PETER THE WILD BOY
The story of Peter the Wild Boy has intrigued generations of visitors to Northchurch. The simple tombstone immediately in front of the church porch gives away very little about the person buried there, with the curious inscription:
the Wild Boy
Inside the church, on the south wall of the nave, there is a brass tablet, which relates something of the strange history of the Wild Boy, as well as providing a portrait of Peter as an old man. The inscription reads:
To the memory of Peter, known as the Wild Boy, having been found wild in the forest of Hertswold near Hanover in the year 1725. He then appeared to be about 12 years old. In the following year he was brought to England by the order of the late Queen Caroline, and the ablest masters were provided for him. But proving himself incapable of speaking, or of receiving any instruction, a comfortable provision was made for him at a farm in this parish, where he continued to the end of his inoffensive life. He died on the 22nd of February, 1785, supposed to be aged 72.
The available evidence shows that Peter was originally found by Jurgen Meyer, a smallholder of Hamelin, in his field at Helpensen in May 1724. Meyer took Peter to Burgermeister Severin, who had Peter put in the care of the St Spiritus Poor House. There he remained for the next nine months until Peter’s enormous appetite proved too great a drain on the Poor House resources. As a result, he was transferred to the Hospice adjacent to the prison in Celle.
It was on a visit to Celle by King George the first, in his other role as Elector of Hanover, that the King learned of Peter and apparently had him invited to dinner. (The record dates this event to advent-tide 1725). The King was content to leave instructions that Peter be put in the care of a gardener in Hanover. However, news of this strange "wild boy” provoked much interest in England on the King’s return, and in February 1726 Peter was brought to this country, apparently at the instigation of the Caroline, Princess of Wales, who later became the Queen of King George II.
At the English Royal Court he was placed under the care of a tutor, Dr Arbothnot but all attempts to educate him failed. He was clumsy and unable (or unwilling) to adapt to the behaviour patterns of the royal household, and he never uttered a single syllable. After a while, the court tired of Peter, and he was entrusted to the care of Mrs Tichbourne, one of the Queen’s bedchamber women, who received a handsome pension for his maintenance. While he was under her protection, Peter was brought to Northchurch when Mrs Tichbourne visited a yeoman farmer called James Fenn at Axters End. After several visits, Peter was given over to the care of James Fenn, and the government granted a pension of £35 per annum to him. On James Fenn’s death, Peter was transferred to Broadway Farm, where he lived out his days.
Contemporary accounts of Peter depict him as a strong man, who worked alongside the farm labourers and also had an intense love of music. Apparently, he would dance strenuously while any musical instrument was being played. Peter was also given to wandering, and on one occasion, travelled as far as Norwich. There he was arrested on a charge of spying, and as he did not speak, was assumed to be a Spanish subversive. He was delivered from jail by one of the courtiers, and from that point on, wore around his neck a leather collar with a brass plate, which read:
Peter the Wild Man from Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, shall be paid for their trouble.
This can still be seen, at Berkhamsted Collegiate School.
Peter's habits were studied by leading scientists of the day. He preferred green twigs, acorns and bean shells to cooked meals. When given large nuts and raw onions he would beat his chest with his fists to express his pleasure. He insisted walking everywhere bare footed and if threatened he was likely to bite his tormentors.
To this day flowers are frequently placed in secret in front of Peter's gravestone.
In February 2013 the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport added the Gravestone of Peter the Wild Boy to the List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest.