Peter the Wild Boy

Hello there! It’s been a little while since we’ve visited one of the world’s most unusual graves, so let’s take a little trip to St Mary’s Church, Northchurch, Hertfordshire. If you look carefully, you’ll find the little grave of Peter the Wild Boy which sits in the shadows of the church’s entrance.

In 1725, a group of hunters were making their way through Hertswold Forest in Hanover, Germany. Fighting through the dense woodland, the party came upon the dishevelled figure of a boy.

The unnamed boy was not a lost child, but had been living in the undergrowth for several years. Regarded as ‘wild’ and ‘feral’ by the party, the child walked on all fours and had no comprehension of language. Somehow, he had managed to survive alone in the woods by scavenging flora from the trees and bushes, ultimately, he was malnourished, but alive.

The boy wasn’t taken into care and nurtured, but thrown into the local correctional facility where he languished alongside thieves and vagrants. That was until his story reached the ears of British monarch, George I.

The hunting party had been little more than an entertaining excursion for the King returning to his homeland, but after the discovery, the purpose of his trip changed dramatically. At the request of George’s daughter-in-law, Caroline of Ansback, Princess of Wales, the boy was brought to England, undoubtedly as something of a foreign curiosity. Caroline held a keen interest in philosophy and science, especially in developing theories of nature vs nurture and the nature of intelligence. In order to feed this curiosity, the wild boy was to be brought to the capital, and to court when Caroline became Queen.

The forest being near to Hamelin of the Pied Piper legend, there was much excitement about the boy’s return and what strange stories would accompany him.

The excitement of the boy’s arrival in England reached something of a fever pitch in London society. Tales of the ‘Wild Boy’ became a craze in itself, and when the court’s chatter exploded with the boy’s arrival, the satirical wheels of London’s wittiest minds were set turning. Exasperated, satirist Jonathan Swift once commented that in London ‘there is scarcely talk of anything else’, while a pamphlet reportedly co-authored by him was sarcastically titled ‘The Most Wonderful Wonder that ever appeared to the Wonder of the British Nation.’

The boy was given the name Peter and, after the original hysteria of his novel arrival had subsided, he was placed under the tutelage of Dr Arbuthnot who was to provide his education. Despite his efforts, and those of the queen, Peter was unable to learn how to read or write and remained functionally mute for the rest of his days (perhaps due to no learned muscle function), only learning how to speak his own name. He remained a beloved curiosity at court, who frustrated staff with his reticence to walk upright, preferring to move on his hands and knees. He also disliked sleeping in a bed or wearing his court appointed green suit and stockings. Indeed, it is said that the first time he saw a man remove his stockings, he was terrified, believing that the man was not removing clothes, but peeling off his own skin. Although his tutor treated him very kindly, spending much of his time dedicated to Peter’s welfare, he was not permitted the autonomy modern society would afford him.

Peter is immortalised in a substantial household painting that still hangs in the King’s staircase at Kensington Palace. The portrait, painted by William Kent in the 1720s depicts George I’s royal household, with Peter close to the border wearing his green suit and holding oak leaves and acorns. 

It was when researching this portrait that popular historian Lucy Worsley began to explore new theories about Peter’s nature. When reading contemporaneous account of Peter’s behaviour, she suspected that he may have been autistic and deferred to Phil Beale, professor of genetics at the Institute of Child Health. According to a 2011 Guardian article, ‘Beale ran the symptoms through his database of chromosomal disorders, and came up with a diagnosis of Pitt-Hopkins syndrome, which was identified in 1978, centuries after Peter’s death.’[1] Many indicators of Pitt-Hopkins are physical traits, several of which are shown in the royal portrait; his curved, cupid’s bow lips, his drooping eyelids, coarse hair and restricted height. He was also said to have two fingers fused together, another occasional symptom of the condition.

As Pitt-Hopkins is a genetic condition, there is no cure, but Peter’s gentle and inquisitive nature protected him from much of the unpleasantness that would have come his way in such an era, even as his ‘novelty’ at court waned.

After Caroline’s death in 1737, Peter was discharged from Dr Arbuthnot’s tutelage. He was then placed under the care of Mrs Titchbourn, one of the Queen’s women of the bedchamber, who later passed him onto the farmer Mr James Fenn who was paid £35 a year for Peter’s care. He continued to outlive his carers and lived with the successive tenants of Fenn’s brother’s farm until his own death in 1785.

Years earlier in the summer of 1751, Peter made the newspapers once more after he disappeared from the Fenn’s farm. Despite handsome rewards offered, there was no sign of Peter until a building fire in the nearby parish of St Andrews, Norwich, caused inmates to be released and run for their lives. One of the prisoners proved to be quite the curiosity, being described in the papers as excessively hairy and grunting, likening him to an orangutang. Thankfully, Peter was recognised from his description and was returned to the farmhouse where Thomas made Peter his infamous collar with his name and address attached, so that Peter could be returned if he ever disappeared again.

In 1782, Peter was visited by Scottish philosopher and judge James Burnett who documented his change in appearance, noting that the eternal ‘boy’ now had a large white beard and understood what was spoken to him, but could not reply himself, being able to say his name, ‘King George’ and hum a few tunes.

Peter lived into his 70s and died in 1785 where he was buried under a simple headstone by the doorway in St Mary’s Church, Northchurch. As of 2013, the grave is Grade II listed and thankfully preserved for future generations to visit.

While the real Peter died in 1785, it’s believed that his story took on a life of its own thanks to the imagination of J M Barrie. Nearly a century later, the author moved to Kensington Gardens in London where tales of the wild boy were still told. As such, many scholars believe this may have been the inspiration for ‘Peter Pan of Kensington Gardens’, the boy who never grew up, beloved by children to this day.

J.M. Barrie

Pitt-Hopkins syndrome remains an incredibly rare diagnosis, but thanks to the research and educational efforts of the Pitt Hopkins Research Foundation, families and newly diagnosed children are able to get the proper support that Peter’s family would have been denied. The real Peter’s story may be fading in the public’s mind, but through Peter Pan, he can offer support to those who need it.

“Peter Pan is remembered as the boy who never grew up…a boy who captured the hearts of the young and the old through his magical ways. The story of Peter Pan helps us find some blessings in the pain. Peter Pan, we think, would’ve been very proud of our Pitt Hopkins children. Just as we are.”[2] – Pitt Hopkins Research Foundation.

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References/Further Reading

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/mar/20/peter-wild-boy-condition-revealed

https://pitthopkins.org/newly-diagnosed/peter-pan-connection/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rvlg41mdHjQ [Lucy Worsley being brilliant, as per. Mentions more of the brutality he was subjected to at court]

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14215171

[1]https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/mar/20/peter-wild-boy-condition-revealed

[2]https://pitthopkins.org/newly-diagnosed/peter-pan-connection/

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