Parr, Thomas (DNB00)

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PARR, THOMAS (1483?–1635), ‘Old Parr,’ described by John Taylor, the water-poet, as the son of John Parr of Winnington, a small hamlet in the parish of Alberbury, thirteen miles west of Shrewsbury, is said to have been born in 1483. He is stated to have gone into service in 1500, but, upon his father's death in 1518, returned to Winnington to cultivate the small holding which he inherited there. The lease of this property was renewed to him by John, the son of his old landlord, Lewis Porter, in 1522, and in 1564 he received a new lease, renewed in 1585, from John's son Hugh. In the meantime, in 1563, being then eighty years of age, he married his first wife Jane Taylor, by whom, the legend avers, he had a son John, who died aged ten weeks, and a daughter Joan, who also died in infancy. Parr was now, according to his biographer, the water-poet, in the prime of life. Years elapsed without in any degree impairing his vigour, which was so far in excess of his discretion that, in 1588, he was constrained to do penance in a white sheet in the neighbouring church of Alberbury for having begotten a bastard child by a certain Katherine Milton. Seven years after this exploit, being then 112 years old, he buried his first wife, and ten years later, in 1605, he married Jane, daughter of John Lloyd (or Flood) of Guilsfield in Montgomeryshire, and widow of Anthony Adda. Thirty years now passed peacefully over the head of ‘Old Parr,’ until in the spring of 1635 Thomas Howard, second earl of Arundel [q. v.], the most accomplished curiosity-hunter of his day, visited his estates in the neighbourhood of Shrewsbury. The fame of Parr soon reached the earl's ears; he saw him, and ‘the report of this aged man was certified to him.’ Determined to exhibit this ‘piece of antiquity’ at the court, Arundel had a litter constructed for him, and sent him up by easy stages to London, where, in September 1635, he was presented to the king. Charles asked him, ‘You have lived longer than other men: what have you done more than other men?’ Parr replied, ‘I did penance when I was an hundred years old.’ He claimed to have lived under ten kings and queens, well remembered the monasteries, and, when questioned on religious matters, replied that he held it safest to be of the religion of the king or queen that was in being, ‘for he knew that he came raw into the world, and accounted it no point of wisdom to be broiled out of it.’ He was exhibited for some weeks at the Queen's Head in the Strand. But the ‘old, old, very old man,’ as he was styled, did not long outlive his fame and hospitable reception in London. The change of life and plethora of rich diet proved fatal to a man who had lived the simple and abstemious life of a husbandman, and who is stated to have threshed corn when he was in his 130th year. Parr died at Lord Arundel's house on 14 Nov. 1635, and on the following day an autopsy was made by the great physician, William Harvey. Harvey reported that his chief organs were in a singularly healthy condition, and attributed his death mainly to the change of air to which Parr had been subjected, on his removal to London, ‘from the open, sunny and healthy region of Salop’ (Harvey, Report; cf. Diary of Lady Willoughby, 24 Nov. 1635). Aitzema, the Dutch envoy, visited the ‘human marvel’ on the day before his death, and deemed the circumstance worthy of a communication to the States-General (cf. Southey, Common-place Book, iii. 311). Parr was subsequently buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey, where is an inscription (recut in 1870) to the following effect: ‘Tho: Parr of ye county of Sallop. Borne in Ao 1483. He lived in ye reignes of Ten Princes, viz., K. Edw. 4. K. Ed. V. K. Rich. 3. K. Hen. 7. K. Hen. 8. K. Edw. 6. Q. Ma. Q. Eliz. K. Ja. and K. Charles, aged 152 yeares, and was buried here Nov. 15 1635.’ He is also commemorated by a brass plate in Wollaston Chapel in his native parish of Alberbury.

Parr, like Henry Jenkins [q. v.], who was reputed to have lived 169 years, left no issue; but lovers of the marvellous have credited him with a numerous progeny, which, of course, inherited his extraordinary tenacity of life. His son is stated to have lived to 113, his grandson to 109, one of his great-grandsons, Robert Parr, to 124, and another, John Newel (who died at Mitchelstown in July 1761), to 127. Catherine Parr, an alleged great-granddaughter, is described in the ‘Annual Register’ as having died in Skiddy's Almshouses at Cork in October 1792, aged 103.

The allegation that Parr was a great smoker appears to have no foundation; he was, however, according to Fuller, a great sleeper, and Taylor says of him:

    From head to heel his body hath all over
    A quick-set, thick-set, nat'ral hairy cover.

With regard to diet, it is said that he observed no rules or regular time for eating, but ‘was ready to discuss any kind of eatable that was at hand.’ Absurd stories of Parr's interviews with Jenkins and with the Countess of Desmond, and a document described as ‘Old Parr's will,’ were invented by the writers of the chapbooks, issued from 1835 onwards, to advertise the quack nostrum known as ‘Old Parr's Life Pills.’ The receipt for the pill was purchased from T. Roberts, a Manchester druggist, by Herbert Ingram [q. v.], who employed a schoolmaster to write its history, and claimed to have obtained the secret of its preparation from one of Old Parr's descendants (see Medical Circular, 23 Feb. and 2 March 1853).

The exact age of Parr is attested by village gossip alone, and the statement that he was born in 1483 must be regarded as extremely improbable. Sir George Cornewall Lewis and W. J. Thoms discredit the story of his antediluvian age as unsupported by a jot of trustworthy evidence. The former also expressed strong doubts as to there being any properly authenticated cases of centenarians in existence. There are, however, many undoubted instances on record, notably that of Jacob William Luning, who was born in 1767, and died at Morden College, Blackheath, on 23 June 1870, and more recently that of M. Chevreul (1787–1889), the great French chemist (cf. ‘Longevity: an Answer to Sir G. C. Lewis,’ in Granger's New Wonderful Museum; Fortnightly Review, April 1869).

There are many portraits of Old Parr in existence. His portrait was painted from memory by Rubens, and this picture has been engraved by Condé for the ‘European Magazine,’ and modified by R. Page for Wilson's ‘Wonderful Characters.’ The original was sold at Christie's to a picture-dealer in Paris, on 1 June 1878, as ‘lot 94 of the Novar collection,’ being knocked down for 180 guineas. Another contemporary portrait, painted in the school of Honthorst, is preserved in the Ashmolean at Oxford, having been taken thither from John Tradescant's Museum at Lambeth. A replica is in the National Portrait Gallery, and represents Parr with a bald head, a long flowing white beard, dark brown eyes, and shaggy eyebrows. A portrait described as ‘De l'Écossais Thomas Park, peint dans sa 151me année,’ evidently indicating the ‘very old’ man, is in the Dresden Gallery; it was formerly in the collection of Charles I, and is ascribed to Vandyck. There is also a fine mezzotint entitled ‘Old Parr’ engraved by G. White; another engraving, by C. van Dalen, represents ‘the Olde, old, very Olde Man,’ in a chair with a skull-cap and a pillow. There is a French portrait of ‘Le tres vieux homme,’ by Hobart, dated 1715. Another rare print, by Glover after E. Bowers, represents him sitting in company with the dwarf, Jeffrey Hudson, and the giant porter of Oliver Cromwell (Evans, Cat. ii. 309). A view of Old Parr's cottage at the Glyn in the parish of Alberbury, Shropshire, was engraved by Howlet after James Parker for the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (1814, pt. i. p. 217). Three medals relate, or have been supposed to relate, to Thomas Parr. 1. A posthumous ‘cheque’ or token, described in Hawkins's ‘Medallic History’ (i. 277), of which there are two specimens, one in copper, the other in white metal, in the British Museum. 2. A farthing token of the ‘Old Man’ inn, formerly standing in Market Place, Westminster, representing old Parr's head in profile (figured in Boyne's ‘Seventeenth-century Tokens,’ pl. xxi.). 3. A medal in the Historical Museum at Orleans, bearing the signature of Abraham Simon, with the inscription ‘Thomas Parr æt. 152,’ which is probably a cast of the obverse of an original medal of Sir Albert Joachim (1646), by Simon, the legend added with the graver (details kindly furnished by F. P. Weber, esq., M.D.)

[John Taylor's Old, Old, Very Old Man, a sixpenny pamphlet published in 1635, and frequently reprinted, constitutes the chief source of information; see also The Wonder of this Age: or the Picture of a Man living who is 152 years old and upward this 12 day Nov. 1635; Thoms's Human Longevity, pp. 85–94; Works of William Harvey, M.D. (Sydenham Soc.), 1847, pp. 587–592; Montgomeryshire Colls. (Powysland Club), xiv. 81–8; Peck's Desiderata Curiosa, lib. xiv. p. 16, and Coll. of Curious Historical Pieces, 1740, p. 51; Kirby's Wonderful Museum; Topographer and Genealogist, vol. iii.; Shropshire Gazetteer, p. 731; Salopian Shreds and Patches, i. 15, 25, 92, 154; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. iii. 45, ix. 104, 4th ser. iii. 594, v. 500, ix. 107, xii. 186, 6th ser. iii. 188, 415, iv. 317; Granger's New Wonderful Museum, i. 79–84; Caulfield's Portraits of Remarkable Persons; Wilson's Wonderful Characters, ii. 252; Chambers's Book of Days, ii. 581–3; Timbs's Romance of London, i. 94; Gent. Mag. 1814, i. 217; Annual Register, 1792, p. 43; Macmillan's Magazine, October 1871, and September 1894; Byegones, 14 April 1880; Hufeland's Art of Prolonging Life, ed. Erasmus Wilson, 1859, p. 71; Humphry's Old Age, 1889, pp. 93–4; information kindly given by Messrs. Christie, Manson, & Woods.]

T. S.