Most people rightly know the English as a pleasant, well-behaved group of people.
Aside from the occasionally wild Saturday night out on the town, arguments about the correct way to make a cup of tea are about as heated as it gets.* Perhaps it’s because of the weather, but generally speaking they just don’t possess the edge of danger or recklessness that other populations have (I mean this as a good thing!). However, this doesn’t mean the English just play by the rules—far from it.
In fact, there are so many eccentric characters in English history that it’s really hard to do it justice in one article. If you’re keen, check out Dame Edith Sitwell’s The English Eccentrics, which was published in 1933.
Here are some of the nation’s most eccentric characters from history.
The poet Lord Byron wasn’t crazy in any traditional way, but he was, as Lady Caroline Lamb said, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” He may have been a member of the elite classes, but that didn’t stop Byron from doing as he pleased. When at Cambridge, he rebelled against the university’s “no dogs” rule by keeping a tame bear in his room. Throughout his life, he’d also keep monkeys, badgers, falcons, eagles, and foxes in his homes.
Wherever he went, great stories followed shortly after. Even in his first speech in the Houses of Parliament drew some attention—he went off piste and applauded the Luddites, who had been smashing up machinery across the country.
He died young, as all people with as much life as he do, after deciding to fight for the Greeks in their quest for independence during a period of “boredom”.
Thomas de Quincey
The Romantic artistic movement that took hold of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries seemed wholesome, what with all the talk of nature and childlike innocence and so forth. Thomas de Quincey dispelled some of that when he released his groundbreaking treatise, Confessions of an Opium Eater. In it, he detailed his descent into opium addiction and the other colourful events of his life. This book didn’t just reveal his problem with drugs—it revealed England’s problem with drugs.
We think of the 19th century as a strictly moral period, but that’s not the case. Drug use, especially opium use, was rampant, and could be bought without prescription from drug counters. Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a serious opium problem, and caused himself even more misery by watching his daughter fall into a similar habit.
Sir Richard Francis Burton
Sir Richard Francis Burton might just be the greatest Briton ever, because he was a madcap genius in just about everything he took a swing at—which was basically everything. He could speak 29 languages and travelled the world, often visiting places that were very dangerous. He’d go in disguise to markets and local hangouts, picking up the buzz on the street to feed back to the British government.
Perhaps most impressive of all, he visited Mecca, which at the time was closed to European visitors on penalty of death. Later, he would become the first European to explore Africa’s Great Lakes. Also, and among other things, he also translated the Kama Sutra into English. All in all, he had some life!
The Extraordinary People
You would have quite a life if you combined the various activities of Simeon Ellerton, John Christie, Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, and Sir George Sitwell. Ellerton build a house out of stones, and carried more on his head during his life because he enjoyed the sensation. Christie took his glass eye out in front of the Queen, and despite being one of the nation’s wealthiest people, would travel third class and wear tennis shoes to formal events. Tyrwhitt-Wilson dyed his pigeons in bright colours and kept a giraffe on his estate. Sitwell also coloured his animals—cows—to make them look better, and effectively sentenced his wife to prison by refusing to pay her debts. Harsh, for sure, and certainly eccentric!
The Ordinary People
Most eccentrics in Britain aren’t celebrated or famous—they’re just regular people who happen to do some things a little differently from their neighbours around the world. It’s all part of what makes England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland great. There’s the endless queuing, the fascination with the weather and tea, and the tendency to say sorry even when nothing is wrong. Stick around the country long enough and you’ll see plenty of examples of native strangeness. At first you’ll laugh, then you’ll see the twisted logic in it, and then you’ll join them.
—Guest post submitted by Sally Blunt
*Note from the Britophile: If you are not British, I hope you think this article quite amusing. If you are British, I hope that you are also amused, but I understand you may be hopping mad because of those darn foreigners who generalise and over-exaggerate and make fun of what they don’t know about. My words to you: lighten up and learn to laugh at yourself! We Americans aren’t very good at that as a general rule, but maybe you could teach us a thing or two.