Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lucas, James

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LUCAS, JAMES (1813–1874), 'the Hertfordshire hermit,' second son and fourth child of James Lucas, of the firm of Chauncey, Lucas, & Lang, of Liverpool, West India merchants, was born in London, 21 Dec. 1813. His mother's maiden name was Beesly. He received a good education, first at a private school at Clapham, from which he ran away, subsequently at Richmond, and finally with a tutor at Bedford, from whom he also made his escape. He studied medicine for a time under a surgeon in the neighbourhood of his home, near Hitchin. He early exhibited a strangely perverse obstinacy, and an uncontrollable suspicion of all his relatives, with the exception of his mother, who indulged his whims. These peculiarities became accentuated on his father's death in 1830. His mother died on 24 Oct. 1849, and he inherited the family estate at Redcoats Green, Great Wymondley, Hertfordshire. Thenceforth he gave his eccentricities free scope. He refused to administer his parents' wills, deferred for three months (when the sepulture was enforced) the interment of his mother, and barricaded his house of Elmwood, in the kitchen of which he took up his abode. He excluded furniture, abjured washing, slept on a bed of cinders, and clothed himself in a loose blanket. His skin grew ingrained with dirt, and his dark hair long and matted. His dietary, besides bread and penny buns, consisted of cheese, eggs, red herrings, and gin, and he protected his victuals from the rats by hanging them in a basket from the roof.

Lucas enjoyed the society of tramps, always putting to them a series of questions, and rewarding satisfactory answers with coppers and a glass of gin. He thus attracted all the vagabonds in the kingdom, and had to protect himself by retaining two armed watchmen, who lived in a hut opposite the formidable iron grille at which he received visitors. These included Lord Lytton, Sir Arthur Helps, John Forster, and Charles Dickens. Dickens, in the Christmas number of 'All the Year Round' for 1861, described the hermit, under the pseudonym of 'Mr. Mopes,' as an 'obscene nuisance.' The majority of his visitors were impressed by his wide fund of information and his acuteness in conversation. Asked if he were a catholic, he stated that he was of no religion. He made, however, no concealment of an exaggerated antipathy to the queen, to parliament, and to stamped paper. He was fond of children, gave them pence, and on Good Fridays regaled vast numbers of them with sweets and gin. On 15 April 1874 he was discovered by one of his watchmen lying in his den in an apoplectic fit. He died a few days after, and was buried beside his mother in Hackney churchyard on 21 April 1874. He was clearly insane, and the symptoms of his disease, although few, were well defined and to experts familiar.

After his death a considerable sum of money was found in his living room, which was full of dirt, the accumulations of twenty-five years, and almost choked up with ashes (of which fourteen cartloads were removed), and with stale loaves that had been suspected by the hermit of containing poison. In an outlying portion of the neglected house a family of foxes had made their residence.

[The Hist. of the Hermit of Hertfordshire (illustrated), from the 'Hertfordshire Express;' An Account of Lucas, from the 'North Herts and South Beds Journal,' Hitchin, 1874; Times, 20 April 1874; Notes and Queries, 5th ser. ii. 424; All the Year Round, December 1861 ('Tom Tiddler's Ground'); Journal of Mental Science, October 1874 (an interesting paper by D. H. Tuke, esq., M.D.)]

T. S.