other than Peter the Wild Boy, one-time royal protégé and national celebrity. No doubt relieved that he was no longer to be a charge on the public purse and that the Bridewell was likely to be handsomely remunerated for its trouble and expense, enquiries were presumably made of the advertiser and a fee for his conveyance to Northchurch satisfactorily negotiated. Peter left Norwich on Thursday 7 November 1751.

It is interesting to note that the phrase 'all reasonable charges' was one commonly used in advertisements of the time for the recovery of stolen or strayed livestock, horses and, more sinisterly, slaves, indicating that Peter was regarded by his keeper, however kindly disposed towards his welfare, as a valuable chattel. It is known that Peter's keepers in Hertfordshire charged the curious a fee to look at him and his keeper also received an annual stipend for his upkeep from the royal purse. His status as a chattel was reinforced by what happened next. After he was safely returned home, a brass collar engraved with his name and address was fastened around his neck in case he ever strayed again. When Thomas Fenn died, Peter was placed in the care of a Mr Brill, who had inherited Axter's End farm, and then with a succession of Hertfordshire farmers throughout the remainder of his life, which he spent in quiet, harmless employment about the farm.

One mystery remains. No one has yet discovered how, without any other resources than a sturdy pair of legs, Peter found his way to Norwich, over 100 miles as the crow flies from his home in Hertfordshire. This was the furthest and longest he had ever strayed since his capture in Germany 25 years earlier. The advertisement offering a reward for anyone who returned him to Northchurch notes that he went missing 'About three months ago', while the report of his discovery in the Norwich Mercury says he was arrested in Norwich 'About two Months since'. Working back from the discovery of his identity in Norwich in late October, he must have disappeared from Hertfordshire in late July or August and reappeared in Norwich in September. How had he lived during that month or so on the road? Perhaps a knack of living off the land learned as a 'savage' child in the forests of Hanover had stayed with him as an adult. However, the possibility that he may have been kidnapped by those who saw a chance to make money exhibiting him at fairs and markets cannot be discounted. The public at this time had an insatiable curiosity in 'scientific' marvels and 'freaks' of nature. The very week of the Bridewell fire an advert in the Norwich Mercury invited people to the Angel tavern in the marketplace to see Mr Pinchbeck's 'Panopticon', an optical device that projected its surroundings onto a mirror, as well as a canine curiosity known as 'the Learn'd French Dog', while in December a rival market tavern, the Bear, exhibited Mr Blaker, 'the Modern Living Colossus or Wonderful Giant'.

Peter was to enter the literary limelight a couple more times. During the 1770s Richard Lovell Edgeworth and his daughter, the novelist Maria Edgeworth, visited him and undertook a number of experiments to try to gauge his intelligence. In June 1782, the Scottish judge and philosopher, Lord Monboddo, visited him while researching a book on the development of language. Though Peter was now aged about 70, Lord Monboddo found him fit and healthy and still able to do manual work about the farm. He seemed to have an innate ability to predict bad weather and would howl and cower long before storms arrived, a throwback perhaps to his cold, lonely childhood in the forests of Hanover.

Peter died at Broadway Farm near Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire on 22 February 1785, aged about 73. It was said that he died from hunger having refused all food after his last master died, thought this may well have been another of the romantic legends that attached to him. He was buried in the parish churchyard at St Mary's, Northchurch. A brass plaque with an engraved portrait and a brief description of his extraordinary life was later dedicated to his memory inside the church. It took over 250 years for Norwich to formerly celebrate its connection with this gentle, harmless soul. In 2007 Norwich HEART commissioned a blue heritage plaque at the Wild Man pub in Bedford Street, commemorating Peter and his association with the nearby Bridewell.

Stuart John McLaren

August 2010