The child savage kept as a pet by King George
By DAVID LEAFE
The Daily Mail, 24 March 2011
As choking black smoke and soaring flames engulfed the workhouse on the outskirts of Norwich, an astonishing sight greeted those who had come to rescue its terrified inmates.
Among the poor souls who had escaped the inferno was a strange half-human figure silhouetted against the burning building.
Its excessively hairy appearance and animal-like grunting immediately gave rise to speculation that it was some kind of gorilla or orangutan. As the creature scampered towards them on that October night in 1751, the locals backed away in terror. Yet a closer look at its face revealed that this was no animal but a fully-grown man, more frightened of them than they of him.
Before long, he was coaxed by the locals to come timidly towards them, and they were able to take care of him. As they puzzled over his identity in the days to come, they found that he could speak — but he could say only two things: strangled versions of the names Peter and King George.
It soon transpired that they had stumbled upon one of the sensations of his day. For the person in their charge was none other than Peter The Wild, an unfortunate who had been found abandoned in a German forest as a child and later kept as a much-celebrated ‘pet’ at the court of George I before disappearing.
Peter had been the subject of newspaper articles, poems and popular songs in Georgian England. There was even a figure of him in a London waxworks.
Since his death 200 years ago, his life has been shrouded in mystery. But now, thanks to the detective work of the chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, Lucy Worsley, we may be close to explaining many of the unanswered questions concerning him — not least why he was living feral in a forest in the first place.
Her findings are published in a new paperback version of her book Courtiers, about the inhabitants of Kensington Palace in London.
Peter was discovered, naked, in the summer of 1725 by villagers in a forest near Hamelin in North Germany — the town of Pied Piper legend.
Aged about 12, he walked on all fours, fed on grass and leaves and would scamper up trees when approached.
Since he was unable to utter intelligible sounds, he could offer no explanation of how he came to be living wild, but he was hardly grateful to have been found.
‘Detailed accounts of his capture reveal that he was actually hunted down,’ says Lucy. ‘He took refuge up a tree, which had to be felled before he could be caught.’
Unsure what to do with him, his captors threw him into the local prison, where he languished for weeks before news of this strange child reached George I, the King of England, who was on a visit to his Hanoverian homeland.
George I thought it would be amusing to have the creature as a plaything. He named the boy Peter and took him to his summer palace at Herrenhausen in Hanover, where he was dressed in expensive clothes and dined with the King. The monarch watched with appalled fascination as Peter, napkin at his neck, gorged himself on vegetables, fruit and raw meat, eating noisily from his hands.
In the spring of 1726, he was brought to London as entertainment for those bored by the stultifying rituals of court life. Frustrated by Peter’s wild ways, George I put him under the care of John Arbuthnot, the court doctor. He also had him baptised — just in case he had a soul.
The grinning, bushy-haired boy entranced courtiers with his refreshing lack of ceremony, scuttling about like a chimp and scampering up to the King.
Although short, he was remarkably strong and, with gleaming white teeth and ‘a roving look’ in his green eyes, often giggled during solemn proceedings.
Eventually, he learned to pick the pockets of others for food. ‘If he finds nuts or fruits, he is very glad of them,’ said one account of the day.
But this behaviour was not always regarded as charming. Sometimes, Peter was ‘beaten on the legs with a broad leather strap to keep him in awe’.
As the favoured plaything of the King’s daughter-in-law Princess Caroline, Peter was taught to bow and kiss the hands of the ladies at court, but he had great difficulty in adjusting to civilisation.
‘The first time he saw someone removing stockings, he was greatly upset, thinking the man was peeling his own skin from his leg,’ says Lucy.
‘The courtiers had enormous trouble in getting him to wear his suit. As well as the daily struggle over his clothes, he could not be made to lie down on a bed, but slept on the floor in a corner of the room. These details of a little boy bewildered pierce the heart.’
For all Arbuthnot’s encouragement, Peter only ever learned to say his own name and that of the monarch. This points to an arrested mental development — for which Lucy believes she may have found the cause.
Suspecting, from contemporary accounts, that Peter may have been autistic, she turned to a picture that had long fascinated her on the stairs leading to the state apartments at Kensington Palace.
It was painted by the renowned 18th-century artist William Kent, and is a group portrait of George I’s favourite servants — including Peter, then in his early teens.
The portrait shows him with cupid-bow lips, a shock of coarse hair and drooping eyelids, while descriptions of Peter’s physical appearance suggest two of his fingers were fused together,
Worsley showed the portrait to Phil Beale, professor of genetics at the Institute of Child Health, who suggested these were all symptoms of Pitt Hopkins syndrome, a chromosomal condition only identified in 1978.
‘This would all explain why he was abandoned by his parents, captured like a wild animal and thrown into the local house of correction with the vagrants and thieves,’ says Lucy.
‘He was lucky that George I heard about him — although at court, he was treated like a performing dog rather than the damaged little boy that he was.’
As soon the King and fashionable society tired of Peter, he was sent to live in retirement on a farm near Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire. There, he was said to have been ‘exceedingly timid and gentle in his nature’, and to have indulged a love of gin and ‘a strange fondness for stealing away into the woods to feed upon acorns’.
In 1751, this wanderlust led him to disappear for several months. Newspapers offered a reward for his return, but it was only the fire at St Andrew’s workhouse that year which revealed his whereabouts — he had travelled more than 100 miles and had been taken in as a vagrant.
He was returned to the farm and was fitted with a collar bearing his name and address should he stray again.
He never did and seems to have lived in relative happiness until the sudden death of his last carer, a Farmer Brill, after which Peter ‘refused food, pined away and died in a few days’ on February 22, 1785, aged over 70.
To this day, an unknown person still places flowers on his grave at St Mary’s Northchurch, near Berkhamsted.
On a recent visit, Lucy Worsley asked a member of the congregation if she knew who placed the bouquets.
‘We’ve no idea who leaves the flowers,’ she was told. ‘But it must be someone who thinks Peter should be remembered.’
And so he should be.
Courtiers, by Lucy Worsley, is published by Faber & Faber.
© 2013 Lucy Worsley