This is a remarkable story in two parts
Just how a wild boy without a birth name, was found in a German forest, adopted by a English king and came to live in the Chilterns, is just an astonishing story.
Whilst on a hunting trip during a visit to his home, King George l, who was also ruler of the Duchy and Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg Hanover, came across a feral boy who got about on all fours. Of unknown age or parentage, he was said to “exhibit uncivilised behaviour’ and was unable to communicate. He had survived by scavenging what forest food he could find, and from the remains of a shirt collar around his neck, had been in the care of someone.
He was given the name “Peter’ and brought to London in 1726 by the King’s daughter-in-law, Caroline of Ansbach, Princes of Wales. Peter experienced minor celebrity for a while, but after the public curiosity began to subside, Caroline Princess of Wales arranged for a Dr Arbuthnot to oversee Peter’s education, however all efforts to teach him to speak, read or write failed.
Peter was then entrusted to the care of Mrs Titchbourn, a close friend of the Queen’s, along with a handsome annual pension of £35. Mrs. Titchbourn usually spent a few weeks every summer at the house of Mr James Fenn, a yeoman farmer at Axter’s End, in the parish of Northchurch, which is how he came to live in the Chilterns. After the death of James Fenn he was transferred to the care of James’s brother, Thomas, and is where Peter lived with the several successive tenants of that farm until his death in 1785.
The interior designer and painter William Kent included a depiction of Peter in a large painting of King George I’s court that today hangs on the east wall of the King’s Staircase at Kensington Palace in London. Peter is shown wearing a green coat and holding oak leaves and acorns in his right hand.
Moving to the Chilterns
In the late summer of 1751 Peter went missing from Broadway Farm and could not be traced. Advertisements were placed in newspapers offering a reward for his safe return. On 22 October 1751 a fire broke out in the parish of St Andrew’s in Norwich and as the fire spread, the local gaol became engulfed in smoke and flames. The frightened inmates were hastily released and one aroused considerable curiosity on account of his remarkable appearance and the nature of the sounds he made, which led some to describe him as an orangutan. Some days later he was identified as Peter the Wild Boy, possibly through a description of him in the London Evening Post. He was returned to Thomas Fenn’s farm, and had a special leather collar with his name and address made for him to wear, should he ever stray again.
Peter died on 22nd February 1785 and is buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church, Northchurch. The headstone is engulfed by the large bush, so look carefully directly opposite the main door to the church and you will see it. In 2013, on the advice of English Heritage, the grave was given the Grade II listing it deserves. Inside the church is a commemorative plaque.
No matter how many times I hear this story, I still find it incredible that not only was Peter the Wild Boy found by a king in Germany and given a home in another country, but that his story has survived at all. Long may we share and celebrate it.
Peter is now believed to have suffered from the rare genetic disorder known as Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome, a condition identified in 1978, nearly 200 years after Peter’s death.
Part 2: Berkhamsted School
The leather and brass collar designed to identify Peter in case he should wander away from the village and inscribed “Peter the Wild Man” is preserved at Berkhamsted School. I have updated and added to this post following a visit to the school to see the archive, you can read it here.
There are plenty more astonishing stories of Chilterns residents past and present, take a look here.