The Hermit of West Norwood, 1898

It was an early summer evening in Norwood, South London. Even though the sun was starting to set, the group of children weren’t ready to go home from the patch of waste ground they had found: it was perfect to play cricket, and tag, and there were even some old crumbling walls for hide and seek. George Feaner wanted one last game of cricket before his dad called him home, but little Eliza Dearing was getting sleepy and really wanted to hear a story from her sister before bedtime. Another boy they didn’t know was trying to dig a hole to China. Suddenly, their peace was shattered.

A gunshot, then another.

The children scattered in all directions like sparrows. Eliza ran home as fast as her small legs could take her, and William, her father, ran back in search of the gunman. Eliza followed at her father’s heels, then more gunshots cut through the air. Both father and daughter were hit in the shoulder. The bullets were small and only gave flesh wounds, and barely slowed down the outraged father. Reaching behind a wall, he grabbed at a tall man with an old-fashioned floppy hat and a crumpled suit. The man’s eyes flashed with rage, but when Eliza started crying he covered his ears and allowed himself to be captured.

Allan Neville, for that was the man’s name, was dragged to South-West Police Court. George Feaner was a witness, and revealed that he had seen Neville run behind a stack of rocks and withdraw a gun earlier that day. Neville claimed that, while he had his gun, he never meant to fire it, and, in fact, Feaner had thrown stones at his precious house a few days before.

It took a second court date for the truth of Neville’s lifestyle to come out. He had once been a hosier, making silk stockings, but once he had received a legacy he had decided to withdraw from the world. He suffered from a terrible fear of children and resolved to create a hermitage from the ruins of a crumbling mansion to achieve his peace and quiet. Since he only needed a small amount of space, he had purchased a corner of a plot of land. When the summer had begun, he had written regularly to the police to complain about the sound of children playing, and his defence lawyer claimed that Neville had only wanted to frighten the children to make them run away.

The judge was convinced. He ruled that this was an eccentric man who hadn’t seriously harmed any children, so despite the jury finding Neville guilty and recommending prison, the punishment would be a fine of £50 (roughly £6000 in 2020’s money). Neville promptly paid the fine in cash he had somehow hidden under a rock in the wasteland and, as far as anyone can tell, lived peacefully in his semi-constructed ruined hovel in the middle of Norwood for the rest of his life.

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