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Originally published 2017
Settle down for a Norwich story which has been passed down through generations – it’s the true (as far as we know!) tale of a feral child discovered in Germany back in the 18th century. But what has this got to do with Norwich, you might ask…?
Image: Peter in a detail of a painting by William Kent at Kensington Palace
The boy who became known as ‘Peter the Wild Boy’ first came into the public eye when he was spotted naked, in the Hertswold forests (near Hamelin in Hanover) around 14 years of age – though some accounts claimed he was more like 11 or 12 years old. Found filthy and badly sunburned, with matted straggly hair and long fingernails, he didn’t appear to be able to understand human speech and was reported as only being able to utter a limited series of grunts and squeaks. In addition to that, his eyes seemed to flit about rapidly and he was very agile, being able to move about very quickly on all fours and climbing trees with ease.
Though news soon spread, no one came forward to claim him. It seemed that no one had any idea of who he could be, who his parents were, where he’d come from or how long he’d been in the forest for – he was quite an enigma! He may have been in there, seemingly alone, for months – or even years – on end. Some speculated that he had been abandoned as a baby and have survived by being suckled by a wild pig, wolf or bear. (It should be pointed out that none of those animals actually inhabited Germany’s forests during that time, so that would have required quite a stretch of the imagination!) However, these type of theories ran riot among people in the city at that time, often centering on the boy being brought up by some type of wild animal, and we know today that there have been numerous modern-day examples of feral children found living with gazelles, monkeys and dogs from all over the world – so perhaps there could have been some truth in this?
At Christmas time in 1725, George I – the King of Great Britain and Ireland at the time – decided he wanted to see this ‘wild boy’ with his own two eyes, and so he had him brought to his court at Herrenhausen where he was mostly treated kindly, but a little insensitively as somewhat of a strange and entertaining kind of pet. In 1726 the King then had him brought over to St James’s Palace in London, where he was exhibited to English nobility and became an object of intense curiosity among all levels of society. He was christened and baptised as Peter in 1726, but still no one seemed to be able to teach him to speak, despite various attempts.
With the King’s death in 1727, the public’s interest in Peter began to subside. He was passed from carer to carer as he grew up and, in the summer of 1751, Peter disappeared from the farm he was staying at with James Fenn.
Now the tale takes us to Norwich (in the autumn of 1751) when a man was arrested who was assumed to be homeless and a beggar. He looked very dishevelled and scruffy, and when interrogated he either couldn’t or wouldn’t speak, instead making strange noises. The authorities decided to lock him up in The Bridewell, Norwich’s ‘house of correction’ (today home to The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell, where lots of information about Peter the Wild Boy can be found) to see if it would shake him out of it.
What they didn’t count on was a fire which ripped through various properties in Bridewell Alley in October 1751, meaning that the inmates had to be released. Despite the fire, this mysterious man remained in the prison, seemingly fascinated by the fire and not at all scared. He was dragged out and reluctantly taken to the city’s workhouse – but not without a struggle, which attracted significant local attention. Because of this, an advertisement in the London Evening Post was connected to the man. The advert read:
LOST, or Stray’d away,
From BROADWAY in the Parish of NORTH-CHURCH, near Barkhamstead in the County of Hertford,
About three Months ago,
PETER, the WILD YOUTH, a black hairy Man, about five Feet eight Inches high, he cannot speak to be understood, but makes a kind of humming-Noise, and answers in that manner to the Name of PETER.
Whoever will bring him to Mr. Thomas Fenn’s, at the Place abovesaid, shall receive all reasonable Charges, and a handsome Gratuity.
It soon became obvious that this mysterious man, who many thought was a ‘simpleton’, was actually Peter the Wild Boy, the missing boy (now more of a man really). The Bridewell swiftly arranged to be compensated for its trouble and arranged for Peter to return to Germany; he left Norwich on the 7th November 1751.
Once back in Germany, a brass collar engraved was attached to Peter with his name and address on, to ensure that, if he was to stray again, he could be easily identified and returned. This shows that Peter was evidently considered by his guardians as valuable and almost like a personal possession.
How on earth did Peter make it all the way to Norwich, over 100 miles from Hertfordshire, without any money or the ability to speak? And how had he survived in the meantime – there were 1 or 2 months where he must have survived ‘living off the land’; perhaps his childhood living in the forests of Hanover had prepared him for this. It all remains a bit of a mystery, and one we still haven’t solved today.
Peter died at Broadway Farm in 1785, aged around 73. Legend has it that he refused all food after his last master passed away and therefore died of starvation – whether this is true or not remains to be seen. He’s buried in a parish churchyard at St Mary’s Northchurch, but a blue plaque remains in Norwich outside the Wild Man pub in Bedford Street, which commemorates Peter and his brief but impactful stay in Bridewell Alley.
To find out more about Peter the Wild Boy, visit The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell!
Many thanks to research by Stuart MacLaren and Norwich HEART for this information.