The life and times of John Mytton.
Although I usually write about places rather than people I feel that I should make an exception with John Mytton as he led such an extraordinary, colourful and yet tragic existence. He was born on the 30th of September 1796 and died on the 29th of March 1834. His story is as follows: John “Mad Jack” Mytton was born to a family of Shropshire squires with a lineage that stretched back some 500 years before his day. (The surname may have originated as “Mutton” or be associated with the village of Mytton, near Forton Heath, just a few miles west of Shrewsbury). As with many of his ancestors and privileged peers, Jack was privately educated but was subsequently expelled from both Westminster and Harrow. Mytton would later attempt to serve in both parliament and the 7th Hussars, a cavalry regiment. His father, also named John, died young, at the age of 30, when Jack was but two years of age. As heir, “Mad Jack” subsequently inherited the family seat at Halston Hall, Whittington (near Oswestry in Shropshire), which was worth £60,000 (£4.3 million today ), and also received an annual income of £10,000 (over £716,000 today ) from rental and agricultural assets generated by an estate of over 132,000 acres in North Wales and Shropshire.
As a young boy, Jack was sent to Westminster School, but was expelled only a year after matriculation for fighting a master at the school. He was then sent to Harrow school from where he was also expelled three days later. He was subsequently educated by a disparate series of private tutors whom he tormented with practical jokes that included, but which were not limited to, leaving a horse in one tutor’s bedroom.
Despite having achieved very little academically, Jack was granted entry to Cambridge University, where he brought with him 2,000 bottles of port to sustain himself during his studies. He would, however, leave Cambridge without having graduated, because he found university life boring. After leaving Cambridge he embarked on The Grand Tour through Europe’s major cultural capitals, as was customary for members of families of a high social standing.
Mytton saw both part-time and full-time military service. In 1812, aged sixteen, he was commissioned as captain in a local yeomanry regiment called the Oswestry Rangers. In 1814 they amalgamated into a larger regiment, the North Shropshire Yeomanry Cavalry, into which he transferred
Upon his return from his Grand Tour he was commissioned into the regular army, and therefore joined the 7th Hussars, whose uniform was particularly elaborate and ornate even by the standards of the time. As a young officer, a Cornet, he spent a year with the regiment in France as part of the occupation army after Napoleon’s defeat; a period in which he spent his time gambling and drinking before resigning his commission. He later returned to his country seat in Britain and took on the duties and obligations of a country squire, which was meant to prepare him before he received his full inheritance upon becoming 21 years old.
Also after his return he rejoined the North Shropshire Yeomanry at his previous rank, before being promoted major in 1822, after a vain attempt to lobby its colonel for an even higher rank in the place of an uncle, William Owen, who had left the regiment. Despite his later periods abroad and imprisonment, he was still on regimental strength at the time of his death twelve years later.
Upon receiving his full inheritance he set about spending it at an unsustainable rate.
In 1819 he entertained ambitions of standing for Parliament, as a Tory, a tradition in his family with Myttons having been returned as MPs previously. He secured his seat through the expediency of encouraging his constituents to vote for him by offering them £10 notes and through spending £10,000 (£750,000+ would be a modern equivalent) he became MP for Shrewsbury. He found political debate boring and attended parliament only once and apparently for just 30 minutes. When Parliament was dissolved in 1820 he issued an address declining to stand at the next election.
He attempted to enter Parliament again in 1831, for the then two-member Shropshire County seat, as a Whig candidate. He withdrew on the fifth day of the poll in which, when votes were counted, he came bottom with 376 votes, having issued an address stating he would contest at the next Parliamentary election. By the time of that election, in 1832, he had already gone into exile for debt, of which he was in constant fear of being arrested for by the time of his contest.
Meanwhile he indulged his enjoyment for horse racing and gambling and enjoyed some success at both, mainly by first buying already successful race horses such as the horse Euphrates which was already a consistent winner and entering it in The Gold Cup at Lichfield in 1825, which Euphrates duly won. Jack had the horse’s portrait painted by William Webb and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1825.
In 1826, as a result of a bet, he is said to have ridden his horse into the Bedford Hotel (later Midland Bank), opposite the Town Hall in Leamington Spa, up the grand staircase and onto the balcony, from which he jumped, still seated on his horse, over the diners in the restaurant below, and out through the window onto the Parade.
He also held contests for local children at Dinas Mawddwy to roll down Moel Dinas, giving as prizes sums ranging from half a crown to half a guinea to those who made it to the bottom of the hill.
Another obsession was fox hunting. Jack had hunted his own pack of hounds from the age of ten. Mytton would go hunting in any kind of weather. His usual winter gear was a light jacket, thin shoes, linen trousers and silk stockings – but in the thrill of the chase he could strip down and continue the chase naked. He is also recorded as crouching naked in snow drifts and swimming winter rivers in full spate. He also continued hunting despite being unseated and sustaining broken ribs -“unmurmuring when every jar was an agony”.
On a freezing winters day he would lead his small army of stable lads on rat hunts, each stable boy equipped with ice skates.
At Halston, he would get out of bed in the middle of the night, take off his flimsy nightshirt and set off completely naked but carrying his favourite gun across the frozen fields towards his lake. Here he would ambush the ducks, fire a few shots and return to bed apparently none the worse for his ordeal. He frequently got up again half an hour later – stripped off and went through the whole process again. His most extraordinary day’s shooting came when… he got fed up waiting for the birds to come within range, stripped naked, sat on the ice and slowly shuffled forward on the slippery surface until he was within range. It took over an hour but he never caught a cold or seemed in the least unwell after this or indeed after any of his naked shooting exploits.
He had a wardrobe consisting of 150 pairs of hunting breeches, 700 pairs of handmade hunting boots, 1000 hats and some 3,000 shirts.
He also had numerous pets in his manor. Including some 2,000 dogs comprising fox hounds and other breeds such as gun dogs, pointers and retrievers, his favourites were fed on steak and champagne. Some dogs wore livery, others were costumed.
A favourite horse Baronet had full and free range inside Halston Hall, and would lie in front of the fire with Jack.
The reputation of Mad Jack was already sealed but he continued to confound and surpass his eccentric behaviour by lying between the hooves of dangerous and nervous horses. His life was described as “a series of suicide attempts”.
He sought thrills through reckless driving of carriages. He would drive his gig at high speed at an obstacle like a rabbit hole only to see if it would turn over. Once he tested if a horse pulling a carriage could jump over a tollgate. It could not. He managed to survive these incidents without serious injuries. It was said of Mad Jack that “not only did he not mind accidents, he positively liked them”. He raced around the country roads in a four horse gig tearing across crossroads and around hairpin corners with total disregard for his own safety or any other road users. In one anecdote he was driving his gig with a new companion, of whom Mad Jack enquired whether he had ever been upset in a gig. No the man replied “Thank God, I have never been upset in one”. “What!!” cried Mytton, “What a damn slow fellow you must have been all your life!” and promptly drove the gig up a sloping bank at full speed tipping himself and his passenger out.
On another occasion he invited a local Oswestry parson and doctor to dine at Halston. As they left on horseback, replete and at nightfall he quickly donned a highwayman’s garb and mask, complete with a brace of pistols and by a circuitous route caught up with them at the edge of his estate, where he burst from cover fired both pistols over their heads and called “Stand and deliver!” and related the tale of them galloping for their lives with him hard on their heels.
Contemporary society found his behaviour scandalous. Once he picked a fight with a tough Shropshire miner who disturbed his hunt and the bare knuckle fight lasted 20 rounds before the miner gave up. He arrived at a dinner party at Halston Hall riding a bear and when he tried to make it go faster the beast bit into his calf. His biographer ‘Nimrod’, Charles James Apperley described it thus: ‘‘He once rode this bear into his drawing-room, in full hunting costume. The bear carried him very quietly for a time; but on being pricked by the spur he bit his rider through the calf of his leg.’’ Despite being bitten, Mad Jack kept the bear Nell as a pet. However, it later attacked a servant and Jack had it killed.
The Jack Mytton Inn which can be found at Hindford which is about one mile from Halston Hall has been named after the man in question, even a full size carved wooden replica of the bear which Mytton rode upon can be found by the front door of the pub as can be seen in the photograph here.
Mytton was also a drinking man and could drink eight bottles of port wine a day with a helping of brandy. He managed to kill one of his horses, Sportsman, by making it drink a bottle of port.
Rather than sit down to a formal dinner every evening he would sustain himself throughout the day with ‘pounds of filberts’ when in season, a type of hazelnut, or dine with his tenant farmers eating full fat bacon and quaffing a quart of ale beside their fire before returning to Halston Hall, where his cook and servants would have prepared a full dinner which he would now be unable to eat.
Mytton was an enthusiastic dog-fighter and gambled on the outcome of fights between bulldogs, mastiffs and terriers. He also apparently beat his own fearless bulldog with his bare fists, a dog whose favourite method of quelling his opponents was to put a vice-like bite on their snouts. He is also said to have bitten fighting dogs with his own teeth, even standing upright with a mastiff held in his own jaws without using his hands to support the weight. He was also rumored to have put his wife’s lapdog on the fire in a jealous rage, burning it to death. Though witnesses claim what actually happened was he threw the dog high in the air, caught him and his butler yelled ‘sir you will kill him’. Many rumours were started about Mytton many of which were unfounded.
Mytton was spendthrift and cared little about warnings that his money was running out. He would drop bank notes in his estate and gave his servants lots of spending money. Visitors to his estate would find banknotes secreted around the grounds, whether left on purpose or simply lost by the drunken or distracted squire was uncertain. Once he lost his racetrack winnings – several thousand pounds – at Doncaster races when the wind blew them away. His workmen and tenants regarded him as a generous man. Over fifteen years he managed to spend his inheritance and then fell into deep debt. He totally ignored the advice of close friends and of official advisers such as his agent. His agent had calculated that if he could but reduce his expenditure to £6,000 pa for the next six years his estate would not have to be sold. Jack considered this option for a mere minute before replying “You tell Longueville (the agent) I wouldn’t give a damn to live on £6,000 a year!” His fate was sealed at that point. At first creditors were hard pressed to find the services of a bailiff who was prepared to take the risk of arresting Mad Jack but in 1831 he fled to France to avoid his creditors, prison and court.
He had married, taking his first wife, a Baronet’s daughter, in 1818 but she died in 1820. His second wife Caroline Giffard ran away in 1830. His wives bore him children who he would affectionately toss into the air as babies and pelt with oranges.
In Calais he fell in with a company of shady English adventurers whose occupations kept them by necessity away from English justice. He had met an attractive 20 year old woman on Westminster Bridge and immediately offered her £500 per annum to be his companion and flee with him to France. She took up his offer, which says a lot for his charisma, influence and personality. This woman, Susan, stayed with him for the two years until his death.
During his stay in France he tried to cure his hiccups by setting his shirt on fire. It did work but only the intervention of his friends spared him more serious injuries from burns. Nimrod was present at this event:
‘”Damn this hiccup!!” said Mytton as he stood undressed on the floor, apparently in the act of getting into bed “but I’ll frighten it away”; so seizing a lighted candle applied it to the tail of his shirt – it being a cotton one – he was instantly enveloped in flames. A fellow guest and Mytton’s servant beat out the flames: “The hiccup is gone, by God!”, said he and reeled, naked, into bed’. From bed he quoted Sophocles in Greek the beautiful passage “wherein Oedipus recommends his children to the care of Creon” according to Apperley / Nimrod.
Apperley visited Mytton in his room the next morning, to find him ‘not only shirtless, but sheetless, with the skin of his breast, shoulders and knees of the same colour as a newly singed bacon hog’.
After a couple of years he decided to return to England and ended up in the King’s Bench debtor’s prison in Southwark, London. He died there in 1834 a ’round shouldered, tottering old-young man bloated by drink. Worn out by too much foolishness, too much wretchedness and too much brandy’ in one account.
The Literary Gazette’s review of Nimrod’s biography contrasted the youthful Mytton:
|“||. . .heir to an immense fortune, gifted by nature with a mind susceptible of noble cultivation, and a body endowed with admirable physical powers with the wretched drunkard who died in a gaol at the age of thirty-eight, a worn-out debauchee and drivelling sot||”|
Nimrod, Charles James Apperley, a neighbour, fellow hunting devotee, close friend and peer felt compelled to record the life of Mad Jack in ‘The Memoirs of the Life of the Late John Mytton, Esquire, of Halston, Shropshire, formerly MP for Shrewsbury, High Sheriff for the Counties of Salop & Merioneth (1821), Major of the North Shropshire Yeomanry Cavalry ; with Notices of his Hunting, Shooting & Driving’.
Published in 1837 this often reprinted series of articles written by Nimrod in The New Sporting Magazine sell for thousands of pounds when originals or early reprints come up at auction.
Maybe the last word on the life of Mad Jack Mytton should be left to Nimrod, a man who knew him well and had a full and lengthy insight into the enigma that was John Mytton : ‘It was his largeness of heart that ruined Mr Mytton, added to the lofty pride which disdained the littleness of Prudence’. But it was also Nimrod who asked:
|“||. . . Did the late Mr Mytton really enjoy life amidst all this profusion of expenditure? No. He lacked the art of enjoyment. He was bored and unhappy. There was that about him which resembled the restlessness of the hyena. A sort of pestering spirit egged him on’|