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Hermits As Garden Ornaments

Between the 17th and the 19th centuries, a certain reproachful and voyeuristic trend emerged among wealthy British landowners. Not content with inanimate garden ornaments such as gnomes and bird baths, these people hired real, living and breathing persons, to live as hermits in make-believe hermitages erected on the lavish grounds of their estates. Most of them were required to make scheduled appearances on the grounds in appropriate clothing whenever the employer was entertaining guests. They were known as “garden hermits” or “ornamental hermits”.

Garden Hermits

A garden hermit in Germany in the late 18th century

Garden hermits were often solicited through newspaper advertisements, where the general terms of the contract were spelled out. The term was often seven years, during which the hermits were required to live austerely in a small cottage or cave built within the estate garden. They were not allowed to wash their hair or cut their nails, stray beyond the boundaries of the estate or talk to the servants. Hermits were provided basic amenities such as food, water, clothes, a bed made out of hay, a Bible and reading glasses. At the end of their term, they received a payment of several hundred pounds, enough to not work again.

You might assume that with terms such as these, landowners must have received a lot of applications from vagabonds and the homeless. But the fact is, garden hermits were surprisingly difficult to procure. The life of solitude that they were required to lead and the absolute abandon of personal hygiene were perhaps too much for even those seeking to score free food and lodging.

The honorable Charles Hamilton (1704 -86), the youngest son of the Earl of Abercorn, placed an advertisement with similar conditions for his estate at Pains Hall, near Cobham, Surrey. The first ornamental hermit he employed lasted a full three weeks, before he was seen getting drunk at the local pub.

Aside from drifters, advertisement for garden hermits also attracted genuinely interested people seeking a site for meditation, reflection and relaxation. The eccentric British author, Philip Thicknesse, lived as a hermit on his own garden. In his memoirs Thicknesse observed that:

The duplicity of Mankind, and satiety of enjoyments all tend to show that even the splendid scenes, which surround the palaces of wealth and greatness, are never thought complete, unless marked by some shady care and the abode of an imaginary anchorite.

Garden Hermits

A Hermit's Cell, from William Wright's Grotesque Architecture, London, c1790

Professor Gordon Campbell, of the University of Leicester, suggests that Francis of Paola (1416 – 1507) was among the first of the trend, living as a hermit in a cave on his own father's estate. The practice later spread across England and to Ireland and Scotland, and to some extant, to the rest of Europe as well.

One of the more famous hermits of the Georgian era was Father Francis, who lived at Hawkstone Park in Shropshire in a hermitage made with stone walls and a heather-thatched roof, and passed wisdom to visitors. The attraction became so popular that the Hill family, who owned the park, built their own pub, The Hawkstone Arms, to cater to all the guests.

Not all estate owners were so lucky to have a hermit like Father Francis. Many struggled to even find one. When newspaper advertisements seeking hermits went unanswered, some sought out novel solutions such as dummies or automation. When Father Francis died, the Hill family replaced him with an automation that apparently both moved and spoke.

The fad of ornamental hermits lasted for about two hundred years reaching its peak in the 18th century, though it lingered into the 19th before finally dying off.

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