Cave-find proof of hermit's life

December 17, 1999

The tragic story of John Harris, know as the "English Hermit", has emerged from the realm of myth after investigation by archaeologists.

Excavation of the Cheshire cave that the recluse is supposed to have retreated into has revealed evidence that someone was indeed living there in the mid 18th century.

This ties in with the legend of the English Hermit who, in a popular pamphlet published in 1809, is said to have turned his back on humanity after his parents forbade him to marry his childhood sweetheart, Ann Egerton.

Anthony Sinclair, a lecturer at the University of Liverpool, and Keith Matthews, of Chester Archaeology, record their investigation of the Carden Park estate rock shelter in the first issue of Cave Archaeology and Palaeontology Research Archive.

Pottery fragments allowed the team to date its last habitation to the 1760s. They found signs that the cave had been reshaped by its inhabitant, who also built a platform at its entrance that probably supported a substantial frontage.

According to the legend, Harris sought refuge in an isolated cave after vowing to have as little conversation as possible with mankind.

He is reported to have started out at Carden and then later moved to another cave where, at the age of 99, he was chanced upon in 1809 by men collecting firewood for a Guy Fawkes Night bonfire.

The story tells of a romantic figure, "a wild, hairy man . . . the frightfulest figure they had ever seen" yet also one who was pious and holy.

However, the researchers believe these literary elements may hide a clash between two 18th-century gentlemen who were seeking to do each other down. Their work suggests that the inhabitant of the Carden

cave was probably turfed out by the landowner William Leche during the building of a pleasure garden.

Many years later, at the height of a dispute with his neighbour John Tarlton, the "English Hermit" pamphlet appeared, alleging that the wild recluse who had been so cruelly treated by Mr Leche had found succour with his rival.

Dr Sinclair believes Mr Tarlton was behind the pamphlet and had invented a new end to the story of the English Hermit that portrayed Mr Leche in a very bad light.

"It effectively says Leche is a sharp dealer while Tarlton is a generous man prepared to take this man in," he said. The actual fate of the real cave dweller, who lost his home to a garden, is unknown.

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