History’s Nutcases: Jemmy Hirst

PHOTO: io9.com

PHOTO: io9.com

Last time on History’s Nutcases, we talked about the famous Romantic poet, Lord Byron, whose life was characterized by love affairs, strange habits, and a love of all things dark and mysterious.

This time, we’re talking about famous English eccentric, Jemmy Hirst. He was a man so strange that King Edward III had to invite him over for tea, just to meet him. He rode a bull called Jupiter, and owned a pet bear named Nicholas. He’s a bit of a historical treasure in his home town of Rawcliffe, England. So much so, in fact, that last year, the town opened up a commemorative pub in his honor.

Early Life

James “Jemmy” Hirst was born in 1738 in northern England, in the sleepy little village of Rawcliffe. His family was a respectable, average one. His father was a farmer. As he was growing up, Jemmy showed a remarkable amount of intelligence, so his father saved up and sent him to school to be a clergymen when he was old enough.

Well, that didn’t go so well. He was thrown out of school for his pranks, pranks which included popping the lenses out of the pastor’s glasses and riding a sow that belonged to his schoolmaster around campus.

When school didn’t work out, his parents instead apprenticed him to a tanner. It was here that Jemmy met his first love – the tanner’s daughter. They courted for a while, then became engaged…and then tragedy struck.

The love of Jemmy Hirst’s life died of smallpox after falling into a flooding river. After the tragedy, Jemmy was never the same.


Jemmy Hirst's home in Rawcliffe. [PHOTO: hulldailymail.com]

Jemmy Hirst’s home in Rawcliffe. [PHOTO: hulldailymail.com]

Jemmy bought a bull and named it Jupiter, and after that he built himself a little carriage out of wickerwork that contained a complete wine cellar and a double bed and a mechanical odometer that went ding for every mile traveled. He hitched his bull up on it and went for long rides, and when he grew bored of that, he took his bull on fox hunts. Stranger still, he’d train pigs to sniff out the foxes instead of hounds.

He constructed a saddle to fit Jupiter’s back, and a bridle specially designed for his head, and managed to break the bull in for riding. Jemmy would ride Jupiter all around the surrounding towns and even trained him to jump fences like a horse.

To fill the rest of his time when he wasn’t training animals to do ridiculous things, he created quirky inventions. He spent years trying to create the world’s first “land boat” by fixing sails to his wickerwork carriage. According to the 19th century scholar Sabine Baring-Gould, he was successful!

Inventions and animal training wasn’t all there was to the oddity of Jemmy Hirst. It doesn’t stop there. He also made a habit of inviting the poor and elderly to his house for tea, which doesn’t sound very strange until you learn he served the tea from his favorite coffin.

Later in life, he married his housekeeper. He insisted on wearing a toga and, for unknown reasons, that the entire ceremony should be conducted in sign language.



Jemmy was so eccentric, in fact, that he began to garner a large amount of fame in England. Stories of his “land-boat” and fox-hunting bull spread far and wide in the newspapers.

He became so famous, in fact, that King Edward III decided he just had to meet him. So, he summoned Jemmy to court.

Initially, Jemmy decided he didn’t want anything to do with the king, and refused to go. Eventually, after several more summons, he gave in and arrived dressed in patchwork breeches, red and white striped stockings, a coat made of otter pelts, and yellow boots. His outfit was so ridiculous that it made one court noble laugh so hard he collapsed and Jemmy threw a cup of water on him, thinking he was having hysterics.

After their meeting Jemmy made a show of inviting the king to Rawcliffe for tea. The king politely declined.


The eccentric James “Jemmy” Hirst died in 1829. He left a pound each to his twelve maids so they would follow his coffin and “mourn” for him. As it turns out, only two showed up, and so the church ended up having to hire ten widows to fill out the crowd.

In the end, after his death, he left his accountant a piece of rope. He wrote in his will that it was so the man could “go hang himself”.

Jemmy Hirst is still remembered in the tiny town of Rawcliffe. Tourists come from all over England to the Jemmy Hirst Pub and ask about the name and are promptly regaled with the tales of his exceptional life. This is one nutcase who will not be easily forgotten.