The following is an excerpt from my next book, Kismet Quick: a travelogue/guide/ramble/rant through 40 of Norfolk’s towns and villages (I’ve visited each via public transport). Kismet Quick is now available to buy here. Check this site for regular updates & follow the journey in photographs here
…There were still a hell of a lot of pubs in Norwich. Many were centuries old. And many had intriguing back-stories. None more than The Wild Man, named after Peter The Wild Boy: a feral child discovered in a German wood by George I on a hunting trip in 1725.
The child was severely disabled. He couldn’t read or speak. He walked on all fours. He’d survived by eating wild flora. George I did what any good king would do upon discovering a poor, destitute youth; he sent him to London to be kept as a ‘human pet’. (I guess the boy should consider himself lucky he didn’t wind up with his head on display above the king’s log cabin fireplace.)
Peter, as the pet was subsequently named, became the talk of the nation. The king tried to domesticate the child by employing teachers and doctors to educate him in the ways of high society. One of the doctors regularly lashed out at him with ‘a broad leather strap to keep him in awe.’ The king even invited him to dinner but was repulsed by the boy’s table manners:
‘Good Lord, don’t they have dinner tables in the Hanoverian woodlands?… Oh, for goodness sake, child, take that spoon out of your ear… I can’t believe this; you try and do something nice and this is the thanks you get… No, boy, no. It’s a turkey not a hat!’
And so on.
Once the novelty of his new pet faded, the king sent the boy to a succession of carers who tried, and failed, to teach him to speak. Not surprisingly, Peter tried to run away and, rather surprisingly, managed to do so. He completely disappeared.
It wasn’t until a fire broke out at Norwich prison that he was discovered amongst the escaped convicts. Locals recognised him from the descriptions in the papers and pamphlets that his arrival in England had spawned (most notably by a reliably disgruntled Jonathan Swift: ‘his being so young was the occasion of the great disappointment of the ladies [of court], who came to the drawing room in full expectation of some attempt upon their chastity’). The Norwich people said that the convict acted ‘like an orangutan’. They toyed with keeping him as a human pet, but instead returned him to his carers in Hertfordshire. A lavish collar was locked around his neck with the inscription, ‘Peter the Wild Man of Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted shall be paid for their trouble.’
Peter enjoyed his time in Hertfordshire. His carers had managed to butter him up – although he preferred Flora – and he lived a life of relative routine and calm. He was said to be a man of ‘exceedingly gentle and timid nature.’ He remained in Hertfordshire until his death. His gravestone reads, ‘PETER the Wild Boy 1785’. He lived to the age of 72. Once you get a nickname, it can be hard to shake. He was certainly the oldest ‘Boy’ in England. (Although the pub had the decency to refer to him as a man.)