The Curious Case of Real Life Ornamental Garden Hermits


In modern times if you want to show off extreme
wealth, you may purchase expensive sports cars, buy a private jet, wear flashy jewelry,
or, as boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. has been known to do, travel around carrying suitcases
filled with sometimes millions of dollars in cash. Such extravagant displays of wealth are a
trademark of the boxer with Mayweather reportedly having a standing arrangement with his bank
to have huge sums of money in cash periodically delivered to his palatial home with the primary
purpose being to facilitate flaunting his fabulous wealth, instead of using a card like
mere plebeians. Going back a few centuries in Britain, a popular
way to achieve a similar effect was to simply hire a random person to live on your property,
with their job generally being to cease bathing or grooming in any way and otherwise spend
their days sitting around doing a whole lot of nothing but looking like a stereotypical
hermit, all for the enjoyment of guests. While it isn’t fully clear exactly how the
idea of the so-called Ornamental Hermit came about, author of The Hermit in the Garden,
Dr. Gordon Campbell of the University of Leicester speculates, “The idea of keeping an ornamental
hermit probably began in Tivoli to the east of Rome when the Emperor Hadrian had a villa. In his Villa, he had a little pond and in
the middle of the pond, he had a little house for one where… he could retreat from the
horrors of running the Roman Empire.” What does any of this have to do with 18th
century Britain? In the 16th century, the villa was excavated
and this little villa was discovered. Pope Pius IV then decided he too should have
a similar little building in the Vatican gardens to use as a retreat. This was subsequently built, called the Casina
Pio IV, helping to set the idea in popular landscape architecture. This finally brings us to the 18th century. Around this time, famed landscape architect
Lancelot “Capability” Brown, who designed nearly 200 parks, some of which are still
around today, strongly pushed for getting rid of elaborately perfect, artificial looking
gardens, and instead chose to design parks that looked as if the landscaping of the region
was completely natural. Of course, everything was nonetheless still
carefully planned out, with paths, streams, artificial lakes, and other landscaping carefully
done to create an area that looked like something out of a classic painting. As for structures, these included things like
elaborate stone bridges and models of ancient temples, but also often including something
much simpler- a hermitage style retreat. These could be proper buildings, but more
commonly were things like hobbit-hole type underground homes. They also sometimes were made of stone, occasionally
carefully constructed such that existing tree roots would appear to have grown around the
stone, with moss placed to grow on it as well. Adding macabre elements was also common, such
as using bones of animals as decoration, or even in some cases as floor or wall material. Inside these structures would generally be
placed various items like human skulls, books, hour glasses, etc. In the early going, some estate owners would
actually use these structures as a retreat for themselves, to reconnect with nature and
relax. But, eventually, somebody got the bright idea
to take it a step further. Instead of making it look like a hermit lived
in the structure or using it as a retreat themselves, the estate owners started hiring
actual people to live in their hermitages. These individuals would often be asked to
dress like a stereotypical druid, though what the druids actually wore isn’t precisely known. As noted, they would also sometimes be asked
to grow long beards, allow their hair, toenails, and beard to grow indefinitely, etc. etc. As you might imagine, finding someone interested
in wiling away their years sitting around in squalor, and in some cases strictly forbidden
from venturing into the outside world, wasn’t exactly an easy thing, despite the fact that
some land owners were offering a princely sum for an individual willing to do it. For example, at Painshill Park, Charles Hamilton
offered £700 (about a £1.2 million today) to anyone willing to live for seven years
in the hermitage constructed in his garden. The specific ad Hamilton placed seeking such
a hermit stated the person hired: shall be provided with a Bible, optical glasses,
a mat for his feet, a hassock for his pillow, an hourglass for timepiece, water for his
beverage, and food from the house. He must wear a camlet robe, and never, under
any circumstances, must he cut his hair, beard, or nails, stray beyond the limits of Mr. Hamilton’s
grounds, or exchange one word with the servant. Unfortunately for Hamilton, after a mere few
weeks of service, his first hired hermit was found hanging out at a nearby pub rather than
sitting around contemplating his life. In another case, one John Timbs of Lancashire
offered 50 pounds per year to anyone willing to live in his underground hermitage. Not without creature comforts, however, this
particular hobbit-hole apparently included a chamber organ, a bath, unlimited books of
the hermit’s request, and high quality food from Timbs’ own table. Again, as was common, an interested applicant
would have to agree not to cut “his hair, beard, toe-nails, or fingernails” for the
duration. In yet another case, the advert noted,
Wanted- Ornamental hermit to occupy natural cave dwelling under waterfall for seven years. The successful candidate shall be provided
with Bible, water, spectacles, camlet robe, hourglass, and food from the house. No hair- nail, or beard trimming permitted. Sum offered 600 pounds. There are also a few known instances of people
attempting to volunteer their services as an Ornamental hermits, such as this ad that
appeared in the January 11, 1810 edition of the London 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. When a particular property owner could not
find a suitable candidate, they often resorted to placing dummies or occasionally fully fledged
automatons in the hermitages. For example, in the mid-18th century on Sir
Samuel Hellier’s Wodehouse estate’s 18 acre gardens, he had a mechanical hermit constructed
apparently capable of some form of human-like movement when manipulated by a hidden servant. As for what the flesh and blood ornamental
hermits would get up to, this varied based on the requirements of their benefactors. Some seem to have wished them to sit around
and do nothing, speaking to no one, as in the aforementioned case of Charles Hamilton. Others only cared that they look the part,
and otherwise when guests weren’t around were free to socialize with other servants, take
the occasional bath in the main house, etc. Still others would ask their hermits to entertain
guests with poetry of their own making or otherwise impart the wisdom they were supposed
to have acquired through spending their days mostly in solitude. In at least one case, naturalist Gilbert White
actually convinced his own brother, a minister by the name of Henry, to take up the post
for a time on his estate in 1763, apparently much to the excitement of his various guests. For example, consider this account by one
Catharine Battie upon meeting Henry, 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 … While this might seem an awful lot of excitement
for meeting a quasi-homeless person, it should be remembered that this wasn’t that far away
from a time when walking was literally the world’s most popular spectator sport. And we’re not talking racing someone or walking
around and seeing the sites. No- crowds of thousands would gather simply
to watch someone walk around quite normally in circles for sometimes days on end, such
as in 1809 when one Captain Robert Barclay Allardice famously walked 1,000 miles in 1,000
hours. Going back to hermits, occasionally a given
land owner would strike gold and find someone actually interested in living as a hermit. Arguably the two most famous of these being
Stephen Duck and Father Francis. As for Stephen, he was a poet who accepted
a position as a resident hermit at Richmond Park, owned by King George II’s wife, Queen
Caroline. His hermitage was described in 1735 editions
of The Gentleman’s Magazine, A subterranean building is by Her Majesty’s
order carrying on in the Royal Gardens at Richmond which is to be called Merlin’s
Cave adorned with Astronomical figures and characters. The figures Her Majesty has ordered for Merlin’s
cave were placed there… 1. Merlin at a table with conjuring books and
mathematical instruments, taken from the head of Mr Ernest, page to the Prince of Wales. 2. King Henry VIII’s Queen, and 3. Queen Elizabeth who came to Merlin for knowledge,
the former from the face of Mrs Margaret Purcell and the latter from Miss Paget’s. 4. Minerva from Mrs Poyntz’s 5. Merlin’s secretary from Mr Kemp’s one
of His Royal Highness the Duke’s gardeners. 6. A witch, from a tradesman’s wife at Richmond…. Her Majesty has ordered also a choice collection
of English books to be placed therein; and appointed Mr Stephen Duck to be Cave and Library
Keeper and his wife Necessary Woman there. As for the outside, they state it was made
of a heap of stones, thrown into a very artful
disorder, and curiously embellished with moss and shrubs, to represent rude nature. But I was strangely surpris’d to find the
entrance of it barr’d with a range of costly gilt rails, which not only seemed to show
an absurdity of taste, but created in me a melancholy reflection that luxury had found
its way even into the Hermit’s Cell. Fully embracing the role, Duck apparently
grew a lengthy beard and otherwise spent his time reading books from the queen’s library,
writing poetry, and talking with the many hundreds of people each year who would seek
him out at the elaborate hermitage. Unfortunately for Stephen, he ultimately had
enough and decided in 1756 to kill himself by jumping into the River Thames and failing
to bother to surface. As for Father Francis, he lived in a cave
at Hawkstone Park, belonging to one Sir Richard Hill. Francis spent his time contemplating life
and attending to people who would come visit him to seek advice from him. Those wishing to see Father Francis, would,
to quote a 1784 account, pull a bell, and gain admittance. The hermit is generally in a sitting posture,
with a table before him, on which is a skull, the emblem of mortality, an hour-glass, a
book and a pair of spectacles. The venerable bare-footed Father, whose name
is Francis (if awake) always rises up at the approach of strangers. He seems about 90 years of age, yet has all
his sense to admiration. He is tolerably conversant, and far from being
unpolite. When Francis died after 14 years of service,
a suitable replacement couldn’t be found, so he was replaced by an automaton, with it
noted by one visitor who saw the fake hermit: 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. How the movement in this case was achieved
was apparently to have a hidden worker manipulate the automaton each time someone entered to
cause it to stand up. At that point, the worker would then manipulate
the mouth using a string, while reading out various lines of poetry. All good things must come to an end, however,
and by the early 19th century, having an ornamental hermit on your estate was already falling
out of fashion. But let us never forget that the human drive
to one-up our fellow denizens on our journey to the grave is so strong that for a brief
period in history people actually took to, essentially, hiring a random squatter to come
hang out on their property, just so they could show off the unkempt individual to guests. SPEAKING OF ONE-UPPING YOUR FELLOW HUMANS, NORDVPN-
OFFERING A SUPERIOR INTERNET EXPERIENCE…. 🙂
Bonus Facts: • In Saalfelden, Austria, there still exists
a hermitage, which is more or less built into the side of a mountain cliff. This structure has been occupied by various
hermits for almost four centuries. The most recent hermit to reside there is
one Stan Vanuytrecht, who, in 2017, beat out several dozen other applicants for the right
to live in the cliff-side abode, which has no running water, nor heat, electricity, or
other such amenities. The job of the hermit there is simply to entertain
any who seek out the hermit for advice or other spiritual discussions. • If you’re at this point wondering if the
ornamental hermit has any strong connection to the practice of garden gnomes, this doesn’t
appear to be the case. While it took longer to catch on in the United
States, garden statuary has been popular in European countries since at least the Renaissance. Saints, gods and mythical creatures were among
the early figures depicted, and one character called Gobbi, which is Italian for “dwarf”
or “hunchback”, starting in the early 1600s. From there, references of “House Dwarves”
are found in the late 1700s. These statues were made of porcelain and produced
continuously through the 19th Century. It is believed the dwarves morphed into gnomes
and moved from the house to the garden when Baehr and Maresch out of Dresden, Germany
started producing their own take on the dwarves around 1841. Sir Charles Isham was also a key figure in
the spreading of the gnome, when he introduced gnomes to the United Kingdom by bringing 21
of the terracotta figures home with him from a trip to Germany around 1847 and placed them
in the garden of his home. (Amazingly, one of those original gnomes is
still around. Lampy, as the statue is called, is on display
at Isham’s home, Lamport Hall.) On a related note, besides just sticking the
Gnomes in a garden, another modern Gnome “tradition” has recently popped up- Gnome-napping. Essentially, you steal someone’s garden gnome,
then take it on a trip or other sort of adventure while taking lots of pictures of what the
gnome’s been up to on its journey and send them back to the owner. If you choose, when you’re done, you return
the gnome to where it started. This practice seems to have started in the
1980s in Australia, but saw a huge upswing in popularity thanks to the 5 time Academy
Award nominated 2001 film Amelie where this is depicted.

100 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Real Life Ornamental Garden Hermits

  1. Thanks NordVPN! Get 75% off a 3 year plan and use code BRAINFOOD for an extra month for free here: https://NordVPN.com/brainfood

  2. being paid 1.7 millions for role playing… boy, I was born in the wrong era… this is a job that is tailor for me..

  3. I’m guessing that there is no record of ornamental garden hermit napping? You know. Kidnap an ornamental garden hermit. Hire an artist. Take the hermit and artist to different locations and have the artist draw/paint the hermit at these locations. Then take the hermit back.

    Man. Some rich person back then missed out on a great opportunity to be ahead if their time.

    I’m a little sad that this never happened.

  4. geeze – watched the women being sold video first – now this
    born in right age for the first – wrong age (and gender) for the second
    I'll be very happy to be paid to be a hermit
    growing the beard might be a bit of issue – the rest sounds like a dream 'job'

  5. I've never even heard of this job from that era; very strange yet interesting, Simon warps my brain yet again.

  6. What a strange thing. Hire a hermit? Perhaps that was the sign in those days that you had REAL money and perhaps were a bit bored with life. Today the excessively rich have multiple impersonal homes, cars to numerous to count, a luxurious private jet and a yacht that is never big enough. Having a status symbol hermit actually seems to be a less complicated way to impress your guests and you could have a conversation with him. With all the homeless people today perhaps this could come back into style. Extremely interesting video plus I had never previously heard of hermit hiring. Another jot in my brain of useless trivia. It’s a good day. Thanks Simon and crew.

  7. Dear Sirs,
    Any future attempt shame or embarrass me or my station will be met with a letter from my attorneys. I come from a long line of hermits and consider it an honorable profession, one handed down to me from my father, who inherited the position from HIS father, who's position had been bequeathed to him by his. We are a scabby lot, but proud.
    Sincerely,
    Alfred W. Pox
    Dorcester

  8. Every time I complain about Netflix’s lame selection, I’ll remember that this is what people used to have to do for entertainment and I’ll shut the fuck up.

  9. Don't theme parks do this today? They also have princesses and storm troopers and all sorts of characters. They pay that is people to sit around and have pictures taken with them.

  10. So it was a status symbol to have a recluse as an "ornament" on your property…? Humans can be very strange indeed.

  11. Why does this concept appeal to me? Well, aside from the bathing and nail clipping ban of some, it sounds wonderful.

  12. Anyone else that would like to be Simon's hermit? He could bring fellow YouTube superstars to your hovel and poke fun at you whilst you read the next script of TIFO…

  13. Thanks for ruining Hermit gardens for me 🙁
    I dont know why I keep coming back to have my worldview demolished.
    Next episode: Definitive proof we live in a simulation and why nothing in life means a damn thing"

  14. The Professional Walking fad is one of my favorite stories of that time, you should make a video on it! The huge tournament that ended it was so fun to read!

  15. But wait, this means ANY hermit house is a real hermit house, and any hermit garden is a real hermit garden. So anyone can have an authentic hermit garden.

  16. Try going without a shower, same underwear and no toilet paper for few weeks. Then decide if hermit job is for you.

  17. Yay! Live Garden Gnomes!!!

    I was raised by a bunch of crazy Norwegian-Americans that collects hand carved Wooden Trolls, so I can see the similarities across Europe as a whole…

  18. And because interwebs gunna interweb, I predict a worldwide spike in the frequency of Gnome Napping starting yesterday thanks to this video.

  19. ‘Twas brillig and all was groovy with the vid until about half past when the DEPENDS advert jumped up mid sentence and ripped my gnomic daydream a new a- hole.

  20. I first heard of the "gnome napping" after the Roaming Gnome used by Travelocity. The pictures describing it even used a similar gnome. Since this video says the "gnome napping" is older, I wonder if Travelocity was borrowing the idea for its marketing?

  21. Seven years might be too long, but for a million pounds I'd definitely do four if I could have enough books to spend the time self educating.

  22. How about we dont talk about a man who beats his wife and kids like hes some super cool person just because hes rich.

  23. Mr. Mayweather, I am offering my services as a white, ornamental hermit man, if in need, look me up, I am sure we can agree on a contractactual araingment.

  24. The word is "jewelry", not "jewelery". Last time I looked, there were no jewelers mounted on engagement rings or earrings.

  25. And talk about being a few hundred years too late to hang out on a garden smoking and read philosophy, great way to practice doing a Diogenes the cynic impersonation.

  26. Lol, people's desire to make themselves seem more interesting with fakery transcends time. Also interesting to see how even back then people find the fantasy aesthetic charming.

  27. Aaaah! That fresh breath of air that is the reminder of a time when owning your fellow man as a walking, talking, breathing, carbonbased, bipedal, humanoid household appliance were so mundande, the crème de la crème had to distinguish themselves from the plebejan masses through Homo Accessoires.

    Damn, the second industrial revolution and the workers rights movement really messed things up! Nowadays, judging from this comment section (and, honestly, 85 – 90 % of all Internet comment sections) thousands, tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of surplus Homo Accessoires roams the binary ether storage warehouses, plagued by active interactions, freedom of feet and speach, searching for that special someone …. 's garden display cabinett.

    I'll, atleast, do my share part for the cause – There'll be no doughy gingerbread men and women in my christmas tree this year, I'll tell you that much!

  28. There's an old guy who has been living in the building where I'm renting forever. He pretty much never leaves his apartment, where he keeps two dogs plus various other pets. He hardly ever allows the two dogs to leave either, so whenever I can get the guy to take a ride with me downtown, he brings with him the overwhelming odor of unwashed dog. I would love to build the guy a little shack out back where he could sit all day, with those two poor dogs. I would even pay him. There are plenty of hermits by choice in the world these days.

  29. Stephen Duck was in the running for poet laureate, the Grub Street Journal became so irritated with waterfowl puns they banned any mention of him in their paper.

  30. Watching people walk was a popular sport in 1809? Wasn't that during the Regency when England was closed off? So it didn't have a lot of options, lol?

  31. About 10 years ago,I heard non the radio that employing hermits was on the comeback by wealthy landowners from England. The reason given ,in part, was to help keep trespassers off the property.

  32. So if we all move to California we’d all be looking rich. Lots of hermits there! Plus, you don’t even have to pay them 😜

  33. 🙁 you didn't say thankyou for watching… I like that bit because you're the only youtuber who sounds sincere every time you say it

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