Garden gnomes are a common sight on properties today. But before there were gnomes, there were hermits. In the 18th and 19th centuries, those who could afford it would employ a man to dress as a druid and live a strict lifestyle.
But what purpose did it serve to have a hermit on your land? What were they supposed to do? Various historians, including Professor Gordon Campbell from the University of Leicester, have researched the matter to find out why having a hermit was the height of society.
Gardens as a sign of wealth
It’s always been the case that the rich are constantly searching for ways to display their wealth and impress guests. Many people with grand houses and rambling estates would put a lot of money into their formal gardens. While lakes and orchards, rose borders and elaborate fountains were all well and good, some of the gentry decided that their garden needed something special to make it really stand out.
For most of us in such a situation, our mind would not normally leap immediately to the idea of having a man living in solitude on our grounds for seven years. But to understand why this idea appealed to the elite, it’s necessary to appreciate what a hermit represented to society in the 18th century.
Solitude and the nearness of death
Gardens have always been seen as places of peace and relaxation, and that became even more important as industrialization spread across Britain. As the taste in gardens moved from formal features like boxed hedges and geometric paths to more rustic and romantic rambling settings, landscapers started including follies or hermitages made of brick or stone.
Initially, no one lived in them. The inside was decorated in a pleasing manner, and a table with glasses and a book of great literature hinted that this was the sort of place where a man of quiet reflection might live. The purpose of the feature was to emphasize the importance of solitude and melancholy, both of which were considered romantic or even part of being a genius. Alternatively, hermits could be seen as living in “Man’s natural state,” closer to nature and God.
Advertise for your own live-in hermit
Eventually, estate owners who wanted to go one step better advertised for people to actually come and live in their hermitages.
Gordon Campbell, a professor of Renaissance Studies, wrote The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome. The book reprints some advertisements seeking hermits, and one states that: “The hermit is never to leave the place, or hold conversation with anyone for seven years during which he is neither to wash himself or cleanse himself in any way whatever, but is to let his hair and nails both on hands and feet, grow as long as nature will permit them.”
Another ad by Charles Hamilton uncovered by the website allthatsinteresting.com goes as follows:
“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, nails, stray beyond the limits of Mr. Hamilton’s grounds, or exchange one word with the servant.”
Some landowners insisted that their hermits did not interact at all with either servants or visitors. They were to be purely ornamental. However, other hermits were encouraged to speak with those who approached them and to offer nuggets of wisdom.
A 1784 guide to Hawkstone Park, Shropshire, which belonged to Sir Richard Hill, included a description of how visitors might interact with the hermit: “You pull a bell, and gain admittance. The hermit is generally in a sitting posture, with a table before him, on which is a skull, the emblem of mortality, an hour-glass, a book and a pair of spectacles. The venerable bare-footed Father, whose name is Francis (if awake) always rises up at the approach of strangers. He seems about 90 years of age, yet has all his sense to admiration. He is tolerable conversant, and far from being impolite.”
Not satisfied with the hermit being there to dispense wisdom, there have been records of some hermits who were required to dispense alcohol too, by serving drinks to guests at dinner parties, or possibly reciting poetry. Other hermits might have been required to help out around the garden.
So, what’s in it for the hermit?
The hermit would bring prestige to the landowner, and in return, he would get a stipend as well as food and board for doing little more than sitting around all day and interacting with guests or merely being something for them to look at, depending on the instructions of the landowner.
Captain Philip Thicknesse became a hermit near Bath later in his life. When asked why he chose such a lifestyle, he replied that he had “obtained that which every man aims for but few acquire: solitude and retirement.”
However, the living conditions for hermits were strict. The adverts indicate that there was an accepted appearance for hermits and that personal hygiene was not part of the deal. With the standard contract being seven years long, some men found that either the isolation or lack of washing got too much.
However, allthatsinteresting.com states that hermitage contracts ensured that any hermit who left his post before the seven years was up would not get paid. Sources suggest that one hermit at Painshill Park in Surrey, England, only lasted three weeks before the solitude got too much for him and he was found at a local pub. He was sacked immediately.
The accommodation offered to a hermit could range from a cave to his own miniature house. Father Francis of Hawkstone Park lived in a dwelling consisting of stone walls, a heather-thatched roof, and a stable door. In a strange parallel to the Painshill Park incident, Father Francis proved so popular with visitors that the family had to build The Hawkstone Arms pub to offer accommodation and food to all the people who came to see him.
From pretend hermits to gnomes
Those households that couldn’t afford a hermit had a sneaky workaround. They would build a hermitage on their grounds and then leave the folly in a manner that suggested either a hermit was just about to arrive and take up residence or that one had just left. This would afford them prestige without the hassle of another mouth to feed.
Gradually, live-in hermits fell out of fashion. Sometime after 1810, even the famous Father Francis was gone. In his place, the family installed an automaton dressed as a hermit. Even though the device moved and spoke, later visitors were not as impressed, although one visitor did suggest that the family had done it as a move against slavery.
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While the fad for hermits might have died out, Professor Campbell has a theory as to what came next: “the garden hermit evolved from the antiquarian druid and eventually declined into the garden gnome.” So, the next time you see a gnome in someone’s garden, remember that it could have been a hermit.