You’ve probably heard somewhere along the line that Victorian England was a rather odd place, teeming with eccentrics and eccentricities that ranged from the obsessive collecting of ferns to unwrapping mummies for fun to keeping ornamental lawn hermits in ornamental lawn hermitages in their backyards.
That’s a phrase I never thought I’d use.
Eremitism (the practice of being a hermit) had been abolished by King Henry VIII when he suppressed monasteries and anything associated with a monastic lifestyle in the 16th century. Hermits had always been symbols of wisdom and mystical insight to the English, and their suppression under the Tudors left a void in English culture; who now would impart crucial knowledge to every lost soul in every work of literature of there was no mysterious bearded man living in solitude in a hut in the garden? During the Victorian Era in the 19th century, eremitism experienced a rebirth — not because people wanted to be hermits, but because people wanted to have them.
Advertising oneself as an ornamental lawn hermit was a common practice at the time, especially for young men looking to get away from it all for a few years, although older men with more pronounced facial hair were considered more desireable. If they could grow an especially long beard and handle living in a rabbit hutch with little to no human contact for the duration of their hermit contract, they were hired. As an 1866 book entitled English Eccentrics and Eccentricities reported in its section focusing on nine notable lawn hermits, “Certain noblemen and country squires were advertising for Ornamental Hermits. Nothing, it was felt, could give such delight to the eye, as the spectacle of an aged person, with a long grey beard, and a goatish rough robe, doddering about amongst the discomforts and pleasures of Nature.”
Being an ornamental lawn hermit was not always all it was cracked up to be, however. One very notable employer of lawn hermits was the Honorable Charles Hamilton, who required his hermits to sign a seven-year contract. If they lasted the full seven years, they would be paid 700 pounds. Quit one day early, and the hermit would not receive a penny. Hamilton required his hermits to “continue on the hermitage seven years, where he shall be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his feet, a hassock for his pillow, an hourglass for timepiece, water for his beverage, and food from the house. He must wear a camlet robe, and never, under any circumstances, must he cut his hair, beard, or nails, stray beyond the limits of Mr. Hamilton’s grounds, or exchange one word with the servant.” The first one lasted three weeks.
The wealthy owners of lawn hermits also had a tendency to want their hermits to dress up like Druids, despite there being no real consensus about what a Druid looked like. As a result, a lot of them ended up looking quite bizarre. The advertisements for lawn hermits were equally strange, often including rather extreme requests, such as not being permitted to cut one’s toenails for a period of several years.
Imagine being a kid in Victorian England and playing around in your friend’s garden when all of a sudden a wild-looking old man dressed in rags with crazy long toenails comes wandering out from behind a tree and your friend just says, “Oh don’t mind him, he’s just the decorative hermit we keep at the bottom of the garden.”