The Hartlepool hermit who skinned a hedgehog - but was he really the true heir to a great estate?

A Hartlepool hermit lived in a wooden hut with a dog and a monkey for company – and a flag to announce when he was home.

Thursday, 9th June 2022, 11:17 am

The curious tale of “Pork John” – who got his nickname because he once allegedly skinned a hedgehog – has been revealed by historian and researcher Graeme Harper.

It is yet another in his intriguing tales of Hartlepool’s past.

The late 19th Century was a golden age for British hermits and Hartlepool was no exception.

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The story of the Hartlepool hermit Pork John.

Remarkably, the town had not one but two such recluses at the same time, just a few miles from each other.

At Seaton Snook, in a long-abandoned marooned boat, lived the tall-tale telling Sunderland born John Wills.

He was known as "The Tees Hermit” or “Timon of the Tees,” after a Shakespeare character, and in his later years became something of a national celebrity.

But there was also another extraordinary man whose story has been long forgotten since his discovery 150 years ago.

A farm scene near Hart.

In 1872, an article appeared in the Shields Daily Gazette under the heading “Singular Life of a Recluse Near West Hartlepool.”

It detailed the story of the strange occupant of a wooden hut in a field “whose habits and ideas are eccentric in the last degree”.

Pork John had been there for around twenty years by the time of the article’s publication and rarely left his humble abode.

The article said: “No person ever having seen him travel either to or from the locality but when he did, he marked his return by hoisting “a piece of scarlet rag, representing a skull and cross-bones which is floated from a pole”.

The picturesque countryside in Hartlepool where Pork John made his home.

The Gazette reporter was struck by Pork John’s “slightly morbid disposition” but also “great intelligence and refined behaviour”.

By then in his early 60s, Pork John “wore a huge bearskin overcoat descending to his ankles”.

He supported himself by cultivating a “neat looking vegetable garden”.

The living conditions were basic but, in keeping with his general presentation, were decidedly strange.

Pork John was reputed to have got his nickname after skinning a hedgehog.

“There was a fireplace but no fire. At one end was a kind of sailor’s berth, which he admitted, was shared at night with a monkey, which was chained up and responded to the slightest call.

“A dog kept guard outside. On the walls were curious pictures, one purporting to be the portrait of a faithful and favourite dog, which was dead. Suspended from a nail was a spitted herring.”

Pork John “had several firearms by his side” and is reputed to have shot at two men because they disturbed his piece.

But Pork John’s intriguing story went further.

Despite his reduced circumstances, he was – or so he claimed – the true heir to the “Hart Estates” and had the documents to prove it, “the authenticity of which could be established at the proper time by a greater number of witnesses that ever the Tichborne Claimant could boast of.”

It all gets very confusing. As further evidence, he produced a human jawbone which, he said, “belonged to the only benefactor he ever had, he having bequeathed him the Hart Estates, and that he got the said jawbone from under the chancel of the Hart Parish Church when the late vicar the Rev. Mr Harrison was asleep”.

Ploughing the fields in the Hartlepool area.

Claims of underhand disinheritance is a recurring theme amongst hermits.

The aforementioned "Tees Hermit “John Wills had a similar tale to tell.

His whole life had been devoted to reclaiming what he said was rightfully his – in his case the Kirkleatham estates in Redcar. He never succeeded.

It is clear from the Gazette article - which is the only known reference to Pork John - that the reporter had concerns for the hermit’s mental well-being, prompted by the gun incident and because a few days earlier Pork John had "solemnly told a visitor that he had seen an angel, and we understand that there are not wanting other indications of a mental aberration”.

It was also extremely common for hermits to be driven by religious intensity and experience visions.

Pork John was born John William Prestwood in 1809 in Eckington, Lincolnshire and died just two years after the Shields Daily Gazette article appeared, aged 65.

In the 1871 census he was listed as living alone, giving his occupation as “gardener” and stating that he was a widower.

Nothing is known of his early life or how he ended up living in a field in Hartlepool.

These were days long before the establishment of a welfare state and social housing, when people who could not support themselves only had the option of the workhouse - a humiliating experience for a fiercely independent and resourceful man such as John Prestwood.

It is no surprise that people like him and his co-hermit John Wills chose to make the best of what they had.

And besides, who could he trust to look after his monkey?

We will have more tales from Graeme soon but in the meantime, why not catch up on some of his other great tales that he has shared with the Mail?

Robinsons, in Lynn Street, had attractions such as anteaters and baby kangaroos for a short while.

Or how about the day we told how Hartlepool had its own version of the Loch Ness Monster?

Go to our website to discover more.

We have more tales to tell in the weeks to come.

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