Peter the Wild Boy’s story starts in 1724, when a strange-looking, naked boy was spotted in a field not far from the town of Hamelin, in what is now northern Germany. The boy, who looked about twelve years old, was captured by the local people and taken before the town’s Bürgermeister for him to decide what should happen next.1737
The English Court, having become tired of ‘Peter the Wild Boy’, sends him to Haxter’s Farm in the eastern portion of Northchurch Parish to be looked after. He later moves to nearby Broadway Farm.
The boy apparently preferred to walk on all fours and had an unusual facial appearance. He could not speak, and used grunts and growls to express his feelings.
The Bürgermeister decided to put the boy, whom the towns people called “Peter”, into the care of the Saint Spiritus Poor House in Hamelin. Soon, Peter’s appetite proved a heavy drain on the Poor House’s finances and he was moved to the Hospice in Celle, some 50 miles away.
News of Peter’s notoriety soon reached George, the Elector of Hanover, who was visiting his estate in nearby Herrenhausen at the time. Ten years earlier, George had become King George I of England and had built up a “collection” of unusual or exotic people to entertain him at his Court in London.
Peter was subsequently brought to London by King George’s daughter-in-law, Princess Caroline, Princess of Wales. He had his first ‘appearance’ at Court in the Great Drawing Room at St James’ Palace where he caused a sensation by breaking all the standard social rituals and ceremony of the time, much to the amusement of the courtiers.
Peter started to work at Haxter’s Farm. Contemporary accounts also record him as dancing along whenever any musical instrument was played.
Peter remained at the farm for some years until James Fenn’s death. He was then taken in by James Fenn’s brother, Thomas, who owned the nearby Broadway Farm.
In 1751, Peter wandered off and eventually was found in Norwich, some 130 miles from the farm. Here, he was arrested on a charge of spying and put in the local prison, the people thinking that as he could not speak English, he must be a foreign spy!
It was not until the following advert in the London Evening Post was published, that Peter’s identity was finally revealed:
OST, or Stray’d away,
From BROADWAY in the Parish of NORTHCHURCH, near Barkhamstead in the County of Hertford,
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, at the Place abovesaid, shall receive all reasonable Charges, and a handsome Gratuity.
Having been identified and returned to Broadway Farm, Peter was given a special leather and iron collar to wear.
The collar’s inscription read:
Peter the Wild Man from Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr. Fenn at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, shall be paid for their trouble.
Peter was to remain at Broadway Farm for the rest of his life. He died there on 22nd February 1785, aged about seventy-two.
Peter’s funeral took place at the local parish church - St Mary’s, Northchurch, and his body was interred in the churchyard.
To this day, flowers are regularly laid in front of his gravestone which is visited by people from all over the world.
In 2013, Peter’s gravestone was awarded Grade II status.
At the back of the church is a brass plaque dating from the late 18th Century. It was paid for by the Treasury and shows a portrait of Peter as an old man. It reads:
To the memory of Peter, known as the Wild Boy, having been found wild in the forest of Hertswold near Hanover in the year 1725. He then appeared to be about 12 years old. In the following year he was brought to England by the order of the late Queen Caroline, and the ablest masters were provided for him. But proving himself incapable of speaking, or of receiving any instruction, a comfortable provision was made for him at a farm in this parish, where he continued to the end of his inoffensive life. He died on the 22nd of February, 1785, supposed to be aged 72.
It is now thought that Peter was suffering from a form of autism called Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome.
The painting of him by William Kent, dating from the 1720s, standing next to Dr Arbuthnot on the King's grand staircase at Kensington Palace, provides a vital clue. It shows Peter with curvy thick Cupid's bow lips, short stature, coarse curly hair and drooping eyelids. Contemporary reports also record that Peter had two fingers fused together, which may have been clubbed fingers. All these are now recognised as symptoms of Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome.
Opening of the Grand Junction Canal through Berkhamsted and Northchurch.