James Lucas, who was born in 1813, was a wealthy, eccentric, Victorian land-owner.
In 1849, after the death of his mother, he developed a paranoid fear of his relatives and barricaded himself inside the family mansion, Elmwood House, at Redcoats Green, Hertfordshire, which he had inherited. He remained there in a state of siege for 25 years.
He had also inherited a great deal of money from his grandfather, father and mother, as well as benefiting from a large number of shares.
He lived mainly on bread and milk (and gin) which were all delivered to him.
However, unlike other hermits, and once protected by the stout iron bars of his kitchen cell, he took a positive delight in meeting and arguing with the rest of the world.
A wild, biblical figure with waist-length hair and blackened limbs covered only by an old blanket, he lived a life, quite literally, of sackcloth and ashes – but always with a gun beside him.
With the Victorians’ unhealthy obsession for freaks he became inevitably a national curiosity, and thousands of all classes – from tramps to the nobility – travelled to the hamlet of Redcoats Green, near Stevenage in Hertfordshire, to see him.
As his fame spread, James Lucas received an increasing number of visitors to whom he talked through a barred window. James was a highly intelligent man and had an excellent memory.
His favourite visitors were tramps and children. He was happiest talking to children and used to distribute pennies, buns and sweets to dozens of children on Good Friday and Christmas day.
He was called ‘mad’, but because nobody then understood the true nature of his illness, many came either to taunt him or to exploit his bizarre beliefs.
Along with other members of the public, the Chief Constable of Hertfordshire, Captain Archibald Robertson, Inspector Charles Goode (of Ware and Stevenage) Inspector Samuel Evans (from Stevenage) and Constable Wilson (also of Stevenage) provided written evidence, to the Commissioners of Lunacy. But the attempt to get Lucas committed to an asylum under the Lunacy Act of 1845 failed after witnesses agreed that, despite his eccentric lifestyle, he was an articulate and intelligent man.
Eventually there was increasing concern for his medical condition and welfare, and on Thursday 17th April 1874, the postman was unable to awaken him to deliver a letter.
Inspector John Reynolds attended, with a doctor, and made a forced entry.
In the words of Richard Whitmore :“To the small group gathered outside his stronghold it had become apparent that the life of Victorian England’s most celebrated hermit was ending in anguish. As the pickaxe thudded against the stout oak door at the back of the house the cries of the man inside had reached a pitch that was distressing to the ear. Sweating freely in his thick high-collared uniform of the Hertfordshire Constabulary, John Reynolds was not finding it easy to effect an entrance. The pickaxe had been the only tool to hand and was blunt; the door was thick and the wood very hard – almost as hard as the iron bolts, chains and padlocks that held it secure from the other side. Yet this was still the easiest way into the building, for the occupant had made a remarkably good job of things when he had sealed himself inside a quarter of a century earlier. Across every other door and across every window of this once-elegant country mansion there were fixed great bars of timber. From the smallest window in the butler’s pantry to those that graced the front of the house; every one had nailed or bolted across it as many as six rough-hewn timber baulks, turning what had once been a home of some beauty into an ugly but effective fortification.”
James Lucas was found to have suffered a stroke during the night, leaving him semi-conscious and paralysed down one side of his body.
Inspector Reynolds supervised the hermit’s transfer to Chapman’s Farm, (now Titmore Green Farmhouse) 200 yards away.
At six o’clock on Sunday morning, 19th April 1874, James Lucas died.
Charles Dickens reviled him in a long essay, and when Lucas died in 1874 his obituary in The Times was headlined ‘A Doubtful Loss’.
The ‘Hermit of Redcoats’, as he became known, was buried in the family vault in St John’s Church, at Hackney in East London, where most of the Lucas family are buried. The decrepit house, in which completely furnished rooms had quietly rotted and mouldered away, was finally demolished in 1890.
Inspector Reynolds subsequently became Assistant Chief Constable of Hertfordshire, serving 50 years with the Police.