Weird Norfolk: The wild boy who was found in a Norwich house of correction
- Credit: Wellcome Collection
He was the feral child who became a human pet at the grandest household in Georgian England, a boy said to have been raised by wolves who swapped finery for a cell when he visited Norwich.
In 1724, or roundabout, a boy who became known as Peter the Wild Boy was spotted naked in the Hertswold Forests near Hanover – aged 14, or roundabout, he was filthy, badly sunburned, had matted hair and long fingernails and didn't seem to recognise other humans.
Reportedly, Peter communicated through grunts and squeaks, his eyes flitting in his head, his agility akin to an animal as he scampered on all fours and climbed trees with impressive ease.
Once in captivity, no one came forward to claim poor Peter and he became a subject of huge excitement and intrigue during the Age of Enlightenment when intelligent debate raged about what it meant to be human.
Some claimed that Peter had been raised by bears or wolves (neither of which lived in the forest where the boy was found) while others believed he had been abandoned in the woods by parents who could not cope with him.
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Whatever Peter's story, King George I was fascinated by the child. He had him brought to his court of Herrenhausen to be his 'pet', believing his hatred of fine clothing and etiquette proved he was a 'wild child'.
Experts believe Peter may have been born with Pitts-Hopkins, a rare genetic condition which leads to severe learning and developmental difficulties.
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In 1726, George brought Peter to St James's Palace in London where he was exhibited to the nobility and became quite a celebrity.
'The wild boy played with a glove of Caroline's [the Princess of Wales], grew fascinated by a pocket watch that struck the hours and, as was usual with him, attempted some mild pickpocketing,' said a contemporary report.
'Furthermore, rumour spread that he had, in breach of all civilised decorum, seized the Lord Chamberlain's staff and put his hat on before the king.'
The child was christened and baptised as Peter in 1726, but still no one seemed to be able to teach him to speak or behave like a child in court.
When King George died in 1727, interest in Peter died with him.
Passed from carer to carer, Peter lived a quiet life until 1751, when he disappeared from the Hertfordshire farm he was staying at with Thomas Fenn, who was paid £35 a year for his support and maintenance.
Fenn placed advertisements in newspapers offering a reward for Peter's safe return but he had vanished into thin air.
Meanwhile, in Norwich, a man was arrested who was assumed to be a homeless beggar – dishevelled and scruffy, he seemed unable to utter anything other than a few grunts.
The authorities decided he needed to be taken off the streets and he was locked in The Bridewell, Norwich's house of correction, where he stayed until a huge fire ripped through Bridewell Alley in October 1751, forcing gaolers to release all the inmates. All but one made their bid for freedom: Peter.
Peter had to be dragged from the building, seemingly mesmerised by the flames
Struggling as he was dragged to the city's workhouse, he was recognised as the missing man who was being hunted in Hertfordshire.
'LOST, or Stray'd away,From BROADWAY in the Parish of NORTH-CHURCH, 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, shall receive all reasonable Charges, and a handsome Gratuity.'
Peter was taken back to the farm and given a special collar with his name and address on it in case he ever strayed again – he died aged around 73 in 1785 and is commemorated on a blue plaque outside the Wild Man pub in Bedford Street.
Villagers in Northchurch paid for Peter's headstone at the local church, and even today, flowers are still laid on the Wild Man's grave.
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