John Mytton is one of those colouful characters that make history, especially British history such an interest affair. It’s always nice when one comes across someone who was totally nuts and I always look at them with a slight mix of jealousy and admiration and just a little astonishment.
Of course history is littered with such people but how we view them very much depends on their social standing. Such was the nominal state of mental health care in the good old days that what happened to you if you were a few sandwiches short of a picnic meant that if you were poor or homeless then you would be locked away in an institution or left to roam the streets until the inevitable premature demise.
If however you were a person of means and good standing then the world was very much your crazy-ass oyster. John Mytton was one such aristocrat who even at his best was definitely a few cards short of a full pack. Born on September 30th 1796 into a well-heeled family of Shropshire Squires, his father died when John was only 2 years old which meant that the young boy inherited the family seat at Halston Hall which aside from its value of £60,000 or over £5million today, it also offered him annual income of £10,000 which is nearly £1million a year. In short, John Mytton was all set for a life that only a mad as a march hare British eccentic could ever hope to lead.
John was sent to the prestigious Westminster School as a young boy but was expelled after a year for fighting with his school master. 3 terms later, he was also expelled from Harrow and so for much of his younger years, he was privately educated by a succession of tutors. John enjoyed terrorising them and was known to even have left a horse in the bedroom of one of his tutors.
Despite not showing any great academic ability, John found himself enrolled at Cambridge University where he took 2,000 bottles of Port with him to his lodgings to sustain him through his studies. Sadly, John found University to be somewhat boring and despite his (best?) efforts, he left Cambridge without any qualifications to his name and threw himself into a Grand Tour of Europe.
At the age of 16, in the year 1812, Mad Jack was commissioned as a Captain in the local Yeomanry and then after he returned from his touring he was commisioned in the regular British Army. Sadly for him but perhaps happily for his men, he just missed out on the Napoleonic Wars. No doubt his unhinged and reckless personality with little heed for good sense or the wellbeing of his men would have seen him leading many a suicidal cavalry charge which was the making and sometimes breaking of many a military career. Instead he spent his time in occupied France, gambling and drinking until he resigned his post.
Family life beckoned for John but sadly his first wife died just 2 years after their marriage. His second marriage went better at least for 10 years until his wife ran away. John lobbied for a senior position back in the North Shropshire Yeomanry but was turned down and so rejoined at a more modest position.
In 1819 he entertained ambitions of standing for Parliament, as a Tory, following family tradition. He secured his seat by offering voters £10 notes, spending a total of £10,000 (more than £750,000 as of 2006). He thus became MP for Shrewsbury. He spent just 30 minutes in the House of Commons in June 1819, but found the debates boring and difficult to follow because of his incipient deafness. When Parliament was dissolved in 1820 he declined to stand at the next election. He instead served as High Sheriff of Merionethshire for 1821–22, High Sheriff of Shropshire for 1823–24, and Mayor of Oswestry for 1824-25.
However, he attempted to enter Parliament again in 1831, this time for one of the two Shropshire seats and as a Whig candidate. He withdrew on the fifth day of the poll and came bottom with 376 votes. He then issued an address stating that he would contest the next parliamentary election, but by the time of that election, in 1832, he had gone into exile to escape his creditors.
Meanwhile, he indulged his enjoyment of horseracing and gambling, and enjoyed some success at both. He bought a horse named Euphrates, which was already a consistent winner, and entered it in the Gold Cup at Lichfield in 1825, and it duly won. Its portrait, commissioned by Mytton from the painter William Webb, was exhibited at the Royal Academy the same year. Mytton also became a well-known character at Oswestry Race Course, an increasingly disreputable local racetrack.
It is said that in 1826, in order to win a bet, he rode a horse into the Bedford Hotel opposite the Town Hall in Leamington Spa, up the grand staircase and onto the balcony, from which he jumped, still seated on his horse, over the diners in the restaurant below, and out through the window onto the Parade.
He also held contests for local children at Dinas Mawddwy, giving sums ranging from half a crown to half a guinea to those who rolled all the way down the hill Moel-y-Dinas, all 182 metres or 597 feet of it!
Mytton had hunted foxes with his own pack of hounds from the age of ten and went hunting in any kind of weather. His usual winter gear was a light jacket, thin shoes, linen trousers and silk stockings, but in the thrill of the chase he sometimes stripped off and continued the hunt naked, even through snow drifts and rivers in full spate. He also continued hunting despite being unseated and sustaining broken ribs -“unmurmuring when every jar was an agony”, and sometimes led his stable boys on rat hunts, each stable boy being equipped with ice skates. He had a wardrobe consisting of 150 pairs of hunting breeches, 700 pairs of handmade hunting boots, 1,000 hats and some 3,000 shirts.
Mytton kept numerous pets, including some 2,000 dogs. His favourites among them were fed on steak and champagne. His favourite horse, Baronet, had free range inside Halston Hall and lay in front of the fire with Mytton.
It was said of “Mad Jack” that “not only did he not mind accidents, he positively liked them”. Mytton drove his gig at high speed and once decided to discover if a horse pulling a carriage could jump over a tollgate (it could not). On another occasion he asked his passenger whether he had ever been upset in a gig. The man said he had not and Mytton responded, “What!! What a damn slow fellow you must have been all your life!” He promptly drove the gig up a sloping bank at full speed, tipping himself and his passenger out.
He would often drive his gig at high speed at an obstacle like a rabbit hole only to see if the carriage would turn over and often it would. Whilst it might be said that his life was a series of failed suicide attempts, somehow he managed to survive these incidents without serious injuries.
Once he picked a fight with a tough Shropshire miner who disturbed his hunt and the bare knuckle fight lasted 20 rounds before the miner gave up exhausted. Another time he decided to make an impression and arrived at a dinner party at Halston Hall riding a bear, it was all going well until he jammed his stirrups into the bear as he tried to make it go faster. The bear understandably didn’t like this and bit him in his calf.
Some of his dogs wore livery, others were costumed. He also enjoyed dog fights and bred dogs for this, he was even seen having fights with bulldogs and mastiffs and even bit them to train them up.
One evening, out for a stroll after dinner, Mytton met a beggar on his estate. He swapped clothes with him and returned to the house, where the disguised squire asked his own servants for charity, only to be given the bitter dregs from a barrel. When he objected, the butler and two menservants attempted to manhandle him, but when he knocked them down they set the dogs on him.
On one occassion, a horse dealer was over for dinner and with John as a drinking companion became very drunk and was put to bed. He woke the following morning to find two bulldogs on one side of him and the bear on the other.
On one occasion after his guests left on horseback from a dinner he organised for a local Oswestry parson and doctor at Halston Hall, Jack quickly donned full highwayman’s garb and mask and armed with a brace of pistols caught up with them through the back roads. Still on the edge of his estate, he burst from cover fired both pistols over their heads and called “Stand and deliver!” it is said that not content with terrifying his guests, when the parson and the doctor took to their heels, Mad Jack chased them all the way to Oswestry.
On other occassions in the middle of the night, stripped down to his night shirt Squire Jack Mytton would lay in the snow, duck hunting. He was inclined to do things like go out onto the ice of a frozen lake when totally naked. Jack would ambush the ducks, fire a few shots and return to bed apparently none the worse for his ordeal. He frequently got up again half an hour later – stripped off and went through the whole process again. Another passion was hunting on horseback stripped to the waist shedding his clothes as he rode.
Mytton was a spendthrift. Visitors to his estate sometimes found banknotes stashed around the grounds, whether left on purpose or simply lost. It shouldn’t be the biggest surprise that over the course of fifteen years he managed to spend his inheritance and then fell into deep debt. His agent had calculated that if he could but reduce his expenditure to £6,000 a year for six years his estate would not have to be sold, but Mytton declared that “I wouldn’t give a damn to live on £6,000 a year!” In 1831 he fled to Calais to avoid his creditors. He had met an attractive 20-year-old woman named Susan on Westminster Bridge and offered her £500 a year to be his companion. She accompanied him to France and stayed with him until his death.
Even in his latter years, he remained quite a character and during his stay in Calais he tried to cure his hiccups by setting his shirt on fire. His biographer “Nimrod” was present at this event: “‘Damn this hiccup!!’ said Mytton as he stood undressed on the floor, apparently in the act of getting into bed ‘but I’ll frighten it away’; so seizing a lighted candle applied it to the tail of his shirt – it being a cotton one – he was instantly enveloped in flames. A fellow guest and Mytton’s servant beat out the flames: ‘The hiccup is gone, by God!’, said he and reeled, naked, into bed.” From bed he quoted Sophocles in Greek. Mytton was visited in his room the next morning, to be found ‘not only shirtless, but sheetless, with the skin of his breast, shoulders and knees of the same colour as a newly singed bacon hog’.
In 1833 Mytton returned to England, where, still unable to pay his debts, he ended up in the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark. He died there in 1834, a “round-shouldered, tottering, old-young man bloated by drink, worn out by too much foolishness, too much wretchedness and too much brandy”.
John “Mad Jack” Mytton died in prison in 1834, aged just 38. It is estimated that he spent over £20million in today’s money, gradually selling off all the family estates, and even the contents of Halston. He is remembered though for a complete lack of malice and innate goodness and generosity that was remembered after his death by that fact that an estimated 3,000 people turned up for his funeral including many members of the army attending, together with his former tenants and servants, friends and well-wishers. Jack Mytton’s biographer, Robert Apperley, writing under the pen-name Nimrod, published a biography in 1835, in which he wrote: ‘It was his largeness of heart that ruined Mr. Mytton, added to the lofty pride which disdained the littleness of Prudence’. And yet,throughout his life, Mad Jack Mytton was loved, for he may have been as mad as a box of frogs but he was not malicious and he simply lived life large. His pranks and frolics were outrageous but he meant no harm to anyone. Unless you had hiccups maybe.
His name lives on throughout his county of Shropshire with many roads and streets named after him and fittingly a 72 mile long bridleway for mad-cap long distance horse-riding. There is also a pub and a hotel too. Perhaps the most fitting recent memorial to Mad Jack was the Jack Mytton Run, an annual streaking event by students, was held on the [University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis, Minnesota across Northrup Mall on the first class day following spring break. I’m sure that John would have heartily approved. It is reported to have begun in 1999 but in 2009 the multi-year streak was ended when campus police deterred the run.
One of the things I really dislike about the modern day is how so many people are pressured to conform into what are fundamentally, very boring and mundane lives rather than follow their dreams or be eccentric individuals.
So I do have a soft spot for people like Mad Jack even though in modern times it would be hoped that some of his worse excesses might have been a little tempered. However, if anyone wants to ride a gig at a rabbit-hole with me then I am well up for it!